Tacitus and the Decline of Republics

Tacitus, the Roman historian, is considered one of the great chroniclers of Rome’s descent into decadence and collapse. In a recent War on the Rocks post, Iskander Rehman likens his descriptions of the mass displays of loyalty and a capricious imperial violence to conditions under authoritarianism, with modern Russia and China as frequent points of comparison. But while some of these ring true, others do not, and Rehman’s piece elides the real likeness that is immediately apparent: the ongoing decline of the American republic as it slips ever closer to barbarism.

This is by no means an omission unique to Rehman. Even today, faced with mounting evidence of the boundless cruelty of the state and the bigoted, avaricious attitudes of its stewards, many Americans refuse to confront the creeping authoritarianism in its midst. Rehman writes, “where Tacitus truly excels is in both his harrowing portrayals of the psychological aspects of life under authoritarian rule and his detailed — and at times anguished — commentary on the quiet inner struggles and daily moral compromises of citizens caught under the deadening weight of tyranny.” But so long as “tyranny” is synonymous only with literal brownshirts and concentration camps – and nothing less – it is impossible to conceive of an America that might possibly be headed in that direction. But as for daily moral compromises? How many compatriots and fellow citizens have not been faced with those, and have to set those qualms and compassions aside lest we find ourselves utterly paralyzed? As Luke O’Neil presciently wrote, about the Trump Administration’s earlier failures to contain COVID-19:

we will come to accept thousands dead every single day as another voice in the churning ambient chorus of suffering we do our best to tune out already much like with gun violence or unnecessary deaths due to the cost of healthcare or the thousands our military kills around the world. Many of us even the “good ones” like me and you already have started to do that in a way right or else how would we manage to function on a daily basis? How do you get up and measure out the coffee and heat up the water and poke your stupid face into the fridge for a nice piece of fruit every morning without pretending if at least for a while that no one is dying outside your walls?

The utter collapse of federal capacity in the face of the COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated the extent to which “meritocracy” has been exposed as a myth and how any pretense of capability has been erased or suppressed from national-level government. Rehman again quotes Tacitus: “In an environment governed by risk aversion and in which advancement was often more dependent upon imperial good graces than on actual merit, the overt pursuit of excellence could prove perilous. ” However, rather than make the obvious connection to our own hollowed-out bureaucracy and ongoing attempts to fully politicize executive branch agencies, he instead cites the various anti-corruption drives of Xi Jinping as “paralyzing” on low-level officials.

Such comparisons are not necessarily wrong, but Tacitus’s writing on the process of decline bears much more relation to the United States under Donald Trump than to already-authoritarian China or Russia. Superficially, as well: the vicious emperor Domitian is described by Suetonius as taking:

“a personal insult to any reference, joking or otherwise, to bald men, being extremely sensitive about his appearance,” even publishing a haircare manual in which he whined about his capillary loss. Suetonius, ever one for colorful anecdotes, recounts how, in his spare time, the disturbed ruler would while away the hours in solitude “catching flies — believe it or not — and stabbing them with a needle-sharp pen.”

Echoes of “very nasty questions,” the ongoing saga of Trump’s own hair, and his ability to take anything personally resound, though the idea of having the dexterity necessary to catch a fly beggars belief.

The idea of total obsequiousness and complete burial of facts under a flurry of ass-kissing is relatively new within the federal government: while toadies have always abounded, so too have professionals more concerned with the truth and due process than with satisfying the whims of the president. Unfortunately, they were all run out of their posts by halfway through 2019.

Sextus Julius Frontinus, another governor of Roman Britain serving later under Vespasian, is also presented in the Agricola as a “truly great man” — but only “as far as circumstances would permit,” or only so long as his reputation did not overshadow that of the emperor.

How many administration officials have been ousted because Trump believed them to be getting “too much credit”? How has much of America been on pins and needles waiting for the same fate to befall Anthony Fauci, who has demonstrated a rare willingness to acknowledge unpopular truths, and whose stock in the White House dropped as the American public’s confidence in him grew? (Compared with, for instance, Deborah Birx.) Rehman draws the conclusion that:

Reading Tacitus, one is therefore continuously reminded of the debilitating effects that such caution-driven behavioral patterns can have on authoritarian societies, and of democracies’ ability to more fully draw on their reservoirs of human potential.

Perhaps this is true, but then so is the fact that the United States isn’t much of a democracy any longer. It is in the past week that the choice has become stark, thanks to the secret police tactics being used by unidentified federal agents in Portland, Oregon. Snatch-and-grabs, kidnappings, unmarked vans: these are the tools of a regime long past any pretense of legitimacy.

In an almost irredeemably corrupt political environment where fear, opportunism, and violence run rampant, the line between the oppressor and the oppressed becomes increasingly hard to discern over time as citizens weld themselves — and their bleeding conscience — to the state in a desperate bid for survival.

Police? Federal law enforcement? Military? Boogaloo boys? Three-percenters? All look alike; all blur together. Fortunately the United States has not yet reached the point of outright executions and show trials, but recent pardons of war criminals and white-collar felons alike show how the very idea of “justice” continues to grow ever more perverted under this regime.

To his credit, Rehman closes the piece by arguing that:

[T]he leaders of our troubled democracies would certainly gain from keeping a well-thumbed edition of the great Roman historian’s works within close reach — not as a guide to power but, rather, as an enduring reminder of the fickleness of human nature, of the pathologies of authoritarianism, and of the preciousness of the liberal political tradition increasingly under siege here at home.

So perhaps it’s not so much that we disagree, but rather how far along in the process we are. How far have we fallen? How long will it take to reach the bottom? And if, as it was for Tacitus, withdrawal, resignation, and/or ritual suicide are all inadequate to the challenge posed by tyranny…what then?

Sanctions and Financial Warfare in the 21st Century

In July of this year, China’s first regiment of S-400 surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems was delivered by Russia and accepted into PLA service. The following month, Russia confirmed that the last 10 Su-35s of an order for 24 would arrive by the end of 2018. The deals were originally signed, respectively, in 2015 and 2014, with S-400 negotiations having started as far back as 2011.

Now, some months later, the United States has decided that sanctions are the appropriate tool to “punish” China for violating other sanctions against Russian entities including Rosboronexport, under the 2017 “Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act” (CAATSA). The Chinese CMC’s Equipment Development Department and its chief will be barred from conducting financial transactions in the United States.

Beijing, naturally, has no intention of putting an end to its weapons purchases from Moscow.

But leaving aside the inexplicable timing (and apparent ex post facto application) of such a decision, it would seem foolish on its face. Not only is the interstate arms trade something that the United States – given its position as the world’s largest arms dealer – would seem to want to leave relatively unregulated, but to try and interfere in a commerce arrangement between two Great Powers has historically not ended well for the interloper. Imposing CAATSA-related sanctions also ignores the existing Western arms embargo against China, dating back to the Tiananmen Square massacre, and which Beijing has managed to circumvent for years through various financial mechanisms and yuan-denominated transactions. Sanctions must be a limited tool in order to have effect, and applying them in this way further weakens their utility.

The possible Chinese and/or Russian countermoves are numerous: sanctions of their own against big US (and multinational) defense contractors; pricing their own arms as “loss leaders” to displace US primacy in various markets, particularly Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe; economic punishment of US client regimes (e.g., the UAE, South Korea, Egypt), etc. In fact, the latter can already be seen with China’s immediate critical reaction to the US sale of F-16 fighter equipment to Taiwan. The sale is hardly news—and consists mostly of sustainment material for existing platforms that were previously themselves protested—but the Chinese response represents the first step in an emerging economic counteroffensive; a second front in the ongoing trade wars.

Now, you might ask, might this not just be cutting off the nose to spite the face? After all, if China financially punishes Saudi Arabia or Turkey for buying American weapons, they make it so much less likely that those nations would consider turning to Chinese or Russian imports in the future. But arms sales themselves are more than purely transactional; they are potential tools of statecraft. Look at India’s attempt to “balance” between the United States and Russia: a few P-8Is and F-16s here, a few batteries of S-400s there (the latter, however, requiring a CAATSA waiver, which has so far been promised by the Pentagon but has yet to appear). Rarely does capability alone factor into a major international arms deal; see the long list of US arms deals facilitated by the Defense Security Cooperation Agency for an idea of their importance to Washington. When capabilities are the overriding reason to obtain a system, it can have geopolitical implications of its own – see Turkey’s ongoing acquisition of the S-400 for an example of exceeding the unwritten rules of acquisition.

Not only has a CAATSA waiver failed to materialize for India’s S-400s, but so too is there nothing resembling an exception to reimposed US sanctions on Iran, following the abandonment of JCPOA. This has had the potential of threatening Indian access to and “special privileges” at the Iranian port at Chah Bahar should India seek to replace its imports of Iranian oil (Chah Bahar itself a reaction to China’s development of the Pakistani Port of Gwadar). All is related; nothing in isolation.

But while it might seem, at least to the grinning faces in the Cabinet Room, that CAATSA represents a trump card (so to speak), it is in reality an unimaginative approach without any sort of backup plan. Should sanctions fail, then what? Unfortunately, the US overreliance on sanctions – as well as an insistence on mirroring rather than proportionality – has begun to generate a global financial regime wholly independent of the United States.

Nothing says that sanctions beget sanctions, or that tariffs must be exchanged tit for tat. One needn’t respond with identical measures so long as the response is proportional, unless escalation is the goal. Consider the “side-principle” rule articulated in Unrestricted Warfare:

Other means…supplement, enrich, or even replace military means, so as to achieve objectives which cannot be achieved by military force alone. This has been the most important episode of the side element’s modifying the principal element in relation to war on the basis of a conception of war … The side-principal rule is opposed to all forms of parallel placement, balance, symmetry, being all-encompassing, and smoothness, but, instead, advocates using the sword to cut the side. Only by avoiding frontal collisions, will it be possible for your sword to cut apart things without being damaged. This is the most basic grammar of victory for the ancient article of war [emphasis mine].

For instance, in reference to the ongoing trade war, Dean Baker has done an ample job illustrating that China could do far worse than simply retaliate with their own tariffs: US corporations stand to lose tens if not hundreds billions of dollars of intellectual property if the CCP were to opt out of enforcing copyright law. (Indeed, some version of this has already begun, albeit incidentally, as a thriving Chinese market in imitation/”homage” goods goes unchecked.)

Focusing on the trade war as a binary loses sight of the global picture, and as in so many other realms, the United States is no longer “indispensable” when it comes to international finance, either.

Indeed, on 25 September, the foreign ministers of Russia, China, Germany, France, and the UK (the latter three representing the EU) issued a joint statement committing them to continued adherence to JCPOA, and more importantly, to establishing a “special purpose vehicle,” a separate payments system to allow them to process transactions without touching US financial institutions. The SPV, according to Federica Mogherini, would “allow European companies to trade with Iran in accordance with EU law and could be open to other partners in the world.” Essentially, the SPV is a new means of subverting US sanctions on a multilateral basis, and should it prove successful in allowing the EU (and possibly India) to continue supporting the JCPOA and doing business with Iranian companies, could portend a future of decreasingly effective unilateral sanctions.

The rise of economic sanctions has been well-traced, and in the era of imperial presidencies, have been an easy way for Congress to reinsert itself at least somewhat into foreign policy-making. But the ensuing American way of war – airpower, special operations forces, and sanctions – has not been a productive one. Overreliance on sanctions leading to the development of a US-less financial system would be an own goal, indeed. Coupled with the rise of other shadow economies, like cryptocurrencies, dark pool trading, and alternative international settlement mechanisms (not to mention the already-challenging problem of nested shell corporations and beneficial owners), unilateral sanctions will continue to lose their effectiveness as targets increasingly find ways around them.

As Peter Harrell and Elizabeth Rosenberg argued in Foreign Policy earlier this year, “the reckless use of U.S. sanctions could speed the migration of China, Russia, and other U.S. adversaries away from U.S. markets and currency. The Trump administration needs a major new effort to understand and adapt to potential risks that threaten to reduce the power of U.S. sanctions.” No such effort was undertaken. And the migration has indeed sped up.

US grand strategy in the twenty-first century has been almost entirely counterproductive. Adversaries like Russia and China were likely to pursue alternatives to the US-dominated financial system at some point, but by multilateralizing opposition to that system (and ensuring that even our allies want an alternative) we have made our position more tenuous even sooner. The seeds the foreign policy establishment has planted over the past few decades are starting to fruit, and we will find the taste not at all to our liking.

Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: A Review

The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers is one of those magisterial overviews of five centuries of world history. Paul Kennedy does a very good job and takes a quasi-Marxian approach to this, in that economics do in large part determine the trajectory of nations (e.g., a materialist explanation). The macroeconomic state of a nation – its accounts payable, its gross national product, its collective receipts – are, to Kennedy, inextricably linked to its place on the world stage. The correlation is obvious, but is the causation there?

While Kennedy admits that earlier history is not his area of expertise, he does a decent job explaining how the “East” fell behind, given the increasing insularity of Ming China and the internecine struggles in South and East Asia that consumed resources and attention. It’s not a wholly convincing explanation but other historians have done a fairly good job examining this; I am reminded mainly of Kenneth Pomeranz’s alternate history essay in Unmaking the West , “Without Coal? Colonies? Calculus?: Counterfactuals and Industrialization in Europe and China.” (One of Pomeranz’s points is that in the United Kingdom, coal deposits were mined in relatively close proximity to waterways and also the metropole; in China, much of the coal is to be found far in the northwest hinterlands, far away from a means of transportation and major population centers.) In Kennedy’s telling, it is the governance failures of China and the Mughals – and in the case of the latter, an increasingly rapacious program of taxation, offering nothing by way of return to the tax base – coupled with a lack of industrialization that can explain their relative early fall.

Kennedy has written a remarkable qualitative history based on ballpark quantitative statistics, which is an approach I can very much get behind. Relative national “incomes” in the seventeenth century, for instance, are exceedingly difficult to find data for, much less calculate (part of the reason Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century was so celebrated was its painstaking collection and analysis of detailed financial records dating back centuries – one of the first times it had been done). And yet Kennedy manages to paint a convincing picture of ebbs and flows in currencies and commodities, in relative power balances and military expenditures, tracing continuities in national approaches towards almost the present day.

It is here, on the doorstep of the present, that perhaps reviewers have, with the benefit of hindsight, come to blame Kennedy for his failure of prescience. Indeed, he comes close to an accurate prediction in terms of the overall trajectory of Russia, but in the specifics (i.e., the collapse of the Soviet Union), he just misses the mark:

On the other hand, the Soviet war machine also has its own weaknesses and problems … Since the dilemmas which face the strategy-makers of the other large Powers of the globe are also being pointed out in this chapter, it is only proper to draw attention to the great variety of difficulties confronting Russia’s military-political leadership – without, however, jumpting to the opposite conclusion that the Soviet Union is therefore unlikely to ‘survive’ for very long. [Emphasis in original]

Kennedy was writing in 1987, just two years before the overthrow of Communism in much of eastern Europe, and four before the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself. But despite failing to predict its collapse, he nevertheless successfully identified a downwards socioeconomic and geopolitical trajectory for Russia that has since been proven accurate. Similarly, Kennedy’s prognosis for the United States seems, especially now, to have been borne out, almost frighteningly so:

Although the United States is at present still in a class of its own economically and perhaps even militarily, it cannot avoid confronting the two great tests which challenge the longevity of every major power that occupies the ‘number one’ problem in world affairs: whether, in the military/strategical realm, it can preserve a reasonable balance between the nation’s perceived defense requirements and the means it possesses to maintain those commitments; and whether, as an intimately related point, it can preserve the technological and economic bases of its power from relative erosion in the face of the ever-shifting patterns of global production. This test of American abilities will be the greater because it…is the inheritor of a vast array of strategical commitments had been made decades earlier … In consequence, the United States now runs the risk, so familiar to historians of the rise and fall of previous Great Powers, of what roughly might be called ‘imperial overstretch’.

And though he never quite describes it as a future strategic competitor (and, to be fair, it is only in the past fifteen years that the contours of Sino-American relations have really begun to solidify), it is clear to Kennedy that the eventual rise of China is perpetually lurking in the background. “The most decisive” international fissure of the Cold War, he writes, “was the split between the USSR and Communist China,” which served to make even that era less of a totally bipolar system than is typically conceived of. China is one of five extant or emerging power centers he identifies, and sees a gradually strengthening power with some of the highest growth rates on Earth – this towards the tail end of Deng’s rule, before it really took off.

And so, what then for the United States? In keeping with his theme of “imperial overstretch,” Kennedy points out that the United States in 1987 had “roughly the same massive array of military obligations across the globe as it had a quarter-century [prior], when its shares of world GNP, manufacturing production, military spending, and armed forces personnel were so much larger.” All the military services will inevitably demand more resources and cry poverty, yes, but that is because what passes for American “statecraft” in the 21st century manages to avoid any hard decisions, any downscaling of commitments, and any meaningful reassessment of available ways and means – with an eye towards determining commensurate ends.

Here again, Kennedy is prescient: “an American polity which responds to external challenges by increasing defense expenditures and reacts to the budgetary crisis by slashing the existing social expenditures, may run the risk of provoking an eventual political backlash.” We’ve almost certainly watched that unfold in the years since 2001. In keeping with the rest of Rise and Fall, the United States is in fact headed for decline, but in a relative sense, one that is manageable if approached reasonably. This doesn’t single out the country; instead it might be seen (and is by Kennedy) as a reversion to the mean:

It may be argued that the geographical extent, population, and resources of the United States suggest that it ought to possess perhaps 16 or 18 percent of the world’s wealth and power, but because of historical and technical circumstances favorable to it, that share rose to 40 percent or more by 1945; and what we are witnessing at the moment is the early decades of the ebbing away from that extraordinarily high figure to a more ‘natural’ share.

Kennedy also offers a warning: “the task facing American statesmen over the next decades, therefore…is a need to ‘manage’ affairs to that the relative erosion of the United States’ position takes place slowly and smoothly, and is not accelerated by policies which bring merely short-term advantage but longer-term disadvantage.” This is wise counsel for the years ahead, as the unipolar moment continues to rapidly fade. But if this is the predominant challenge to the United States in the 21st century – a superpower in decline – than so far we have surely failed to meet it.

The Self-Inflicted Myth of Omnipotent Russia


One of many examples of the Russian/Soviet octopus in art, its tentacles implying a dominion it possesses anything but.

If you haven’t yet had a chance to read Keith Gessen’s terrific article on the “Russia hands” of the US foreign policy establishment, do yourself a favor and switch over to it right now.

The abiding mystery of American policy toward Russia over the past 25 years can be put this way: Each administration has come into office with a stated commitment to improving relations with its former Cold War adversary, and each has failed in remarkably similar ways. The Bill Clinton years ended with a near-catastrophic standoff over Kosovo, the George W. Bush years with the Russian bombing of Georgia and the Obama years with the Russian annexation of Crimea and the hacking operation to influence the American election.

Some Russia observers argue that this pattern of failure is a result of Russian intransigence and revisionism. But others believe that the intransigent and unchanging one in the relationship is the United States — that the country has never gotten past the idea that it “won” the Cold War and therefore needs to spread, at all costs, the American way of life.

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has done a very poor job of extending anything like a hand to a fallen opponent. For all the hopeful talk of “a Marshall Plan for Russia,” all that the West seemed to offer the former Soviet Union was a path to privatization, deprivation, and the extreme enrichment of a few oligarchs, while at the same time picking off what was once considered the periphery of a millennia-old empire.

Unlike with other countries – say, China, which presents probably the most extensive security challenge to the west in the next few decades – there is a lack of nuanced discussion, or indeed even debate at all. In most quarters, Russia is an omnipotent boogeyman, “the bear awakened,” America’s arch-nemesis with whom no cooperation is possible. Even the mere suggestion that Russia and the United States might enjoy a shared interest or two is met with incredulity if not outright hostility.

Gessen does a fantastic job of comprehensively mapping the “breadth” of thought on Russia throughout the American national security apparatus, and it’s worth quoting extensively:

As in other foreign-policy sectors, the Russia hands divide less along party lines than along foreign-policy philosophies: They are either “realists” or “internationalists.” Realists tend to be cautious about American overseas commitments and deferential toward state sovereignty; internationalists tend to be more inclined to universalist ideals like democracy and human rights, even where these are forced to cross borders. But the two supposed categories are blurred by a thousand factors, not least of which being that realists don’t like being called realists, because it suggests that they have no values, and internationalists don’t like to be called internationalists, as opposed to realists, because it suggests that they have no common sense. In the end, a vast internationalist middle, consisting of neoconservative Republicans and interventionist Democrats, predominates, with tiny slices of hard realists on the right and soft realists, or “neorealists,” on the left. And there are many shades of difference among all these people.

The longtime Russia hand Stephen Sestanovich, a veteran of the Reagan and Clinton administrations, says there are two kinds of Russia hands — those who came to Russia through political science and those who came to it through literature. The literature hands, he suggests, sometimes let their emotions get the best of them, while the political-science hands, like Sestanovich, are more cool and collected. Fried, who served in every administration from Carter to Obama, also thinks there are two kinds of Russia hands, though he draws a different dividing line: There are those, like himself, who “put Russia in context, held up against the light of outside standards and consequences.” These people tend to be tough on Russia. And then there are those “who take Russia on its own terms, attractive and wonderful but subject to romanticization.” These people tend to give Russia what Fried would consider a pass.

Then there are those, like Michael Kofman, a young Kiev-born military analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses in Arlington, Va., who say that there only appear to be two kinds of Russia hands. “There are the nice missionaries who knock on your door and say, ‘Hey, have you heard the good news about democracy, freedom and liberalism?’ And then there are the crusaders who are trying to claim the heathen Eastern European lands for democracy and freedom. But they’re basically the same person; they’re two sides of the same coin.”

There are two kinds of Russia hands, or maybe there are six kinds of Russia hands, or maybe there is an infinite variety of Russia hands. And yet the mystery is this: After all the many different Russia hands who have served in the United States government, the country’s relations with Russia are as they have always been — bad.

And that, as Gessen goes onto say, is part of the reason US foreign policy has become so irrational and unhinged when it comes to relations with Russia – the vast majority of “Russia hands” in the establishment are hardliners who, despite a reasonably good understanding of the history and culture of Russia, insist on a broad nefariousness that makes it difficult to establish a productive working relationship. This naturally leads to a rather cloistered view of the possible, and the appropriate.

A selection of suggested alternative bear analogies.

Outside of the lone voices like Kofman and Kimmage and Charap, (and a Bartles) most within the defense and security establishment have a conception of Russia oriented solely around Moscow’s hard power capabilities and its attitude towards the United States (as opposed to any other part of the world). Some of the most valuable analysis on contemporary Russia comes from Mark Galeotti, a British academic whose primary focus is Russian organized crime, but also for whom this is a valuable lens with which to examine the country as a whole. This kind of policy tunnel vision is disastrous for any country, and doubly so for one like the United States, which devotes so many resources to the outcomes of these debates.

But to return to Sestanovich’s formulation – e.g., the cultural versus the political – I was reminded of this duality in Rachel Wiseman’s recent contribution on Joseph Brodsky and “uselessness” to The Point‘s debate on intellectualism (ironically, Wiseman in turn goes on to cite none other than Gessen himself on Brodsky, and challenges his interpretation of the latter’s poetry as mere “aesthetics instead of ethics,” rather than “aesthetics as ethics”):

When I first discovered Brodsky I was stumbling my way into a Russian major, starting with a freshman language class where we memorized lines of Pushkin before we knew how to count to ten. I signed up for more classes in the department, one after another, even though I had no idea what I could do with a B.A. in Russian besides maybe going into academia or the CIA. I was drawn, as if by the gravity of a foreign object, to the lives and works of Russian writers—Gogol, Tolstoy, Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Platonov, Brodsky.

So it was for me: tales of Rurik, Novgorod, and 862, along with Chekhov and a brief overview of Cyrillic, turned into a lifelong interest with Russia (and my own dabbling in the language early on in college). And I think that that’s where part of the disconnect lies – between those who first came to Russia as a cultural-historical entity encompassing a tremendous range of literature, music, and other arts, versus those who approached it first and foremost as a political actor on the world stage locked in an ideological conflict with the United States.

I’m not saying that the Russia hawks need more Dostoevsky in their lives, but rather that it makes sense to evaluate Russia somewhere in between a completely detached relative morality and Daniel Fried’s holding them “up against the light of outside standards and consequences.” Much like the evolving historiographical approach to the American Civil War (I’m reminded here of some of Barbara Fields’ remarks in the Ken Burns documentary), in which you can evaluate morality by modern standards and actions by contextual ones. If we focus solely on the righteousness (or otherwise) of Russia’s actions, we lose the ability to understand from where they originate.

In other words, without empathy, we needlessly restrict our options.

It isn’t necessary to support Russian decisions and policies, but without a firm grasp on their origin – be it the historical quest for peripheral security, the pursuit of a unified identity, a struggle to modernize and be accepted as equal – it will be impossible to find satisfactory diplomatic outcomes. And should that continue to prove the case, should the two come to blows, the consequences are unimaginably dire. Even at the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States managed to negotiate multiple arms control treaties, the Outer Space Treaty, bans on entire weapons systems and classes of weapons systems, inspection regimes that left both vulnerable to the other.

The prospects for such seem remote today: a New START follow-on would be dead on arrival and legislators seriously discuss withdrawing from the INF Treaty, which would leave Open Skies as the sole international agreement allowing direct observation of the other party. Cooperative Threat Reduction is dead and gone, counterterror partnerships lie fallow, even climate change is (for obvious and deeply stupid reasons) a non-starter. But this, in a way, is exactly what the Russia hands have always wanted. Unbridled opposition and hostility makes their expertise necessary. An “angry bear” is a foe that they can speak to. But if the only Russia we can conceive of is one with whom we can’t treat, then that’s exactly what we’ll get. And that bodes ill for everyone.

Rethinking National Security (or, What the People Want)

T. Greer has published an absolute corker of an essay on Scholar’s Stage. Intended as a call to action against the complacency and stagnation of the modern foreign policy and national security community, he points to the continued disinterest most people from across the American political spectrum hold for foreign affairs, and submits that we will never be able to meet the challenge posed by a rising China without obtaining the consent – and desire – of the public writ large.

The piece is commendable, not least for Greer’s clearheaded thinking on what it means to have a strategy in the first place:

Responding to the rise of the People’s Republic will be a challenge of a scale America has never faced before. We cannot do that, deter Pyongyang, Tehran, and Moscow, and wage war against a thousand little terrorists at the same time. We simply do not have the means. This is true in 2018. It will be really true in about fifteen years time. We must decide which contests demand our attention, forces, and funds, which can be handed off to allies, and which need to be conceded. Deciding between them all will be difficult. It will create storms of animosity among the commentariat. But it must be done. To do anything else is not serious.

Even if you don’t believe that it’s China, specifically, which poses a looming threat to the United States and the West writ large, the idea that tradeoffs are necessary is one sorely lacking from today’s modern defense discussions. So too is language that reflects what analysts truly believe. Those debates we do have are petty and trivial while ignoring core, fundamental questions: what is the national interest? What actually constitutes a threat? What can we safely table and deemphasize because we cannot emphasize everything? Phil Walter has talked about “majoring in the minors,” and that’s an apt phrase for what American foreign and security policy has been for the past 20 years: a focus on penny ante terrorism and third-rate regional countries (I hesitate to call them “powers”) at the expense of anything resembling big-picture thinking.

Dismantling the careerism and shibboleths of the defense establishment will be vital in charting a new course for the future. What we’re doing now, to the extent it can be characterized as a coherent strategy or even a singular set of goals, clearly isn’t working. We are long overdue for a major reassessment. The 2003 invasion of Iraq was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of my generation’s lifetime so far, and the people who advocated it should forever be unwelcome in The Discourse (and certainly never listened to if hawking an even more devastating overseas intervention). North Korea can be managed and contained without requiring military action or bellicose language.

Our endless obsession with the Middle East is equally ripe for rethinking. If we are to continue championing the appeal and righteousness of liberal democracy around the world, alliances with fundamentalist Wahhabi monarchies would seem anachronistic at best. Which vision of Islam best aligns with our own self-conceptions? And in terms of “fighting over there to avoid it here,” the threat posed by terrorism is vanishing at most. For the vast majority of the American people, requires but a reassessment of the slight personal risk before accepting it into their everyday lives, on par with the remote possibility of nuclear annihilation or a lightning strike from a vengeful god. The ISIS convert with a panel truck doesn’t worry me, but what does is the exhausted delivery driver from Queens who mistakes the gas pedal for the brakes; not the jihadi with a Kalashnikov but the disgruntled man with an Armalite.

Merely questioning the continued relevance of NATO is enough to send gasps through the national security community. And yet, it is worth considering at the very least what a European security architecture might look like if designed from scratch today. What threats might it counter? To what larger political project and integration might it contribute? What would be the geographical limits of its membership? Its operations? In short, we must evaluate what we need rather than what we have, and then try to make up the difference. This, too, is an area where the foreign policy establishment seems to be blind to alternatives and focused solely on preserving some version of the status quo. To question the existing way of things is not a radical act; it is in fact a best practice to periodically evaluate changes in the environment and adjust accordingly.

In the grand realm of national strategy, there frankly is not much from without that can pose a threat to the United States and the “American way of life,” whatever that might now consist of. Truly “existential” threats, to sidestep a semantic debate, exist solely in form of Russian and Chinese nuclear arsenals, and in terms of broader geopolitical security, China looms as a true challenger in the medium term. Little else is important. And our other “adversaries” are security problems to be managed (and waited out), not solved.

Even with this handful of real challenges, what “the people” demand are peace abroad and reconstruction at home; in the NBC polling that Greer cites, far more millennials are concerned with health care and education in the United States than nebulous threats from abroad. To win them over for those issues we do deem worthy of concerted national effort, it will be necessary to prove that this country is something worth fighting for; that it is part of an international system worth preserving. That this hasn’t been self-evident in recent years is an indictment not of my generation but of the system that has failed us, a system that will have given us worse living standards than our parents. Nobody’s moving, physically or socially. Infastructure is crumbling. Even those few places worth moving to, with decent jobs and transit (though that, too, is crumbling) don’t have enough housing for those fortunate enough to be able to relocate. Segregation and institutionalized racism manifest themselves more prominently than any other point in our lifetimes. And yet we’re tasked with preserving this system?

The first priority of the national security community must be to acknowledge this. To continue blithely on as before, pretending we have still enjoy the highest living standards in the world for everyone and that this will and must be defended at all costs, is ignorant of reality and will achieve nothing.  Acknowledging that this political economy is unsustainable, and that it will require investment, sacrifice, and change of its own on the part of this entire national security community and other certain privileged sectors will be one of our greatest challenges in the years to come.

The Perils of Incrementalism

Where many wanted universal health care, the United States instead got a half-hearted attempt at health reform in the Affordable Care Act. Instead of any significant reduction in scope of the F-35 program, 550 other aircraft will be scrapped, 25,000 personnel RIFed, and a whopping four F-35s cut from the total order. Instead of wholesale change, we tinker around the edges with a broken system.

This is just the latest in a long string of “government failures” and the inadequacy of a 20th-century bureaucracy to cope with the challenges and tasks for a 21st-century nation. Federal Acquisition Regulations, the inability of Congress to do much of anything except let programs and infrastructure collapse (much less show up to work or let anyone else do so), the healthcare.gov debacle – these are truly examples of areas in need of much greater reform than additions and edits (and areas in which only the federal government has the scale and the purchasing power to effect change on a national scale). The “system,” such as it stands, is crying out for a full-on rewrite, for bold thinking, vision, and more than anything, action.

I often find Matt Yglesias insufferable, but he’s on point here:

For conservatives, the myriad problems consumers had using the federally run exchanges was just another reason to abandon the goal of universal health insurance. The website issues have been viewed optimistically—almost gleefully—since if the site is sufficiently terrible, it may be impossible for a critical mass of people to sign up and the program will have to be substantially scaled back. Conversely, progressives had been hoping to build a system that didn’t just meet some bare standard of functionality but actually persuaded people that a larger state role was a good idea. After all, the user experience of private health insurance is hardly the greatest thing in the world. Building a great healthcare.gov was supposed to be part of a campaign to persuade people that government should be involved in areas that are more contentious than garbage pickup.

This is, of course, the culmination of a decades-long quest to not just shrink the federal government to a size where it could be drowned in a bathtub. For the modern Republican Party, healthcare.gov proves that their attempts to render the government dysfunctional have rendered the government dysfunctional. Pure “government terraforming.”

Bigger solutions sometimes are better solutions, and small plans do little to change an essentially broken system. What we have now is the result: a loss in faith that the government can do anything for anyone. Even among a younger, less rabidly anti-government generation, misguided dreams of a technological utopia separate from the clumsy hand of paternal governance abound. Who has faith in the US government to mail a social security check or help a city buy a single car for their subway?

The argument has often been among those who would seek to destroy domestic national governance that where federalism makes sense is in providing for the common defense and representing the collective states in foreign affairs. But now, of course, the government can’t even be trusted to do that. From a new Pew poll:

The most striking poll result is the share of Americans who believe that “the U.S. should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.” For the first time since Pew began asking in 1964, more than half of respondents say they agree with that statement, a staggeringly high 52 percent. That number has historically ranged between about 20 and 40 percent.
These poll numbers reflect American public attitudes that are widely and strongly enough held that they could indirectly steer the White House, thus affecting U.S. foreign policy and perhaps the world itself. Obama already ran into this problem, for example, with his plan this fall to launch limited strikes against Syria as punishment for its use of chemical weapons against civilians. Overwhelming public opposition and overwhelming Congressional opposition fed into one another, ultimately killing the plan. Even though the strikes would have been modest compared to almost every other U.S. military action of the last 10 years, they were opposed far more vociferously, and that mattered.

This isn’t to say that the President should have advocated for a full-scale invasion of Syria. But it does reflect that the government isn’t trusted by a majority of its own population to do much of anything abroad or at home.

And so it’s hard to not conclude that at least for now, the Do-Nothing Party is winning.


In the wake of absolutely historic, devastating flooding of New York and its infrastructure in particular, it’s worth revisiting a piece from the New York Times: “Hurricanes on the Hudson.” A report released by the Army Corps of Engineers, it explores the potential impacts of a Category 4 hurricane on the city of New York.

When researchers with the National Weather Service, working with the Army Corps, applied the [“SLOSH”] model to New York City they discovered, to their great surprise, that the slope of the sea bed and the shape of the New York Bight, where the coasts of New York and New Jersey meet, could amplify a surge to a depth far greater than if the same surge had occurred elsewhere…

To reinforce its observations, the corps doctored photographs to show flood waters submerging the doors to the South Ferry subway station and the World Trade Center, and the entrance to the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel

For anyone familiar with city landmarks, the report makes good, if macabre, reading. The peak storm surge at the Lincoln Tunnel would top 28 feet. Kennedy Airport would be submerged. Even a category 1 hurricane would flood the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel and the PATH tunnels at Exchange Place and Hoboken Station in New Jersey, and launch water into the city’s subways through vents at 14th Street in Manhattan and at Montague and Joralemon Streets in Brooklyn, and many other points. [emphasis mine]

And now I direct you to a recap of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy:

Tunnels under the East River were all flooded and pumping had begun at some of them. Mr. Lhota said that flooding was “literally up to the ceiling” at the South Street subway station in Lower Manhattan. Long Island Railroad remained closed due to flooding on the tracks. Two Metro-North lines north of 59th Street continued to be without power, and Mr. Lhota estimated that there were at least 100 trees downed on the tracks. Staten Island ferry and railway service were also still suspended. In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie said there was “major damage on each and every one of New Jersey’s rail lines.” New Jersey Transit and PATH service remained suspended.

By now you’ve also all seen the video of South Ferry-Whitehall station, and the photos of Ground Zero and the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel:

But back to that report: it was released by the ACE in 1995. By the time the perfectly thinkable happened, predictions of it were nothing new. We have the technology and the ingenuity to anticipate catastrophe. We’ve been red-teaming for years (perhaps not taken seriously enough), and our brightest minds have also met with commercial success in thinking the (formerly) unthinkable. But all the creativity and brilliance and conclusions are meaningless unless they result in action. The Corps of Engineers got it right in 1995; New York did some to prepare, but could have and perhaps should have done more.

Obviously there was no way for the MTA to prevent this from happening. Hurricanes happen, floods happen, and by all accounts Joe Lhota has done a masterful job preparing for and now recovering from the storm (I shudder at the thought of WMATA here in DC struggling to cope with a disaster of similar scope. That disaster has also been anticipated). But there are ways to mitigate it. In this case, solutions range from the macro – i.e., constructing New York’s own version of the Thames flood barrier – to the micro, e.g., waterproofing switches and as much of the sensitive equipment in the East River tubes as possible. Of course, these cost vast amounts of money and most of the time they’ll not be necessary or used – until they’re both.

The problem here is again, for all our planning, building resilience into a system and planning for the worst are completely at odds with an efficient system. Resilience, after all, is the opposite of efficiency. All too often, we find ourselves proscribing solutions – and frequent good solutions at that – only to take no action for fear of the cost or the political will necessary or the “what’s-the-point” strain of defeatism. As Adam Serwer wrote today, there’s no benefit in disaster prevention – politicians’ time to shine is in disaster relief. But somehow we’ve got to overcome our total lack of foresight and find a way to adequately prepare for future catastrophic events.

That goes double for non-natural disasters. The danger in preparing for outlandish ideas is that preventing them would require too much in the way of singular assets dedicated to a niche capability. The constant array of new security theater measures that always seem to be deployed in a wake of a new air travel-based attack vector are proof alone of a) our adversaries’ own ingenuity, and b) the futility of locking the barn door after the horse is out. But if a threat is too remote to have a dedicated counter-team, then we can at least mitigate its potential impacts. Passive measures – building hardening qualities into landscape design, redundant lines and connections (applicable to any sort of network), a general mindset of resilience – these are what we’re missing. New York will rebuild and move on, the subways will be repaired, and the Great American Metropolis will sort itself out as it always does. But we can do it faster, and we can do it better.

Wot Won It?

From the London Evening Standard, more on American support to Britain during the Falklands Crisis:

President Reagan at first said the US would be impartial in the conflict between two of its allies. But on April 2, 1982, the day of the Argentinian  invasion, he sent Mrs Thatcher a note: “I want you to know that we have valued your cooperation on the challenge we both face in many different parts of the world. We will do what we can to assist you. Sincerely, Ron.”

A week later Reagan’s Secretary of State Al Haig visited London to mediate, but covertly delivered the message: “We are not impartial. We face a common problem. We must do all we can to strengthen you and your government.”

Much of what the article covers has been said already (the supply of Sidewinder and Stinger missiles have been known for some time). But there were some interesting tidbits to uncover, such as:

  • There was some sort of Civil Reserve Air Fleet support, at least infrastructure-wise: “The local Pan Am airline manager, Don Coffee, told us his president had told him that we had to make everything possible [on Ascension Island] available to British forces. He said he wasn’t referring to President Reagan, but the President of Pan Am.”
  • The Argentinian Air Force’s capabilities were qualitatively overestimated: Americans “assess at the outset that the Argentinians have about 220 first- and second-line combat aircraft — but only days after the landings at San Carlos on May 21, the Americans report about half the first-line Argentinian aircraft have been knocked out.”
  • Perhaps unlike my previous thesis, the Reagan Administration saw the USSR as the greater threat to the sanctity of the Monroe Doctrine: ” Washington believed the Soviet Union was prepared to provide ships, weaponry and ammunition to the Argentinians, in return for cheap grain.”

I assume there’s much more to be gleaned from the newly released Agency documents (you have to love that thirty-year rule), which seem to be held entirely at National Archives II, but a selection of which has been digitized by the Margaret Thatcher Foundation, available here. Looking forward to what else might be in there…

Corporate Warriors: A Review

It has been much too long in coming, but I finally finished P.W. Singer’s Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry. It is, quite simply, excellent.

Singer is one of the most intriguing defense/security writers out there, as his “thing” is basically finding heavily underrreported – yet crucial – developments occurring in the U.S. military. He seems to always be one of the first to really study in a comprehensive and coherent manner certain evolutionary changes in the way war is fought, and Corporate Warriors is no exception. His other works deal with heady subjects like robotics in war and child soldiers, and here he is at the forefront of yet another startling trend.

Corporate Warriors is an attempt to trace the lineage of the Private Military Firm (PMF) from early mercenaries to today’s corporate arrangements, and in doing so, to fit them into a theoretical framework for better understanding and predicting industry developments. Published on the eve of the Iraq War in 2003, the book mostly deals with the 1990s, though to fully explain the rise of the PMF it jumps back to earlier examples in the 1970s and 80s.

Much of Corporate Warriors is couched in the language of IR theory, but Singer never slavishly tries to fit all of his findings into a rigid framework. Chapter 2 is an excellent historical survey of privatized military history, ranging from mercenaries in the service of King Shulgi of Ur to Syracusan hoplites to the first “companies” of the Hundred Years War. Singer fully explains the ‘state as monopoly on violence’ and the prominence that mercenaries enjoyed from the dawn of history until the nineteenth century, explaining that the odd little gap between roughly 1860 and 1950 in which the state’s monopoly was the only game in town. But he is never overly concerned with the theoretical framework. Chapter 11, “Market Dynamism and Global Security Disruptions,” opens with an epigraph from Professor R.B.J. Walker:

The disjunction between the seriousness of international politics and the triviality of international relations theory is quite startling.

Continue reading

Patriot’s Day

The British route to Concord and the route of the Patriot riders.

I meant to post this yesterday, but dropped the ball on it. Today (yesterday) was Patriot’s Day, and for those of you not living in the Boston area (or Wisconsin, for some reason), that means a celebration (and Monday off in honor) of the Battles of Lexington and Concord. Lexington was the first battle that saw colonial blood spilled. At Concord, we finally shot back.

It’s one of my favorite holidays, complete with reenactors all across the state, the Boston Marathon, and a Red Sox game played at 11 AM. So I figure this is as good a time as any to announce that my paper on the Battle of Concord, “Privates and Patriots,” has been accepted for presentation at the NEASA conference this November. It’s a comparison of British and American (or if you like, loyalist and rebel) perceptions of that day’s battle, and an attempt to discern fact from exaggeration. Here’s a little excerpt:

With Pole’s companies still at the South Bridge and Laurie’s detachment at the North Bridge, Colonel Smith’s troops still in the town square had set the courthouse aflame. Since 0900, Colonel Barrett’s forces had grown in size with companies from Acton, Bedford, Lincoln, and Carlisle joining those already mustered in Concord. Upon seeing plumes of smoke from the center of town (and mistaking those at the South Bridge for a larger conflagration), the young Lieutenant Joseph Hosmer turned to Barrett and asked, “Will you let them burn the town down?” The captain of the Acton company, Isaac Davis, declared to those who might question their willingness to fight for a town not their own that “I haven’t a man who isn’t afraid to go.” Barrett and the various company captains at Punkatasset held an impromptu war council. The verdict was simple and clear: “To march into the middle of the town for its defense, or die in the attempt.”

So on this day (yesterday), remember Lexington Green and the Old North Bridge. Remember the running battle fought all the way back to Boston, around the “Bloody Angle” and Parker’s Revenge; Fiske’s Hill and The Bluff. And remember that every side has its own story.

By the rude bridge that arched the flood
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurl’d
Here once the embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard ‘round the world

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Concord Hymn”

They came three thousand miles and died
To keep the past upon its throne
Unheard beyond the ocean tide
Their English Mother made her moan

– James Russell Lowell, inscribed on the grave of the British soldiers