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Christianity, culture, compassion, camels — and their shadows too

Saturday, August 22nd, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — by way of TS Eliot, Mario Vargas Llosa and others, and leading to a post on camels and their shadows ]

limits of compassion


In the year I was born, 1943, TS Eliot published a series of essays titled Notes Toward the Definition of Culture in the New English Weekly. Mario Vargas Llosa supposedly references Eliot’s essays in his own Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society — which Joshua Cohen then distills into this paragraph:

Eliot defines culture as existing in, and through, three different spheres: that of the individual, the group or class, and the entire rest of society. Individuals’ sensibilities affiliate them with a group or class, which doesn’t have to be the one they’re born into. That group or class proceeds to exercise its idea of culture on society as a whole, with the elites — the educated and artists, in Eliot’s ideal arrangement — ­leveraging their access to the media and academia to influence the tastes of the average citizen, and of the next ­generation too. As for what forms the individual, it’s the family, and the family, in turn, is formed by the church: “It is in Christianity that our arts have developed,” Eliot writes; “it is in Christianity that the laws of Europe have — until recently — been rooted.”

I’m not sure of the bibliographic details here, but you’ll note the similarity of Eliot’s claim in quote marks above to certain claims made concerning America in recent years — and indeed, to others in Anders Breivik‘s Manifesto.

It’s the concept of culture as comprised of the sensibilities of individuals, groups and society that first and most interests me here, though — and the significance of family, and I’m hoping Michael Lotus will have something to say about that.


Here’s more from Eliot:

It is in Christianity that our arts have developed; it is in Christianity that the laws of Europe — until recently — have been rooted. It is against a background of Christianity that all of our thought has significance. An individual European may not believe that the Christian faith is true, and yet what he says, and makes, and does will all spring out of his heritage of Christian culture and depend upon that culture for its meaning .. I do not believe that culture of Europe could survive the complete disappearance of the Christian faith. And I am convinced of that, not merely because I am a Christian myself, but as a student of social biology. If Christianity goes, the whole culture goes.


Now take a cool sip of water to cleanse the palate..


This may nor may not seem to resonate with Eliot’s ideas:

Slovakia prefers its desperate refugees to be Christians, please

Slovakia would prefer to accept Christian refugees under a European plan to resettle people who have fled from wars and poverty in the Middle East, Asia and Africa, the Interior Ministry said on Thursday.

The Central European country will take 100 people from refugee camps in Turkey and 100 people from Italy, preferably Christians, a ministry spokesman said.

“We want to choose people who really want to start a new life in Slovakia. Slovakia as a Christian country can really help Christians from Syria to find new home in Slovakia,” spokesman Ivan Netik said.

“For most migrants we are only a transit country. In Slovakia we have really tiny community of Muslims. We even dont have mosques.”

If Muslim asylum-seekers chose Slovakia, they would not be discriminated against, he said. But Slovakia would not take in refugees who did not want to stay in the country but intended to move on.

“We do not discriminate against any religion, but it would be a false, insincere solidarity if we took people .. who dont want to live in Slovakia,” he said.

That. btw, is the most nuanced version of the Slovakian response to the refugees I’ve seen.

Comnpassion? A conceptual radius of compassion?

Are there, should there be, limits to compassion?


In an upcoming post on the shadows of camels, I’ll explain my overall intent in posting such items as this one — and it is not to suggest that Breivik is the same as Slovakia, or Eliot the same as Breivik, or Christianity across Europe equivalent to camels or the shadows of camels across the desert.. nor that compassion should or should not have a radius, conceptual or otherwise.

Aircraft Carriers and Maritime Strategy – a debate

Tuesday, January 13th, 2015

[by J. Scott Shipman]

Last Friday night at the U.S. Naval Academy, retired Navy Captain Henry “Jerry” Hendrix and Commander Bryan McGrath debated the future of the aircraft carrier. My wife and I were fortunate to attend. Given the pressure placed on the Navy’s shipbuilding budget, the debate could not have been more timely. Commander McGrath argued the “nuclear aircraft carriers with air wings are the most cost effective and efficient platform to project power in the maritime and littoral realm to support U.S. national security interests in current and future security environments.” Captain Hendrix argued against this resolution. While both arguments hold much merit, I tend to side with Captain Hendrix.

Lots of numbers and statistics were thrown around, but one issue did not enter the debate: it has been 70 years since an aircraft carrier was shot at. The lesson of the Falklands War underscores the potential power of modern precision munitions, and carriers are big targets.

This video is highly recommended. C-SPAN also recorded the debate with a transcript here.

Pavers of Roads with Good Intentions: R2P Debate Rising Part II.

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

As I mentioned previously, I needed to make a more substantive reply to Victor Allen’s claims for R2P.  I am very tardy in doing so, for which I apologize to Mr. Allen but better late than not at all. While addressing some of Victor’s specific points, I want to be very clear that in my view:

1. R2P’s status in international law, despite grandiose claims by advocates, is weakly grounded, highly controversial and conflicts with accepted norms of state sovereignty

2.  The concept of R2P is a covert revival of the pre-WWI sovereign right to  wage aggressive war, albeit (usually) under some kind of collective imprimatur

3,  If regarded as a serious legal moral principle entailing an obligation to act, R2P is inherently anti-strategic, injurious to national interest and anti-democratic in nature

I will tackle point #1 today and points # 2 and #3 in successive posts.

In Victor’s original piece he argued that R2P is part and parcel of a (theoretical) “new sovereignty”:

That R2P does not violate sovereignty stems from the evolution of sovereignty from its Westphalian form in the mid 17th century to the “sovereignty as responsibility” concept advanced by Deng, et al. Modern sovereignty can no longer be held to give states carte blanche in their internal affairs regardless of the level of suffering going on within their borders. This does not diminish state agency for internal affairs, but rather holds them responsible and accountable for their action and inaction regarding the welfare of their populations. 

“Sovereignty as responsibility”  is a theory put forth by a Sudanese diplomat and minor UN bureaucrat and an American academic that proclaimed:

The authors assert that sovereignty can no longer be seen as a protection against interference, but as a charge of responsibility where the state is accountable to both domestic and external constituencies.

The “…and external constituencies” clause is an Orwellian negation of the traditional meaning of sovereignty where the state has sole de jure authority over such matters as their internal affairs, including the political character of their regime,  with very narrow exceptions mandated by treaty or customary international law ( ex. diplomatic immunity of heads of state).  The latter, is based on consent and derives from the history of the diplomatic norms adhered to, interpreted and practiced by sovereigns and such rulings of IGO to whose authority sovereigns have voluntarily submitted themselves through a binding covenant ( ex. World Court via the UN charter).

Of course, being sovereign, states differ on how such rulings are to be interpreted or even whether they will accept jurisdiction of bodies  like the World Court, the ICC or special international  tribunals of justice in specific cases. Furthermore, in signing covenants, states often, quite legally, make reservations or exceptions to specific treaty clauses as part of their agreement to adhere to the rest of the treaty and consider it legally binding.  The United States in fact, does this regularly as do most other states having major interests at stake in negotiating an international agreement. Unless you have a granular knowledge of what country “x” formally agreed to accept as a signatory, or are willing to do your homework in this regard, you do not actually know what the law really is in many diplomatic disputes – especially when the conflict is complex and multilateral.  Broad and bombastic assertions by activists in the media that novel restrictions or obligations on states that they support are “international law” or that some act they condemn is “illegal” are almost invariably factually incorrect, at least to some degree ( barring obvious and clear violations of jus cogens, such as mass atrocities).

Beyond international law based on formal covenants, custom and legal precedents generally accepted by sovereigns, other sources of authority in international law would include resolutions of the UN Security Council, the UN General Assembly, regional bodies like the OAS or EU, some institutions like the ICRC and even the opinions of scholars learned in international law. Unlike positive law within a state, international law in its various manifestations lacks a legitimate, overarching, coercive authority that could function as a global sovereign and impartial enforcer of consistently interpreted law and justice. Sovereign states are thus not subject to international law in the same relationship that their citizens are subject to sovereign authority; sovereign states are, at least legally, a community of equals able to draw upon and interpret overlapping and at times competing sources of legal authority in making claims – including precedents they intentionally created themselves!  This makes a quick redress of violations of international law difficult when the UN Security Council is empowered to make use of military force only in cases of ” international peace and security” (i.e. aggression) and the UN Charter also assures sovereigns of their “right to self defense”.

“New Sovereignty”, in the title of Victor’s first piece, is a concept propagated by the late Harvard theorist and State Department official Abram Chayes and his wife, scholar Antonia Handler Chayes, that repudiates much of traditional sovereignty in order to aggressively re-define it as “ the capacity to participate in international institutions of all types“.  In other words, sovereignty in their view would mean a state’s membership in good standing in  a mutually interdependent ” international community” and not control over national territory free from external interference by other sovereigns. Under “New Sovereignty”, such external interference is assumed as “normal” and is a point of constant, cooperative, negotiation toward consensus on emerging and evolving legal norms. As such, if accepted, “New Sovereignty” would be a massive transfer of political power and legal authority from legitimate national governments to a transnational and international class of legal technocrats and bureaucrats, who would assume by default a managerial role over the substance of international affairs. In many ways this erosion of traditional state sovereignty would be analogous to the transfer of real power from the hands of crowned sovereigns in the early modern period to their embryonic state bureaucracies that in time rendered most monarchs mere ceremonial figureheads.

In my view, while  Chayes had many laudable goals in mind,  “New Sovereignty” would be unworkable in practice and inherently is extremely reactionary in its anti-democratic repudiation of popular sovereignty as the basis for a state’s legitimacy. Citizens of states are effectively reduced to the position of wards under the protection of the international community as national leaders become responsive primarily to “external constituencies” in control of the eternal process of negotiation of international norms. While the problem is somewhat moot for repressive regimes whose citizens enjoy few freedoms anyway, in liberal states the “democratic deficit” produced by such a scheme runs contrary to the very foundations of their political legitimacy and independence.

In this context, we have the claim put forth for the legal basis of R2P by Victor:

 ….Indeed, the UN Security Council, having enshrined R2P in UNSCR 1674, did not subsequently authorize action under the R2P banner in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in Burma, with the Special Adviser to the Secretary-General stating in his report that

[i]t would be a misapplication of responsibility to protect principles to apply them at this point to the unfolding tragedy in Myanmar…the Outcome Document of the 2005 [World] Summit limited their application to four crimes and violations: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing.

and in his second post:

Here Safranski and I agree on the proper role of theorists, but it wasn’t theorists that adopted R2P as a norm; it was the UN Security Council, as set forth in UNSCR 1674 in 2005, which was later utilized in the Libya intervention authorization (UNSCR 1973). Currently there are no higher authorities on interventions, peacemaking, and peacekeeping than the Security Council, which is surely not composed of academic theorists, but rather high-level diplomats that make moves, and yes, establish law, only on the explicit authorization of their countries. That the Security Council adopted the principles of R2P speaks more to the usefulness and applicability of the concepts than to any academic theorizing thereof.

First, while we should acknowledge that the UNSC resolutions that R2P advocates crow about are not nothing, their importance should not be exaggerated either. They are a precedent, but a very limited one that does not abrogate everything that has come before.

Since the inception of the UN the Security Council has passed over 2200 resolutions, which would put those devoted to R2P at a whopping .0009 %.  Moreover, of the UNSC resolutions passed, many merely take note of an event, express concern or urge restraint; other, more forcefully worded resolutions, dealing with conflict were dead letters from the moment of adoption, being ignored by warring parties exercising their sovereign rights of self-defense. The number of UNSC resolutions that led to effective action of any kind, much less decisive humanitarian military intervention envisioned by more muscular interpretations of R2P, have been few with a mixed track record of success.  Resolutions 1674 and 1973 by the Security Council exist within the much larger context of international law precedents going back centuries, most of which directly contradict the operative assumptions of “New Sovereignty”.

Furthermore, much of the text of Resolution 1674 itself is devoted to caveats reiterating traditional sovereign prerogatives and that protection for civilians occur under established conventions for the law of armed conflict before gingerly endorsing R2P provisions from the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document  of the World Health Organization. The legality of these qualifications and reservations are taken seriously by the member states of the Security Council because without them, 1674 would have never passed, nor 1973 after it ( likely to be the last of its kind for a long while in light of Russian and Chinese vetoes on Syria resolutions, which after Libya are certain to continue).  At best, in international law R2P has managed to secure only a toehold and its definition and application lack agreement (and even acceptance) among the world’s great powers.

R2P is not a secure legal scaffold on which to construct a foreign policy or decide on matters of peace and war.

The Myhrvold Report and Understanding Strategic Threats

Monday, October 7th, 2013

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

Several weeks ago, Cheryl Rofer wrote an important post analyzing the report “Strategic Terrorism: A Call to Action” by Microsoft billionaire, venture capitalist, theoretical mathematician and cookbook author, Dr. Nathan Myhrvold. I found Cheryl’s argument quite persuasive and would like to add a few points of my own; because while some of the concerns raised by Myhrvold are valid and his intent is no doubt well-meaning, the approach he suggests is, at times, problematic.

If in the past ten years you have been a serious student of terrorism studies, insurgency and COIN, national security, counter-terrorism policy, counter-proliferation policy,  intelligence community affairs and military theory, there is little that will be new for you in the first part of the report. Many of these problems had previously been raised (at least in part) by figures as disparate as Michael Scheuer, John Robb, Martin van Creveld, Thomas P.M. Barnett, William Lind,  Robert Bunker and dozens if not hundreds, of thinkers, practitioners and scholars. In addition, this ground was also covered by government agencies like the National Intelligence Council in its periodic Global Trends reports, and in classified analysis by the Office of Net Assessment and various three letter agencies. The blogosphere also had a lively discussion of catastrophic WMD terrorism, superempowered individuals, 4GW/5GW, apocalyptic Mahdism and related subjects throughout the mid to late 2000’s.  Diffusion of society-shifting power into the hands of small groups and individuals was a theme of Alvin and Heidi Toffler back in the 70’s and 80’s, so this is an old rather than new problem.

Dr. Myhrvold is a polymathic character, but his original area of specialization was mathematical research so it is not surprising that his approach to things “strategic” is dominated by scalar considerations. Namely, a threat taxonomy based upon potential magnitude of  disaster events up to the extinction of the human race (High M 10).  Wondering here, as the bibliographic references of this report are extremely scanty, if Myhrvold was influenced by Herman Kahns ideas on escalation or game theory based literature on deterrence or something else. Regardless, while there’s some merit to this definition – obviously if your civilization is destroyed or everyone is dead you have suffered the ultimate in strategic defeat – there are weaknesses too as the linear progression of destruction implies an apolitical environment and inevitable process. That’s not how things work with strategy in the real world, neither today nor back in the era of Cold War superpower nuclear brinksmanship. Even John Foster Dulles and Vyacheslav Molotov were more politically nuanced than that.

This is an important point. Myhrvold is focused on capacity alone rather than in conjunction with political purpose in defining strategic threats.  Capacity in bad hands is worth worrying about and Myhrvold is right when he criticizes the government for their obstinate refusal to develop a robust threat detection system for shipping to US ports of entry ( that’s boring, hard work with little payoff from a political perspective, but the NSA building a system for surveilling all Americans is fun and gives government bureaucrats great potential power to ruin anyone they wish); that said, outside of comic books and James Bond movies, people do not historically initiate violence on an epochal scale out of a Joker-like admiration of nihilism, not even terrorists. Instead, they have a political end in mind for which violence is a tool. This variable appears to be absent from Myhrvold’s thinking.

More troubling, Myhrvold’s solution to the potential threat of bioweapon terrorism would appear to be, as I infer it, even greater centralization of power in the hands of a national security surveillance state. As I expect Dr. Myhrvold is a great respecter of data-driven, probabilistic logic, he might want to consider that nearly every man-made, high magnitude, lethal event in the past century and a quarter years has been initiated by governments for reasons of policy, up to and including the auto-genocide of tens of millions of their own citizens. Most people on this planet are in far greater danger of harm at the hands of the state than they are as a result of terrorism or foreign attack and it would seem foolish, in light of such statistics, to increase our risk by delegating greater grants of power to the entity most likely to cause us harm. In the words of the late defense and security expert Dr. Fred Ikle, we would be risking Annihilation from Within.

Ikle anticipated years ago much of what Myhrvold wrestled with in his report and, in my view, prescribed better answers.

Charles Hill on Freedman’s Strategy: A History

Thursday, October 3rd, 2013

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

Charles Hill pens a favorable but also fairly critical review of Sir Lawrence Freedman’s tome-like, Strategy: A History.

The snares of strategizing

.…Sir Lawrence Freedman’s 750-page magnum opus, Strategy: A History, is encyclopedic, although not alphabetical, a pleasure to dip into here and there to get a carefully considered summary briefing on the strategy of the Hebrew Bible, the 1815 Congress of Vienna, Jane Addams, Black Power, or the strange array of social science attempts to redefine human behavior as a contribution to strategy. Everybody talks about strategy, but no one seems to know what it is. But now there are no excuses; it’s all here, at least in chronological array. As with my childhood set of Compton’s, I read it straight through for its several-thousand-years’-long narrative arc; it only remains to try to make sense of the whole thing as one big idea.

Freedman begins by admitting that there is no agreed-upon definition of strategy. When one encounters the word applied to battle plans, political campaigns, and business deals, “not to mention means of coping with the stresses of everyday life,” the concept may begin to seem meaningless. But not so for Sir Lawrence, a most distinguished professor of war studies at King’s College, London, who unapologetically focuses his modern section on American approaches because “the United States has been not only the most powerful but also the most intellectually innovative country in recent times.”

The “origins” of strategy run from David and Goliath to Machiavelli to Milton’s Paradise Lost, a vast stretch of time covered, for this big book, in a relatively short space, as though the author is hurrying to get to strategy in our modern age. All the old warhorses are here. Thucydides is analyzed as the start of “real” strategy and the distortions of language as a cause of Athens’ fall is featured. Plato’s Republic is taken seriously as a “strategic coup” by which philosophy defeats strategy. (I am one of those who read Plato’s Socrates as ironic, playing along with an overnight concoction of a perfect polity—which turns out horribly—as the most effective way of showing us what not to do when thinking strategically.) Sun Tzu is properly portrayed not so much as a strategist as a master of stratagems, a subset of the art in full: To do the opposite of what is expected is not enough to qualify as strategy. Overall, the centuries of “Origins” analyzed here could be characterized as “a series of footnotes to Homer,” a running debate between advocates of force (Achilles) and those who prefer guile (Odysseus). The Trojan Horse was guile personified; it worked, but thereafter could be scorned as a despicable trick unworthy of heroes. The strategic approach of Milton’s Satan to his own demonic team, as well as toward Adam and Eve, was all seductive guile and still seems to be working….

The book comes across as being rather unwieldy in size, scope and definition of strategy, though informative. I disagree with Hill’s interpretation of Sun Tzu as well as Plato ( Socrates was an ironist, Plato? Well, he wandered quite far from his master’s teachings in the fullness of time). Nevertheless, worth a read.

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