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Cold War and Political Fire: Speculation on the State of Sinology

Monday, June 8th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

China HandJohn Paton Davies 

Our newest ZP team member, T. Greer of Scholar’s Stage blog has reposted two very thoughtful essays on the Chinese strategic tradition and its interpretation that can be found in modern Sinology. They are excellent and I encourage you to read them in full.
In his second post, T. Greer raises many questions regarding the state of Sinology, as well as topics for future investigation yet unexplored that would represent in equivalent fields, the fundamentals. Given that China represents not just a nation-state and a potential near-peer competitor of the U.S. but thousands of years of a great civilization, it is remarkable that the professional community of Western Sinologists is so small. The number of USG employees with the highest level of conversational fluency in Chinese who are neither native speakers nor children of immigrants would probably not fill a greyhound bus.
Why is the state of Sinology relatively parlous?

I think the poor state of Sinology is traceable primarily, albeit far from exclusively, to the Cold War for two reasons:


First, Mao’s tumultuous, totalitarian rule cut off access to Chinese sources and China to Western scholars for roughly a generation and a half. This in itself, coming on the heels of almost forty years of revolution, warlordism, foreign invasion and civil war, was enough to cripple the field. Without access to in-country experience, archival sources and foreign counterparts, an academic field begins to die.  Furthermore, Mao’s tyrannical isolation of mainland China was  far more severe than the limited access for Western scholars of Russian history and journalists imposed by the Soviet Union. Josef Stalin, in contrast to Mao, was partially a great Russian chauvinist and the Soviet dictator demanded  certain aspects of Russian history, culture and the reigns of particular Tsars be celebrated alongside the Marxist pantheon . Mao’s feelings towards traditional Chinese culture were much more hostile and ideologically extreme.  Stalin’s worst abuses of Russian history in demolishing a historic Tsarist cathedral for a never-built, gigantic Soviet labyrinthe pale next to the mad vandalism of the Cultural Revolution .


Secondly, the fate of “the China hands” like John Paton Davies and the “Who Lost China” debate during McCarthyism rendered Sinology politically radioactive in America. It is true that many of the China hands like Davies combined a realistic strategic assessment of Kuomintang/Chiang Kai-shek shortcomings with politically naive or wishful thinking about Mao and the Communists, but the field was dealt a blow from which it never recovered in American universities. Davies was not a Communist or even a leftist (though some China Hands were fellow travelers) but that nuance was lost on the public  in a period that saw in swift succession Alger Hiss, the Berlin blockade, the the Fall of China, the Soviet A-Bomb, Klaus Fuchs, the Rosenbergs and the Korean War. It seemed at the time that the Roosevelt administration had been infiltrated with Soviet spies and fellow travelers (largely because it had been) and in that atmosphere of Red-baiting, Davies was subsequently scapegoated, smeared and fired.  This McCarthyite political cloud over Sinology was curiously juxtaposed with the simultaneous robust funding of studies of the USSR, Russian culture and the training of Slavic linguists in the 1950’s to 1991 by the USG. For academics, going into Sinology could become a professional dead end and carried (at least in the early fifties) an odor of disloyalty.


There are certainly other and more contemporary reasons for American  Sinology being more of an esoteric field than it deserves, to which someone else with expertise can address but all fields need to attract talent and funding and until Nixon’s “China opening”, American Sinologists struggled against the political current.

Of dualities, contradictions and the nonduality II

Tuesday, July 30th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — notes towards a pattern language of conflict and conflict resolution: bridging divides in Baghdad 2013, Netherlands 1888 and the Germanies 1961 ]

I’ll be collecting examples of “dualities and the non-dual” here, because they give us a chance to consider the pattern that underlies “conflict and conflict resolution” and much else besides. This post picks up on an earlier post on the same topic: I’ll begin with three tweets that came across my bows this last week…

First, a vivid glimpse of sectarianism in today’s Iraq:

Second: sectarianism in the Netherlands, 1888:

And last, unexpected but charming, the divided Berlin of 1961:

It’s obvious once you think about it — thought we don’t always remember, such is the mind’s propensity to distinguish, divide, and argue from just one half of the whole — that human nature embraces both conflict and conflict resolution.

On Eric Hobsbawm

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2012

I was going to comment on the death of the famed historian who was the Soviet Union’s most venerable and shameless apologist, but I was beaten to it in a brilliant piece by British blogger and fellow Chicago Boyz member, Helen Szamuely:

A great Communist crime denier dies

On my way to and from Manchester yesterday and today I read Anne Applebaum’s latest book Iron Curtain about the subjugation of Eastern Europe between 1944 and 1956. Ms Applebaum’s knowledge and understanding of the European Union is not quite what it ought to be, given that she usually appears in the guise of one of our leading political commentators but she does know the history of Communism and what it did to the countries and peoples who, for various reasons, found themselves under its rule. The first few chapters describe in some detail the brutality, violence, whole scale looting and widespread rapine that marked the Red Army’s route across Eastern and Central Europe, regardless of whether they were in enemy or friendly countries, with soldiers or civilians, men or women, adults or children, friend or foe. And then came the NKVD and the organized violence and looting. How many people know, for instance, that several of the Nazi camps, Auschwitz and Buchenwald included, were reopened by the Soviets for their own purposes? Not a few of the people they imprisoned there had been liberated only a few weeks previously.

As I was reading this horrible tale I got a text message from somebody who saw on the news that Professor Eric Hobsbawm, the best known apologist for Stalin and denier of Communist crimes, has died. We are entering a period of unrestrained mourning for this man who has on various occasions been described as the greatest living historian and one of the most influential ones. Sadly, the last part of it is true. He has been influential.

While Holocaust deniers are rightly excoriated Professor Hobsbawm has been treated in life and will be in death with the greatest adulation. Channel 4 lists some of the misguided souls who are pronouncing sorrowfully on the demise of this supposedly great man and asks rather disingenuously whether he was an apologist for tyranny.

Well, yes, as a matter of fact, he was….

Read the rest here.


Infinity Journal: The Foundation of Strategic Thinking

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2012

I first heard Lieutenant General Paul Van Riper speak at the Boyd ’07 Conference at Quantico and came away impressed. General Van Riper has a new article posted at Infinity Journal (registration required but always free….):

The Foundation of Strategic Thinking 

….While Clausewitz alludes to this nonlinearity through much of his opus On War, he speaks to it directly in Book One, Chapter 1, Section 28. This section, which hardly takes up half a page, summarizes many of the essentials of Clausewitz’s theory of war. He begins the section noting: “War is more than a true chameleon that slightly adapts its characteristics to the given case.”[vii] His use of a biological metaphor indicates war is not mechanistic and therefore not a controllable or predictable phenomenon. He then lays out the dominant tendencies of that phenomenon, which strategists often sum up as passion, probability, and reason. He mentions that most often the three tendencies are the concern of the people, army, and government.[viii] Continuing, Clausewitz makes a strong claim: “A theory that ignores anyone of them or seeks to fix an arbitrary relationship between them would conflict with reality to such an extent that for this reason alone it would be totally useless.”[ix]

In other words, to be valid any theory of war must incorporate war’s intrinsic dynamism. He goes on to say: “Our task therefore is to develop a theory that maintains a balance between these three tendencies like an object suspended between three magnets.” This analogy points to a cutting-edge scientific experiment of his era, that demonstrates the nonlinearity of any system where there is freedom of movement among three or more elements.[x] The virtual impossibility of duplicating the path of a pendulum as it moves among three equally spaced magnets tells us that despite our desire to balance passion, probability, and reason—the three central tendencies of war—it is simply not possible.[xi] War is a nonlinear phenomenon.

As with all nonlinear phenomena, we can only study war as a complete system, not as individual parts. Clausewitz is clear in this regard claiming that, “. . . in war more than in any other subject we must begin by looking at the nature of the whole; for here more than elsewhere the part and the whole must always be thought of together.”[xii] This advice runs counter to Americans’ preference for using an engineering approach to solve all problems. Reductionism tends to be part of the national character. We persist in using linear methods even when the evidence shows their limitations.

John Lewis Gaddis described the difficulties this approach has caused the U.S. national security community in a ground-breaking article questioning why political scientists failed to forecast the end of the Cold War.[xiii] His convincing conclusion is that while members of the physical and natural sciences were incorporating the tools of nonlinear science into their various disciplines those in political science were adopting classical linear practices, which blinded them to the dynamics that led to the Soviet Union’s demise. In the end, we confront the reality that as with war, international relations is nonlinear. Indeed, so also are most things that flow from it, including strategies and strategic thinking. […]

Read the rest here.

I particularly liked Van Riper’s later comment as going to some of what ails us:

….Good strategists know how nonlinear systems such as nation-states, non-state actors, international relations, politics, economics, wars, campaigns, and a host of others work in the real world. More importantly, they use this knowledge of a nonlinear world when they ponder strategic questions or recommend strategies. Good strategists don’t depend on analytical tools to uncover the future security environment or potential enemies. Rather, they look to history and economic and demographic trends to inform their judgments of what might happen in a nonlinear world.

If you look at the biographies of the men who were “present at the creation” or made the transition from World War to Cold War – Stimson, Acheson, Harriman, Marshall, Bohlen, Kennan, McCloy, Forrestal, Nitze, Eisenhower, Dulles, Lovett – they had overlaps of background in international business, diplomacy, banking, law and war. While this did not mean policy harmony – for example Acheson, Kennan, Bohlen, Harriman and Nitze had disagreements among themselves in regards to the Soviets  – they possessed a shared understanding of strategy and the historical context in which they operated.

Today, high level discussions of strategy between the military, policy and political worlds are too often exactly that – communications between different planets rather than a dialogue within one small world.

Messy Wars, Navigating Wicked Problems, and the Soul of American Foreign Policy

Monday, June 18th, 2012

Michael Few is a retired military officer and former editor of the Small Wars Journal: we are honored to offer our readers this guest post by a good friend of this blog.

This fall, I’m hoping to begin teaching high school social studies as well as an elective on Global Issues or Wicked Problems (WPs). WPs are those messy, seemingly intractable problems that seem to evade solutions from conventional planning and decision making methods — terrorism, poverty, water rights, etc… These types of courses are already being taught in the school system where I live, and my hope is that I will be able to become a force multiplier given my experience and background.

Eventually, if this elective course takes off, then I would like the final project to be a collection of TEDx talks, where the students describe a problem, discuss past failed efforts to tame the problem, and offer coping strategies or new solutions.

As I am doing my initial reconnaissance of the student demographics, the first striking data point is their age. The incoming freshman class would have been born in 1998, and the senior class born in 1995. A second surprise that I received is the socio-ethnic backgrounds. Along with the expected mix of white, black and Hispanic children, my school district has a significant first generation Indian population, whose parents teach or work in the Research Triangle Park or surrounding universities. Moreover, there is a minority of Burmese refugees who have found a safe home after fleeing a repressive regime.

How do they see and understand the world?

The attacks of 9/11 were but a faint memory; the Cold War is ancient history. Their childhoods were formed with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in the background, and their pop-culture heroes are Navy Seal Team Six and Call to Duty video games. Drone strikes and the intervention in Libya are normal for them.

It is the way things are. We fight terrorists in other countries in order to protect our way of life. But what is a terrorist or an insurgent? Is it simply someone that disagrees with you?

These students have much bigger problems to solve than simply pacifying villages in the remote areas of modernity. By 2040, when these students are in the prime of their lives, the world population is expected to be nearing nine billion with increased competition for basic resources as the world passes through peak oil and peak fresh water.

If the United States is to remain strong, then these children are our hope. They will be tasked with leading the nation, finding new solutions to coming crisis, and developing innovation in technology, science, governance, and medicine.

As I am developing my teaching philosophy, I am using the same process that served me well as a commander in the military. My purpose is to help develop, mentor, and coach: 1. leaders of character, 2.involved citizens in the nation who understand that rights must be complimented by responsibilities, and 3. the individual self-confidence to pursue a good life respecting themselves and others.

Initially, I want to challenge them to rethink what they’ve been taught or think they know. I want my students to think for themselves and determine what right should look like.

First, I began studying Reinhold Niebuhr. Now, I’m spending some time reading Saint Augustine’s “City of God” and rethinking Just War Theory. If we zoom up from just drone strikes and look at our continued military action across the globe, do we still have the moral high ground? I don’t know. As Saint Augustine wrote,

Whoever gives even moderate attention to human affairs and to our common nature, will recognize that if there is no man who does not wish to be joyful, neither is there anyone who does not wish to have peace. For even they who make war desire nothing but victory — desire, that is to say, to attain to peace with glory. For what else is victory than the conquest of those who resist us? And when this is done there is peace. It is therefore with the desire for peace that wars are waged, even by those who take pleasure in exercising their warlike nature in command and battle. And hence it is obvious that peace is the end sought for by war.

When I quoted Saint Augustine in a comment here, Mark Safranski, the Zen of Zen, replied,

The high ground is in the eye of the beholder. Some people cheered 9/11, including a few American radicals. With multiple-audiences watching 24/7, some will disapprove of our merely existing and bitterly resent and deny the legitimacy of our fighting back because they prefer us defeated and dead. Other audiences are more fair-minded and these are a good barometer – if we are winning them over, securing their admiration and isolating our opponents, our moral behavior in the big picture is apt to be reasonably on track. If we are repelling them, isolating ourselves, driving others to the side of our enemies, then chances are fairly good that we are going astray.

Zen’s point is well-taken, but I disagree. Following a moral life is not based on how others feel about you. It is through living a life that subscribes to your believed philosophy, spiritual norms, and values and beliefs particularly when you have to make an unpopular decision.

John Arquilla, in his most recent “Cool War,” said it best,

’It is well that war is so terrible,’ Confederate General Robert E. Lee once said, ‘lest we should grow too fond of it.’ For him, and generations of military leaders before and since, the carnage and other costs of war have driven a sense of reluctance to start a conflict, or even to join one already in progress.

Caution about going to war has formed a central aspect of the American public character. George Washington worried about being drawn into foreign wars through what Thomas Jefferson later called ‘entangling alliances.’ John Quincy Adams admonished Americans not to ‘go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.’ Their advice has generally been followed. Even when it came to helping thwart the adventurer-conquerors who started the twentieth century’s world wars, the United States stayed out of both from the outset, entering only when dragged into them.

Today, war has become too easy and not too terrible. With our global hegemony in military strength, we can force our will at any time and any place.

But, what is the right thing to do?

What is the moral high ground?

These are some of the questions that my students will eventually have to answer.

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