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The Chinese Strategic Tradition: A Research Program (II)

Friday, June 5th, 2015
[by T. Greer]
This post is the second in a series. It was originally published at The Scholar’s Stage on the 26th of May, 2015. I strongly recommended readers start with the first post in this series, which introduces the purpose and methods of this essay. That post focused on what is published in English on Chinese strategic thought. This post focuses on what has been written about Chinese strategic practice–that is, the military, diplomatic, and political history of China’s past. 
A map depicting the most famous military campaign in East Asian history, decided at the Battle of Red Cliffs (208 AD) in modern-day Hubei.
Source: Wikimedia

STRATEGIC PRACTICE 

In the West, the study of traditional China has been the domain of the Sinologists. For reasons that are entirely natural but also too complex and lengthy to explain here, this has meant that historians studying traditional China have focused their efforts on the history of Chinese philosophy, aesthetics, literature, and religion, as well as the closely related fields of archeology, linguistics, and philology. The much lamented decline of political, diplomatic, and military history across the American educational system had little perceivable effect here, for there was not much political, diplomatic, or military history to begin with. [1]

It should not be a surprise that many of the most important books on Chinese military and diplomatic relations have not been written by historians, but by political scientists. The interest political scientists might have in these topics is obvious, for theirs is a field devoted to the scientific and theoretical exploration of politics and international relations. The real mystery is why it took so long for political scientists to start writing about traditional East Asian international relations in the first place (most of the important books are less than a decade old). The answer to that question is not too hard to find if one looks at the books being written. The new crop of scholars writing these books hail from the international relations (IR) side of the science, and are part of a growing critique of the grand IR theories the discipline traditionally used to make sense of international affairs. [2] These theories were for the most part developed and tested in reference to traditional European great power politics.  One of the central barbs of these critiques is that we cannot know if the grand theories of generations past describe truly universal laws  or simply describe patterns unique to European history if these theories have not been tested on case studies outside of the last few hundred years of European politics. In response, scholars have searched for case studies outside of Europe with which they can test these theories or find the data needed to develop new ones entirely. East Asia, a region filled with bureaucratic states thousands of years before their development in the West, was a natural place to start.

The problem these researchers repeatedly ran into was that their fellow political scientists were not familiar enough with East Asian history to follow their arguments and there were no good primers on the topic to refer them to. So theses scholars ended up writing the historical narratives others would need to read before they could assess their theoretical arguments. Thus Victoria Tinbor Hui‘s chapter on the Warring States (453-221 BC) in War and State Formation in Ancient China and Early Modern Europe is one of the best narrative accounts of Warring States great power politics; Wang Yuan-kang‘s Harmony and War: Confucian Culture and Chinese Power Politics contains one of the only accounts of Song Dynasty (old style: Sung, 960-1279 AD) foreign relations and one of the most fluid narratives of the Ming Dynasty‘s (1368-1644) adventures abroad; and David Kang‘s East Asia Before the West: Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute has the most coherent discussion of the Chinese “tributary system” written in the last five decades. Historians have lauded these books for the amount of historical research that was poured into them [3], and I second their appraisal. As a field IR should take Asia more seriously and it should engage with historical sources more thoroughly than is common practice. However, I cannot help but lament the circumstances that pushed IR scholars to adopt these methods. Hopefully historians feel some shame over the sorry state of the field and how difficult it is for outsiders to approach their research.

One example will suffice to prove the point. I mentioned that Wang Yuan-kai’s War and Harmony has one of the few complete accounts of the Song Dynasty’s international relations. As far as scholarship goes, the amount of material devoted to this topic is middle-of-the-road: there are some periods where scholarship is more plentiful–say, the Late Ming, or the Qing (Ch’ing, 1644-1912), and there are some other periods where the scholarship is much more scarce–say, anything about the Tang (T’ang, 610-907 AD) or Han (206 BC-220 AD) dynasties. It is an interesting period to work with, for it is one of the few times in Chinese history when China was faced with external enemies whose military power was undeniably stronger than her own. It was the time of some of the most famous military figures and most horrible military disasters in Chinese history.  It also saw some of the most historically influential debates about how to manage civil-military relations and the relationship between economic prosperity and military power. (more…)

T. Greer on Ibn Khaldun’s Asabiyah

Tuesday, May 5th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

T. Greer of Scholar’s Stage has an exemplary post comparing the philosophy of English social contract theorist Thomas Hobbes with medieval Arab historian Ibn Khaldun, who described a critical component of a functional polity – asabiyah.  You should read Greer’s post in its entirety, but here is the take away as far as strategy is concerned:

….Asabiyah, then, amounts to the feeling among those dying that they are dying for their own. As soon as they begin to feel that they are not dying for their own, but are dying for the king, or for someone else’s clan, or for some obscure institution that is not them — well, that is when asabiyah is gone and the kingdom is in danger. Civilized life shrinks the asabiyah that once united people of different lineages, tribes, and occupations until the people of a kingdom only feel a sense of loyalty to themselves, of if you are lucky, those in their immediate neighborhood or caste. But at this point the feeling they have is not reallyasabiyah at all, but the narrow self interest Hobbes would appreciate. This leaves the kingdom open to attack from the next round of nomadic tribesmen united by charismatic leaders into one indivisible asabiyah driven force. 

Although it was not his intent, I think Ibn Khaldun here answers another puzzle apparent to the careful observer of human affairs. It has oft been held that a strong enemy unites a divided people. When faced with with a foe that threatens liberty and the integrity of the realm, private disagreements ought to be put aside until victory has been declared. But it is not apparent that history actually works this way. If one must compare the rising and declining eras of history’s great empires–here I think of the Romans, the Abbasids, the Ming, the great empires of Castille and the Hapsburgs, or the Russian Empire of Tsarist fame (no doubt other examples can be found with if more thought were put to the question)–it does not seem the enemies they faced in their early days were any less powerful or cunning than the enemies that pushed them to extinction. The difference was in the empires themselves; where the wars of their birth forged nations strong and martial, the wars of their decline only opened and made raw violent internal divisions. Even destruction cannot unite a people who have lost all feeling of asabiyah. 

Ibn Khaldun believed that asabiyah declined over time. He used the analogy of the transition from fierce desert life of equality, mutual glory and conquest to the effeminacy of sedentary decadence and servility of luxurious despotism and the fall of the dynasty in four generations to explain the effect of a decayed asabiyah. Greer continues:

The concept of asabiyah is applied most easily to the distant past. One cannot read histories of the early Islamic conquests and the slow hardening of state authority in Umayyad and Abbasid times without seeing Ibn Khaldun’s cycles within it. I have alluded to many examples of these same themes in East and Central Asian history, for I have found that his theories map well to state-formation among pastoral nomads across the world, including those places Ibn Khaldun had barely heard of. Indeed, Ibn Khaldun’s “independent science” can be applied to almost any pre-modern society or conflict without undue violence to his ideas. I recently wrote that in the pre-modern world, “internal cohesion and loyalty were often the deciding factor in the vast majority of military campaigns” [23]. Ibn Khaldun provides a convincing explanation for where such cohesion came from and why it so often failed when kings and princes needed it most dearly.

There are several reasons why it is difficult to see the hand of asabiyah in the rise and decline of modern great powers. Military science has progressed in the centuries since Ibn Khaldun wrote the Muqaddimah; the drills and training seen in the militaries of our day are capable of creating a strong sense of solidarity and cohesion even when such feelings are absent in the populace at large. In that populace the nationalist fervor that accompanies mass politics has eclipsed (or perhaps, if we take asabiyah as the nucleus of nationalist feeling, perfected) asabiyah as the moving force of modern conflict. This sort of nationalism, dependent as it is on mass media and technologies unknown to Ibn Khaldun,  has a dynamic of its own that he could not have foreseen.

The most important difference between Ibn Khaldun’s world and our own, however, concern the fundamental structure of the societies in which we live. Ibn Khaldun’s was a static age where wealth was easier to seize than make. This is not the case today. For the past two centuries military power has been intertwined with economic growth and industrial capacity. No more can poor ‘Bedouins’ living beyond the pale of civilized society dethrone kings and reshape empires. In the more developed nations of the earth there is so little fear of war that both asabiyah and nationalism are sloughed off with few misgivings. 

 Despite all these differences, Ibn Khaldun did articulate principles that remain relevant despite their age.  The first and most important of these is that social cohesion should be understood as a vital element of national power. Wars are rarely won and strategies rarely made without it. A nation need not be engaged in existential conflict to benefit from strong asabiyah. Absent solidarity, internal controversies absorb the attention of statesmen and internal divisions derail all attempts to craft coherent policy. Strategic malaise is one byproduct of a community deficient in asabiyah. 

Agreed.  In particular, it is difficult for foreigners to provide another society with an asabiyah that it lacks in order to fight and win counterinsurgency wars. You go to war with the asabiyah that you have and that has been a problem for Americans in places like South Vietnam and Afghanistan.

I’m not sure though that it is impossible to regenerate decaying or dying asabiyah if it can be built upon new myths that are harmonious with old ones, disguising innovations as fidelity to cherished values. The Meiji Restoration is the classic successful example of national revolution being presented as a reactionary movement to return to tradition, toppling the worn-out Shogunate and”restoring” a High Priest- Emperor whose ceremonial figurehead predecessors had not ruled Japan in eight hundred years, if ever at all.  There are also darker historical examples and we are seeing one play out now in the Mideast in the form of the ISIS “Caliphate”.

This kind of attempt to breathe new life into an eroding asabiyah operates at the moral level above strategy that John Boyd termed a “Theme of Vitality and Growth” and it can unlock atavistic passions and be extremely attractive. Simultaneously creative and destructive, society is suddenly remade – not as a plowshare, but as a sword in a strong hand.

Rofer on The Fall of Beria and Putin’s Vanishing Act

Thursday, March 19th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

Lavrenty Beria (center) 

Russian President and brazen strongman Vladimir Putin reappeared Monday, looking wan and a little uncomfortable for the cameras, but jesting at the mad swirl of internet rumors sparked by his extended absence from public view. One of the rumors, which may have been true, was that Putin was engaged in a power struggle with his own siloviki inner circle unhappy with Western sanctions placed on Russia.  Many commentators could not help but recall similar incidents from the Soviet past and friend of ZP, Cheryl Rofer had an excellent post featuring one of the most sinister figures in Russian history, Stalin’s fearsome secret police chief, NKVD boss, Lavrenty Beria:

A Soviet Coup – The Fall of Lavrenty Beria 

….As Putin moves toward more authoritarian rule, we can expect to hear rumors whenever he goes out of sight for more than a couple of days. Both wishful thinking and the real possibility that some in his government are unhappy with his actions will continue to mix in the question of a coup. And anyone over 60 years of age is a candidate for sudden death or stroke.

Boris Nemtsov’s death, among other things, may have caused concern among various members of Russia’s elite that they are vulnerable or may have set off a fight between the FSB and Chechen politicians and security services. Nemtsov was one of Boris Yeltsin’s potential successors, along with Putin in the late 1990s. Putin has not been kind to his political rivals, but Nemtsov is the first to be murdered. And it is not clear who murdered him; the FSB and Chechen authorities are seriously arguing about this. Fear of being killed, however, is a powerful motivator toward a coup.

The situation more and more resembles the undertainties of the Soviet Union as Putin consolidates power. Succession in the Soviet Union was a vexed question, but is nominally by popular election in post-Soviet Russia, not yet fully normalized. Putin has played fast and loose with elections, first as Yeltsin’s handpicked successor and later with his tradeoff with Dmitry Medvedev as Prime Minister and President.

If Putin were seriously ill or dead, or if a coup seized power, we would not hear about it immediately. Nobody in the Russian government takes stability for granted – instability is one of Putin’s great fears – so those in power would want to project continuity, that nothing is wrong, until the change can be introduced smoothly.

In today’s world of social media and a somewhat more open Russia, suppressing that kind of news will be more difficult to do than after Stalin’s stroke, but, given all that we do not know about the Kremlin’s current activities, suppressing that information for at least a week or two seems entirely possible.

Stalin succeeded Lenin, with some question as to Lenin’s intentions, in the 1920s. He then set about consolidating his power and eliminating rivals. Stalin died of a stroke in March 1953. What happened next got complicated. This description is condensed from Mark Kramer’s “Leadership Succession and Political Violence in the USSR Following Stalin’s Death,”Chapter 4 in Political Violence: Belief, Behavior and Legitimation, Paul Hollander, ed., New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

As is the case in Putin’s Russia, no single person was obviously Stalin’s successor. A group of high-ranking men took over immediately after his death in what they called “collective leadership,” within which an extreme power struggle took place. Lavrenty Beria was one of those men. He had been Stalin’s hit man and thus perceived by the others as the most dangerous. His removal suggests how a coup might take place against Putin.

Cheryl nails a key problem of stability in Putin’s post-Soviet Russia.

Like the USSR, there is no accepted de jure process for removing an incapable or dangerous ruler other than natural causes. unlike the old Soviet Union, Putin’s Russia is a hollowed out state. The USSR had a Politburo, Presidium and a Central Committee – an intact senior leadership cadre on standby in case a General-secretary were to die. The succession structure around Putin is sketchy at best and thus while the regime is outwardly strong, in reality this vulnerability renders it dangerously fragile – too much so for the Earth’s other nuclear superpower state.

….Stalin suffered a stroke on March 2 and died on March 5. His death was publicly announced on March 7. Even before the stroke, potential successors began maneuvering. By March 3, they agreed on the immediate post-Stalin government: Georgii Malenkov would be head of government, with Vyacheslav Molotov as foreign minister, and Beria in charge of state security. Ten of Stalin’s favorites were added to the Communist Party Presidium, including Nikita Khrushchev. Malenkov, Beria, and Khrushchev were designated to oversee Stalin’s documents and personal papers. All this was approved by the Communist Party’s high officials.

The men had had close calls with Stalin’s purges and understood well that their positions were precarious, surrounded by rivals. The CPSU presidium rapidly adopted reforms after Stalin’s death that would make such purges less likely in the future. Malenkov delivered a speech to the Presidium in April 1953 denouncing the cult of personality without criticizing Stalin directly. Beria moved to reform the police and gulag system. Forced Russification in Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic states would cease. As often happens when rigid governments relax, however, social unrest increased.

Khrushchev early on, with Beria’s help, managed to oust Malenkov from the Presidium, arguing that Malenkov’s other positions were incompatible. By June, however, he had allied with Malenkov to remove Beria. They added the support of other Presidium members. They did not tell all their colleagues, however, that they planned not only to remove Beria, but also to arrest him. Beria was the most distrusted of the group, and the others were willing to see him demoted, although not all were likely to agree with his arrest. His access to Stalin’s files and his previous position meant that he had compromising information about them that could be used to bring them down. Beria was very active in other areas immediately after Stalin’s death, raising suspicions that he aspired to the top position. He replaced the top people in the MVD, the central security organization of the time, with people loyal to him.

The events of 1952-19533 are among the most murky and controversial in Soviet history and may never be fully known.

Stalin, who may have been already suffering from vascular dementia (thus aggravating his already paranoid suspicion) before his fatal stroke, was as most historians agree, preparing a new purge.  The scale of this purge is still under debate, but Stalin had already been promoting an anti-semitic campaign against “rootless cosmopolitans” since circa 1948, when he had Molotov’s wife (who was Jewish) arrested for “treason”.  Stalin cunningly separated Beria from his day-to-day control over the security services and for good measure, also arrested Beria’s longtime rival, Abukumov, replacing him with more pliant figures. Stalin began distancing himself from his henchmen (“the Oligarchs” in Adam Ulam’s phrase) longtime cronies like Voroshilov and Poskrebyshev were sent into a disgraced semi-retirement. Formal meetings of the politburo became rare events while the presidium was enlarged with new faces while Stalin cooked up “the Leningrad affair” to end the careers and lives of some of the Party’s rising stars and “the Mingrelian Affair” to put pressure on “the Big Mingrel” himself, Lavrenty Beria.

When the “Doctor’s Plot of Kremlin doctor assassins was abruptly “uncovered” by Stalin’s pathetic puppet Ryumin, it would have been very hard for senior nomenklatura to avoid seeing the terrible danger that they all found themselves. Most of the unfortunate doctors who aere arrested by the MGB and lavishly tortured had conspicuously Jewish names. They were accused of planning to kill Comrade Stalin and having killed Zhadanov and this was all too reminiscent of the Kirov case that launched the Great Terror.

Some scholars, like Arkady Vaksberg and Edvard Radzinsky think Stalin, who had grown more intensely anti-semitic in his old age, had intended a grand pogrom of Soviet Jewry, finishing off what Hitler had begun. Walter Lefeber saw Stalin’s machinations as contest of wills between Stalin and  Malenkov over the danger of  a Cold War “capitalist encirclement” and the need to prepare in a hurry for WWIII with America. Most historians, regardless of ideological stripe, agree something quite terrible was in the offing.

Then, after ominously threatening all of his inner circle at a late night drinking session at his dacha, the dictator had a massive stroke during the night and within two days, Stalin died. Perhaps with some help from Beria.

…..A sudden rebellion in East Germany was crushed by Soviet troops on June 17, 1953, causing the plot against Beria to be put on hold temporarily. Because Beria controlled all the internal security forces, the plotters had to use the military to arrest him. General Kirill Moskalenko, the commander of the Moscow Air Defense Region, was willing to cooperate. A total of ten military men were enlisted into the plot.

A meeting of the Presidium was scheduled for June 26. The military men were to remain concealed in the cars behind darkened windows and then enter the building through a side door left open by aides to Malenkov and Khrushchev after Malenkov transmitted an electronic signal to his chief aide who would be stationed outside the chamber where the Presidium was meeting.

Beria, as usual, arrived just before the meeting was to start. Malenkov changed the agenda to focus specifically on Beria’s activities. This was a complete surprise to Beria. Malenkov laid out Beria’s “misdeeds” and  alleged that Beria had been seeking to displace the collective leadership and to foment discord among Presidium members. He then proposed a number of possible remedies, all of which included removing Beria from the posts he held. He invited the other members of the Presidium to join in enumerating Beria’s “mistakes,” which they did. This put them on record as supporting Beria’s removal.

As Malenkov summed up the accusations, he pressed the button to alert the military, who marched into the room. He then declared that Beria “is so cunning and so dangerous that only the devil knows what he might do now. I therefore propose that we arrest him immediately.” Moskalenko brought out their guns and arrested and searched Beria.

The first public indication that something had happened to Beria was on June 28, when his name was omitted from a list of Presidium members who had attended the Bolshoi Ballet the previous evening. His arrest was announced on July 10. After a closed trial on December 10, Beria was executed on December 23. 

It is important to recall the degree to which Lavrenty Beria was dreaded and loathed by Stalin’s other associates. These were hard men, fanatical Communists, soaked in the blood of innocents up to their elbows; but the blood on Beria went right up to his chin.

Unlike the previous Soviet secret police chiefs under Stalin’s control such as the ailing Menzhinsky, the sycophantic poisoner Yagoda or the insanely murderous dwarf Yezhovwho all served short periods of time before being discarded or dying, Beria was far more than a torturer, spy or policeman to Stalin. An energetic, intelligent administrative wizard with his own power base in Transcaucasia where he reigned supreme, Beria, who Stalin called “his Himmler”, was the Oppenheimer and Groves of the Soviet atomic bomb and (like Kaganovich) Stalin’s all purpose trouble-shooter. This was the key to Beria’s long tenure. While he did not relish personally administering torture as Abakumov did, Beria did not shrink from beating recalcitrant prisoners senseless in his luxurious office. In his hours of rest and amusement, Beria was a habitual rapist and pedophile (his own wife was originally one of his victims) and an enthusiastic practitioner of vendettas. It may be surmised from Beria’s dogged retention of high positions that even Stalin himself was cautious in how he moved against his fellow Georgian protege. As senior Soviet historian General Dmitri Volkogonov wrote “All of the other members of the Politburo, including Malenkov, were afraid of this monster”.

Cheryl concludes:

This is how a coup against Putin might go: the plot is set up in extreme secrecy. Kramer notes that the ability to keep the 1953 plot secret among so many actors was remarkable. Everyone recognized the high stakes and secrecy was normal. Those circumstances would not be too different today. The confrontation would be different, but likely in a meeting that allowed the plotters to outnumber Putin. Today’s Russia no longer requires the cumbersome Soviet methods of accusation and appearance of legality.

There isn’t enough information available to speculate who might lead a coup. It could come from a more moderate faction who believe that Putin is damaging Russia with his war against Ukraine, or from a more nationalist faction who want stronger action against Ukraine and other targets. Or there may be other, less obvious motivations.

To strike the King, it must be a killing blow. Khrushchev knew that it would not be only his head on the block if he failed – Beria would torture his whole family to death or exile his children to the Kolyma or the Arctic circle to die slowly.

The Siloviki around Putin would have to roll the same iron dice.

Contextualizing the beheading of Coptic Christians in Libya

Monday, February 16th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — in real estate it’s location, location, location — in thought space it’s context, context, context ]
.

Timothy Furnish offers us context for the newly released video of Islamic State beheadings of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians (screencap in upper panel, below) with two striking images of precedents, one of which I have reproduced in part (lower panel), illustrating how the Ottomans beheaded tens of thousands of Georgian Christians:

SPEC DQ christians beheaded

Furnish’s post is titled ISIS Beheadings: Hotwiring the Apocalypse One Christian Martyr At A Time.

**

I am saddened to say that this is indeed part of the history of Islamic relations with Christianity.

I am happy to add, however, that it is not the whole story. In the upper panel, below, you see Muslim and Christian at a very different form of battle, as found in the Book of Games, Chess, dice and boards, 1282, in the library of the monastery of San Lorenzo del Escorial:

SPEC DQ chess and krishna

Religious tolerance in Islam is illustrated as found today in India, in this picture of a Muslim mother in full niqab taking her son, dressed as the Hindu deity Krishna, to a festival — very probably the Janmashtami or birthday celebration of the child-god (lower panel, above).

**

It will be interesting to see how President Sisi repsonds to this murderous IS attack on Egyptian citizens.

Adding to the Bookpile

Sunday, February 9th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]
  

Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor / Hiroshima / 9-11 / Iraq by John Dower 

Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, 1934-1941 by William Shirer

Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II by Michael Burleigh 

Picked up a few more books for the antilibrary.

Dower is best known for his prizewinning Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, which unfortunately, I have never read.  Berlin Diaries I have previously skimmed through for research purposes but I did not own a copy. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany was an immensely bestselling book which nearly everyone interested in WWII reads at some point in time. I would put in a good word for Shirer’s lesser known The Collapse of the Third Republic: An Inquiry into the Fall of France in 1940 . It was a very readable introduction to the deep political schisms of France during the interwar and Vichy years which ( as I am not focused on French history) later made reading Ian Ousby’s Occupation: The Ordeal of France 1940-1944 more profitable.

I am a fan of the vigorous prose of British historian Michael Burleigh, having previously reviewed  Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism here and can give a strong recommendation for his The Third Reich: A New History.  Burleigh here is tackling moral choices in war and also conflict at what Colonel John Boyd termed “the moral level of war” in a scenario containing the greatest moral extremes in human history, the Second World War.

The more I try to read, the further behind I fall!


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