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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.

Guest Post: Cheryl Rofer – I Hope the Government Doesn’t Listen to Nathan Myhrvold

Monday, September 23rd, 2013

Cheryl Rofer, scientist, WMD expert and founder of Nuclear Diner.com and long-time friend of ZP blog, will be cross-posting here today regarding the report “Strategic Terrorism: A Call to Action” by Microsoft billionaire, venture capitalist, theoretical mathematician and cookbook author, Dr. Nathan Myhrvold

I Hope The Government Doesn’t Listen to Nathan Myhrvold

by Cheryl Rofer

Shane Harris at Foreign Policy tells us that Nathan Myhrvold, fresh off introducing the world to liquid nitrogen and other expensive innovations for cookery, is now going to straighten out the US government on terrorism. He has produced a thirty-three page paper that he is shopping around Washington to help the government get things right.

Except that Myhrvold does not understand the definition of a threat: intent + capability. And he gets a lot of things wrong.

He has a lot to say about what he calls, and barely defines, “strategic terrorism.” This is apparently intended to be parallel to the strategic nuclear threats of the Cold War. But during the Cold War, both the United States and Russia had nuclear weapons aimed at each other. They still do. The terrorists that Myhrvold discusses do not have weapons that can kill millions of Americans, which seems to be central to “strategic terrorism.” It’s not even clear that they have intent, but, for the sake of argument, let’s assume they do. That is only half a threat.

Could they get that capability? Myhrvold is convinced they can, but he offers little in the way of evidence, and some of that is incorrect. Further, he confuses possibility with actuality throughout the paper, slipping easily from might to could to can.

Let’s get the biggest factual error out of the way first. On page 5, Myhrvold says:

The collapse of the Soviet Union has also greatly aided the dispersal of nuclear knowledge and potentially even complete weapons.

Note that potentially. again on page 10:

Today, tremendously lethal technology is available on the cheap. Anyone—even a stateless group—can have the deadliest weapons on earth. Several trends led to this inflection point. One is nuclear proliferation, which in recent years reached a tipping point at which access to nuclear weapons became impossible to control or limit in any absolute way. The collapse of the Soviet Union scattered ex-Soviet weapons across many poorly governed and policed states, and from there, the weapons may spread further into the hands of terrorists. At the same time, the set of ragtag countries that have developed homegrown nuclear devices is large and growing. The entrance to the nuclear-weapons club, once limited to a small number of sophisticated and stable countries, is now far more open.

Myhrvold is simply wrong that “The collapse of the Soviet Union scattered ex-Soviet weapons across many poorly governed and policed states.” He may have heard that when the Soviet Union split into fifteen separate states in December 1991, four of them had nuclear weapons: Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus. This was a consequence of Soviet basing policy and the rapidity with which the Soviet Union fell apart. Kazakhstan decided it didn’t want to be a nuclear power and sent its missiles back to Russia. It took a bit more persuasion to convince Belarus and Ukraine, but they sent theirs back too. Twenty-two years after the breakup, there is no evidence that any Soviet nuclear weapons are outside Russia.

And the “large and growing” number of “ragtag countries” that “have developed homegrown nuclear devices”? Well, let’s count them. Outside the five nuclear weapons countries enumerated in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, India, Israel, and Pakistan that are known to have significant numbers of nuclear weapons. North Korea has tested three nuclear devices; whether they have weaponized any is not known. And, despite Iran’s insistence that it is not developing nuclear weapons, some people believe that is the case. That’s all I can think of. Nine is not a large number, nor is it growing particularly rapidly. I’ll leave it to Myhrvold to tell us which of those countries are “ragtag.”

So his assumption that nuclear weapons are easily available to terrorist organizations fails. I’m not as closely acquainted with the issues of biological weapons, but if Myhrvold’s arguments there are equivalent to the ones on nuclear weapons, I’m not worried. Likewise, he cites only one example, Aum Shinrikyo, for the terrorist use of chemical weapons, but there have been no incidents since. And he uses his expansionary sense of capability: If they had been able to disperse the sarin more effectively, more people would have died. But they didn’t; these weapons are difficult to make effective, and small groups, even with expertise, have shown themselves not up to the capability of states.

It’s worth going back to that paragraph from page ten to examine Myhrvold’s rhetorical methods, which persist throughout the paper. The first two sentences are sensational assertions with no specific content. And it is an inflection point – everything has changed! This is a common trope for computer guys, and the rest of us are on to it. Again, no specifics. Then the “facts,” which turn out to be wrong and unsupported. And then the sensational conclusion that the first two sentences told us we would come to.

He provides a number of old chestnuts, again with no support. Many of them have been shown to be doubtful.

  • Terrorists have no home address; therefore retaliation and deterrence are difficult or impossible.
  • “If a nation-state really wants to hurt the United states, why risk reprisal? Why not inflict damage by giving encouragement, resources, and direction to a group such as al Qaeda?”
  • “The quickest path to power for a ruthless and ambitious 21st-century man in many parts of the world is now to lead a stateless terror group.”
  • “The bully pulpit afforded by modern communications has allowed what once would have been isolated fringe groups to knit together into formidable adversaries against the most powerful nations on earth.”

He conflates all terror groups with al-Qaeda and almost asserts that their single goal is to build a caliphate. I say “almost” because throughout the paper, he implies or states pseudo-conclusions loosely connected to earlier statements, not quite willing to own his implications. However, since he includes them, one might assume that they represent his thinking. This method of presentation, however, leaves him ample room to say “I didn’t say that.”

He defines (or, in his loose way, almost defines) tactical and strategic terrorism, presumably attempting a parallel with tactical and strategic nuclear weapons. Tactical terrorism – the shooting up of shopping malls and bombing of marathons – can be handled by normal means of law enforcement. Strategic terrorism – which seems to mean actions that can kill millions of Americans – needs Myhrvold’s advice.

The parallel, however, doesn’t work, because strategic nuclear weapons exist, but the capability for a terrorist group to kill millions of Americans doesn’t and isn’t likely to for some time, if ever.

But let’s consider Myhrvold’s advice. It is to centralize and highly fund (ah, now we see why he’s getting an audience in Washington) an organization with a single executive to prevent strategic terrorism.

Business knows best, he says, and this is how business does it. But, whatever the virtues, this has been tried before. Any number of politicians and lobbyists have advocated a special agency with an executive focused like a laser on their preferred goals. Sometimes the agency is formed. It would be helpful if Myhrvold would list the successful examples.

The government is doing many of the things that Myhrvold advocates; he seems not to have researched what is being done and what is not. And some of his (almost) suggestions are scary: we must reconsider whether the dangers from the Bill of Rights outweigh the benefits. Not even that explicitly, his goals of preventing strategic terrorism imply a great deal of surveillance, probably a lot more than the NSA is now being accused of.

Harris says that Myhrvold is talking to people in federal agencies concerned with terrorism, although Myhrvold is shy about saying whom. There are always a few people in federal agencies who are impressed by a Big Name with Big Money. Perhaps they just wanted him to sign their copy of his cookbook. And perhaps some see an opportunity to use Myhrvold’s recommendations to enhance their agency’s budget or reach.

But it’s the sameold sameold: be very afraid, the terrorists are coming to get you! The country seems to be moving past that after twelve long years.

Two Readings, and If You Read It, Why Not Review It?

Thursday, May 23rd, 2013

[by J. Scott Shipman]

One Hundred Days, The Memoirs of the Falklands Battle Group Commander, Admiral Sandy Woodward

For professional reasons, many trusted colleagues have recommended One Hundred Days, and I finally finished it a few weeks ago. They reminded me the Falklands War “was the first modern anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) war, pitting a joint expeditionary force against a regional power with modern land, air, and sea capabilities.” [sourced from Proceedings magazine, May 2012, by Commander Jim Griffin, U.S. Navy—strongly recommended] In other words, the scrap in the South Atlantic in 1982 was the last time a “modern” expeditionary force faced a credible adversary with modern capabilities. 

Admiral Woodward reminds that no one expected Argentina to invade the Falklands, and even if they did, no one expected the UK to respond with force (even the Royal Navy (RN) was surprised, and many had to find the islands on a map). Woodward departed with the two remaining UK carriers, the Hermes and Invincible which were already on the chopping block due to budget problems (sound familiar?). Fighting was such a distant memory for the RN, having not engaged in significant action since WWII, and Woodward recounts that many of his men had difficulty making the transition from “a sea-going job” to fighting, and possibly dying. I wondered as I read if the U.S. Navy has prepared/is prepared for this transition; and truly both officer and rates proved susceptible. The personal nature of Woodward’s account was bit of a surprise, but provides valued insight into the challenges and frequent frustrations faced by naval leaders.

Commander Griffin’s account in Proceedings referenced above has a very good list of lessons learned, and a few observations and questions are added for consideration:

  1. Naval warfare is war of attrition. Attrition can occur as a result of sinking or disabling an opponent. In the case of the Brits, many of their ships sustained non-fatal hits that, for practical purposes, removed the ship from any offensive or defensive action. Many of our enemies, while not sophisticated, understand and plan accordingly. As a result numbers are important; numbers of ships and weapons.
  2. In the age of the missile, response times were/are measured in seconds, so ships and aircraft will be lost…often, quickly.
  3. Are our systems susceptible to electro-magnetic interference (EMI)? 
  4. Could our ships navigate or fight without GPS or other satellite-dependent technologies?
  5. Can sailors onboard fix systems when they break (and they will break, see #6 below)? One RN ship had a contractor embarked who made the difference, which was blind luck. Over the last 20 years, the USN has tended towards “operators” over technicians.
  6. “Murphy” is alive and well. When things can fail (including technologies), they will, at the worst possible time.
  7. Is the theater commander in command? In the Falklands, Woodward had command of ships, but not submarines—which hampered the effectiveness of his battle group.
  8. Ship preservation (preventive maintenance) is often paid for in battle. At least two RN ships were unable to use weapons because of salt corrosion rendering missile hatches inoperable. This is engineering problem, too, to be sure, but also an example of how preventive maintenance can pay-off when it counts.
  9. Damage control training for all-hands; rigorous and often. RN sailors did a masterful job of saving several of their wounded ships.
  10. Anti-missile capabilities on logistic/support ships.
  11. Homefront politics and posturing provides fog in war as does the enemy. One curse of modern communications; having the White House Situation Room second-guessing/micromanaging the war.
  12. The press is often not your friend. On a couple of occasions, the BBC broadcast orders of battle and goals, and the Argentineans planned and acted accordingly.
  13. The motto of Captain John Coward, RN, of HMS Brilliant, “The essence of war is violence. Moderation in war is imbecility.”

Woodward’s book is the clearest account we have of naval warfare in the missile age. If it is not already, One Hundred Days should be required reading for every naval officer. Strongest recommendation.

National Security Dilemmas, Challenges & Opportunities, Colin S. Gray

Colin Gray is no stranger to the readers of Zenpundit. I read this title over the Christmas break, and have returned to review with some frequency. In fact, my copy is so littered with underlining and marginalia, these periodic “reviews” can take a couple of hours. As the title suggests, Gray outlines the challenges and opportunities facing policymakers, and in so doing provides an accurate glimpse of our current state of political-military affairs. He encourages policymakers to reacquaint themselves with the importance of the concept of victory, and on how to successfully navigate a transition of our military from our previous focus of regular warfare to the realities introduced by enemies using irregular methods. Gray discusses “revolutions in military affairs (RMA)” and deterrence and the implications of both in our thinking and planning. Gray’s concluding section on preemption and preventative war is exceptionally well-presented.

For example, Gray’s section on Achieving Decisive Victory includes:

  1. Better armies tend to win.
  2. No magic formula for victory.
  3. Technology is not a panacea.
  4. The complexity of strategy and war is the mother of invention.
  5. Know your enemies.

This book is imminently quotable, so I’ll share a few with my highest recommendation.

The idea that strategy has an essence is deeply attractive. Strategy sounds incredibly rare and valuable, like something that could be bottled and sold. Unfortunately, American understanding of and sound practice in strategy is desperately rare. Strategic thinking and behavior are endangered activities in the United States. This is hardly a stunningly original insight. However, familiar though the criticism should be, it loses none of its bite for reason of longevity. Much as the U.S. defense community periodically is prodded by irregularist anxiety to worry about insurgency and terrorism, so from time to time it remembers the value of strategy. Though American defense professionals do not know what strategy is or how it works, they know that it is a matter of grave importance. The pattern has been one wherein a politician or a senior official with a personal interest has lit the fire of genuinely strategic discussion. The fire briefly flare brightly but then dies away for want of fuel. The fire is not fed, because there is not much demand for the heat and light of truly strategic argument in the United States. Although America is not quite a strategy-free environment, such a characterization would err in the right direction. (page 169 of paperback edition)

Since, inter alia, warfare is a competition in learning between imperfect military machines, fortunately one need only be good enough. (page 178; this is a personal favorite of mine)

There needs to be a continuous, albeit “unequal,” dialogue between civilian and soldier. War and warfare are permeated with political meaning, and consequences. A competent supreme command knows this and behaves accordingly. However, this relationship carries implications for civilian participation in military decisions in wartime that run contrary to the traditional American way in civil-military relations. If the strict instrumentality of force is not to be neglected, there has to be a constant dialogue between policymaker and soldier. Policy is a nonsense if the troops cannot perform “in the field,” while the troops may be so effective in action that policy is left gasping far behind unexpected opportunities by events. (page 179, emphasis added)

Gray’s National Security Dilemmas is a must read for policymakers and practitioners. [btw: it has been my custom to provide selected referenced works in book reviews. Gray’s bibliography is so excellent and comprehensive, I could not make a list that would do it justice.]

That said, I’ll close with more questions, and an apology: Does anyone read anymore? I’m rereading Manchester’s classic American Caesar after an absence of 30+ years, and I’d forgotten how much time both MacArthur the Elder and MacArthur the Younger (Douglas) spent reading. That said, how often do we see military leaders review the books they recommend? A reading list is one thing, explaining why the book made the cut another. With blogs, the internet, and social media, there are no barriers to entry. Recommendation to senior officers, including the General Officers and Flag Officers who post required reading lists: let your folks know why, write it down, explain it—the exercise will do you good, and give your subordinates insights into your thinking.

Now for the apology: there are four of us here at Zenpundit, but I’ve been the anchor man. This is my first post in too long, and I apologize to my colleagues and you, the reader. I’ve been on a tear reading naval stuff, mostly associated with my business endeavors. That said, I’ll endeavor to eat my own cooking and review what I read/have read with greater frequency.

Red lines and the credibility arms race

Friday, April 26th, 2013

[The views and opinions expressed here are solely the responsibility of Lynn C. Rees. They may not necessarily reflect the official views or opinions of Zenpundit] 

To deter, Barack Obama has publicly drawn a red line between tolerable and intolerable. We now watch to see and (perhaps) learn if open signaling of red lines has deterrent effect.

Open red lines intended to stave off the intolerable without ending in blows are as ancient as territorial instinct. Red frequents coloration of animals who’ve evolved warning signals embedded in their anatomy. Lines, though marked more by scent or suggested by signal, are also abundant among Man and nature.

“Bear”, my brother’s late Shar-Pei, vociferously defended my brother’s chain-linked fence line. All his toing and froing facing down suspicious pedestrians even wore a second line into the front lawn that paralleled the fence. His vigorous bark emerged from wolven ancestors to draw lines red in tooth and claw in wolven mind so it didn’t come to lines red in tooth and claw in wolven reality. 

But, if bluffs are called and barks prove to have more volume than bite, a red line will prove only as substantial as the bite and fight beyond it. If warning is not credibly conveyed and things fall apart, nothing may remain except bite and fight.

Bear’s bark proved a poor red line. While it sounded loud and formidable, when you opened the front gate and entered the yard, Bear would casually mosey up, sniff you, and promptly return to the barking line. Shar Peis are renowned for even-tempers. Bred as guard dogs in China, they often had to be brutalized or drugged into fight and bite. Bear was neither brutalized nor drugged so he lacked credible fierceness.

There is no certain calculus in drawing red lines. My calculus teacher wisely taught that variables have only one invariable certainty: they tend to vary. Man is not only variable, he is contrary. His contrariness not only votes present, it votes with real impact. If it were otherwise, you’d have a sort of Clausewitzian “red line by algebra: tally up one side of a red line in one column and tally the other side in another column. Then, when clearly displayed in public, those on either side would be forced to agree on how substantial the red line was and openly acknowledge its deterrent psychology.

Politics, the division of power, varies most in the intensity in which its division of power escalates confrontation toward violence. Some political contestants’ escalation is too hot. Others’ escalation is too cold. For others, their escalation will be just right. Some draw red lines and aggressively escalate political intensity based on broken red line theory: one small crack in your red line, like someone publicly urinating on it, means the entire red line will be stripped down to its bare chassis overnight if small infractions aren’t predictably and promptly punished. Others use them to draw folks along, perhaps as bait, perhaps as stalling tactics, while they do something else somewhere else. Some red lines are implicitly understood by all as being for entertainment purposes only.

Unfortunately, we’re armed with only a few rules of thumb to guide us in drawing and escalating red lining, most centered on creating intrinsic credibility:

  • …every power ought to be commensurate with its object…
  • …the means ought to be proportioned to the end…
  • …there ought to be no limitation of a power destined to effect a purpose, which is itself incapable of limitation…
  • A government ought to contain in itself every power requisite to the full accomplishment of the objects committed to its care, and to the complete execution of the trusts for which it is responsible, free from every other control but a regard to the public good and to the sense of the people.
  • As the duties of superintending the national defense and of securing the public peace against foreign or domestic violence involve a provision for casualties and dangers to which no possible limits can be assigned, the power of making that provision ought to know no other bounds than the exigencies of the nation and the resources of the community.
  • As revenue is the essential engine by which the means of answering the national exigencies must be procured, the power of procuring that article in its full extent must necessarily be comprehended in that of providing for those exigencies.
Beyond that, it’s a matter of converting intrinsic credibility into fully mobilizable and then field-deployable credibility. Angelo M. Codevilla writes:

John Quincy Adams, a student as well as a practitioner of statesmanship, believed that governments understand their own and others’ interests quite well. His involvement in diplomacy, which lasted from 1778 to the end of his presidency in 1829, convinced him not that negotiations are superfluous, but rather that they ratify the several parties’ recognition of existing realities regardless of agreements or lack thereof. Diplomacy can make it more comfortable to live with reality by clarifying mutual understanding of it. On the other hand, Adams’ magisterial notes on his 1823 recommendation that America spurn the invitation to join Britain in a declaration disapproving any attempt to recover Spain’s American colonies—that jointness would have added nothing to the reality of parallel British and U.S. opposition to such a venture—underlines the central fact about diplomacy: though it conveys reality, it does not amend it.

In 1968, Fred Ikle published How Nations Negotiate, which is used by diplomatic academies around the world. Too many graduates, however, forget its central teaching, which is that the diplomat’s first task is to figure out whether agreement is possible on the basis of “the available terms”—in short, whether both sides’ objectives, though different, are compatible. Only if they are can negotiations proceed according to what Ikle calls “rules of accommodation”—making sincere proposals, honoring partial agreements, etc. If the objectives are incompatible, the diplomats may choose to walk away, or to “negotiate for side effects”—to use the negotiations to undermine the other side’s government, sow dissention among its allies, deceive it, pocket partial agreements and renege on commitments, buy time, gather intelligence, etc. Disaster looms when one side follows the rules of accommodation while the other negotiates for side effects. The essence of Ikle’s teaching is that the negotiator’s primordial job is to judge correctly whether the other side is negotiating for “available terms” or is waging war through diplomatic means, and hence to choose whether to negotiate for agreement, walk away, or treat the diplomatic table as a battlefield. That choice is “perpetual,” he writes, because human motives are variable.

When the president publicly drew his red line:

Michelle and I have used a strategy when it comes to things like tattoos — what we’ve said to the girls is, ‘If you guys ever decide you’re going to get a tattoo, then Mommy and me will get the same exact tattoo in the same place,'” he said. “And we’ll go on YouTube and show it off as a family tattoo. And our thinking is that it might dissuade them from thinking that somehow that’s a good way to rebel.

He’s made his “primordial job” as a parent public. Under public scrutiny, he has to “judge correctly” whether Maliah or Sasha are negotiating for “available terms’ or “waging war” through tattooed means. He has to publicly choose whether to negotiate for agreement, walk away, or treat tattoos as a battlefield. As a parent, his choice is “perpetual”.

His credibility in deterring tattooed rebellion does have some fight and bite behind it. The Christian Science Monitor observes:

They’re still kind of young. Malia is 14 and Sasha is 11. They’re not marching into any tattoo parlor near Sidwell Friends School in upper northwest DC. First, there aren’t any – they can’t afford the rents there. Second, you’ve got to be 18 to get a tat in the city, we believe. The City Council approved that move recently.

This move may represent sufficient “provision for casualties and dangers to which no possible limits can be assigned” coupled with “the power of making that provision”. But whether tattoos escalate to where parent-child disagreement knows “no other bounds than the exigencies of the nation and the resources of the community” is the other half of Maliah and Sasha’s measure of President Obama’s credibility amd the deterrent quality of YouTubed shame over their coming teens.

The CSM doubts it. Conceding the president’s stratagem is “sort of based on assured mutual deterrence. Or preemption – you could call it that, too” and that it’s “interesting, in the sense that it’s a fairly coherent and intellectualized way to approach this common parental problem”, it observes:

…the real reason the preemption strategy probably appeals to the Obamas right now is that their daughters still listen to them. They can process cause and parental reaction and weigh options. They haven’t entered that period where common sense gets suspended, and they focus mostly on their own needs and wants, because that’s what teenagers do…

Once they are 18, they will be away from daily parental authority and tattoos might seem like a better idea. At that age, they don’t really think about long-term consequences, so they might get body art just to spite their parents. Or because they forgot their parents’ we-will-do-it-too vow. Or because they don’t care. Or just because… 

And then what happens? The president of the United States will probably feel obligated to get a tattoo of a butterfly at the base of his neck, because he vowed he would; and if he does not follow through, opponents will doubt his strength of will, or something like that.

I disagree. Rather than being “obligated”, the president retains his God-given agency. America’s greatest strategic thinker of the last fifty years will give him some advice:

You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em,
Know when to walk away, know when to run.
You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table,
There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealin’s done

His choices as a parent are there “because human motives are variable”. As such, they will tend to vary, moment by moment, place by place, tattoo by tattoo. The president should carefully consider where and when he draws red lines, especially in public and especially when publicity is a key component of his red line’s hypothetical deterrent effect. Better to learn to gauge when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em now before the sarin calls of adolescence come around. Only then maybe there will be time enough for counting when the teenage years are done.

Luttwak on the Australian Strategic Pivot

Sunday, September 30th, 2012

Iconoclastic strategist Edward Luttwak has characteristically caustic words on an Australian -American strategic entente to contain an “autistic” rising China:

Australia counters Chinese threat 

AUSTRALIA has been quietly building a regional defence coalition to restrain China’s increasingly ”aggressive” and ”autistic” international behaviour, an influential adviser to the Pentagon says.

Edward Luttwak bluntly contradicts Australian and US denials that they see China as a threat or want to contain its rise. ”Australians view themselves as facing a strategic threat,” he writes in his coming book, The Rise of China v The Logic of Strategy.

The emerging latticework of regional defence arrangements augments ”the overall capacity of the US-Australian alliance to contain China”.

The book praises Australia’s strategic initiative in forging ties with countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia and India that lie beyond America’s natural security orbit, as well as broadening the defence networks of close US allies such as Japan.

”Each of these Australian initiatives derives from a prior and broader decision to take the initiative in building a structure of collective security piece by piece, and not just leave it all to the Americans,” it says.

….The Australian National University’s Hugh White has argued that the US needs to ”share power” with what is going to be ”the most formidable power the US has ever faced”. But for Mr Luttwak, the ”logic of strategy” dictates that neighbours will naturally coalesce against the new rising threat, thus preventing China from realising anything like the relative military power that has been projected.

”The rapid accession to prosperity has been a very common way for countries to lose their sanity,” Mr Luttwak told the Herald. He said China suffered from ancient and new foreign policy weaknesses.

”The Chinese are autistic in dealing with foreigners, they have no sense of the ‘other’,” he said. ”They think they are incredibly brilliant strategists as if they had been conquering other nations, when in fact it’s been the other way around for 1500 years.”


China’s political system is in the midst of a particularly edgy and uncertain generational transition of power, following the succession machinery designed by China’s last “paramount leader”, Deng Xiaoping, to retain harmony among the ruling Communist Party elite.  Deng’s successors are following his script, but their hearts no longer appear to be in it – 15 years after Deng’s death, cracks have appeared in the facade of unity. Not a fatal flaw, but lacking a leader of Deng’s stature who, even in retirement, remained the supreme arbiter of China’s political system, factions of China’s elite have more room to push conflicting agendas.

In foreign policy we see the effects in China’s erratically belligerent, then conciliatory behavior towards it’s East Asian neighbors and the United States. Strategically, it makes little sense for China to repeatedly generate friction over territorial claims to the entire South China Sea with Vietnam, Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia and the United States and push a separate dispute with Japan simultaneously, yet because of intra-elite, domestic politics, Beijing is unable or unwilling to restrain enthusiast Chinese officials from doing so.

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