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War on the Rocks: A New Nixon Doctrine – Strategy for a Polycentric World

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

I have a new piece up at the excellent War on the Rocks site that is oriented towards both history and contemporary policy Some Excerpts:

A New Nixon Doctrine: Strategy for a Polycentric World

….Asia was only the starting point; the Nixon doctrine continued to evolve in subsequent years into a paradigm for the administration to globally leverage American power, one that, as Chad Pillai explained in his recent War on the Rocks article, still remains very relevant today. Avoiding future Vietnams remained the first priority when President Nixon elaborated on the Nixon Doctrine to the American public in a televised address about the war the following October, but the Nixon Doctrine was rooted in Nixon’s assumptions about larger, fundamental, geopolitical shifts underway that he had begun to explore in print and private talks before running for president. In a secret speech at Bohemian Grove in 1967 that greatly bolstered his presidential prospects, Nixon warned America’s political and business elite that the postwar world as they knew it was irrevocably coming to an end [....]

….China was a strategic lodestone for Richard Nixon’s vision of a reordered world under American leadership, which culminated in Nixon’s historic visit to Peking and toasts with Mao ZeDong and Zhou En-lai. In the aftermath of this diplomatic triumph, a town hall meeting on national security policy was sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute that featured the Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird squaring off with future Nobel-laureate, strategist and administration critic Thomas Schelling over the Nixon Doctrine and the meaning of “polycentrism” in American foreign policy. Laird was concerned with enunciating the implications of the Nixon doctrine as an operative principle for American foreign policy, taking advantage of the glow of a major success for the administration. Schelling, by contrast, was eager to turn the discussion away from China to the unresolved problem of the Vietnam war, even when he elucidated on the Nixon doctrine’s strategic importance. [....]

….What lessons can we draw from the rise of the Nixon Doctrine?

First, as in Nixon’s time, America is again painfully extricating itself from badly managed wars that neither the public nor the leaders in two administrations who are responsible for our defeat are keen to admit were lost. Nixon accepted defeat strategically, but continued to try to conceal it politically (“Vietnamization,” “Peace with Honor,” etc). What happened in Indochina in 1975 with the fall of Saigon is being repeated in Iraq right now, after a fashion. It will also be repeated in Afghanistan, and there it might be worse than present-day Iraq. [....]

Read the article in its entirety here.

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Commentary on Politics and Strategy

Thursday, April 17th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

Infinity Journal has a good article by eminent Clausewitzian strategist Colin Gray on the interrelationship of politics and strategy (free registration required):

Politics, Strategy and the Stream of Time

….Second, many scholars appear to be resistant to the conceptually, perhaps even morally, necessary recognition of the implications of the fact that all ‘policy’ is made by political process, and that that process, everywhere and in all periods, is run and dominated by the people who succeed in being influential over others. The substantive content of policy is made in a process of political negotiation among the people and organizations who contend for power, as they must. Decisions on national defence are taken politically, usually with input from subject-specific experts and interests. But, in all systems of governance politics ultimately rules. Prudent assessment concerning the maintenance of their preeminent popular influence flags to political leaders where the limits of the politically tolerable most probably lie. This is not to be critical, it is simply to recognize that we humans run our affairs, including our security affairs, by the means of a political process that is geared to generate power as influence, not prudent policy. Policy does not emerge, pristine and unsullied by unduly subjective emotions, as the ever dynamic product of objective expert analysis.[xviii] This is not to claim that political process will be indifferent to arguments that are armed with evidence of apparent national danger. But it is to say that strategic theorists and defence analysts (like this author) need to appreciate the humbling professional truth that their contribution to debate on public policy can always be trumped by politics.

Third, civil-military relations may well be said to lie at the heart of strategy, as Eliot Cohen claims, but it would probably be more correct to argue that public political tolerance is as, if not even more, vital.[xix] As a very general rule, people will go only whither they are content to be led. Great leaders always require willing, even if somewhat politically passive, followers. Civil-military relations vary in detail, of course, given the breadth of unique historical circumstance that is their particular foundation in every polity. However, this critically important subject does allow authority to an elementary golden rule: the military power of the state must always be subject to authority that is accepted very widely as politically legitimate. The substantive reason for this is that the well-being of society and state cannot prudently be entrusted, or surrendered, even to their coercive instruments. It is only common sense to deny those coercive instruments the opportunity to be more than they should be, given the temptations to organizational mission creep that can come opportunistically to soldiers. Military culture often differs from public and private political culture(s), and it would be imprudent to have one’s national security policy and strategy decided by professional military experts (or their civilian defence analytical associates and frequent functional allies). The price one pays for insisting upon civilian political authority over defence matters is, naturally, necessarily an acceptance ultimately of the sovereignty of a public political will that is ever likely to be inadequately understanding of security problems. It is worth noting that the danger of undue military influence over the policy realm is understandably enhanced when the polity is committed to war (even only to ‘armed politics’ or ‘politics with arms’). However, the peril to civilian (political) supremacy in war lies not only in the scope and weight of the burdens of actual armed conflict, but also in the nature of war itself. By this I mean that the balance of relative influence between the civilian and the soldier is likely to alter simply because of the dynamic and ever unpredictable course of a (necessarily unique) particular war. Whatever the constitutional niceties and formalities in relations, in wartime the state can find itself serving the present and near-term future apparent necessities of a conflict that has evolved beyond expectation, let alone confident anticipation. There is in effect a natural and inevitable tendency for the needs of an on-going conflict to subordinate and even subvert civilian society so that national priorities are reordered more and more in practice in favour of the plausible necessities of war. Not infrequently in strategic history, this re-prioritization in favour of the military security interest has occurred with good enough reason. My point is that even when military leaders are not seeking to reduce or subvert civilian political authority, a context of armed conflict may itself achieve that end.

I think in the second paragraph Gray is correct in the broad historical sense of major wars and existential conflicts. As violence escalates, the war tends to become a Darwinian (or Clausewitzian) ratchet turning in the direction toward “absolute war“. We can see examples of this tendency in historical conflicts as diverse as the Peloponnesian War, the Punic Wars, the Thirty Year’s War and of course, the Second World War, which culminated in nuclear fire.

Curiously,the United States since the end of WWII has had the exact opposite tendency than the one described by Gray: the politicization of war as a mere prop for or tool of civilian domestic politics -and strategy being subordinated to (increasingly trivial) political matters- without regard to combat effectiveness, the external strategic effects or the ultimate outcome of victory or defeat. There are, in my view, many reasons for this. Most of them are particular to the sad state of American culture and our current generation of “leaders”, but some are intrinsic to the epistemological natures of strategy and politics themselves.

Strategy, if it is to be done well, requires a clarity of vision that is willing to strip away cherished illusions, unfounded assumptions and more intentional forms of intellectual dishonesty. This is because making effective strategic decisions depend upon having a realistic calculus of actual and potential power, situational probabilities, material resources, psychological frameworks and other variables with which to work. In a trite and overused phrase, strategy has to be “reality-based” in the sense of being empirical, to the greatest extent feasible, even as it tries to shape future outcomes. As strategy is an iterative process and in warfare something done by tactics, the feedback provided by combat (“lessons learned”) and intelligence about the enemy needs to be understood in context as accurately as possible. This means that enforcing party-lines, shooting the messenger, “not-invented-here” syndrome, putting turf battles over real ones and bowing to ideological fantasies (“the Slavs are subhumans”, “they will greet us with flowers”, “they are only agrarian reformers”) in making strategic assessments is inherently a form of self-defeating intellectual derangement, a willful blindness likely to bring loss or even ruin.

By contrast, Politics is not harmed by expressions of fabulism, mythmaking, self-delusion or the construction of elaborate, closed systems of thought predicated upon ideological fantasies. Arguably, such visions are empowering and inspiring by helping to craft an attractive narrative that men find compelling, unifying and motivating to action, including the will to power or a call to arms to stand, fight and die in a “higher” cause.  That political ideas may only bear a passing resemblance to reality or may be entirely composed of ahistorical nonsense, irrational hatreds and conspiracy theories is not always relevant to their memetic success or failure. To a degree, the process of political radicalization itself, as ideas become more extreme and demanding, tend to attract the kind of true believer personalities given to turning the ideas into violent or even apocalyptic action. Furthermore the intensity of belief or the closed system nature of the ideology tends to make the followers anti-empirical – highly resistant to information (or even the outcomes of physical reality) that run contrary to deeply held beliefs, as seen in the historical examples of die-hard Communists, Imperial Japanese ultranationalists and fanatical Nazis.

If politics trumps strategy then strategy can only prosper if the political mind is rationally sound.

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Infinity Journal: Special “The Strategy Bridge” Edition

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014

Infinity Journal has a special issue out dedicated to this important book on strategy (registration is free):

The Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice by Colin S. Gray 

There is an excellent group of reviewers in this IJ issue including – Williamson Murray, Antulio Echevarria, David Betz and Nathan Finney. Here are a couple of samples:

Nathan Finney:

….What is clear from The Strategy Bridge is that there is a general theory of strategy that can be distilled empirically from history and experience to complement Clausewitz’s general theory of war. It is also clear that it may be easier to capture in a thoughtful work than to actually implement it. Clausewitz’s theory of war requires men of “genius” with coup d’œil to achieve success. Similarly, though he does not state it explicitly, Gray’s concept of strategy requires strategists of “genius” that can intuitively see the strategic context and effectively provide a bridge in the negotiation between politics and tactics. As such, Gray’s bridge does not necessarily require commanders, but conductors that can translate the relativity in the contemporary strategic context and manage civilian-military relationships, for “the principal core competency of the strategist is the ability to direct armed forces in war, not necessarily to command and lead them.

David Betz:

….I like also that he does not cut corners, nor oversimplify that which is inherently complex. This is sometimes pitched as a criticism but I reckon that it ought not to be. In The Strategy Bridge he describes fully twenty-one dicta of strategy in four categories in three parts – theory, practice, and context and purpose – before concluding with six ‘broad, more than a little compounded’ claims tempered with five ‘cautions, or caveats’.[v] This is clearly not a book to be read and digested in a lazy Sunday afternoon. Strategy, as he illustrates in a recurring theme throughout the text, is complicated to conceive and to practice: it is, he writes, ‘possible but difficult’. If one adds ‘but worth the effort’ to complete the epigram it would seem also an apposite description of The Strategy Bridge. It is not that the author of ‘Clausewitz Rules, OK?’ is unable to make a point concisely; it is, rather, that in this case he has quite a few points to convey – and, moreover, they intertwine in complicated ways that defy easy unravelling. I found crossing The Strategy Bridge to be hard going but the effort was amply rewarded. This is not a review, however; it is instead a short essay inspired by the reading….

Read the special issue here.

I also had a review of The Strategy Bridge over at Pragati: The Indian National Interest

….The Strategy Bridge is subtitled “Theory for Practice” because it is intended as a serious work of theory, a framework for understanding enduring principles of strategy so that a practitioner can thoughtfully apply them in making strategies for the specific context in which they find themselves to provide correct guidance for the operational planners and tacticians who will execute it. Consequently, Gray has not written an introductory text for a novice student but an insightful book for the strategic practitioner of journeyman experience – field grade officers, senior intelligence and foreign policy analysts, academic strategists, think tank researchers and national security advisers to senior government officials – who have a store of knowledge of their own. Hence the repeated invocation of “the bridge” metaphor by Gray; his primary audience are the people “doing strategy” and their success or failure “manning the bridge” will help determine the degree to which government purpose remains connected to action or whether the whole business will go off the rails into a quagmire, as it too often does.

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Competitive Strategies Interview by Manea

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014

Just a quick link, but check out the SWJ interview that Octavian Manea has done with former DoD policy planning deputy Dr. Thomas G. Mahnken:

Lessons From Previous Competitive Strategies

SWJ: A key concept that Andrew Marshall and ONA developed and shaped is that of competitive strategies. To what extent did the concept of competitive strategies provide an intellectual construct for winning the Cold War and managing the great power competition during peacetime?

Thomas Mahnken: At one level, the term “competitive strategies” is a redundancy – one certainly wouldn’t want to implement uncompetitive strategies. Indeed, the very notion of competition lies at the heart of strategy.  That having been said, the logical notion that one should pay attention to one’s enduring comparative advantages and exploit a competitor’s enduring comparative weaknesses can at times be an alien way of thinking in a large bureaucracy like the Pentagon and the national security community.

One of the things that the Office of Net Assessment did from its founding in the mid 1970s was to tap into thinking in the business and management literature about how to formulate and implement a long-term strategy for competition. A competitive strategy is focused on peacetime interaction and is about the peacetime use of military power to shape a competitor’s choices in ways that favor our objectives. That is, it is concerned with the development, acquisition, deployment, and exercising of forces, as opposed to their use in combat. A competitive strategy assumes that the choices that the competitors have to make are constrained. A competitive strategy seeks to identify and exploit these constraints.

This overall concept did play a role in U.S. strategy in the 1970s and 1980s by pushing the senior Defense Department leadership to think more in these terms. That meant thinking more about areas of comparative advantage and disadvantage, about areas where we needed to be ahead and areas where we could afford not to be ahead. Over time, that approach played an important role in the U.S. strategic effectiveness, particularly in the late Cold War. First unconsciously and later consciously, the Defense Department carried out a series of competitive strategies against the Soviet Union and in the end that approach played a role in convincing the Soviet leadership that they couldn’t compete with the U.S. in a whole series of areas. 

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Manea interviews Kilcullen at SWJ

Tuesday, November 26th, 2013

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

Octavian Manea, the interviewer par excellence of Small Wars Journal, steps up with an interview with COIN guru and former USG senior adviser Dr. David Kilcullen:

Future of Warfare in a Post-COIN Conflict Climate

[....]

SWJ: Should we expect that when we see all these clustered elements conflict is more likely, the societal environment more conflict prone?

David Kilcullen: There are two different ways to look at this set of relations. If we look at this from the standpoint of the military or law-enforcement, then it is pretty clear that we really need to get comfortable with operating in a very littoral, very urban and very highly networked environment because that is where the bulk of the people on the planet are going to live in the next generation. If you are not comfortable operating in such an environment you are not going to be effective. But this doesn’t mean that the solution to this problem is a military one. Seen from the perspective of the city in itself, it is pretty clear that the solution is not to bring the hawk cops in, and apply hard power tools to stabilize the environment. This is often a recipe for disaster. The paradox is that, on the one hand, there are no military solutions, but at the same time there are no solutions at all without security. Someone will provide that security and it is better for it to be the locals, but if the locals cannot do it, then history suggests that we will be drawn into this kind of conflict with about the same frequency as in the past.    

SWJ: You emphasized in your book, and also at the New America Foundation launching event that in the future we will face operational continuity and environmental discontinuity. What if the environmental discontinuity can in itself be a variable able to change the operational continuity?

David Kilcullen: That’s possible, to the extent that we have data — information based on historical patterns. On one hand, it seems that there is a lot of unwillingness on behalf of the American politicians to contemplate future engagements like Afghanistan and Iraq. Congress has no appetite as we’ve seen in the case of Syria for further military activity overseas. The military leadership is very reluctant to recommend that kind of operation. But going back to the 19th century we see a cyclical pattern in American military history where we repeatedly have leaders coming out with this kind of statement and yet we end up doing these kinds of operations anyway, on about the same frequency. There are deep structures about the way the US is connected to the international community that lead to this kind of behavior. It is possible that we won’t do this in the future, but it is not the way to bet. If you are going to bet on what is likely to happen, the pattern suggests that we are going to see a specific “conflict climate” (shaped by population growth, urbanization, littoralization and connectedness) within which wars will arise.

Read the rest here.

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