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Zen at War on the Rocks on China and Avoiding War

Thursday, November 14th, 2013
Chinese Navy

Chinese Navy

[by Mark Safranski, a.k. a. “zen“]

The editors of the excellent War of the Rocks invited me to post a short rebuttal to the op-ed “How Not to Go to War With China”, by Scott Cheney-Peters, which appears in their “Hasty Ambush” section:


….A place to begin our efforts in avoiding war with China might be avoiding engagement in some of the same incorrect mirror-imaging assumptions we once made about the Soviet Union, not least of which was MAD.  As a doctrine, Soviet leaders never accepted MAD and the Red Army general staff ignored it in drafting war plans to fight and prevail in any nuclear war. While the Soviets had no choice but to tackle the logic of deterrence as we did, the operative Soviet assumptions were predicated on a different strategic calculus, a different force structure and above all, different policy goals from their American counterparts.  A dangerous gap between American assumptions of Soviet intentions and the reality of these intentions came to light when in 1983 the Reagan administrationdiscovered to their alarm that Soviet leaders had interpreted the NATO exercise Abel Archer 83 as preparations for a real, imminent nuclear first strike on the USSR and ordered Soviet nuclear forces on high alert.

The military-to-military confidence-building initiatives outlined by Cheney-Peters intended to construct “habits of cooperation” are not entirely useless. There is some value in ensuring that high-ranking American military officers have personal and limited operational familiarity with their Chinese counterparts in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), but as potential game-changers, they need to be taken with a grain of salt. Such a policy misses the essential strategic and political centers of gravity in the Sino-American relationship.  Namely that for the first time in 600 years, China is building a blue water Navy that will foster power projection as far away as the Indian ocean and Australia.  Secondly, this naval expansion, coupled with a new Chinese foreign policy, aggressively presses grandiose territorial demands on nearly all of its neighbors, including India and Japan.  These are fundamental conflicts with American interests that cannot be explained away or papered over by banquet toasts with visiting delegations of Chinese admirals. […]

Read the rest here.

Also read another WotR  China piece “99 Red Balloons: How War with China would Start” by Matthew Hipple


Pattern recognition: backlash

Sunday, October 20th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — on human obstinacy, a change of heart, and what seems to me a major piece from Res Militaris ]

There’s a pattern of backlash that occurs when you present people with facts that don’t fit their preconceptions — they don’t switch, they double up. Here’s the opening of io9‘s report, The Backfire Effect shows why you can’t use facts to win an argument:

“Never let the facts get in the way of a good story” isn’t just a maxim for shady politicians and journalists. It’s also the way people often live their lives. One study indicates that there may even be a “backfire effect,” which happens when you show people facts that contradict their opinions.

Then there’s a study — Brendan and Jason Reifler, When Corrections Fail: The persistence of political misperceptions. I won’t go into the details, it’s the pattern it finds that’s of interest to me, but I will note that the title is a tip of the hat to Leon Festinger‘s When Prophecy Fails, a classic study in the same pattern of denial as it applied to a group whose belief in an end time prophecy was not shattered when the day arrived and the world went on as usual…

Here’s how the pattern works:

Participants in the experiments were more likely to experience the Backfire Effect when they sensed that the contradictory information had come from a source that was hostile to their political views. But under a lot of conditions, the mere existence of contradictory facts made people more sure of themselves — or made them claim to be more sure.

Everyone has experienced the frustration of bringing up pertinent facts, in the middle of an argument, and having those facts disregarded. Perhaps the big mistake was not arguing, but bringing up facts in the first place.

Okay? That’s a veeery interesting pattern to think about any time you’re considering ways to persuade people to change their minds during, for instance, a CVE campaign.

I’d like to dig into it a great deal more, of course.


Maajid Nawaz, a former recruiter for Hizb ut-Tahrir who renounced his membership and is now Chairman of the counter-extremist Quilliam Foundation, seems to have persuaded Tommy Robinson, until recently a leader of the English Defence League, to renounce the EDL and join Qulliam — a move whose results and second-order effects have yet to be seen. Both men, however, offer us examples of people who have in fact changed their minds on matters of profound belief, religious and political, and the odd uncomfortable fact may have played some role in those changes.

The role of anomalies (cf. “outliers”) in Kuhn‘s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions comes to mind.

And if showing people the error of their ways (a very loose equivalent of telling them unwelcome facts, I’ll admit) doesn’t work, here’s another anomaly that I ran across only yesterday, that “proves the rule” by, well, partially disproving it.

Dutch ex-politician Arnoud van Doorn, previously a senior member of Geert Wilders‘ fiercely anti-Islamic party, has changed his mind — or his heart was changed for him, within him, depending on your perspective. He has made the Shahada and is henceforth Muslim himself. In this photo, van Doorn is performing the Hajj, the pilgrimage to circumambulate the Kaaba in Mecca:

Do I detect a hint of enantiodromia here?


In closing, I would like to offer this link to an article in Res Militaris by Jean Baechler, titled Outlines of a psychology of war. It’s a weighty piece, as befits its grand sweep, and I believe it throws some light on the obstinacies of the mind to which this post is addressed.

I tried excerpting it, but it appeared to me that each sentence in every paragraph in turn begged to be highlighted, approved, tweaked, questioned, or disagreed with, and I wound up feeling you should read it for yourselves. I’ll be very interested to see if it captures the attention of the ZP readership, and leads to a more extended discussion…


The Myhrvold Report and Understanding Strategic Threats

Monday, October 7th, 2013

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

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

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

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

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

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

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


Elkus on Policy Relevance

Monday, February 18th, 2013

Intriguing and vigorously argued piece by Adam over at Abu Muqawama

Relevant to Policy?

Are we in a 1914 scenario in East Asia? How often do guerrillas succeed? Did counterterrorism law erode national sovereignty? These are just a few of the important questions that political science has some bearing on. Yet barely a couple months goes by without an op-ed decrying political science’s alleged lack of relevance to the outside world.

Political scientists are frequently told their research is too arcane, mathematical, and self-involved to be of possible value to anyone in Washington dealing with real-world policy problems. There’s a grain of truth here. As international political economy whiz Kindred Winecoff observes, political scientists need to make a better “elevator pitch.” But here’s the problem: at the end of the day, there is a difference between what Max Weber dubbed science as a vocation and the subjective policy lessons we can take from our study. Part of that gap is reflected in the difficulties that people with purely policy interests inevitably encounter in PhD programs.

From my own (minor) experience so far, it is grueling, necessitates the assimilation of difficult methodologies, and involves having to think about intellectual questions that many people would regard as hopelessly arcane. Even a good PhD program that directly tackles policy questions will likely demand the student grapple with questions of esoteric theory and method. And not all research that tackles highly abstract questions is policy-irrelevant. Highly technical analysis of game theory and economics generated useful policy applications form the World War II convoy system to nuclear strategy and wargaming.

All of these advances began from the desire to grapple with difficult questions to produce knowledge, something many critics of political science research do not acknowledge. Take Greg Ferenstein, who penned an article supporting Eric Cantor’s call to defund the NSF. His gripe is familiar. Political science is obscuratist, hyper-mathematical, and disconnected from the policy world. Political scientists don’t do enough to make their research accessible to policymakers. Ferenstein wants a political science that his mother-in-law can understand, and he thinks starving academia of resources will motivate hungry researchers to do better. So is modern political science irrelevant to policy needs?

Contra Ferenstein, policymakers have thrown substantial $$ at the kind of research he regards as navel-gazing arcana. The RAND Corporation got a lot of mileage using what Ferenstein derides as “clever mathematical models” during the Cold War.  I’m not sure that Jay Ulfelder, who worked for the intelligence community-funded Political Instability Task Force, would agree that his quantitative forecasting methodologies must pass a mother-in-law test to be valuable. And when New York University’s game theory guru Bruce Bueno De Mesquita speaks, the CIA listens. Drew Conway, a man that could easily teach a computer programming course just as well as poli-sci 101, gives invited talks at West Point on analyzing terrorist networks. I don’t think Ulfelder, Mesquita, or Conway have sleepless nights pondering the relevance of their research to the govermment!

Read the rest here 

As an aside, I have found Ulfelder’s posts on his research or comments on the field at Dart Throwing Chimp to be very useful and worth reading.



On Socrates and His Legacy, Part I.

Thursday, February 14th, 2013

Recently, I finished two books on the iconic ancient Athenian philosopher Socrates, both of which pointed me to a third. The books were of a very different character and quality, yet together raised an important dichotomy about a man who lived 2400 years ago, whose intellectual legacy contributed to the shaping of Western civilization. The Stoics and Cynics looked back to Socrates as their forerunner; Socrates’ greatest student Plato became the most influential philosopher of the written word of all time, rivaled only by his own protege, Aristotle. So definitive was the influence of Socrates and his inexhaustible store of questions that all the Greek philosophers who came before him are reckoned “the pre-Socratics“. Yet he was put to death by the Democracy that had proudly boasted of being the “the school of Hellas“.

Who then, was the historical Socrates?

Socrates shares, to a lesser degree, the enigmatic quality of Buddha, Jesus and his own near contemporary, Confucius; we know more about Socrates than we do the others, but as with the others, it is all secondhand. Having written nothing himself, we must rely on the apologia of his disciples, the barbs of his critics, some statuary relics and the commentary of philosophers and historians from later in antiquity who had access to sources now lost to tell us of Socrates.

Here are the books:


The Trial of Socrates by I.F. Stone

Socrates: A Man for Our Times by Paul Johnson  

Both authors were splendid prose writers, otherwise they are a study in contrasts. The late I.F. Stone was a famous radical, an antifascist, an investigative, “muckraking” journalist of the mid twentieth century and, for a time,  a Soviet agent during the “Red decade” of the Thirties. Stone, who was noted for his diligence with using government documents as a reporter, unearthing scoops everyone else had missed, became, in his retirement, a scholar of antiquity who read deeply in the classics in the original ancient Greek.

Paul Johnson began his career as a prolific writer and popular historian on the British Left with The New Statesman and over time shifted rightward to become a leading Anglo-Catholic conservative public intellectual, an adviser to Margaret Thatcher and an author of 40 books. Johnson is most known for his best-sellers that tackled panoramic and encompassing subjects – The Birth of the Modern, Intellectuals and The History of the Jews, often written from a highly idiosyncratic, as well as a conservative, perspective.

Of the two books, Stone’s  The Trial of Socrates is by far the most substantive. Stone relies heavily, though not exclusively, upon primary sources in the original Greek to build his argument, which is that Socrates was executed because of his militant, arch-reactionary, “antipolitical” opposition to self-government, especially in the form of the Democracy; and further, that Socrates’ actions at his trial were perversely designed to inflame the jury which might easily have acquitted him.  Socrates:A Man for our Times by Johnson is based on English translations of primary sources and secondary sources, is lighter in tone and much closer to being an essay. Johnson is evaluating the importance of Socrates in a broad, civilizational, context while Stone trying to tell what really happened while simultaneously judging Socrates culpability.

One point on which both authors have agreement is the mendacity and artistry with which Plato has made this task more difficult. I.F. Stone generally sees a “sneering” antidemocratic political continuity between Socrates and all of his disciples Plato, Xenophon, Charmides, Critias, Antisthenes and Alcibiades but even Stone cannot stomach Plato’s casual misuse (or abuse) of Socrates in his later dialogues to vent petty gripes and snobbish airs. Writing of an insulting passage in The Republic:

….Plato put this into the mouth of Socrates many years after the latter’s death. There is no evidence that the historical Socrates ever spoke so unkindly or pretentiously. Otherwise Socrates could not have had the lifelong affection of his oldest disciple, the “low-born” Antisthenes; his mother was a Thracian, hence he was twitted for not being of pure Attic blood (Diogenes Laertes, 6.1). Several scholars believe this was Plato’s slur against his fourth century rival – and Socrates’ old friend – Isocrates.[255]

Paul Johnson goes much further; attributing much that scholars regard as negative in Socrates’ reputation to the machinations of Plato using his late master as “a ventriloquist’s dummy”, a caricature Johnson calls “PlatSoc” to add authority to his own views and theories in which Socrates never believed or more likely, never even had heard:

….As an intellectual he [Plato] began to formulate his own ideas. As an academic he quickly merged them into a system. As a teacher he used Socrates to spread and perpetuate it. In his earlier writings Plato presented Socrates as a living breathing, thinking person, a real man. but as Plato’s ideas took shape, demanding propagation, poor Socrates whose actual death Plato had so lamented, was killed a second time, so that he became a mere wooden man, a ventriloquist’s doll, to voice not his own philosophy but Plato’s.

….So the act of transforming a living, historical thinker into a mindless, speaking doll – the murder and quasi-diabolical possession of a famous brain – became in Plato’s eyes a positive virtue. That is the only charitable way of describing one of the most unscrupulous acts in intellectual history. Thus Plato, with no doubt the best of intentions, created like Frankenstein, an artificial monster-philosopher [11]

There are other sources of information regarding Socrates than Plato, of course.  Xenophon, also wrote an apologia; Aristophanes and other comic poets satirized Socrates in their plays, the philosopher being a “public figure” in Athens as much as was Pericles or Cleon (Socrates apparently could take a joke much better than the litigious and bloodthirsty demagogue Cleon); Aristotle had informed speculations regarding Socrates based on his long (and one suspects trying) tutelage under Plato and there are Roman writers such as Cicero who had access to sources now lost, but Plato remains the most prolific.

This is important, because the central thesis in The Trial of Socrates is that Socrates is not merely an “antidemocratic” gadfly in Athens, but an arch-reactionary teacher of “antipolitical” doctrines. That is to say that Stone argued that Socrates and his followers rejected the concept of the self-governing “polis” itself, oligarchy as much as democracy, that men were a “herd” fit only for a shepherd, an absolute Homeric ruler defined by Socrates as “the One who Knows”. Stone argues, with accuracy, that Socrates disciples, despite differences in personality and philosophy, shared a common disdain for democratic politics and furthermore, that Socrates teaching repeatedly led to cohorts of aristocratic, pro-Spartan,”Socratified youth” who twice supported the overthrow of the Democracy. In short that Socrates was tried because his activities, his “examinations”, were ultimately politically subversive to the state in a time of danger and instigated civil strife.

This means, to judge Stone’s argument requires that we discern Socrates from Plato that in turn requires some expertise on Plato. This need to sift Platonic dialogues explains why both Johnson and Stone, despite Stone’s ability to work with the primary texts in the original Greek, turned to the scholarship of Gregory Vlastos for guidance. Vlastos was a seminal figure in the field of Platonist philosophy whose work is described by other scholars as “transformative” and having “a vast influence” who best parsed Socrates from his artfully prolix disciple. Because of Stone and Johnson, I have picked up what is regarded by many as “the best book on Socrates” – Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher by Gregory Vlastos.

Vlastos, in this final book, ultimately came closer to Johnson’s position in the sense that some of what  moderns find disagreeable in Socrates and what Stone criticizes in particular – the harsh antidemocratic edge – is more a product of Plato’s literary handiwork than the philosophy of the historical Socrates. Vlastos writes:

I have been speaking of a “Socrates” in Plato. There are two of them. In different segments of Plato’s corpus two philosophers bear that name. The individual remains the same. But in different sets of dialogues he pursues philosophies so different that they could not have been depicted as cohabitating in the same brain throughout unless it had been the brain of a schizophrenic

The early Socrates of the Elenctic Dialogues is the most genuine in the view of Vlastos.

End Part I.


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