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Thucydides Roundtable, Book III: A Layered Text

Monday, November 7th, 2016

[by Joseph Guerra]

In my first post on this Roundtable I brought up the concept of strategic narrative and how it serves as a link between Thucydides and Clausewitz from a strategic theory perspective.  Describing the layered nature of The Peloponnesian War, Ned Lebow, expanding on W. Robert Conner, outlines four levels of narrative:  The first regards “interest, justice and their relationship”.  The second is the story of Athens as a tragedy.  The third, following the second, is “the relationship between nomos (convention, custom, law) and phusis (nature) and its implications in the development and preservation of civilisation”.  The fourth and final level in this outline is the “meta-theme” of the entire narrative: “the rise and fall of Greek civilisation, and the circumstances in which different facets of human nature come to the fore”.

This follows a standard approach to many great works.  The idea that the author is not so much presenting a story, as much as attempting to engage with the reader, get them to question their own preconceived notions about a subject, essentially to create a dialectic in which the reader is able to achieve a higher level of understanding through a process of reading, questioning, contemplating and then going on to the next related element, while at the same time retaining the conceptual whole and how the various elements are related.  Not so surprisingly the same is said about Clausewitz’s On War.

The Corcyrean revolution is chillingly described in 3.70-3.85.  Here we see all the levels of the narrative displayed as complex interactions.  Interest has overcome justice, which in any case is only achievable among equals.  But does actual equality exist between humans, as in democratic structures of government, or are they simply a myth?  Conventions and customs fall prey to human nature and impulse, while the meanings of words decay (through narrow interest) which in turn has an effect on actions, which in turn has to be justified thus leading to further decay of the overall narrative.  As with Thucydides’s description of the plague in Athens in Book II, some respond heroically to this turmoil (stasis), but most succumb giving themselves over to impulse and/or fear and act in ways that would have been inconceivable prior to the crisis.  Civilisation itself, which requires a basis (shared interests, justice, language, common conventions, etc,) for stability, starts to come apart.  This all follows more or less the development of a Greek tragedy, or repeated tragedies, with the implication that this is more the nature of humanity as a whole, than being limited to a specific time and place.

Recommended Reading—Summer 2016

Monday, July 11th, 2016

[by J. Scott Shipman]

Storm of Creativity2017

wright-brothers-biographyserendipities

Paradisejssundertow

white horsewashington

 

The Storm of Creativity, by Kyna Leski

2017 War With Russia, by General Sir Richard Shirreff

The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough

Serendipities, Language and Lunacy, by Umberto Eco

Paradise, Dante Alighieri, translated by Mark Musa

Undertow, by Stanton S. Coerr

The White Horse Cometh, by Rich Parks

Washington The Indispensable Man, by John Thomas Flexner

This list starts the first week of May, so perhaps the title should be Spring/Summer. Most of these books are quick reads and all are recommended.

I picked up Ms. Leski’s book at an MIT bookshop on a business trip in early May and read on the train ride home. Books on creativity are ubiquitous, but Ms. Leski takes an interesting approach by describing the creative process using the metaphor of a storm. Several ZP readers will find of interest.

2017 was recommended by a friend. The author was the Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe and the book focuses on a Europe/NATO response to a Russian invasion of the Baltics. Written in a Tom Clancy-like style, the plot is fast-paced even though the good general provides sometimes provides detailed insights into the inner workings of NATA and the North Atlantic Council (this is one of the values of the book—bureaucracy writ-large).

David McCullough’s Wright Brothers delivers an approachable and human accounting of the first men of powered flight. Some reviews on Amazon complain McCullough lifts and uses too many quotes to tell the story. At times the quotes were distracting, but not enough to prevent the enjoyment of the story of two brothers who changed the world. This book was a gift otherwise I probably would not have read.

Serendipities is a short book, but was a long read for me. Eco explains how language and the pursuit of the perfect language has confounded thinkers since time immemorial. He refers to Marco Polo’s unicorn (also used in his Kant and the Platypus which is excellent) explaining how language is often twisted to meet a preconceived notion or idea. The first couple of chapters were quite good, chapters three and four did not hold my interest or were over my head. The closing chapter was good enough to convince me I’ll need to read this little book again. (My Eco anti-library has been growing of late.)

Eco’s book led me to reread Musa’s excellent translation of Paradise. My son gave me the deluxe edition with parallel Italian and English, plus commentary. Eco referenced Canto 26 and 27, and I enjoyed the break so much I read the whole thing!

Undertow is my good friend Stan Coerr’s second book of poetry.  His first book Rubicon was a moving collection of poetry of men at war. Undertow deals more with the heart and is quite good, too. You won’t be disappointed.

White Horse is also a book by an old friend, Rich Parks (we’ve known each other since the mid-80’s). White Horse is self-published and in places it shows, but the overall story is quite good for a first book (I’ve already told him his book would make an excellent screenplay.). The plot is quick and entertaining even if a bit unbelievable, but the story is fiction. Rich is following up with a sequel in August in 2016 and I’ll be reading it, too.

Mr. Flexner’s Washington was a gift, too. In this quick biography Washington is made approachable and human. And when I say “quick,” I mean quick…Trenton and Princeton took one chapter compared to David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing which took up a standalone book. If someone were looking for a first Washington biography, this would be a good place to start.

This isn’t the conclusion of my summer reading, but a pretty good start.What are  you reading this summer?

Not China’s Choice but Ours

Sunday, June 5th, 2016

[by Mark Safranski / “zen”]

China’s Blue Water “Coast Guard”

T. Greer of Scholar’s Stage has an outstanding post on the strategic reality of China and American foreign policy. It is a must read:

“China Does Not Want Your Rules Based Order”

…..McCain’s words echo those spoken by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter last week to the graduating midshipman at Annapolis. Read them both. Compare what they say. Behold the quickly crystallizing American narrative on China. This is a bipartisan message. It will be the starting point of a President Clinton’s policy. Whether a President Trump will endorse it is hard to say. In either case, it is a narrative whose momentum is building.

There is much that is good in this narrative. McCain proclaims that “no nation has done as much to contribute to what China calls its “peaceful rise” as the United States of America.” He is right to do so. No nation has done more to enable China’s rise than America has. No country’s citizens have done more for the general prosperity of the Chinese people than the Americans have. This is true in ways that are not widely known or immediately obvious. For example, the role American financiers and investment banks played in creating the architecture of modern Chinese financial markets and corporate structures is little realized, despite the size and importance of their interventions. Behind every great titan of Chinese industryChina Mobile, the world’s largest mobile phone operator, China State Construction Engineering, whose IPO was valued at $7.3 billion, PetroChina, the most profitable company in Asia (well, before last year), to name a few of hundreds–lies an American investment banker. I do not exaggerate when I say Goldman Sachs created modern China. [2] China has much to thank America for.

However, I cannot endorse all that is included in this emerging narrative, for part of it is deeply flawed. The flaw may be by design; if the purpose is to stir cold hearts and gain moral admiration of others, such flaws can be excused–that is how politics works. But this sort of things can only be excused if those delivering the speeches do not take the implications of their own words seriously when it is time to make policy. 

I speak of  China’s “choice.” The thread that runs through all of these talks is that the Chinese have yet to choose whether they aim for order or disruption, the existing regime or the chaos beyond it. The truth is that the Chinese have already chosen their path and no number of speeches on our part will convince them to abandon it. They do not want our rules based order. They have rejected it. They will continue to reject it unless compelled by overwhelming crisis to sleep on sticks and swallow gall and accept the rules we force upon them. 

China has made its choice. The real decision that will determine the contours of the 21st century will not be made in Beijing, but in Washington.

T. Greer, in my opinion is correct but this is not a message Beltway insiders are wont to harken – making strategic choices is for lesser nations. America is so rich, powerful, unipolar, indispensable, exceptional that we can pursue all objectives, in every corner of the globe, without choosing between the vital and the trivial. We can do this even if our goals are contradictory and ill-considered or serve manly as a prop for domestic political disputes, the business interests of political donors or career advancement of apparatchiks and politicians. We can safely delay and indulge in fantasy.

If this was true once, it is less so today and will be still less twenty years hence.

Greer sharpens his argument:

….Last spring it finally sunk in. Chinese illiberalism not only can endure, it is enduring. The old consensus cracked apart. No new consensus on how to deal with China has yet formed to take its place.

But old habits die hard. We see this at the highest levels of policy, as in the McCain speech, where American policy is justified in terms of giving China a chance to choose the right. The same spirit is invoked further down the line. Ash Carter, for example, recently described American tactics in the South China Sea as a “long campaign of firmness, and gentle but strong pushback… [until] The internal logic of China and its society will eventually dictate a change.” [3] In other words, American policy is a holding action until China sees the light.

What if they never do?

The Chinese believe that our international order is a rigged system set up by the imperial victors of the last round of bloodshed to perpetuate the power of its winners. They use the system, quite cynically, but at its base they find it and its symbols hypocritical, embarrassing, outrageous, and (according to the most strident among them), evil. In their minds it is a system of lies and half-truths. In some cases they have a point. Most of their actions in the East or South China Seas are designed to show just how large a gap exists between the grim realities of great power politics and soaring rhetoric Americans use to describe our role in the region

….In simpler terms, the Chinese equate “rising within a rules based order” with “halting China’s rise to power.” To live by Washington’s rules is to live under its power, and the Chinese have been telling themselves for three decades now that—after two centuries of hardship—they will not live by the dictates of outsiders ever again.

The Chinese will never choose our rules based order. That does not necessarily mean they want to dethrone America and throw down all that she has built. The Chinese do not have global ambitions. What they want is a seat at the table—and they want this seat to be recognized, not earned. That’s the gist of it. Beijing is not willing to accept an order it did not have a hand in creating. Thus all that G-2 talk we heard a few years back. The Chinese would love to found a new order balancing their honor and their interests with the Americans. It is a flattering idea. What they do not want is for the Americans to give them a list of hoops to jump through to gain entry into some pre-determined good-boys club. They feel like their power, wealth, and heritage should be more than enough to qualify for  automatic entrance to any club.

Read the rest here.

Richard Nixon, who was the external strategic architect of China’s rise in order to use China as a counterweight against an increasingly aggressive Soviet Union, faced a similar situation that Greer described above with the Soviets. Nixon’s détente summits with the Russians were diplomatic triumphs where LBJ’s summit at Glassboro with Kosygin had been a failure because Nixon shrewdly understood Soviet psychological insecurity, a deep sense of paranoid inferiority and the hunger for respect as a superpower equal of the United States. Leonid Brezhnev, Kosygin’s ascendant rival was desperate for this American political recognition and Nixon and Kissinger played this card (along with the geostrategic shock of the China opening) to wrest concessions in arms control and restraint (for a time) in Soviet behavior from Brezhnev.

Playing this card is not possible with China.

While there seems some emergent rivalry between China’s prime minister Li Keqiang and China’s President Xi Jinping that loosely mirrors the Kosygin-Brezhnev dynamic, the analogy is otherwise a poor one. Despite sharing Marxist-Leninist DNA in their institutional structure, China is not at all like the Soviet Union in terms of culture, history or ambitions. The Chinese not only lack the national inferiority complex that drives the Russian psyche, they suffer from the opposite condition of a superiority complex that outstrips their actual capacity to project military or even economic power. This has given rise to popular frustration and manic nationalism in China, with bitter recriminations about “small countries” and “hegemonic powers”. It also has created a strategic lacunae where China has in a short span of time gone from enjoying good relations with most of the world to a state of habitually irritating almost all of its neighbors and periodically threatening two great powers – rising India and Japan – and one superpower, the United States.

In short, China already is as T. Greer argued, a committed revisionist power.

We cannot buy off or bribe China. Unlike Brezhnev who needed American credits for his domestic economic program to cement his place as supreme leader, Xi Jinping has carried out a ruthless purge of the party and government under the pretext of an anti-corruption drive. Xi does not need or want our help in his domestic squabbles. Nor would he or another Chinese leader be content with symbolic gestures of Beijing’s “parity” with Washington. “Parity” will not satisfy Chinese leaders unless it comes with attendant symbolic humiliations for America and an American retreat from Asia. Forever.

If American leaders do not wake up to this reality and do so quickly then it is time for a new leadership class with less sentimentality and clearer vision.

Announcing ! BLOOD SACRIFICES

Wednesday, May 25th, 2016

[by Mark Safranski / “zen“]

Blood Sacrifices: Violent Non-State Actors and Dark Magico-Religious Activities edited by Robert J. Bunker

I’m very pleased to announce the publication of Blood Sacrifices, edited by Robert J. Bunker, to which Charles Cameron and I have both contributed chapters. Dr. Bunker has done a herculean job of shepherding this controversial book, where thirteen authors explore the dreadful and totemic cultural forces operating just beneath the surface of irregular warfare and religiously motivated extreme violence.

We are proud to have been included in such a select group of authors and I’m confident that many readers of ZP will find the book to their liking . If you study criminal insurgency, terrorism, hybrid warfare, 4GW, apocalyptic sects, irregular conflict or religious extremism, then the 334 pages of Blood Sacrifices has much in store for you.

Available for order at Amazon

Turner on Cultural Understanding and Influence In The Arena

Tuesday, May 17th, 2016

[by Mark Safranski / “zen“]

   

Pete Turner (Right)                                                       Anthony Iannarino

“Alcohol and hand grenades” is always the mark of a great interview.

Some ZP readers are familiar with business strategist and sales expert S. Anthony Iannarino due to his highly regarded and widely read The Sales BlogAnthony also has a podcast, In the Arena and in this week’s episode he interviews another friend of ZP, Pete Turner of The Break it Down Show.

Pete and Anthony discuss HUMINT, cultural understanding, John Boyd, Afghanistan, 4GW, trust building, relationships, organizational cultures and making connections through respect, analogs to the business world, institutional “tribes”, cross-cultural interactions, books and much more.

Give it a listen here. Strongest recommendation.


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