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Recommended Reading

Infinity Journal  (Adam Elkus) – Must American Strategy be Grand? 

Does America need a grand strategy? Is our current one defective? This essay submits that the concept of “grand strategy” in American policy discourse suffers from several major deficiencies. First, grand strategy is conceptualized as a dominant “big idea” instead of the steps that translate high concept into action. American grand strategy’s conceptualization of strategy is divorced from classical strategy’s instrumental focus on bridging violence and politics. American grand strategy’s present form simply adds a superficially strategic character to what is predominately ideological foregrounding to national policy.

Like a family, American grand strategy and classical strategy need not always agree. But classical strategy provides a framework from which grand strategy originated, and American grand strategy’s somewhat “grand” departure from this original grounding has not yielded greater analytical utility or practical value. It is time for a family reunion.

The Diplomat –The West’s First War with China 

….Today, China is modernizing at an incredible clipand the U.S. appears to be in decline. The technological balance is still in the West’s favor, but the situation is changing fast.

Maybe it’s an awareness of this rapidly-changing status quo that’s motivating Western experts to urge Washington to contain China, and it seems that President Barack Obama is moving in this direction, even as his Republican rivals urge even more ambitious military buildups.

Yet one rarely hears them making a much cheaper and ultimately more effective suggestion: to learn more about traditional Chinese warcraft and military affairs. No nation is so deeply imbued with its own history as China. Commanders in China’s armed forces are as deeply aware of China’s deep legacy of military thought as Zheng Chenggong and his generals were. They know their Sun Tzu, their Zhuge Liang, their Qi Jiguang. But they can also quote Clausewitz and Mahan and Petraeus. They know their own tradition, and they know the Western tradition. They’re following Sun Tzu’s advice: “Know your enemy and know yourself.” 

Thomas P.M. Barnett – The Hunger =the Hate 

On a walk last night and I was thinking about what I know about the future that I feel supremely confident about, and the answer that popped into my head is China’s coming difficulties.  Not that I wish it any harm – anything but.  It’s just that the hubris and the nationalism and the hunger for all things – all completely natural in a rise of this caliber – are combining to create antipathy abroad and extreme anxiousness at home.  The tough times that follow will force China into a scary and dangerous democratization. It happens to the best; it happens to the rest.  There is no Chinese “alternative.”

Neat pair of NYT stories to illustrate.

First one (above) is about an Asian art exhibit.  The paper version had the title that caught my eye:

East is East; West is Omnivorous

Exhibit covers the time period of Europe’s early global expansion and the apocalyptic views it generated among the conquered in Asia.

The only thing I thought when I saw the title was, now the worm has turned.  Now the West is West and the East is omnivorous.  And that hunger for all things creates the growing hatred of China…. 

Small Wars JournalNarrative Landmines 

Strategic communicators often dismiss rumors as untrue or as gossip and thus trivial. Yet research shows that rumors can have serious social, economic and political consequences. Rumors about President Obama’s birthplace, despite their falsity, have armed his political foes and distracted attention from his governance. Rumors that Jews or the Bush Administration were behind the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center extend and reinforce troubling stereotypes and conspiracy theories. And in Iraq and Afghanistan, rumors magnify the use of violence and ideology that shapes the allegiance of the contested population—those caught between supporting the host government and coalition forces on the one hand and the insurgency or Taliban on the other. Recognizing the importance of rumors, especially their function in periods of civic unrest, and understanding their nature and spread as a particular kind of story phenomena are the subjects of our recent book Narrative Landmines: Rumors, Islamist Extremism and the Struggle for Strategic Influence (Rutgers University Press, 2012). 

World Politics Review (Steven Metz) – Strategic Horizons: Strategic Retrenchment the Smart Way 

….Given all this, the question is not whether the United States will undertake strategic retrenchment, but where and how much. Should the United States lower its level of engagement in some parts of the world or even disengage entirely? If so, where? Africa, with its growing al-Qaida presence and expanding economies? Asia, with an increasingly menacing China? Europe, with its shared political values and historical ties to the United States? Or is it enough for the United States to simply resist certain types of actions, especially large-scale counterinsurgency operations like Iraq and Afghanistan? This latter approach has deep support among advocates of strategic retrenchment. Rather than direct engagement in regional security, they argue, the U.S. military should remain offshore or over the horizon, to be used only to prevent a hostile power from gaining outright control of some important region. What is not clear is whether this will be enough either to assure U.S. security or lower the costs of American strategy. 

Scholar’s Stage- Grand Strategy absent Grand Ends 

Global Guerrillas – How Drones Could Live off the Land for Years

AOL Defense – H.R. McMaster: Raiders, Advisers and the Wrong Lessons from Iraq 

SWJ Blog – To COIN or Not 

The Glittering Eye – Learned Nothing

Gene Expression – William D. Hamilton: Science without Artifice 

The New Atlanticist (James Joyner) – America’s Losing Streak 

Information Dissemination – What Land Power Sounds Like 

That’s it!


19 Responses to “Recommended Reading”

  1. J. Scott Shipman Says:

    Excellent list! Earlier this week I saw a James Holmes piece in The Diplomat worth of a recommendation, too. So much to read, so little time.

  2. Duncan Kinder Says:

    Re:  America’s Losing Streak.   America’s losing streat bears striking semblance to the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, where Indy is confronted by a Nijya-type assassin who makes this dazzling display of twirling knives.  Indy gives him an exasperated look, pulls out his revolver, and shoots him.  Here, it is the United States military that is making this dazzling display of high tech, shock and awe weaponry.   So the rest of the world gives it an exasperated look, deploys guerrilla tactics, and shoots it.

  3. Ski Says:

    I was at the McMaster speech yesterday. Was disappointed, too tactically focused, sounded like a cheerleading pitch for the Benning School for Wayward Adolescents (of which I am a member of)….

  4. Justin Boland Says:

    But they can also quote Clausewitz and Mahan and Petraeus.”

    That last one elicited a belly laugh from me. Petraeus? Is he really that big of a deal without the Kagans, though? Did he write anything that will outlive him?

    I don’t doubt that China’s military leadership quotes him, I’m just guessing the circumstances involve a lot of laughter at a bar somewhere.

  5. zen Says:

    Scott  – the missile vs. surface ship race seems to be a contest of physics (speed and energy vs. mass and density with distance being a key variable) there’s a limit to the explosive payload a non-nuclear cruise missile can carry before it resembles an IRBM/ICBM. It would seem that a combo of heavy armor (like old battleship 16 inches of steel plate) with layers of new composite materials would have a blunting effect that might turn “ship killers” into annoyances ( except maybe for carriers with their huge decks). Does this sound right or am i way off base?

  6. J. Scott Shipman Says:

    Hi Zen,
    In many respects I agree with you on the math/physics front. One problem is that we’ve decided to use sensors and interceptor missiles/projectiles as an answer to incoming missiles. These systems do work up to a point; once the system is overwhelmed, all bets are off. In the Vincennes incident, the CO had all the data, but made a poor decision. Our systems are good at identifying targets, but sorting is another matter.
    Many of the missiles in the inventories of our enemies are “dumb rounds”—no gps guidance/smart capability—but that is changing. An abiding concern has been the proliferation of gps-enabled precision munitions.
    To “beef up” a ship increases weight/sacrifices space, which increases the power necessary to move the mass through the water; maneuverability and range suffer.
    Shore-based “smart missiles” (or even the dumb ones) could complicate the ability of a force to project ashore. Germans with sensors and missiles would make the surprise of Normandy impossible today. Of course, missiles on our side would change the dynamics, too.
    Like the Falklands, there will be a lot of missiles fired that never reach their target, however as these smart weapons proliferate, more and more will—and it is good to remember the missile need not destroy the ship, only disable for the next round, or decrease its ability to fight. War at sea is attrite warfare, and we’re nearing an all-time low in the numbers of hulls available. 

  7. Scott Says:

    Justin – I would disagree.  They probably study him as a typical example of American warfighting for the current time.  Whether he’s any good or not doesn’t matter.  I’m sure Lee studied Meade and McClellan, since he had to fight them.

  8. Mr. X Says:

    On a much smaller scale than the looming clash between the U.S. and a rising China’s ambitions, complete with a chip on its shoulder from the 19th century humiliations at the hands of foreigners, etc is the present drama between the EUrocrats who think a levy of 10-15% on Russians and others savings in Cyprus is a respectable bureaucratic solution to a problem and those in Moscow who (correctly, in my view) see the Cypriot heist as an act of economic warfare, the financial equivalent of Saakashvili being given the green light to attack Russian peacekeepers and attempt to expel Russian backed separatists by force during the Beijing Olympics of 08/08/08.

    I have been shocked by Jeremy Warner of the UK Telegraph, and even Charles Krauthaummer in a more tongue in cheek perhaps fashion suggesting that it would be perfectly acceptable for the EU to seize all the Russian money in the Cyprus banking system on the grounds that it’s ‘dirty’ or ‘laundered’ money anyway. One wonders as many people have should depositors of Wells Fargo or HSBC take a ‘haircut’ indiscriminately since massive amounts of Mexican drug cartel cash have admittedly been laundered through this institutions? And how would the U.S. react should a desperate Irish government accept an ultimatum from the EU to seize 10-15% of Google or GE’s profits banked offshore in Irish banks (in other words, put there for the same reason Gazprombank or Vympelcom have their assets in Cypriot banks?)

    Aside from the question of due process and the West’s own stated respect for certain boundaries (which again were exposed during the 08/08/08 episode as rather thin fig leafs) there’s also the matter of retaliation.

    In my opinion the EUrocrats have fundamentally miscalculated, thinking that Russia like an abused spouse has no where to go and can never retaliate seriously when struck. I have a feeling Brussels is going to find out what a financial strike against the euro looks like (to say nothing of Godfather II or Godfather III-closing montage scenarios regarding the personal sanctity of Msrs. Schauble or his co-conspirators — I believe Putin is too civilized to adopt Michael Corleone methods of defending ‘the Family’ now).  

    I believe the Kremlin may decide very well to go for the jugular in financial terms, first by announcing the Russian Central Bank is dumping billions of euros from its holdings in exchange for a new influx of fixed exchange rate yuan. And second, ‘Londongrad’ aka the City of London might also become a substantially less attractive destination for Russian capital, should Putin’s aides determine what screws are best to turn to encourage the repatriation of capital from there. Understanding, as John Helmer claims, that behind the EUrocrat money grab is a City of London conspiracy against a rival banking center and the biggest single rival for offshored Russian cash. The UK seems to think itself untouchable simply on the basis that Londongrad or Londonistan itself is the single biggest financial laundering centre in the world, and the British economy despite all the tisk tisking of the Economist or FT (which themselves as Helmer points out have offshore vehicles in Luxembourg) could not survive without Russian, Middle Eastern or African graft. 

  9. Mr. X Says:

    So while you respectable gentlemen discuss the intricacies of future warfare that will make flattops obsolete, I speak in the present tense of Jim Rickards’ ‘currency wars’ and Rickards recently telling Max Keiser on his RT-aired show that Russia is the best prepared out of all the great powers with bulleon stockpiles to fight a currency war. It would appear that war just went from the sitzkrieg to the hot phase last weekend in Cyprus.

    Remember Rickards was the fellow the Pentagon invited to ‘wargame’ a scenario where China and Russia both announce their currencies are gold backed and permanently divorced from the petrodollar, only accepting gold or barter/cash equivalents for goods rather than fiat USD. 

  10. larrydunbar Says:

    Of course Mr. X, it could be that the only thing that trumps a currency war is a war war. In the South China Sea and the Pacific you got no one wanting China to be their warlord, although Australia has gone from calling China a totalitarian to an authoritarian and now assertive regime. 

    and now this: “Furthermore, the U.S. wants the two countries to coordinate their responses to the Syrian conflict and Iran’s suspected attempts to develop a nuclear weapon.” http://theweek.com/article/index/241797/israel-apologizes-to-turkey-a-diplomatic-coup-for-obama

    I am just saying a Turkey/Israel alliance could be interpreted as a slap in the Russian bear’s face, if Israel and Turkey became involved in securing Syria, and a Sunni “pivot” moves east from Syria towards Iran through Iraq. Of course goodness knows what would make the Sunni move east.  ha!

  11. zen Says:

    Mr. X,
    The gambit to seize depositors savings in Cyprus was a terrible precedent. IMHO opinion:
    This is an idea the transnational financial – private, public and IGO – were trying as a “trial balloon” with Cyprus because it is a small, weak, divided, state with plenty of shady depositors. The overwhelming negative reaction was a very good thing
    Note Bernancke’s tepid response to Cyprus. He was watching to see if confiscation would fly because asset seizure here would mean less need to inflate the dollar and a temprarily lower budget deficits
    The EU would not seize Google or GE deposits because the UK, Netherlands, Benelux have been investing in the US since the 1860’s. They would come out on the losing end if the US retaliated and nationalized property or accounts held by Europeans or EU corporations. 

  12. Madhu Says:

    I’m glad Adam Elkus wrote that piece because I never understood the whole, “we don’t need a grand strategy thing.” Now I see that is because my idea of grand strategy (which I think the US needs) is the more practical affair Adam describes, or Fabius Maximus describes:
    Because I was working backwards-my “big” idea to be developed from the more practical matters-I was sort of on the outs with everybody in this discussion. Now I see the issue, Adam is describing the tendency of American strategists and their big idea-ism whereas I wanted something more practical and we both calling it “Grand Strategy.”
    Moderation or practicality can be “big ideas” too…. 

  13. Madhu Says:

    Why do these things make sense in my head but when I try and write my ideas out they just sound weird? I really need to take an adult writing class, but, honestly, I also need to do some filing and clean out the closets and which do you think is going to win out?

  14. zen Says:

    Hi Doc Madhu,
    Adam wrote a nice piece. Clausewitzians have trouble with grand strategy as a concept because it also connects to policy and politics which are not “strategy” as classically understood, yet it is an obviously related and complementary framework. Without a coherent grand strategy your acts of strategy would appear to be ad hoc. reactive, unrelated cases of warfare fought to no larger purpose and without a clear yardstick for which wars were worth fighting and where diplomacy or concessions are a wiser alternative.
    Grand strategy is something more structured and goal directive than “foreign policy”, which tends to be in practice and when left to professional diplomats and lawyers appointed to national security positions for which they have no real qualifications, “muddling through” and “crisis management”. Yet grand strategy is also much more flexible, less time oriented and more open-ended than classical strategy. “Containment” for example, was a grand strategy that was expressed as  1. doctrine (Truman Doctrine), 2. policy (Marshall Plan, Berlin Airlift,  NSC-68, NATO, Alliance for Progress, Arms Control) 3. strategy (Korea, Vietnam, NATO war planning, Grenada) 4. Covert Operations (Iran, Guatemala, Bay of Pigs, El Salvador, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Angola, Mozambique) 5. diplomacy (innumerable) and 6. politics (reinforced anticommunism). In short, all DIME levers of national power were used to pursue containment in different ways for nearly a half century.
    Some clausewitzians prefer to say grand strategy is “statecraft”, which it is, but without employing the same kind of strategic thinking skills used in classical strategy what you will have is bad statecraft or at best, clever tactical geopolitics with no greater or long term purpose in mind. So if “grand strategy” is not “strategy” it is at least it’s brother.
    Regarding your other question:
    Why do these things make sense in my head but when I try and write my ideas out they just sound weird?
    It is probably the significant gap between the explicit (what you write) and the implicit (the operative assumptions behind what you thought).
    Remember, we don’t think fastest in consciously formed words in our mind but in intuitive leaps, pictures and metaphors. I find that people who are by aptitude stronger in their nonverbal intelligence (the math/science nerds) have a relatively much harder time breaking down their chain of reasoning into concrete and defined steps that other ppl can recognize than do ppl with a higher verbal intelligence. This is also why software engineer types can be so smart yet design such shitty user interfaces/dashboards on their programs that leave everyone else saying ‘WTF?” when they look at the screen. 

  15. T. Greer Says:

    The Diplomat article was an interesting one. I have thought about it for a few days now. I think the central problem I have with it is that Andrade makes it sound as if the only reason Western experts do not know about Chinese strategic/military history is because they don’t want to. There is some truth in that. But as the post I wrote in response points out, the scholarship on this issue makes it hard for them. There is no parity with the English language sources and studies on the Chinese and Western military traditions. A lot of serious scholarship needs to happen before Andrade’s point can be taken seriously. 

  16. L. C. Rees Says:

    Lack of good English translations of the more obscure non-English works is a critical problem in strategic studies. The translation effort that produced the Howard-Paret translation of On War was originally supposed to translate all of Clausewitz’s work. That fell through so you end up with discussions of On War without the many military histories and other material Clausewitz wrote while forming his (unfinished) book.

    However, many English students of strategic studies fail to read the non-English works with passable translations. Ralph Sawyer’s produced many translations of significant Chinese military works:


    including the other six military classics besides the Bing-fa. His introductions and chapter notes are among the best reads among the paucity of English works on ancient Chinese military history that I’ve read.

    I’d like a collection that included all of his Bing-fa material plus Swen Wu’s supposed great-grandson Swen Bin’s Bing-fa (translated by Sawyer as Sun Pin’s Military Methods). 
    The only semi-prominent Western military historian who seems to have a command of non-European military history is Jeremy Black.

  17. zen Says:

    I was leafing through sawyer’s translation of The Art of War today in a bookstore, by happenstance.
    To add an additional comment, I am given to understand from a dude who studies the PLA and Chinese defense policy for a living and can read the language, while the Chinese are a lot more opaque about military affairs than are we, they openly discuss, publish and debate a surprising amount compared to the Soviets, or in past decades under Mao. It’s simply in Chinese and we don’t bother to spend pennies developing a few thousand linguists to analyze China the way we methodically did with Russian in the late 1940’s and 1950’s. We were at ground zero on Russian language at the start of the Cold War and only had a few Russia experts like Kennan and Bohlen by quirk of an enlightened program decades earlier to develop Foreign Service Officers. So the USG went into overdrive to get universities to produce grads in Russian studies. Nothing like that is happening now, unless you count the effort *China* is making through proxy groups to promote the study of the Chinese language here. It’s downright embarrassing.

  18. seydlitz89 Says:

    Nice post zen.
    A few thoughts on “Grand Strategy” from a Clausewitzian perspective:
    I read and liked Adam Elkus’s article, but would make two points here.  First, Kennan’s “grand idea” of containment was a “strategy” from a strategic theory perspective (classical strategy) in that it was both contingent and took place within a specific political context.  This is one of the arguments that this Clausewitzian at least has against most of the “grand ideas” as “strategies” tossed about today.  They are neither contingent nor based on a specific political context and reflect more a geo-strategic wishlist or notions of American exceptionalism which have done much to contribute to the last decade of US strategic failure.  The second point from Adam’s article refers to his use of Max Weber, where he writes, “No one man or woman can visualize the complexity of the interactions inherent in the social world and the natural processes that gave rise to it.”  While I agree with his characterization of Weber’s view of the social sciences, is Adam implying that Weber is a materialist?  Do these “natural processes” dictate Weberian social action?  I would say no . . . since there are no “natural” processes in this sense, only historical ones, that is human ones based on subjective meanings and contingencies.
    From a Clausewitzian perspective, the application of strategic theory to strategic planning is limited to a conceptual framework, an approach or way of thought rather than a set of applicable principles.  Colin Gray has expanded this a bit by also seeing “grand strategy” as a set of characteristics prevalent within a specific strategic culture, but this too is firmly rooted in military history, that is remains retrospective.
    Perhaps Clausewitz’s clearest statement on strategic planning is not in On War, but in his first letter to Major von Röder in 1827:
    “War in its relation to policy has above all the obligation and the right to prevent policy from making demands that are contrary to the nature of war, to save it from misusing the military instrument from a failure to understand what it can and cannot do.
    Consequently I must insist that the military goals of both sides are stated whenever a strategic plan is drawn up.  For the most part these goals arise out of the political relations of the two antagonists to each other, and to other states that may be involved.  Unless these relations are outlined, a plan can be nothing more than a combination of temporal and spatial relationships, directed toward some arbitrary goal – a battle, siege, etc.  To the extent that the goal cannot be shown as necessary or superior to others, it can be challenged and contradicted by other projects, without these coming any nearer the absolute truth than did the first plan.  That is, indeed, the history of all strategic discussions until today.  Everyone rotates within some arbitrary circle.  No one tries to push his argument back to the origins of the war that is to be fought, to its true motive, to the one and only point where the logical development and conclusion of the military operations can alone originate.”
    Emphasis is Clausewitz’s.  What passes for “strategy” in the US for the most part today, imo, are notions of American exceptionalism trapped within a Bormann device paradigm emphasizing exclusively the “tactical”.   A Clausewitzian analysis of US strategic dysfunction over the last 10 years would be blistering and not very conducive to gaining employment in any of the Beltway think tanks . . . 

  19. zen Says:

    Hi Seydlitz,
    This is one of the arguments that this Clausewitzian at least has against most of the “grand ideas” as “strategies” tossed about today.  They are neither contingent nor based on a specific political context and reflect more a geo-strategic wishlist or notions of American exceptionalism which have done much to contribute to the last decade of US strategic failure.

    Yes, many of the efforts at grand strategy are in search of a problem to solve (in which case they are not a grand strategy but a speculative exercise) and expect to succeed through deus ex machina or they are pure domestic politics, trying to wrap something partisan in the mantle of “national security” to make seem apolitical or “above” politics – like the “sustainment crowd which is looking for a rationale for creating a self-aggrandizing technocratic oligarchy.
    While I agree with his characterization of Weber’s view of the social sciences, is Adam implying that Weber is a materialist? 

    Not certain. Adam’s primary focus at the moment is mastering several quantitative tools to deal with a complexity issue in his dissertation, not sure how much Weber he had at Georgetown. 
    from a Clausewitzian perspective, the application of strategic theory to strategic planning is limited to a conceptual framework, an approach or way of thought rather than a set of applicable principles.  Colin Gray has expanded this a bit by also seeing “grand strategy” as a set of characteristics prevalent within a specific strategic culture, but this too is firmly rooted in military history, that is remains retrospective
    I like the description “as an approach or way of thought” and the bit on culture. First because strategy involves a cognitive style of thinking, of approaching problems. Secondly I think there are “strategic cultures” that are informed both by the larger culture with an ethical-moral framework and by political passions generated within that culture at large. If a statesman tries to look forward or plan, vice a retrospective description of what happened, they need an acute awareness of their strategic culture’s limitations, the blind spots because these indicate tasks a military organization or political community will do less well, or dangers they may fail to recognize. This is even harder in America given Exceptionalism, the narrow parochialism of most Americans (including our supposedly cosmopolitan elite) and the wealth of resources which historically have been used to paper over the need to make strategic and policy choices. Scarcity may be the handmaiden of strategic thinking

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