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Disputing Global Dystopia:Phillips on “Our Dark Age Future”

Longtime reader Isaac recently alerted me to an important article in the most recent edition of PARAMETERS. Some excerpts:

Deconstructing our Dark Age Future” by LTC. P. Michael Phillips

….This article suggests that the system of Westphalian states is not in decline, but that it never existed beyond a utopian allegory exemplifying the American experience. As such, the Dark Age thesis is really not about the decline of the sovereign state and the descent of the world into anarchy. It is instead an irrational response to the decline of American hegemony with a naïve emphasis on the power of nonstate actors to compete with nation-states. The analysis concludes that because the current paradigm paralysis places a higher value on overstated threats than opportunities, our greatest hazard is not the changing global environment we live in, but our reaction to it.

….The state as described in this article differs greatly from the ideal imagined in the Westphalian paradigm. States do not universally enjoy unrestricted sovereignty. Nor are they equal. In fact, the sovereignty of a great number of the states in the international system is merely ascriptive.27 Because these imperfect conditions have more or less existed since long before 1648, it may be more helpful to think of any observed chaos in the international system as the natural condition, rather than a decline into disorder. If the system is not melting down, are so-called nonstate actors as significant for the long-term as they appear to be for the present?

….For some observers, this so-called NSA victory over a modern state underscores their warnings of impending global chaos. But in making this declaration, they fail to appreciate the source of Hezbollah’s strength: its dependent relationship with Iran, and to a somewhat lesser extent, Syria. Hezbollah did not create out of whole cloth its impressive array of modern weapons, nor did it independently develop the tactics, techniques, and procedures to employ them. Instead, Iranian weapons completed Hezbollah’s impressive arsenal, and Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps advisers created the command and control center that coordinated the militiamen’s missiles.

Read the whole thing here.

This was an interesting read for me; many points with which to agree and disagree. A few thoughts in no particular order:

I am sympathetic to Col. Phillips’ criticisms of the overly abstract and detached nature of IR in regard to the nature of international law and sovereignty. You can certainly see that “arid” and “imperialistic” attitude in many academics and NGO activists who like to present their novel theories and interpretations as “international law” when they lack any historical basis whatsoever (and are usually gamed to be highly restrictive on the authority of Western sovereign states to use force and permissive/exculpatory of the actions of Marxist/radical/Islamist terrorists or insurgents).  Much of Phillips’ condemnation of IR smacking of unreality from a practitioner’s perspective is spot on.

That said, while definitely fuzzy and spottily adhered to in practice international law is not entirely “illusory”, nor is it a byproduct of 20th century Wilsonian American exceptionalism as Phillips argued. Perhaps Hugo Grotius rings a bell? Or Alberico Gentili? Or the long history of admirality courts? Like common law or an unwritten tribal code, international law has evolved over a very long period of time and does exert some constraint upon the behavior of sovereigns. Statesmen and diplomats think about policy in terms of the impression it will make on other sovereigns, and international law is one of the yardsticks they contemplate.  Admittedly, at times the constraint of international law is quite feeble but in other contexts it is strong. An American military officer, who can see firsthand the effect of creeping JAG lawyerism on command decisions on the battlefield ( in my view, greatly excessive and harmful ) and in the drafting of byzantine ROE, should know better than to make such a silly statement.

Phillips main argument is about the direction of international relations and non-state actors and he comes down firmly on the supremacy of states, at least the Great Powers and regional power states enacting an age-old realpolitik. Non-state actors are an overhyped and trendy threat and really amount to a continuation of traditional proxy warfare, where powers harass each other by subsidizing barbarian “raiders”; Phillips makes much use of Hezbollah as a modern example. Juxtaposed against the more extreme claims of the 4GW school or of Martin van Creveld, Phillips criticism looks reasonable because it is easy to make an empirical case that falsifies the absolutist claim that all states everywhere are in decline or that war is endemic.  They are not and war is not.

Matched against the real world however, Phillips’ argument suffers. In terms of sovereignty and legitimacy, the globe is a ball of swiss cheese – in what Thomas P.M. Barnett terms “the Gap” there are deep holes in Africa, Asia and even Latin America where states could be but are not. Somalia has not had a state since 1991. The Congo is a vast swath of warlordism and democide on a scale of millions (!). The Lebanese government is the de facto junior partner in Lebanon to the Hezbollah militia. Mexico next door is increasingly militarizing its law enforcement apparatus toward full-blown counterterrorism and COIN because of the erosion of state authority vs. the anarchy being spread by the narco-cartels. Are sovereign states more stable and authoritative than fifty years ago? Some are. Many are not. Others are relatively fragile potemkin villages. This is why 4GW theory, while historically flawed, retains analytical strategic resonance – in some regions of the world, the premises of 4GW apply very well. Better in fact, than the traditional schools of thought.

Again, Phillips has written an interesting and thought-provoking article with salient ideas. My problem rests more with the length to which he takes some of his assertions. Phillips swings the pendulum a little too far in the opposite direction where a synthesis would serve better.


Dr. Charli Carpenter at The Duck of Minerva, weighs in on Phillips with  Westphalian Illusions.

25 Responses to “Disputing Global Dystopia:Phillips on “Our Dark Age Future””

  1. historyguy99 Says:


    What brain food have you been eating my man?

    This post reflects an excellent demonstration of metacognition at work. You have penned a sound analysis of Phillip’s piece, that para-phrases the main point and moves on to aptly point out the holes in his thesis.

  2. zen Says:

    Hi Tom,
    Gracias! Just finished Goldsworthy’s How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower and I am about 25 % through Caesar’s Commentaries on the Conquest of Gaul & the Civil Wars.  Starting something new later today – maybe Bousquet’s scientific warfare book, maybe Nisbett’s one on Intelligence

  3. Roy Lofquist Says:

    Dear Sir,

    Your site does not play well with Firefox. One of the reasons I prefer Firefox is that to change text size you press Ctrl+ or Ctrl-. In Internet Explorer you must click the View Menu, Text Size, Choose from five options. Us old decrepit guys play around with text size a lot.

    The site works as it should with IE but with Firefox it expands horizontally also and the left side of the page disappears. Scroll bar does not work.

    I understand that Firefox has limited popularity but from my experience those who surf blogs such as yours tend to prefer Firefox beyond its general popularity.


    Roy Lofquist
    Titusville, Florida

  4. Roy Lofquist Says:

    As to the article, Jacques Derrida would be proud. The referenced article uses the "literalist" approach to spin its tale. Literalist – seize upon the dictionary definition of a word then expound upon its misapplication in a particular case. Of course, if people would consult the OED (Oxford English Dictionary, 26 volumes) they would see what an intellectual fraud it is.

  5. Duncan Kinder Says:

    If George B.N. Ayittey, president of the Free Africa Foundation,  is correct, then the continuing existence of the Westphalian state in Africa actually contributes to its political problems.

    He states:

    The implosion starts when a politically excluded group, fed up with the rotten status quo, mounts a rebel insurgency. Africa’s rebel leaders do not seek to redraw artificial colonial boundaries; they want power and head straight to the capital city. The ensuing wars cause wanton destruction and horrific carnage. Rebel leaders seize power but often they are worse than the despots they replaced. Then the cycle begins again. As Africans often say: ‘We struggle very hard to remove one cockroach from power, but then the next rat comes to do the same thing.’

    Following this logic, replacing Africa’s current Westphalian states with some other arrangement would not hurt and, conceivably could help.

  6. zenpundit.com » Blog Archive » Disputing Global Dystopia:Phillips on “Our Dark Age Future” « The Image Says:

    […] via zenpundit.com » Blog Archive » Disputing Global Dystopia:Phillips on “Our Dark Age Future”. […]

  7. Richard B Says:


    Thanks for yet another thoughtful post. I would add that, measured in terms of impact, non-governmental belligerents have been the source of more recent problems than states or state surrogates. Pakistan and Mexico come first to mind, but 911, London, Bali and Madrid are also current decade. Hamas, I agree, is clearly a valid counterexample, and hardly alone as such. In terms of actionable analysis, isn’t the likely near future, albeit uncertain, more important than the recent past? What does your own crystal ball say about NGBs’ importance in next-decade conflicts?

  8. zen Says:

    Hi Roy,
    I looked at the site in Firefox earlier today and it was ok.  My suspicion that your problem stemmed from either a) the window was not fully enlarged or, more likely, b) the size setting in regard to reading the font is not on default mode. Let me know if that was not the case and I’ll ask my trusty webmaster what else might be going on.
    Dr. Charli at Duck of Minerva also found the Phillips article oddly pomo BTW. Maybe he was influenced by IDF General Naveh’s briefs last year?
    Hi Duncan,
    I kind of agree with you. If we could wave a magic wand and create polities along ethnographic-tribal- other associational lines, Africa might de-escalate in terms of conflict, at least for a time. Not sure how that could be accomplished except by letting regions hit rock bottom anarchy ( Somalia and Congo have done so) and accept whatever emerges naturally instead of having the UN and west try to shoehorn everyone back into what Bismarck and Palmerston considered proper lines.
    Hi Richard B.
    I think the rubber hits the road when desktop manufacturing intersects with robotics and nanotech. We’ll see the tipping point with the first act of autonomous robotic terrorism launched by some shadowy group. Can’t say for certain as to the timeline – John Robb, Jamais Cascio or Shlok Vaidya might make better guesses than me – but I will put that at circa 2018-2025. DIY Drone terrorism much earlier though, doable now, quite frankly.

  9. dust Says:

    hmm anybody read manuel castells here?
    or maybe bruce sterling some new cyberpunk is better ?

  10. YT Says:

    dust: Bruce Sterling writes great work. But I’d suggest readin’ The History of the Peloponnesian to understand our present & the upcomin’ dystopic future.

  11. YT Says:

    C***! I meant History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides.

  12. Roy Lofquist Says:


    I Checked "allow pages to choose their own fonts…". Same thing. I’m using Firefox 3.5.2.

    With all the crazy fonts and color schemes out there I generally surf with override. I probably visit more than 50 sites a day – I get a lot of exercise just putting on my glasses and taking them off.

    Thanks for responding and checking it out.


  13. Ed Beakley Says:

    Before this post gets pushed into blog deep history, couple of questions/comments:
    1) you and others (mostly on SWJ) have questioned the historical legitimacy of 4GW. Can you provide more?  To me 4GW is a very useful window for viewing this century, very much helping to highlight IMO some very serious aspects that other views of warfare only serve to characterize as "well, you know  guerrilla warfare has been around forever, etc., etc." I don’t think it necessary for4Gw to be a died-in-the-wool, bonified by Colin Grey, Col Antonio E, or World College of Historical TRUTH to be a very useful tool, one we discard at our own peril.  Maybe its a Masters in Aeronautical Engineering vice one in History or Sociology, but I cringe when war/warfare analysts appear to apply and require Laplace equations to define theories of war.

    4GW, to me, is a extremely valid "operational thread" running through organized violence and conflict.  Exact theory unnecessary, not possible and probably not useful if it were refined to the point of THEORY OF WAR. (others in similar nature are Tofflers’ "Waves" of war, and Robert Bunker’s "Epochs" – all similar, all with different wrinkles, and all usefull without requiring holy blessing, no?

    2) The article by the Col was very interesting.  Great article if a few very strange sentences were changed.  It seems to be another in a grouping of thought encompassing "what next?" related to Hybrid Warfare, Irregular Warfare, COIN and how we define our future roles and missions, technology to be bought, Re- organizing the DoD/military, etc.

    3) In same light, all the current grinding of teeth on Afghanistan and frankly bewildering rewriting of "what we should have known on Sept 12, 2001," IMO masks understanding of conflict in our world right now.  New definitions: 1)4GW is suddenly just Insurgency, and 2) oh God we panicked we should have just chased down and arrested those 9-11 badboys, and 3) since the 9-11 attacks weren’t planned in A, what’s our justification for staying there, if AQ comes back after we leave, we’ll just surgically go fix that????
    The Col at least mentioned the need for sanctuary for non-state players.

    Enough, good post as is newest on relious aspects.

  14. zen Says:

    Hi Ed,
    Great and fair questions. Here is my basic thought on 4GW after thinking about it the last four or five years or so and why I wrote the phrase "historically flawed":
    In my view, 4GW is useful as an *evolving* *strategic theory* to explain warfare under certain sociopolitical conditions ( for example, the warlord era of China, 1911-1949,  failed state Somalia today, Lebanon in the 1980’s etc.) or as an abstract taxonomy of conflict to teach about the intersection/connection between societal development and the levels of war. 4GW thinkers "scored well" in their predictions of the outcome of the 2006 Hezbollah-Israeli War and I will go out on a limb and say that given a real-world scenario or case study where a state is failing, 4GW experts are more likely than conventional analysts to catch the possible trajectories of events when force is being employed by the state, insurgents or by loyalist paramilitaries.
    I part company with 4GW where an attempt is made to scale the theory up to a global, systemic, analysis of everything. This is a level where empirical history becomes important in determining causation of major trends by providing a comprehensive evidence. That work has yet to be done and it begins on a base that was, to some extent, arbitrarily chosen in a historical sense by aligning 1GW with Europe’s gunpowder revolution and close order drill of Gustavus Adolphus. That was a convenience of examples to support the theory, but it is not how historians assemble evidence and conduct an analysis. As a result, military historians are inclined to pick at 4GW by pointing out the historical alinearity contained in many of the generations ( Boyd, for that matter, saw- literally- "patterns of conflict" emerging through a great span of history and cultures). 4GW is much closer to, say, IR in epistemology than it is to military history. I guess a succinct way of putting it is that the foundations of 4GW do not justify that large of an extrapolation of its principles.
    This doesn’t make 4GW "wrong" in my view, so much as it gives 4GW parameters where it applies best ( or better than other theories). Strategic Theory and History are different fields – they enrich each other but are not substitutes for one another.

  15. Dave Schuler Says:

    BTW, Latin, Mark, Latin.  The Gallic Wars is fairly easy.  Required reading for first year Latin for generations.

  16. zen Says:

    You know your educational history Dave – though, if I recall correctly, you lived this particular one 🙂
    My experience with Portuguese in college showed me the limits of my mediocre aptitude for other languages. After 10 semester hours I could read it at the basic newspaper level, speak very haltingly and comprehend it poorly, exceptly when spoken slowly, as if to a dimwitted child. My hearing was part of the problem but only part. The late start was worse.

  17. Dave Schuler Says:

    Indeed.  I struggled through <i>Commentarii De Bello Gallico</i> as a lad of thirteen in first year Latin, later the Aeneid and Georgics, then Cicero and Horace..Don’t they require Latin for history degree work any more?  IIRC used to be that all history grad students needed some Latin.

  18. zen Says:

    Required Latin?  No, just 6 or 9 hours of any foreign language for a BA. None for MA. Admission to many doctoral programs requires proficiency on a TOEFL equivalent for a foreign language,  but some universities, even top tier ones, will sometimes let you skate by with quantitative methods alone. I think the only programs requiring Latin these days are the the rare classics studies. Of course, if you want a PhD in ancient history, you’d better know Latin and Greek at a minimum.

  19. Ed Beakley Says:

    "foundations of 4GW do not justify that large of an extrapolation of its principles.
    …This doesn’t make 4GW "wrong" in my view, so much as it gives 4GW parameters where it applies best ( or better than other theories). "

    Absolutely! Yet eight years after 9-11, has von C’s ditate to first know the kind of war you’re in been addressed? Many debate the "government-military-people" trinity or non-trinity, but does anyone really make effort to include the people in reaching an undrstanding.  "The Long War" briefs were a try and in my opinion actually very well thought out. (without ever using the term they were 4GW in nature, again IMO), but how was that term received?

    Criticism was immediately "well, Sun Tzu said,"  and "oh God they’re delaring perpetual war."  Never mind the fact thast true threat analysis indicates with the dynamics, diversity, basis of where the threat came from, there is no possibilty of a "short version," at least not as long as the other side chooses to play. (And play he seems to want to do given your post above)

    So where are we, a whole crowd of experienced folks believe war is war is war no adjectives need apply, yet we now have "improved COIN, Hybrid War, Irregular war, none completely answering the good Prussian’s requirement and the folks, well they’re just tired of it all.

    I can’t speek for Bill Lind or anyone who may have desired to "extrapolate" or predict the future, but on review of the original 1989 document, and rereading Eric Walters piece arguing the point on SWJ,  I still believe making 4GW a more useable concept provides the best possible lens to provide some definition and clarity, if not for the military purist, then certainly for the people part of the trinity.

    I noted when reviewing those old SWJ posts, most of the detractors stopped after Col Walters piece, and despite your offer for red team/blue team analysis, nothing happened.  I thought for sometime Fabius was going to continue his series on 4Gw, but he seems to have concluded that its just insurgency and we shouldn’t do that stuff.  IMO the debates on Afghanistan and on future definition of XXX war/warfare all suffer for lack of debate, being more interested in individual pet rocks (no matter how good) and debunked a minor part of the 4GW construct, the use of the term generations.

    I think your offer on SWJ was a great idea.  And as an add, the original article took into account technology which many today throw out with the wash- not liking NCW/transformation – but the techy stuff is really out there, whether the past SecDef over played or not.  So it must be included which brings in the 5Gw guys (a part of 4Gw or a separate thing?)

    Sorry to ramble but ther’e a huge analysis-synthesis snowmobile out there that just isn’t getting built.  So says "Boris"

  20. Ed Beakley Says:

    Bill Lind some time back offered a 4GW Canon.  For taking a shot at, how about this for discussion on 4GW volume #2 (some are obvious, others???):

    1. Co T.X. Hammes  -The Sling and the Stone
    2. Gen Rupert Smith – The Utility of War; The Art of War in the Modern World
    3. John Robb – Brave New War
    4. Peter Braestrup – Big Story;; How the American Press and Television Reported and Interpreted the Crisis of Tet in 1968 in Vietnam and Washington
    5. Dr. Boaz Ganor – The Counter-Terrorism Puzzle; A Guide for Decision Makers
    6. John Arquilla and David Ronfelt – Networks and Netwars 
    7. Alvin and Heidi Toffler – War and Anti-War
    8. David Kilcullen – The Accidental Guerrilla
    9. John Nagel – Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife
    10. Max Boot  – The Savage Wars of Peace
    11. Richard Shultz and Andrea Drew – Insurgents, Terrorists and Militias
    12. Nassim Nicholas Taleb – The Black Swan
    13. CFhet Richards – If we Can Keep It
    14. Colin Gray – Another Bloody Century

    Bakers Dozen +1 ???????????

  21. zen Says:

    Hi Ed,
    "….but on review of the original 1989 document, and rereading Eric Walters piece arguing the point on SWJ,  I still believe making 4GW a more useable concept provides the best possible lens to provide some definition and clarity, if not for the military purist, then certainly for the people part of the trinity."
    Yes this desire for "military purism" in the debate and for limiting the debate is part of the problem, even at SWC. There has to be a "conversational bridge" for these concepts between the defense community and civilian policy appointees and politicians in the national security community who are not by training or experience enmeshed in the fine points of mil theory/strategy debate. Then it also has to be likewise communicated effectively to the non-USG "influencer" public figures, esp. those with platforms and finally to the public at large. The mil purists – many of whom are ppl I respect and have acheivment under their belts – are uncomfortable with the ideas being discussed at a less than at a high and technically precise level.
    Well, on that point they need to simply go f***k off, pardon my french. I have lost patience for that attitude.This discussion isn’t a Saturday afternoon hobby but an effort to reorient the strategic policy of the USG. That can’t be done entirely in-house with the defense community intellectuals. It requires comprehension and "buy-in" by civilian leaders and political support from the general public, which means teaching and proselytizing with some degree of tolerance for those who come to the table without the right kind of background to initially "get it".
    Rant concluded. 🙂
    Will opine on booklist later today….thx Ed!

  22. Larry Dunbar Says:

    I had some problems posting, I hope this doesn’t double-post.

    "Rant concluded."

    More! More!

  23. Ed Beakley Says:

    You are point on. No rant at all.  You don’t have to buy every word of Bill Lind to see we’ve got some dogs out there that don’t hunt, but then there’s some that do.  Think we’re in violent agreement.  Have made a note to Chet Richards and posted some of this over on John Sullivan’s GroupIntel Network section on "Boyd, 4GW Theory, and Criminal Insurgency" –  http://network.groupintel.com/

  24. zen Says:

    Don’t egg me on, Larry. 😉
    Ed, I’d add ( in no particular order):
    1. Frank Hoffman’s Hybrid War article
    2. News and the Culture of Lying by Paul Weaver
    3. Tactics of the Crescent Moon by Poole
    4. All of the 3G Gang articles/books by Sullivan and Bunker
    5. The Handbook of 5GW (forthcoming from Nimble Books)
    6. 28 Articles by Kilcullen
    7. Voices of Terror by LaQueur
    8. Annihiation from Within by Ikle
    9. The al Qaida strategy treatise by al-Suri
    10. Catechism of a Revolutionary by Sergei Nechaev

  25. Ed Beakley Says:

    Great add, have read #s 1, 3, 4 and 6.  More reading … thanks

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