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Friday, November 25th, 2016

[by Steven Metz]

I was introduced to Thucydides in Professor George Liska’s classes on international politics at the Johns Hopkins University. Before coming to the United States Dr. Liska has served in the Czech foreign ministry but fled after the communist coup of 1948 and ended up studying political science at Harvard about the same time as other European emigres like Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski who later shaped the way Americans thought about statecraft. Like them (and other scholars with a European background like Hans Morgenthau), Liska approached statecraft from a power based, realist perspective solidly grounded in history. It made perfect sense, then, that he found Thucydides a useful heuristic device for guiding students through the complexities of statecraft. Liska also recognizes that there was no more perfect encapsulation of the asymmetric relationship between a great power and a smaller one than Thucydides’ depiction of the Melian Dialogue in which Athens, ancient Greek’s dominant power at the time, attempted to convince the small island state of Melos to abandon its neutrality and become a tribute-paying, secondary ally.

While the Melian Dialogue is only a few pages of Thucydides’ magisterial history of the Peloponnesian War, it is rife with meaning. This is because statecraft—as Clausewitz said about war—has a changing character but an enduring nature. Then as during the Peloponnesian War, “the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept” as the Athenian delegation to Melos put it.

The central dynamic of the relationship between a great and smaller power—and the focus of much of the Melian Dialogue–is what now is called “messaging.” The representatives of Melos contended that as a small island nation, they were no threat to Athens. The Athenians argued that while that might be true the way they dealt with them would send a message to other small states. If Athens allowed Melos so resist its demand for an alliance, other small states would see this as weakness and might themselves be tempted to resist or abandon Athens. The Athenian delegation was depicting what many years later became known as the “domino effect.’ In addition, the Athenians said, their true enemy—Sparta—would be watching how they dealt with Melos and might become more aggressive if Athens seemed weak. Whether the Athenian delegation was right or wrong about the way that other small Greek states and Sparta would respond if they failed to impose their will on Melos, they were certainly correct in seeing statecraft as a form of extraordinarily high stakes theater, where actors interacted directly with each other by by doing so, sent messages to a wider audience which was not directly involved in the interaction.

So what does this tell today’s students and practitioners of statecraft? The Athenian assertion that “the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept” remains part of of statecraft’s enduring nature. What has changed in today’s time of deep connectivity, though, is the method why which states signal or message, the methods by which strong states impose their will on weaker ones, and the wider costs of imposing power (or failing to do so).

Today’s international system is characterized by deep connectivity between states. This means that any exercise of power has cascading, difficult-to-predict effects. Many states have a stake in any conflict and may impose costs on a powerful nation imposing its will on a weaker one. This, in turn, raises the costs of the raw imposition of power by the strong against the weak. Great powers do still impose their will when they consider the strategic benefits greater than the costs, but as a general rule even great powers attempt to exercise power in a way that limits the cost to them. Often this means acting indirectly by empowering partners. It can also mean the use of what is called gray zone aggression; reliance on long range, standoff military strikes using drones, missiles, or manned aircraft; “light footprint” operations; sanctions; or cyberattacks.

For great powers, though, this need for more subtle methods of imposing their will increases the probability that their message will be misunderstood, or that small nations will conclude that they can withstand it. When Athens or, later, great powers like Rome decided to send a message, they did so openly and unambiguously. There is no doubt that other small Greek states took note of what happened to Melos and, for a while at least, were less inclined to challenge or resist Athens. But today the colonization of the weak by the strong is off the table so when the application of power is something like a cyberattack, smaller states may not reach the conclusion that the great power intended. In its face off with Athens, Melos may have believed that the price of submitting to Athens would be greater than the costs of submitting. Since Athens eventually colonized Melos, killed the adult males, and sold the women and children into slavery, it is hard to believe that its leaders thought that was a an acceptable cost to preserve their honor. More likely, they did not consider the Athenian threat credible only to find out that it was.

In a time of deep connectivity, then, the core challenge for a great power is to find methods for imposing their will that are politically acceptable and strategically affordable yet which send the desired message. It is not easy to find the sweet spot which sends the desired message particularly when the smaller state has some means of striking back at the more powerful one as North Korea does with nuclear weapons and Iran does through support for terrorism. Thus the nature of great power messaging endures but its character has changed.

Today’s Melians—whether North Korea, Iran, Taiwan, or the small nations on Russia’s periphery—must clearly understand what the threshold for great power intervention is and stay below it. To miscalculate can be catastrophic as Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gaddafi learned. Why relations between great power and small powers remains as asymmetric as it was during Peloponnesian War, the extent of the asymmetry has changed as a result of constraints on the great powers arising from deep connectivity, and the development of strategic power projection capabilities by small states. The essential truths of the Melian Dialogue endure but their application continues to change.

Metz on the Psychology of Insurgency

Saturday, January 28th, 2012

Dr. Steve Metz, a friend of ZP blog and Chairman of the Regional Strategy and Planning Department and Research Professor of National Security Affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute, has new and heavily footnoted article up at SWJ:

Psychology of Participation in Insurgency 

 It’s common sense: to make insurgents quit the fight or to deter other people from joining them, to understand their appeal, we must know what makes them tick.   This is easier said than done as we Americans face a mental barrier of our own creation–we insist on approaching insurgency (and counterinsurgency) as a political activity.  This entails a major dose of mirror imaging.  We are a quintessentially political people, but it is politics of a peculiar type, born of the European Enlightenment.  We assume that the purpose of a political system is to reconcile competing interests, priorities, and objectives.  From this vantage point, we see insurgency as a form of collective, goal-focused activity that comes about when nefarious people exploit the weaknesses of a political system.  It occurs when “grievances are sufficiently acute that people want to engage in violent protest.”[1]  The state cannot or will not address the grievances.  And since insurgency is political, so too are its solutions: strengthen the state so it can address grievances and assert control over all of the national territory.  The improved state can then return to its mission of reconciling competing interests, priorities, and objectives.

            Much of the world–including the parts prone to insurgency–sees things different.  Most often the political system is used by an elite to solidify its hold on power and defend the status quo.  Most insurgents do not seek a better political system but rather one that empowers them or, at least, leaves them alone.  People become insurgents because the status quo does not fulfill their needs.  This is a simple observation with profound implications.  It means that the true essence of insurgency is not political objectives, but unmet psychological needs (although political objectives may serve as a proxy for psychological needs as insurgent leaders seek to legitimize and popularize their efforts).

This coincides with the observation of David Kilcullen that many insurgents are purely localized “accidental guerrillas“, motivated by other drivers than political calculation – such as opportunity for excitement, the dictates of an honor culture, fear of being considered a coward, prospects for glory or booty or the aggressive territoriality of young men.  Looking at historical examples of warlords as diverse as “General Butt Naked“, the Mad Baron Ungern von Sternberg and General Abdul RashidHeavy D”  Dostum, it is evident that some men fight and kill because they revel in slaughter for it’s own sake, are skilled at combat and find purpose in war.

Indeed, as Metz writes:

….Boredom also contributes to a sense of being lost.  In rural areas and urban slums, insurgency seems to provide excitement for those whose lives are devoid of it.[21] This theme appears over and over when former insurgents explain their motives.  Ribetti, for instance, heard it from Colombians, particularly from the female insurgents she interviewed who sought to escape the tedium of a woman’s life in rural areas.[22]  Louise Shelley observed that youth violence and association with terrorism is often linked to “the glamour of living dangerously and the adrenalin flow that is associated with living precariously.”[23]  States not susceptible to insurgency have proxies for youth boredom and the need for excitement which drains these impulses into less destructive channels, whether video games, violent movies, sports, or fast cars.  Societies without alternatives–particularly ones where the educational system has collapsed like Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, and he tribal areas of Pakistan can see boredom be channeled into political violence.[24]

            The Thugs:  There are people in every society–usually young males–with a propensity for aggression and violence.  Insurgency attracts them since it is more prestigious and legitimate than crime, and has a better chance of gaining internal or external support.  It offers them a chance to justify imposing their will on others.  This is amplified when a nation has a long history of violence or major military demobilization which increases the number of thugs and puts many of them out of work.  In many parts of the world, whole generations have never known a time without brutality and bloodshed.  Sierra Leone is a perfect example of this.  The RUF emerged from a group of young people from the slums of Freetown known for their antisocial behavior.[25]  While this group sometimes provided violent muscle for politicians, it also served up the raw material for the RUF, leading Ibrahim Abdullah and Patrick Muana to label it the “revolt of the lumpenproletariat” (a word coined by Karl Marx to describe society’s lowest strata).[26]  Thugs seldom create or lead insurgencies, but they do provide many of its foot soldiers.



Monday, August 1st, 2011

Two more for the pile….


Another Bloody Century by Colin Gray

Iraq & the Evolution of American Strategy by Steven Metz

Comments or opinions?

On the Road

Saturday, June 4th, 2011

In a few days, I will be headed to the US Army War College to become a new member of their National Security Seminar, an honor I owe entirely to the kind offices of Dr. Steven Metz, as Big Steve saw fit to nominate me. Once at Carlisle, I will have the opportunity to participate with AWC students in a variety of sessions and discussions related to national security and strategy and hear speakers who are top experts in their field. The keynote, if I understand correctly, will be given by General David Petraeus. The liason assigned to me, Col. Richard “Flip” Wilson, has been gracious and friendly and I am very much looking forward to visiting the War College, meeting new friends and learning a thing or two.

My blogging here at ZP may be erratic next week, though Charles and Scott will carry on in my absence, but I will try to put up a few items or pictures as time and internet connectivity permits. Twitter may be a much better bet for frequent updates and I can be followed @zenpundit for readers who are interested.

Metz on Libya

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011

We may have to go “All Libya, All the time” here this week. We won’t, but it is tempting.

Dr. Steve Metz of SSI has a featured op-ed in The New Republic:

Libya’s Coming Insurgency 

….History offers a number of sign posts that an insurgency will occur. Unfortunately Libya has almost all of them. At this point the political objectives of the government and anti-government forces are irreconcilable. Each side wants total victory-either Qaddafi will retain total power or he will be gone. Both sides are intensely devoted to their cause; passions are high. Both have thousands of men with military training, all imbued with a traditional warrior ethos which Qaddafi himself has stoked. The country is awash with arms. Libya has extensive hinterlands with little or no government control that could serve as insurgent bases. Neighboring states are likely to provide insurgent sanctuary whether deliberately-as an act of policy-or inadvertently because a government is unable to control its territory. North Africa has a long history of insurgency, from the anti-colonial wars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to more recent conflicts in Chad, Algeria, and Western Sahara. Where insurgency occurred in the past, it is more likely to occur in the future. All this means that there is no place on earth more likely to experience an insurgency in the next few years than Libya.

What is not clear is whether the coming insurgency will involve Qaddafi loyalists fighting against a new regime or anti-Qaddafi forces fighting to remove the old dictator and his patrons. In either case, a Libyan insurgency would be destructive. Because they take place within the population, insurgencies always fuel refugee problems and humanitarian crises. They provide an opportunity for extremists to hijack one or both sides. And insurgency in Libya would destabilize a region undergoing challenging political transitions

Read the rest here.

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