Twilight Struggle

August 13, 2015 - Comments Off on Twilight Struggle

My latest monthly column is here, ‘Twilight Struggle: The Cold War was neither Simple nor Stable.’ Enjoy!

A Speech, A Post, and Two Articles

August 1, 2015 - Comments Off on A Speech, A Post, and Two Articles

Its been a busy few months, starting work at the Strategy and Security Institute, at the University of Exeter which has proven to be an exciting place.

For Offshore Balancer followers, I’ve written an article in the RUSI Journal on ‘Why Distance Matters: Putting the Geo into Politics.’

I’ve also written a short cautionary piece on the debate over the No Fly Zone proposal and intervention in Syria here.

I’ve also started a monthly column at ‘War on the Rocks’, a great site helmed by Ryan Evans. The first column is here, ‘Was Paul Kennedy Right’, a qualified defence of Kennedy’s arguments about the gradual decline of the American superpower.

And there’s been a talk at the Cato Institute in Washington DC, about my book The Global Village Myth, here is a long clip:

Inaugural Lecture, 29th April 2015, All Welcome!

March 23, 2015 - Comments Off on Inaugural Lecture, 29th April 2015, All Welcome!

Inaugural Lecture of Professor Patrick Porter

“The Fog of Peace: Defence and Uncertainty”

DATE:              Wednesday 29 April 2015

TIME:               6.15pm, followed by a drinks reception in Xfi

VENUE:           Moot Room
Amory Building
University of Exeter
Rennes Drive

Again and again, stuff happens that shocks us. Despite investing in intelligence, contingent events catch us off guard, from disorder in the Ukraine, to revolutions like the Arab Spring. Experts and planners have a bad record of forecasting. So if we can’t reliably predict the future, how can we be wise in preparing for it?

This problem attracts a contradictory response from planners. They say life is unpredictable, but they predict it, claiming their states have the prescient capacity to prevent crises upstream. Some realists struggle with uncertainty too, treating the world as inherently uncertain, yet also patterned and scientifically legible. Regarding ourselves as bringers of order into chaos, we are bound to be shocked.

Wisely preparing for the unknown goes beyond ‘predicting better.’ Two classical thinkers, Carl von Clausewitz and Hans Morgenthau, offer a resource for handling the problem. For both, preparation meant not technocratic risk management, but a political struggle to define and rank the national interest as a compass and it meant educating people to cope with unique situations, only then could states navigate the fog of peace.

Click here to find out more about Professor Patrick Porter.

If you would like to attend please email to Places will be allocated on a first come first served basis.

George Kennan on credibility and retrenchment

March 21, 2015 - Comments Off on George Kennan on credibility and retrenchment
Testifying about America’s war in Vietnam, George Kennan argued
‘there is more respect to be won in the opinion of this world by a resolute and courageous liquidation of unsound positions than by the most stubborn pursuit of extravagant and unpromising objectives.’
Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Hearings. Supplemental Foreign Assistance Fiscal Year 1966 – Vietnam (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1966), pp. 335–36.
This ran counter to part of the general Cold War consensus among policymakers, that failure to commit fully to an ally, even in a peripheral war outside the ‘core’ military-industial power centers of East Asia and Western Europe, could erode credibility, induce a crisis of confidence in allies, and weaken the web of alliances that were essential to US national security.
As Peter Beinart notes, there was a tragic irony:

As a general rule, the men who led America into war did not see Vietnam itself as of great value. What haunted them was the fear that if America did not uphold its commitments there, it would demoralize America’s allies, and embolden the Soviets, in places that really mattered, like Central Europe. “Around the globe, from Berlin to Thailand,” declared Lyndon Johnson in April 1965, “are people whose well-being rests, in part, on the belief that they can count on us if they are attacked. To leave Vietnam to its fate would shake the confidence of all these people in the value of an American commitment and in the value of America’s word.” If the United States did not uphold its guarantees to Saigon, added Secretary of State Dean Rusk, its “guarantees with regard to Berlin would lose their credibility.”

Ironically, the very European leaders whose morale Johnson and Rusk feared undermining if America abandoned South Vietnam—men like British Prime Minister Harold Wilson and French President Charles de Gaulle—privately urged the U.S. not to escalate the war. In the end, after tens of thousands of Americans and millions of Vietnamese had died, the United States did abandon South Vietnam. And the world shrugged. Yes, communists racked up victories in some other corners of the developing world in the 1970s. But they lost ground in others. And in the heart of Europe, the place American policymakers really cared about, NATO held together and the Soviets stayed on their side of the Iron Curtain.

Book Available for Pre-order!

February 8, 2015 - Comments Off on Book Available for Pre-order!

I have a book coming out in March. The Global Village Myth: Distance, War and the Limits of Power.

Thanks to the sterling work of Georgetown University Press, it has gotten some very generous endorsements, and the link is here. Thanks too to Michael Dwyer and Hurst, who are publishing it in the UK and Europe, linked here.

The book tackles a subject this blog has considered for a while, the power of distance and the way it still exerts itself even in a supposedly globalised world.

The book writes a critical biography of the overblown and misconceived notion of a small, shrinking world of globalised insecurity.

It examines three ‘hard’ cases (hard for my argument) to show how the idea does badly under interrogation.

And it shows how this mythology encourages threat inflation, utopian liberal wars and other self-defeating behaviour.

Amaze your friends, break the ice at parties, and buy it.

Edward Gough Whitlam: Farewell to the Big Australian

October 21, 2014 - Comments Off on Edward Gough Whitlam: Farewell to the Big Australian


‘You either crash through, or you crash’ was a motto of Gough Whitlam, Prime Minister of Australia 1972-1975.

And crash (and crash through) he did. Like an asteroid that smashed its way into Australia’s political cosmos. He only held power for a brief, crowded moment. But after the crash, nothing would ever be the same.

I won’t say his asteroid transformed ‘the political landscape’, because that would be a weary cleche, not fitting the wittiest man ever to have occupied the role, a rhetorician reared in classical history, and a bitchy provocateur who traded in waspish remarks. Once an opponent from the conservative rural heartland – a constituency that never loved this most urban of premiers- reminded Gough ‘I am a country member.’ ‘I remember’, Whitlam replied.

Whitlam’s project, like Whitlam himself, was too gargantuan for the short time it occupied, and every achievement was shadowed by a crisis or failure. In just three years, he brought forth a vast expansion of the welfare state, but also hyperinflation and economic disarray that eroded the very living standards that he tried to lift up.

He launched a reassertion of Australian nationalism and independence (abolishing imperial honours and appeals to the Privy Council, and claiming ownership of Australian natural resources), but he also entrenched the long-standing practice of appeasing Jakarta. And fairly or not his unorthodox efforts to raise international loans through dodgy middle men made his government stink.

He was the architect of a realignment of foreign policy in Asia, withdrawing from Vietnam and recognising Communist China, a move that chimed precisely with the Nixon administration. But his public silence over the Indonesian atrocity in East Timor dogged him ever after.

He got Labor elected into power after two decades in exile. Yet his inflexible commitment to ramming through reforms at a rapid clip, and his literal interpretation of his party’s mandate, meant that he courted a political showdown that left his party decimated at the polls. In the ranks of the Party, Whitlam’s example was invoked just as much as a model to be avoided.

The precedent of Whitlamism, destroyed so quickly after such high hopes, helped drive the shift of future Labor leaders towards political longevity above all, through fiscal discipline, tactical retreats, and the embrace of capital as well as labour. Paul Keating in many ways emerged as the anti-Whitlam. Both had the instinct for the kill, but Keating despised the turbulence and indiscipline of the Whitlam years, and Hawke’s embrace of ‘consensus’ politics was designed as an antidote to memories of the three dark years.

It was Whitlam’s demise, however, his sacking by the Governor General after a parliamentary deadlock, that was also his most immortal hour. His denunciation of Sir John Kerr on the steps of Parliament house, and of the rival who would become a latter day ally of sorts, Malcolm Fraser, will echo through time.

That point of climax was also, necessarily, the point of decline. At a time when most of the electorate worried more about their jobs and mortgages, Whitlam campaigned on the principle of the supremacy of the House of Representatives, of ‘a great wrong that must be righted.’ Unwilling to bend, he broke. It was Whitlam, so there couldn’t be another way.

‘Why do you write so much about Australian history?’ a hapless interviewer once asked. With a glint in his eye, Gough answered ‘Because I’ve made so much of it.’

And so he did, and does. Rest lightly upon him, earth.

Distance Matters

September 5, 2014 - Comments Off on Distance Matters

From DHL’s Global Connectedness Index:

‘Distance and borders still matter – even online. Most international flows take place within rather than between regions. Even online connections are mainly domestic and decline with distance.’

For more on this theme, my book comes out with Georgetown in early 2015. Stay tuned!

Jab and Pause: Limited Wars and NATO

September 2, 2014 - Comments Off on Jab and Pause: Limited Wars and NATO

This is one of the most important articles I’ve read all year, I reckon:

Needs careful reading, but in summary: states like Russia still have the classic impulses of insecurity and pride. But they also calculate the risks of escalation. To assert themselves forcefully without going over the brink, they design their campaigns around a ‘jab and pause’ logic: exploit a crisis, move in rapidly and even deniably, announce a fait accompli, and in the face of a NATO that lacks intermediate options to respond between nothing and major war, dare their adversaries to respond. So, once again, even in the face of nuclear deterrence, states must take seriously the prospect of minor hostilities, opportunistic gambits, and localised disputes.

A review

August 25, 2014 - Comments Off on A review

I’ve just reviewed Lawrence Freedman’s ‘Strategy: A History.’ It’s heavyweight, rich and above all, witty. His book, that is. Here it is.

An article and a book!

August 1, 2014 - Comments Off on An article and a book!

I’ve just published a piece in the journal ‘Small Wars and Insurgencies’, here.

As I argue, the best response to Iraq and Afghanistan as we look back is not just to focus on the techniques of counterinsurgency, but to think hard about the national interest, about whether such wars are really worth it, and recognise that there is nothing inevitable about such conflicts.

Am now copy-editing the book, The Global Village Myth, with the excellent oversight of Georgetown University Press. Stay tuned.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 108 other followers