Fine Scribblings

Some good things to read that have recently surfaced.

They are a reminder that if America is conducting a flawed grand strategy, the most sophisticated critiques of it are also American.

Victor Davis Hanson sketches a future of war that is an example of his bracing pessimism at its most compelling. The character of war is altered and constrained by spiraling costs, an affluent and debellicised Western population, and the removal of the human from the battlespace. But the nature of war will endure, as politics in its highest intensity, born out of the jungle of insecurity and fear.

His most incisive point is that major set-piece battles between states, and mortal struggles between states, have usually been rare historically – their rarity now is not necessarily because we have evolved into a post-martial world, and that we have been in such interludes between horrific wars before. We are most often within an interwar period of some kind. Just the other day, North Korea warned South Korea and its allies of ‘all-out war’ if its territorial integrity was infringed:

Can big battles, then, haunt us once more? If the European Union were to dissolve and return to a twentieth-century landscape of proud rivals, or if the former Soviet republics were to form a collective resistance to an aggrandizing Russia (as they did for much of the nineteenth century), or if the North Koreans, Pakistanis, or Chinese were to gamble on an agenda of sudden aggression (as they have on previous occasions when they were confident of achieving political objectives), then we might well see a return of decisive battles. The U.S. military still prepares for all sorts of conventional challenges. We keep thousands of tanks and artillery pieces in constant readiness, along with close-ground support missiles and planes, in fear that the People’s Army of Korea might try to swarm across the Demilitarized Zone into Seoul, or that the Chinese Red Army might storm the beaches of Taiwan.

Lt. Col P. Michael Phillips offers a sure-aimed and sober appraisal of America’s fears about the dark new world:

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.

Working on this idea, he shows that rumours of the death of the nation-state are exaggerated – non-state actors have been with us, and have been part of the machinery of the sovereign state in the form of mercenaries or insurgents, for a very long time. Moreover, states usually have the upper hand. They support or rein in their smaller allies when it suits them, and they break rules when it suits them.

More importantly, he warns that we should think twice about how we conceptualise threats. The main security threat to the US is not the external demon, whether the shifting global landscape of new power balances or even the nuclear non-state terrorist network as the bearer of the apocalypse. Instead, America’s reaction to these things is the most momentous thing. If it tries to play global cop, surgically fixing every failed state on a dubious theory of modernisation, it will quickly tire:

Committing enormous resources, for instance, to prop up every failing state on the small chance that not doing so would enable a terrorist group to develop a weapon of mass destruction seems an inordinate expenditure when one recalls the former belief that the United States could have survived a limited nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union.

So the US might be better off playing ‘ombudsman’ rather than ‘cop’, overseeing a transition to a world of balance rather than hegemony, and shifting some burdens.

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