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 ssis-events@exeter.ac.uk. 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.

A Rejoinder to Anne-Marie Slaughter

June 18, 2014 - Comments Off on A Rejoinder to Anne-Marie Slaughter

Anne-Marie Slaughter argues that America should enter the fighting in Syria and Iraq. In doing so, she argues that there is little distinction between strategic interests and humanitarian impulses. I’m personally, fearfully, sympathetic towards some assistance to the Iraq state in denying ISIS control of whole cities. But Slaughter’s cosmology is truly startling.

In an article that begins in self-pity, and ends in glib counter-factuals, she makes it all sound so simple.

Here goes:

FOR the last two years, many people in the foreign policy community, myself included, have argued repeatedly for the use of force in Syria — to no avail.

That’s because many people in the rest of the American community, who don’t enjoy the privilege of defining themselves in such exalted terms, think that weighing in to a brutal conflict between an authoritarian regime and an Islamist-infested rebellion isn’t smart.

We have been pilloried as warmongers and targeted, by none other than President Obama, as people who do not understand that force is not the solution to every question. A wiser course, he argued at West Point, is to use force only in defense of America’s vital interests.

Slaughter has been pilloried as a warmonger because she is one. A warmonger is someone who is eager for a nation to go to war. She has called for the America use of force in Rwanda, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, and now for Iraq again. Many of these campaigns have not been triumphs. Her self-pity now doesn’t change that.

At West Point, Obama judged that ‘to say that we have an interest in pursuing peace and freedom beyond our borders is not to say that every problem has a military solution. Since World War II, some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint but from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences, without building international support and legitimacy for our action, without leveling with the American people about the sacrifices required.’ But even this, apparently, offends Slaughter.

This is where the White House is most blind. It sees the world on two planes: the humanitarian world of individual suffering, where no matter how heart-rending the pictures and how horrific the crimes, American vital interests are not engaged because it is just people; and the strategic world of government interests, where what matters is the chess game of one leader against another, and stopping both state and nonstate actors who are able to harm the United States.

In fact, the two planes are inextricably linked. When a government begins to massacre its own citizens, with chemical weapons, barrel bombs and starvation, as Syria’s continues to do, it must be stopped. If it is not stopped, violence, displacement and fanaticism will flourish.

Let’s just stop the tape, right there. Slaughter isn’t just saying that America sometimes should use force prudently where and when it can, selectively and judiciously. As she formulates it, every time a government commits atrocities against its own citizens, it ‘must be stopped.’ Since the world is a large place, and since there are more than a few authoritarian regimes about, this inescapably would implicate the US, and condemn it to endless war. Robert Mugabe violently oppresses his citizens in unspeakable ways. All sorts of regimes use starvation as a weapon, and the North Korean regime has with-held food from those it deems disloyal. A brutal civil war raged for years in Sri Lanka. Must all these regimes ‘be stopped?’

Secondly, civil wars can indeed create ‘violence, displacement and fanaticism.’ But so indeed can well-intended, liberal interventions by a benign superpower to arrest disorder, the kinds of constabulary efforts Slaughter calls for. Slaughter’s blindness to the chaos that our own efforts can fuel points to the main problem in her world view: the West is bringer of order into chaos, not the unwitting cause of chaos except when it passes on fighting wars Slaughter advocates.

Just in case you doubt this, have a look at the Show So Far in Libya, after the ‘textbook’ intervention there brought the rebellion to power. Mass incarceration and torture of black Africans, mounting chaos with a state that can barely govern against militias, the disruption of oil production.

Third, Slaughter repeats the never-ending cliche that any disorder, any violence, any displacement, any fanaticism, is a security threat to the United States, which must therefore perpetually tame the world back into order. This is quite untrue. In a world darkened in some places by any or all of these things, Americans are more likely to be injured falling off ladders than in a terrorist attack, which incidentally were more common in the 1970’s that today. Most first world countries are not deeply threatened by eruptions just anywhere. And as Daryl Press and Eugene Gholz have shown, even when world economics are interdependent, hard cases show how well states can adapt and even prosper while others fight wars. The ability of other states to flourish even during the Iran-Iraq war is a case in point. Contrary to the spirit of Slaughter’s liberal imperialism, actually not everything is deeply connected, and security is divisible.

None of this is a reason to dismiss these events – giving aid generously is a decent response where one can. But Slaughter refuses to recognize any gap, enthusiastically conflating humanitarian crisis with a clear and present danger. Ultimately, for her America’s security interests are universal and limitless, so its little surprise that she tirelessly urges Washington to reach for its gun.

Deciding that the Syrian government, as bad as it is, was still better than the alternative of ISIS profoundly missed the point. As long as we allow the Syrian government to continue perpetrating the worst campaign of crimes against humanity since Rwanda, support for ISIS will continue. As long as we choose Prime Minister Maliki over the interests of his citizens, all his citizens, his government can never be safe.

Well, the fall of the Syrian government would probably unleash horrific atrocities, just as the unseating of Saddam Hussein opened up a vacuum of communal bloodletting, crime and sectarian conflict which is again raging. The fate of the Christian minority of Syria would probably be dark.

Also, notice Slaughter’s hubristic language. Things only happen because ‘we’ ‘allow’ them to, and politics evolves in Iraq because ‘we’ prioritise Maliki over his people. It just couldn’t be, could it, that there are real limits on American power.  In other words, despite all evidence to the contrary, America’s power is vast in a region that it can shape almost at will.

The answer to those questions may well involve the use of force on a limited but immediate basis, in both countries. 

A ‘limited and immediate’ basis, how comfortingly surgical, again the illusion of control. Remember the war in Kosovo, which Slaughter is about to cite approvingly, as the supposedly swift bombing campaign that ended up dragging on for 78 days? Remember the invasion of Iraq that was supposed to be a rapid demonstration of overwhelming force?

Enough force to remind all parties that we can, from the air, see and retaliate against not only Al Qaeda members, whom our drones track for months, but also any individuals guilty of mass atrocities and crimes against humanity. Enough force to compel governments and rebels alike to the negotiating table. And enough force to create a breathing space in which decent leaders can begin to consolidate power.

This is a broad net indeed, cast over a target-rich environment. If our mandate is to retaliate against ‘any individuals guilty of mass atrocities and crimes against humanity’, like murder, torture or dispossession,  it is time to turn our guns on the Egyptian military regime, the Maliki regime, Hezbollah, Assad, ISIS, Iran, the Mahdi Army, Israeli settlers, Hamas, or the house of Saud. This, you can be confident, would not create a space for the ‘decent leaders’ to do anything much. But in Slaughter’s world view, where others’ violence is unacceptably threatening, American violence just creates space for dialogue, or brings down justice from the skies. There are not difficult tradeoffs, no dilemmas, no tragic problems in Slaughter’s ‘How to Do it’ guide to international relations. Just one large harmony of interests, that AJP Taylor warned of years ago.

On the legal side, we should act in both countries because we face a threat to global peace and security, precisely the situation the United Nations Security Council was established to address. If nations like Russia and China block action for their own narrow interests, we should act multilaterally, as we did in Kosovo, and then seek the Council’s approval after the fact. The United Nations Charter was created for peace among the people of the world, not as an instrument of state power.

Well, hell’s bell’s, I thought acting legally included only using force against other sovereign states with the prior approval of the UNSC, unless strict self-defence was established.Kosovo, by the way, wasn’t such a model of superb interventionism. It helped ensure that lots of Serbians would be wiped out in revenge reprisals by the KLA. But Slaughter claims the US and its allies enjoy a privilege that other UN members don’t, of overriding the letter of the law when it suits them, or claiming it retro-actively. The UN Charter was not just created ‘for peace among the people of the world’, a cause Slaughter has a funny way of pursuing. It was also created to enshrine the principle of sovereignty, and to oppose the ‘scourge of war.’ Again, there are no difficult choices in Slaughter’s account. The UN was designed to suit liberal values, she reckons, so state sovereignty be damned.

Strangely enough, other states can invoke the same principle Slaughter embraces, and wage their own wars to protect endangered peoples when it suits them. The very cavalier doctrine Slaughter supports – do what you feel is right and worry about procedure later – enables the thing she claims to oppose, namely cynical and selective realpolitik. As it happens, I am skeptical about international law as a concept. But precisely because of the evasion and have-it-both-ways hypocrisy that its members exhibit, and which Slaughter indulges in.

This is not merely a humanitarian calculation. It is a strategic calculation. One that, if the president had been prepared to make it two years ago, could have stopped the carnage spreading today in Syria and in Iraq.

I’m not sure weighing into Syria militarily could have done much to avert carnage, and certainly not at acceptable cost. Besides, strategy is about limits – the limits of power and knowledge, the need to align goals and scarce resources, the need to rank interests and set priorities, and a prudent regard for how difficult it is to make war serve policy, not just serve itself. Calculations that estimate that a superpower has almost godlike capacity, and limitless interests, are not successfully strategic. They reflect narcissism, still preached by an unreflective ‘community’ of establishment hawks that still believes in waging perpetual war for perpetual peace.