America is a slowly boiling frog

Last year, in a post discussing the United States’ non-response to Chinese aggression in waters off Alaska and the South China Sea, I closed with the frustrated lament that “America is like the proverbial frog that does not realize it’s slowly being boiled to death.”

Two days ago, in an article in the Wall Street Journal about China’s recent deployment of weapons to occupied islands in the Spratlys, an unnamed US military official was quoted as follows:

It’s certainly part of what we have seen as the continuum of the progress of what the Chinese are doing there … This is a classic case of the frog slowly boiling.

You read it here first, folks.


Thoughts on Thucydides – Book I, Part II: Bipolar Disorder

On the eve of the Peloponnesian War, the Hellenic world was divided between the respective alliance systems of Athens and Sparta, a geopolitical remnant of the wars against the Persian Empire. The system was bipolar, but it was not “balanced” owing to the vastly different characters of the predominant powers. Athens had acquired a maritime empire that provided revenue and external sources of food, while Sparta remained an agrarian society centered on the Peloponnesus. And though Sparta was a famously martial society, in terms of policy it was surprisingly unwarlike, with no expansionist tendencies and an almost lethargic attitude toward external affairs. Sparta’s legendary warrior tradition was a means by which to organize society rather than an instrument of policy and conquest. In contrast, Athens was aggressive and enterprising, attributes probably reinforced by its reliance on its empire for tribute and provisions. The speech of the Corinthian envoys to the Spartan assembly succinctly compare the natures of the two city-states:

The Athenians are addicted to innovation, and their designs are characterized by swiftness alike in conception and execution; you have a genius for keeping what you have got, accompanied by a total want of invention, and when forced to act you never go far enough. Again, they are adventurous beyond their power, and daring beyond their judgment, and in danger they are sanguine; your wont is to attempt less than is justified by your power, to mistrust even what is sanctioned by your judgment, and to fancy that from danger there is no release (1.70).

In the language of neorealism, Sparta was a “status quo” power and Athens was an “aspiring hegemon.” However, a fragile peace endured thanks to the independence of a lesser power, Corcyra, from either of the two alliance systems.

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Our Thermian elites

In the 1999 sci-fi comedy Galaxy Quest, Tim Allen stars as Jason Nesmith, a washed-up egotistical actor from a long-defunct television series in the vein of Star Trek. The show was cancelled 18 years ago, so Nesmith and his fellow co-stars make a living doing skits for advertisers using their old characters, going to fan conventions and signing autographs for $15 a piece.

Unbeknownst to them, broadcasts of Galaxy Quest reached the Thermians, an alien race locked in a genocidal struggle with the evil General Sarris. Interpreting the television show to be actual historical documents, the Thermians model their entire civilization after the heroic adventures of Commander Peter Taggart and his loyal crew. Eventually they travel to earth and recruit the unwitting Nesmith and his co-stars to lead them in battle against Sarris.

The Thermians are incomprehensibly naïve, leading to this exchange as the actors try to explain that they’re not really astronauts and can’t help them in their war with Sarris:

Life imitates farce.

In recent months I have been repeatedly reminded on the hapless Thermians by the comments of Western elites concerning the unraveling world order. No matter the issue – Russian aggression in eastern Europe, the Assad’s regime’s unwillingness to make peace with rebels, Iranian adventurism throughout the Middle East, China’s territorial ambitions, etc. – American and European policymakers seem completely unable to understand, let alone respond to, events. Comments in press conferences and media interviews haven acquired notes of despair. It is not simply that Western elites are disappointed by the failure of liberal internationalism and consensus-based foreign policy to secure peace; they seem bewildered…occasionally petulant. This indicates a deeper failing, as if more realist schools of thought are not even known to exist, and therefore no contingencies were made in accordance with their proscriptions. We are witnessing the complete intellectual failure of Western institutions, at least vis-à-vis foreign policy, akin to that which occurred in the years before World War II.

Edward Hallett Carr described those years in a way that could be seamlessly transposed to the present:

The statement that it is in the interest of the world as a whole that the conclusion eventually reached, whether maintenance or change, should be reached by peaceful means, would command general assent, but seems a rather meaningless platitude. The utopian assumption that there is a world interest in peace which is identifiable with the interest of each individual nation helped politicians and political writers everywhere to evade the unpalatable fact of a fundamental divergence of interests between nations desirous of maintaining the status quo and nations desirous of changing it. A peculiar combination of platitude and falseness thus became endemic in the pronouncements of statesmen about international affairs.

Listed below is a small sampling of illustrative quotes drawn from recent newspaper articles. I encounter similar comments with such frequency that this may become a recurring feature on the blog:

Worst possible city in which to host cease-fire talks.

Russian Intervention in Syrian War Has Sharply Reduced U.S. Options

MUNICH — For months now the United States has insisted there can be no military solution to the Syrian civil war, only a political accord between President Bashar al-Assad and the fractured, divided opposition groups that have been trying to topple him.

But after days of intense bombing that could soon put the critical city of Aleppo back into the hands of Mr. Assad’s forces, the Russians may be proving the United States wrong. There may be a military solution, one senior American official conceded Wednesday, “just not our solution,” but that of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

Confusion Reigns Over Syria Cease-Fire Deal

“There’s this concern that the Russians have a broad definition of terrorists and are going to essentially continue striking what they consider to be terrorist targets,” said a senior U.S. official who took part in the Munich talks.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice…

Russia Plays Familiar Hand in Syria 

Western officials say they are losing patience with Mr. Putin, accusing Russia of in effect pushing more moderate Syrian opposition into the arms of the extremist Islamic State…the Kremlin’s pattern of obfuscation – for instance, sending troops in unmarked uniforms to occupy Crimea while maintaining deniability – have left many skeptical of the latest diplomacy.

Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.

Hospitals in Syria Bombed as Fighting Escalates

State Department spokesman John Kirby said the bombing of civilian targets “casts doubt on Russia’s willingness and/or ability to help bring to a stop the continued brutality of the Assad regime against its own people.”

Susan Rice, President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, also condemned the continued bombing. “We think it runs counter, frankly, to the commitment made in Munich on Friday,” she said.

Break out the big guns…

U.S. to have ‘very serious conversation’ with China over suspected South China Sea missile deployment

The United States is very concerned about China’s growing militarization of the South China Sea and intends to have a “very serious conversation” with Beijing after reports emerged that it had deployed suspected ­surface-to-air missile batteries on a disputed island, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Wednesday.

“There is every evidence, every day that there has been an increase of militarization of one kind or another,” Kerry told reporters when asked about the reported deployment, agencies reported. “It’s of serious concern.”

“We have had these conversations with the Chinese, and I am confident that over the next days we will have further very serious conversation on this,” Kerry said.

U.S.-Beijing Spat Escalates Over South China Sea

The Obama administration sharply criticized Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday after charging that China’s military had deployed batteries of advanced missiles on a disputed South China Sea island.

Secretary of State John Kerry said the missile deployment was at odds with a pledge made by Mr. Xi while visiting the White House last year to refrain from militarizing clusters of disputed islands throughout the South China Sea.

“When President Xi was here in Washington, he stood in the Rose Garden with President Obama and said China will not militarize in the South China Sea,” Mr. Kerry said on Wednesday. “But there is every evidence, every day that there has been an increase of militarization of one kind or another. It’s of serious concern.”

China Positions Missiles on Disputed South China Sea Island

Adm. Harry Harris Jr., the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, told reporters in Tokyo on Wednesday that he didn’t have confirmation of the missile deployment but that if true “it could be an indication of militarization of the South China Sea in ways that the president of China, President Xi [Jinping], said he would not do.”





Good Reading: “Grand Strategies” by Charles Hill

Is the “modern statesman” an oxymoran? Has the quality and skill of foreign policy deteriorated as the classical education has been displaced by the social and behavioral sciences? In his new book  Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft, and World Order, former diplomat and Yale professor Charles Hill seeks to reconnect the practice of statecraft with its ultimate literary origins. As Hill argues, an understanding of literature is essential for the conduct of international affairs because it informs the values by which strategy is developed, and only literature can grasp – however tenuously – the fundamentally intangible factors that drive history.

Of all the arts and sciences, only literature is substantially and methodologically unbounded. Literature’s freedom to explore endless or exquisite details, portray the thoughts of imaginary characters, and dramatize large themes through intricate plots brings it closest to the reality of “how the world really works.” This dimension of fiction is indispensible to the strategist who cannot, by the nature of the craft, know all of the facts, considerations, and potential consequences of a situation at the time a decision must be made, ready or not. Literature lives in the realm strategy requires, beyond rational calculations, in acts of the imagination. (p. 6)

To be more specific about why literary insight is essential for statecraft, both endeavors are concerned with important questions that are only partly accessible to rational thought. Such matters as how a people begins to identify itself as a nation, the nature of trust between political actors or between a government and its people, how a nation commits itself to a more humane course of governance – all these and many more topics dealt with in this book – can’t be understood without some “grasp of the ungraspable” emotional and moral weight they bear. A purely rational or technocratic approach is likely to lead one astray. (p. 7)

What follows in the rest of the book is literary commentary on works ranging from the Iliad to The Satanic Verses, with an emphasis on key points in the evolution of the state. Accordingly, the book is also a rare defense of the Westphalian state system, which has been under siege for the past century, and for which Hill sees no viable alternative. The focus on the concept of the state provides a stable reference point when reading the more vague and nuanced language that is the vein of all literary commentary. Hill covers a lot of ground, and it would greatly help if the reader is familiar with the many works that he examines.

The book is slightly mistitled. As the quotes above indicate, the focus is not on strategy per se, but on the underlying questions that determine world order and drive strategy – questions of national identity, legitimacy, religion, and the role of the individual in the state. But it is certainly worthwhile reading, especially for the many Americans who have unfortunately – but not entirely without justification – dismissed modern literature as nothing more than a medium through which to lie, libel, and incite without consequence.

Tales from the Beltway: Going Nuclear

The behavior of North Korean diplomats is always an amusing topic. One of my classes hosted as guest lecturer a senior Treasury official who was involved in the effort to freeze North Korean assets to pressure them into returning to the Six Party Talks (a mostly unappreciated example of the US leveraging what the Chinese call “financial warfare”). After getting an agreement from North Korea (which they immediately broke) the official was involved in negotiations concerning the release of the frozen assets. As one of the meetings was about to adjourn, the North Korean representative held out his pen in front of him, keeping it horizontal with ground. “Some people are very bad,” he intoned solemnly. He then flipped the pen 180 degrees so the ballpoint faced in the opposite direction: “Some people are very good.” He returned the pen to its original orientation: “You started out here.” Then he raised the pen a fraction of an inch, as if it were the needle on the speedometer of a vehicle moving very slowly: “Now you’re here.” The American replied with “Thank you, sir. I’ll take that as a compliment.”

A different  meeting concluded with the North Korean turning to the American and saying, “You are like the pockmark on someone’s face; at first it looks grotesque and you hate it, but eventually you learn to like it.”


One of my professors was a retired State Department official, well-known for his unapologetic candor (this man’s candor made him several enemies in Washington). During an informal visit to Moscow shortly after the brief war in Georgia in August 2008, he let his Russian colleagues know that he thought their public rationales for the invasion were bogus, and that Russia was blatantly trying to reestablish their historic sphere of influence.  A certain Russian approached him afterward and blustered about how they were so serious about the war in Georgia that they were developing nuclear contingencies in the event that the U.S. intervened. As the professor recounted to his students, “I found that to be incredibly bizarre, but knowing Russia, I wasn’t surprised.”

Tales from the Beltway: Frenemies

The same diplomat that told us of Carter’s lovable antics in Japan later spoke on the nature of diplomacy itself, and the critical importance of personal relationships between diplomatic representatives as the foundation upon which effective negotiation can occur, even during periods of tension between their respective governments.

One of the examples he used to illustrate this occurred during his time with the US mission to the United Nations. In 1998, following the bombings of the US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, President Clinton ordered cruise missile strikes on al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan and on a factory in Sudan that was suspected of manufacturing precursors for chemical weapons. Authorities in Sudan denied the allegations about the factory and claimed that it was simply a pharmaceutical plant, which immediately became the media narrative. The issue soon came before the Security Council. As a permanent member of the Council, the U.S. could obviously exercise its veto and shut down the debate, but acting in such a unilateral fashion would look bad politically. Thus, the US diplomat approached the representative from Brazil – a personal friend of his – and asked for some back-up.

When the matter came before the Council, the Brazilian gave a short but eloquent speech and asked the Council to defer action until after the US had some time to explain itself; after all, bombing pharmaceutical factories was not something the US did on a regular basis, and Washington deserved the benefit of the doubt. The Council agreed with him. Mission accomplished.

Shortly thereafter, however, the Council was discussing some issue concerning Angola. The same Brazilian who had been so accommodating to the US a few days earlier immediately launched into a vicious condemnation of US policy toward Angola, portraying it as exploitative and incompetent, until the woman representing US policy was practically in tears. Shocked by this outburst, the senior US diplomat approached the Brazilian, who greeted him as affably as ever,  and asked something along the lines of “What the hell was that about? I thought we were friends.” Confused, the Brazilian replied, “What are you talking about? I just did you another favor. Of course I was going to bash you today; had I not done so, I would have looked like your lackey, and that would be bad for both of us.”

Tales from the Beltway: Adventures with Carter, Part I

The graduate program I attended often receives current and former government officials as guest speakers. Nearly all of them had some very amusing off-the-record stories to tell. This post is the first of a short series that will recount some of the memorable ones. For obvious reasons I will not be mentioning any names.

Our first story deals with the 39th President of the United States, Jimmy Carter, a man who is regarded in defense and national security circles to be the actual physical embodiment of naive stupidity itself. It was shared by a retired Foreign Service Officer who is often consulted by the media as an expert in diplomacy and international relations.

In 1994 the U.S. almost went to war with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program. But lo, just as the curtain was about to fall and the world Fade to Black, stepped forth Jimmy Carter, Savior of Humanity, who valiantly offered to go to Pyongyang and negotiate personally with the Great Leader. The Clinton administration assigned a State Department official to accompany him. When Carter learned of this he was infuriated, and upon meeting his companion angrily demanded something to the effect of “Who do you work for? Me or the State Department?” The official very carefully replied that he was a serving FSO and was thus oath-bound to obey orders, etc. etc. In other words, he still worked for the State Department. Carter’s reply? “Wrong answer. This is my mission. You work for me.

The result of Carter’s visit was the Agreed Framework, a policy which – from the very beginning – failed to curb Pyongyang’s nuclear program. But the real story occurred at Carter’s debriefing in Japan. As soon as the meeting began, the former President began complaining about the CIA. “The CIA told me that North Korea is desperately poor; they’re not poor at all. In fact, they took me to a store that was full of fine goods and there were all sorts of people shopping there. [so-and-so, his handler] thought it was a set-up, but I don’t think so.”

He also emphasized that, during the course of their negotiations, Kim Il-sung mentioned that he intended to remain alive – and in power – for another ten years or so. Carter considered this to be a very significant revelation, and he demanded that his debriefers make note of this. In fact, Kim Il-sung was being embalmed at that very moment.

And so originated the policy that governed U.S. relations with North Korea for eight years.

Lessons from Byzantium: Survival Amid Weakness and Eternal War

The word ‘Byzantine’ has come to denote political intrigue of treacherous complexity. Thus, it might be thought that a Byzantine grand strategy would be something to avoid like the plague; a nightmarish tangle of ill-conceived and contradictory policies that is guaranteed to produce catastrophe [sound familiar?]. In fact, the empire from which the term derives was one of the longest surviving empires in history. Surely they must have done something right.

Indeed, as Edward Luttwak argues in his new book, The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, Byzantine history provides an excellent example of a grand strategy that utilized all instruments of state power to maximum effect.

Strategy is an imperative for the poor and the weak. Compared to the united Roman Empire of centuries past, Byzantium was both. When it decided to wage war, the ancient Roman Empire was able to combine well-trained military forces raised from its huge manpower reserves with sheer warlike determination to literally grind its enemies into dust, often abandoning strategic and tactical subtlety to gain victory through simple attrition; a high-cost but low-risk strategy guaranteed to produce success for anyone able to foot the bill. Not so the Byzantine Empire, which suffered from a chronic shortage of combat-ready troops and a disadvantaged geography that left it surrounded by enemies, with no easily defensible frontiers or a secure “homeland” territory. And yet, the Byzantine Empire survived nearly a millennium longer than its Western ancestor. How? With a grand strategy attuned to its situation.

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