Of Dominoes and Quantums

The Geography of Warfare, published in 1983, is a collection of strategic and political musings by Patrick O’Sullivan (Professor of Geography at Florida State University) and Jesse W. Miller (Professor of Accounting at State University of New York). Like many other similarly themed books published around the same time, the book is a wide-ranging, searching work; a modest contribution to the strategic remooring that was just beginning to occur as America recovered from the post-Vietnam haze and responded to the perceived Soviet ascent.


Not quite so simple…

Their post-mortem analysis of the domino theory shows the value of remembering that strategy occurs in a physical plane and is still subject to geographic limitations:

Since there is no formal statement of the domino theory, in order to analyse its logical structure we can only examine the mechanics of the analogy. The elegant, rippling collapse of a row of dominoes derives from its artful arrangement in a state of unstable equilibrium so that any disturbance will be transmitted along the row. The pieces are endowed with potential energy by standing them on their ends so that each will strike the next as it falls. If a gap greater than the length of a piece separates two dominoes, the chain reaction ceases. The dominoes have three states: standing, falling and fallen. That ‘falling’ and ‘fallen’ equate with ‘going communist’ may satisfy the moral perspective of those who apply this theory. On the other hand they might have been disturbed that the fallen state was a stable equilibrium while standing was unstable. The red and white characterisation of politics implied by the analogy is not only naïve and insulting but also runs contrary to a geographical sense of uniqueness. It utterly fails to capture the significance of regional or national identity which daily we see dominating mankind’s sense of self and place.

The model treats of aggression from one end of the row as the potential energy of the first domino is translated to kinetic energy by an initial tap. It falls, registering a change to the same affiliation as the aggressor and, in so doing, imparts this character to the next domino as it strikes it down and so forth. What the necessities of similar size and appropriate spacing translate into in geographical terms is unclear. Obviously in order to land on the beaches of San Diego some very large dominoes would have to be stationed on the Philippines, Wake Island and Hawaii. The existence of a gap like the Pacific should quiet fears of the red menace wading ashore in California. In the proliferation of the theory’s use, oceans or intervening nations are obviously not seen as gaps containing the contagion, but can be conveniently erased. The nature of the contamination process is not made very clear by the analogy. ‘Knocked over’ is redolent of liquor stores rather than nations and hardly provides a rich enough description of the process to prescribe preventative action. ‘Propping up’ has been used to indicate one type of solution, but has proven difficult to translate into successful political, military and economic operations. ‘Knocking out’, the lateral displacement of one or more pieces to provide a fire-break to check the progress of the conflagration, does appeal to some military minds as a feasible action. (p. 100-1)

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RADM Wylie Mania and the Next Threat to Freedom

A couple of items:

Lynn Rees over at Zenpundit has posted an impressive compendium of all material concerning RADM J.C. Wylie that is available online, including blog posts by myself, Mr. Rees, and Seydlitz89. Who is J.C. Wylie? Mr. Rees’ post answers that question.


The 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division is a blooded combat unit that has seen multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, and traces a lineage back to the First World War. Recently, however, soldiers in the barracks were made aware of a new enemy on the horizon:

I took this photograph myself and I investigated the authenticity of the poster; it was a genuine project conducted my military and wildlife personnel. They have since been removed, and for good reason. Soldiers I spoke with were justifiably insulted and felt infantilized by such a bizarre and pathetic “warning.”

Despite my best efforts, however, I never spotted the hyper-aggressive, man-eating variant of the Eastern Grey Squirrel.

Revisionism versus Realpolitik: The Strategic Culture of Syria

The concept of strategic culture – which argues that culture can influence strategic behavior just as it can social behavior – remains somewhat controversial. On the one hand, idealists reject the notion that not all cultures share in the supposedly universal aspirations of humanity, while on the other hand, neorealists are often hostile to an alternative system of explanation that does not depend on rational calculations of the balance of power. (It is, however, very compatible with the classical realism of Hans Morgenthau)

In my opinion, neorealism is a much more flexible and inclusive paradigm than many of its critics (and proponents) give it credit for. Kenneth Waltz’s “third image” of international relations describes how the structure of the international system can itself be a cause of war and also permits wars that derive from non-systemic factors, such as megalomaniacal leaders or warlike governments; it is at these levels – the first and second “images” – that strategic culture can be a useful supplement to neorealism.

This post is based on a paper I wrote a couple years ago, which used the concept of strategic culture to identify the sources of Syrian foreign policy. I think it is a good – if amateurish – example of how the national security community tries to employ the concept, conducting extensive cultural analyses to identify key factors that influence the subject’s strategic thinking.

Syria is a difficult case study for students of strategic culture. Ever since the Assad regime rose to power in 1970, Syria’s international behavior has been largely consistent with that of a realist rational actor. However, strategic culture can help explain the origins of that behavior.

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Honor, Terror, and the Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire

Continuing my [hopefully short-lived] antiquarian bent,  I recently read Rome and the Enemy: Imperial Strategy in the Principate by Susan P. Mattern. Mattern examines the phenomenon of Roman imperialism by reconstructing their own frame of reference. She argues that, in general, the Romans did not view international relations and war in terms of “rational” objectives such as the military defense or economic security of the empire, but rather in terms of national honor. “Revolving around this idea of image or honor, Roman policy worked largely on the psychological (as opposed to strictly military or economic) plane.” (108-9)

The Romans … [did] not frame their analyses mainly in “rationalizing” economic or geopolitical terms; these motivations alone – the desire to achieve defensible frontiers, for example, or to balance the budget through lucrative conquests or to retain the tax revenue of a rebellious province – are inadequate to explain the intensity and brutality of the Roman effort in many cases. Instead, the Romans perceived their struggle for empire in very different terms: crucial were issues of psychology, the emotions of terror and awe that they hoped to produce in the enemy; and moral and status issues, such as the need to repress superbia [arrogance among the enemy], avenge iniruriae [violations of honor], and maintain the honor or decus of the empire. It was on these things that, as they believed, their security depended; it was for these that they fought. (194)

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The Empire Has No Brains

America is missing something in its foreign policy…something very important. I am not referring to a unified grand strategic vision; we certainly don’t have one of those, but as I’ve commented elsewhere, that is to be expected in a democracy and its absence is not fatal to American statecraft. Nor am I referring to the ability to actually conduct strategy; that isn’t our strong suit either, but when we put our minds to it we’re able to muddle on through well enough. What is missing is something much more basic…much more elemental. I will let Bernard Brodie explain:

It is the conception simply of reasonable price, and of its being applied to strategy and national policy – the idea that some ends or objectives are worth paying a good deal for and others are not. The latter include ends that are no doubt desirable but which are worth attempting to achieve only if the price can with confidence be kept relatively low. Can it really by that such a simple and obvious idea is often neglected or overlooked? The answer is, most decidedly, yes.

Brodie was writing in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, but his point remains just as relevant today: the U.S. is apparently incapable of conducting a simple cost-benefit analysis. At least not until the American public realize that they’ve been incurring significant costs but experiencing few benefits. Unfortunately, nearly nine years after the Afghan war began, U.S. policymakers have still not faced the blunt question of whether the return is worth the investment, and if not, how to bring costs and benefits back into equilibrium. The need to combat terrorists is not in dispute. What should be debated is the current strategy to pursue this objective.

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Counterfactual History: Soviet Aggrandizement in the 1980s

It’s difficult for Americans to appreciate the fact that the 1980s were probably the most dangerous years in the history of human civilization. There was no shortage of commentators exclaiming the miraculously “peaceful” dissolution of the USSR, but few dwelt on the fact that matters could have easily gone the other way had the Soviet Union  followed the historic pattern of empire and attempted to reverse decline through expansion. In his 1983 book The Grand Strategy of the Soviet Union Edward Luttwak correctly diagnosed the terminal illnesses plaguing the communist superpower, and argued that it was highly likely that the Soviet Union would attempt to consolidate its position by invading the remote western provinces of China and setting up client governments in the newly conquered territories. Here’s how he made his case (to ease the writing of this post, I sometimes drift back and forth between the past and present tenses):

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Strategy Applied: Gen. Albert Wedemeyer and the Victory Plan of 1941

I am sometimes distraught by how long it’s taking me to write my MS thesis. Considering that Albert Wedemeyer devised the U.S. Army’s World War II grand strategy, unit structure, equipment requirements, and general concept of operations, all in a period of about three months, that sentiment is probably justified. A monograph by Charles Kirkpatrick recounts how Wedemeyer accomplished this, providing a nice case study on how strategy is formulated in the real world.

In 1941, the War Plans Division was tasked with calculating the nation’s total manufacturing requirements for the coming war. The assignment was given to then-Major (later General) Albert Wedemeyer, who had an office, a small staff, and about ninety days to complete the job. After pondering the question for a time, Wedemeyer realized that his mission was much more complicated than first thought:

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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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The Benefits of Stupidity

Joseph Fouche over at the Committee of Public Safety brings us George Friedman’s (founder of stratfor.com) ridiculous prescription for American grand strategy:

America’s grand strategy is to be so big and so powerful that it escapes the consequences of its own stupidity.

Laughable though it may seem, this policy has much to recommend it. Edward Luttwak offers the best explanation as to why.

Strategy is an intricately complex exercise, with a multi-layered vertical dimension that consists of the many interacting levels of strategy – from the lowest level of technical competition to the highest level of grand strategy itself – and a horizontal dimension that consists of the enemy’s response. A perfectly optimized strategy requires a policy that is in harmony with all levels of both dimensions. Reaching this harmony would be no small achievement even in the simpler times of antiquity, but in the modern bureaucratic state it is infinitely more difficult. In Luttwak’s own words,

the highly diversified bureaucratic apparatus of modern states is itself a major obstacle to the implementation of any comprehensive scheme of grand strategy. Each civil and military department is structured to pursue its own distinct goals, and each has its own institutional culture. Consciously or not, the separate departments are likely to resist a concerted scheme whenever it clashes with their particular bureaucratic interests, habits, and aims. For the implementation of a normative grand strategy, the organization of modern states is both the essential instrument and a powerful impediment.

Dictatorships obviously have an easier time of it, but for democracies, complex strategy making is all but impossible:

Democracies cannot function as cunning warriors stalking their enemies in the night. Nor can modern pluralist democracies achieve coherence in their foreign policies, shaped as they are by the contending forces of voluntary pressure groups, organized lobbies, contending bureaucracies, and political factions. Yet there is much to be said for the resulting incoherence.

With all the impediments to efficient strategy making in the U.S., we are lucky to reach a consensus on the need to be big and powerful.

But even if we assume that it is realistic – or at least possible – to craft an optimized grand strategy we are still left with a question: is a unified grand strategy even necessary? It can be argued that ad hoc policymaking has produced outcomes only slightly less favorable than those of a universal strategic scheme. American foreign policy might be sloppy and full of mistakes, but it avoids permanently systematizing critical failures, which is a danger inherent in more coordinated strategies:

…while the successful application of a grand strategy should reduce the prevalence of small errors of disharmony, it will do so at the risk of focusing energies to perpetuate much larger errors. That is why the warlike ventures of dictatorships that can impose the tightest policy coordination, exploit the paradoxical logic to the full, and routinely achieve surprise whenever they attack begin well, only to end in utter disaster.

Strategy is a reciprocal enterprise; every action provokes a response from both enemies and allies. Americans look at the overwhelming disparity in military and economic power between the U.S. and the rest of the world and lament their failure to leverage this power toward the creation of a truly American world order. So they gnash their teeth, rend their clothes, and tear out their hair in exasperation of America’s strategic incompetence. Yes, it is true that America has not harnessed its resources in service of a unified grand strategy, but by not doing so, we avoid the inevitable counter-strategy from the rest of the world:

There is now a multidimensional American supremacy that is quite unprecedented in all of human history and that awaits only the determined pursuit of a power-maximizing global strategy to become fully effective for the United States, and intolerably oppressive for everyone else. Defensive responses and hostile reactions of widening scope and mounting consequence would inevitably follow…

Whatever added leverage could have been obtained by purposeful coherence in the first stage, thereby evoking coalition building in the second, would be lost in the third and final stage, in which some sort of global equilibrium would be restored once the original enhancement of American power was negated. Even if incidental disasters were avoided along the way, the United States would lose not merely what it would have previously and briefly gained but much more than that, because of the damage inflicted by intra-Western quarrels on multilateral institutions and long-established cooperative practices.

Finally, let us remember that, in the words of Sun Tzu, “the pinnacle of military deployment approaches the formless. If it is formless, then even the deepest spy cannot discern it or the wise make plans against it.” What strategy could be more formless than no strategy at all?

J.C. Wylie: American Clausewitz?

wylie2America’s unique international position – protected by two oceans with weak neighbors on our borders – has discouraged disciplined study in the fields of strategy and warfare; with no serious foreign threat for most of our history, there was little impetus for such study. Only with the onset of the Cold War, inspired by an enemy that was capable of destroying the nation in a matter of hours, did scholars begin serious research and writing in the field of strategy. Indeed, the 1950s, and 60s are considered the “golden age” of American strategic thought, from which came the works of Bernard Brodie, Thomas Schelling, Herman Kahn, Robert Osgood, and many others. In terms of quality, many of these ideas (such as mutually assured destruction, limited war, game theory, “systems analysis”, etc.) were substandard if not outright dangerous. Nevertheless, they continue to have influence on the national security policy of the United States.

Much as a single diamond is sifted from tons of worthless gravel and rock, out of the voluminous writings of America’s strategic “golden age” stands a concise, little-known, and remarkable work: Rear Admiral J.C. Wylie’s Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control. The British writer Colin Gray regards Wylie as one of the best strategic thinkers since Clausewitz, though like all of humanity, he still falls short of the Prussian Master. However, though sublime Clausewitz might be, his work is not exactly light reading, and few military officers and politicians have time for any of it. This fact creates the niche that Wylie skillfully exploits with a book only 94 pages long.

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