Thursday, July 9, 2009

Nothing so dated as a vision of the future

If one was going to pick the worst possible year in the last half-century in which to publish a book on grand strategy, 1991 – the year in which the Soviet Union disappeared from history – is probably it. Nevertheless, I found Grand Strategies in War and Peace edited by Paul Kennedy an informative and agreeable read.

A friend lent it to me and particularly recommended the essay on Roman Empire by Arther Ferrill, which I did find most informative. Like the C5th historian Zosimus and Edward Gibbon (but very few other commentators in the last two centuries), Ferrill argues that Constantine the Great’s abandonment of frontier defence by infantry-centred armies for defense-in-depth relying on cavalry reserves was an ultimately disastrous policy and institutional choice. Given that the infantry-based high-training high-discipline army worked brilliantly for over 5 centuries, while Constantine’s change was followed by the evaporation of the Western Empire 140 years later, it is a claim with a certain plausibility.
But I enjoyed all the historical studies (three on British grand strategy, others on Spanish grand strategy under Olivares, German, French and Soviet grand strategy), finding them intelligent, thoughtful and informative. The last was by one Condoleeza Rice and managed to read well even given the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of the year the book was published. Though the most memorable observation was Douglas Porch in his essay on French grand strategy pointing out that Versailles was a German strategic victory since Germany’s population and economy was intact and it now had only one powerful state on its borders (France). His argument that the French collapse in 1940 was primarily because Nazi Germany was a more formidable opponent than Wilhelmine Germany, not because 1940 France was all that different from 1914 France, has much plausibility.

A persistent theme was how strategic intention still required tactical success.

What read least well was the final essay by Paul Kennedy on the US’s strategic dilemmas. Not really his fault, since the collapse of the Soviet Union transformed international affairs so completely.

But it did provoke a few reflections. One was how distorting it is to use US economic dominance in the war-devastated world of 1950 as a baseline. It is surely more striking that the US entered the C21st with a greater level of technological dominance, a far greater level of military dominance and a comparable share of world GDP as it entered the C20th. Conversely, EUrope scores comparatively lower on all three: strikingly so in military power.

Another was how the nuclear threat still conditions US policy responses, but now focused on the possible use of nuclear weapons by a “non-state actor”.

The third was how US victory in WWII and the Cold War can be straightforwardly conceived as being that one wins when one’s enemies become democracies. Hence the remarkable sight of the American Republic exporting its Revolution at the point of a gun and a rocket to the land between the rivers and the Hindu Kush: in both cases, as part of a coalition of countries (though a much wider coalition in Afghanistan than Iraq since the former sits better with the traditional norms of inter-state behaviour than the latter: that American policy is the same in both countries rather exposes the “it’s all about oil” nonsense).

But exporting democracy is something that makes lots of folk nervous, particularly by military power. The EU elite doesn’t even think that Europeans should get a full dose of democracy (at least not at the EU level), let alone considering the prevailing views in Russia or (especially) China. India and the Japan, on the other hand, have reasons to find it quite a comfortable idea. A Washington-Tokyo-New Delhi entente versus a Brussels-Moscow-Beijing axis seems a possibility, despite countervailing pressures (the Eastern Europeans, Baltics and Scandinavians like an American guarantee against Russia, the Chinese regime does not approve of EU global governance ideas). Here in Oz, we don’t want to have to make a choice between Washington and Beijing, just as Britain doesn’t want to make a choice between Washington and Brussels. Given that the EU’s global governance ambitions simply aren’t compatible with the consent-of-the-governed principles of the American Revolution, London is going to have to make a choice eventually. And if Beijing manages to continue ride the pressures of modernisation without an implosion (not a forgone conclusion), we will face a choice eventually too. In our case, USA-Japan-India will clearly win. In Britain’s case, it will likely depend on how politically obvious are the profoundly anti-democratic nature of the EU’s global governance aims in causing tensions with the US.

Having reverted to the possessors of intellectual capital’s traditional contempt – going back millennia – for the “vulgar masses” (the proletariat-become-rednecks phenomenon) and for “vulgar commerce” (corporations are evil), much of the Western intelligentsia will be on the side of Brussels-Moscow-Beijing (or, more precisely, agin Washington). But that was the case in the Cold War too, so nothing much new there: the anti-democratic shift among possessors of intellectual capital for status and career reasons (despite much breast-beating to the contrary) just becoming a little more obvious. Indeed, the conceit that there is much cutting edge or new—apart from the cavalcade of shifting mascots and a certain fetishing of language—about this drab and arrogant recycling of the prejudices and politics of Plato is laughable.

But such thoughts take us rather beyond the ambit of what is a surprisingly useful collection.

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