Everybody calm the hell down

On FP Everybody calm the hell down -- and while you are at it, turn off your TV by Tom Ricks
"By virtually all measures, the world is a far more peaceful place than it has been at any time in recorded history," writes Christopher Fettweis in a provocative essay for the April-May 2010 issue of Survival that I finally got around to reading yesterday.

With Colombia now moving toward peace, there are hardly any wars underway in the western hemisphere, notes Fettweis, a political scientist who used to teach at the Naval War College and now slings international relations at Tulane University. Europe is at peace -- and barely has any militaries anyway. The Pacific Rim has two billion people and no fighting, quite an achievement. Asia's only conflict last year was the nasty little Sri Lankan civil war, which is over. The wars that are occurring are long-term affairs on low boil, such as the Israeli-Palestinian standoff, the Yemeni fighting, and, of course, the United States' messes in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So why are Americans so fearful, so conscious of threats? He blames, in part, the manipulative nature of current television news. "Fear is an essential component of the business model of both CNN and Fox News, a necessary tool to keep fingers away from remote controls during commercial breaks. Voices of reason tend to spoil the fun, and may inspire people to see excitement elsewhere. News outlets win by presenting stories that are more frightening, angry and simple than those of their competitors. … "

One of the victims of this system, he goes on to argue, is poor old reasonable President Obama: "Only in a deeply pathological society is reason a synonym for weakness."

The Fettweis article irked me a bit, with his easy assertion that as the U.S. defense budget went down in the 1990s, world peace increased, so there must be an inverse relationship between the two. But I try to make sure I read to the end stuff that does that to me.

I also was struck that his was a liberal critique on the state of American society. For the last 40 years, since the ‘60s, tearing down the way Americans live has been a very successful conservative political line. I wonder if liberals are now picking up that angry approach again. I think Baby Boomers as a class are pissed. They came to maturity during Woodstock, when they were going to show the world how to live and love. In maturity they would smoke a little weed, sit on the beach, and hold forth. Instead, they find themselves old, mocked by technology, threatened financially, having to work longer than expected -- and al Qaeda wants to blow them up. So I think we are in for some very cranky years of politics.

Well, at least I feel better now.
From that essay:
For those not paying close attention to international affairs in August 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia, might have thought that Moscow’s troops had landed in the southern American state, somewhere near Savannah. At the very least, casual observers whose views were formed by the reaction of the US foreign-policy community would have come away with the impression that the invasion represented a clear and present danger to the United States. Former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski argued in a Time magazine cover story that ‘for the West, especially the U.S., the conflict between Russia and Georgia poses both moral and geostrategic challenges’, and that the ‘international community has not done enough to push back’. Neo-conservatives agreed: Charles Krauthammer argued that ‘the fate of far more than Georgia is at stake’, and Robert Kagan predicted that ‘historians will come to view Aug. 8, 2008, as a turning point no less significant than Nov. 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell’. The presidential candidates competed to appear most outraged, climaxing in Republican nominee John McCain’s assertion that ‘we are all Georgians’.

The US reaction to the invasion of Georgia is just one of many post-Cold War examples of Parkinson’s Law, adapted for international relations. British civil servant Cyril Northcote Parkinson began an essay in The Economist in 1955 by observing that ‘work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion’. International relations has its own version: insecurity expands along with power. As states get stronger, they identify more interests, and the number of threats they perceive tends to grow. Consequently, and perhaps paradoxically, the stronger countries are, the more insecure they often feel. Today, for instance, the United States is simultaneously the world’s most powerful country and its most insecure. Parkinson’s Law helps explain why so many in Washington interpreted the Russian invasion not as a minor flare-up of a long-standing regional grievance but as a threat to the existence of freedom and security everywhere.

Logic might suggest that power and security ought to be directly, not inversely, related. As state power grows, so too should security; after all, the stronger the state, the less likely is successful conquest from abroad. Presumably, potential challengers should be emboldened by weakness and deterred by strength. Why, then, do strong states often seem to worry more, often about seemingly trivial matters? The tendency for insecurity to expand with power is not merely paradoxical, it is pathological, an irrational aspect of international politics that, like individual psychopathologies, might be corrected if identified and brought into the open.

Pathology and strategy

For individuals as well as states, pathologies – mistaken or incorrect beliefs that inspire irrational action – create their own reality and drive behaviour accordingly. In individuals, pathologies reside in the mind, while state-level pathologies exist as shared irrational beliefs among leaders and the public. Strategic pathologies, then, are incorrect beliefs that drive destructive, or at least counterproductive, state behaviour. The United States suffers from several.
Back in the 90s we used to talk about the enemy deficit, this century brought the solution: enemy inflation. Stoking up small threats into existential firestorms e.g. ramshackle AQ as a greater threat to the UK than the Luftwaffe that flattened much of urban England.

Expensively constructing the worlds greatest standing military also has its own momentum of course. The procurement beast must be feed so new threats and roles must be conjured to justify the sausage factory. Sincere belief in this warped view of the world follows. This military becomes the default policy instrument and other more subtle tools are neglected. Expensive policy pratfalls become inevitable. Easily drawn into the error of trying to defend everywhere before you know it a fundamentally isolationist nation has turned itself inside out, has quasi-imperial basing all over the globe and a fistful of debilitating small wars often with little idea how the hell it got into this thankless world's policeman malarkey. The Founders were wise to that threat to their Republic, they would be very surprised to see London as camp follower to this unwieldy juggernaut.

Perhaps boomers are peculiarly prone to collective panic. We've lived through soft times. In the US they've been privileged to live through the fat years of delusional affluence, in real terms incomes have dropped and healthcare cost of gone of the grid but fueled by debt on easy terms and ever cheaper Chinese trinkets in Wal*Mart its been very comfortable. Now as the chickens are coming home to roost and many are confused or angrily crying for their country back. That happy fiscally feckless place of magical markets is gone forever of course and much of it is fast turning Latino. It's a suddenly a new frightening world that challenges what once were certainties, the understandable rage at TARP is a symptom of something deeper. One of my Californian Teaper mates has flitted to oh so stable Buenos Aires in a fit of Barry induced despair.

Still it's odd that the generation that grew up with the very real threat mushroom clouds above its cities was so easily spooked by the happily modest threats we face today. It's not just that they were being hoodwinked, there was genuine panic among policy makers who really should have known better, I include here not just the US Congress but Dick Cheney rushed to the bunker beneath the Whitehouse on 9-11 and even the tag along trickster Tony Blair.

The UK under Team Dave seems to be shrugging this fear filled moment off. It never had the same grip on the collective cojones on this side of the pond, terrorism was old news. Now despite the talk of austerity London is pouring most of the UK PLC's remaining wealth into the welfare state to support its graying boomer voters while cutting defenses they clearly feel little need of. I'm beginning to wonder if the UK policy elite has swung too far away from the jittery paranoia of the Blair's last years. Lulled by a world were the greatest threat is a succession of self-igniting Takfiri away from it always being 39 to not realizing events like 1914 came upon the similarly spoiled Edwardians with little warning.
Not quite sure how a lecturer at a military college managed to miss the parallels of dominant global powers and vigilance/threat dynamics. Elements of Pax Americana are a product of fear of decline.

I hope I am not the only one who could imagine him scoffing at Britain worrying about Prussia in the 1890s when it was clearly the dominant global power....
The thing about talk of US decline, though, is that it strongly depends on whether you're talking about relative or absolute. The second is a Hell of a lot easier to answer: are you drunk?

The US is still indisputably the wealthiest and most militarily powerful nation on earth by some considerable margin and it's key role in the international system helps to ensure that it'll stay that way for some time to come. It's too expensive and waaaay too much trouble for other nations to assume the mantle of world leadership the way the US has and Britain before her. Why should they, when they get all the benefits of a stable world order guaranteed by someone else at that someone's expense?

Relative decline is a trickier one and depends on how you measure it and what yardstick you use to measure the 'does it matter' point. Sure, other nations' militaries are closing the gap with the US but does it matter that the Yanks can only trounce any other nation 4 times over instead of 6? Does it matter that they're only producing 3 times as many patents as any other nation instead of 5 or 6 times the number of PhDs instead of 10? It depends on where the benefit winds up and in our modern interconnected world it's really rather difficult to contain the benefit of your activities within national boundaries.

Perhaps it's that sense of not being comfortably isolated from the rest of the world by power and distance that's causing short-circuits in their collective calm-the-****-down chip. 'The other' is different and scary: 'change' is frightening beyond all proportion to its actual effects or even any objective analysis of its reality.
Not quite sure where you think I am drunk comes from given I was not actually commenting on relative or absolute metrics of american decline.

The point is most constructs and narratives of decline are internal - just as Britains reactions to Prussia were largely bowing to domestic middle class pressure in the 19th Century. My point was that in his piece he ignores these fears when they are markedly apparent as an explanation of why America freaks the **** out and they are endemic of the dominant power of the time so not quite sure as an academic who would clearly know this is actually trying to say.
Not quite sure where you think I am drunk comes from given I was not actually commenting on relative or absolute metrics of american decline.
It was a generic response to a hypothetical generic question. The narrative of US decline seems rooted in the US psyche but I'd be prepared to bet it's been so in more than just our own day. I personally think it's ludicrous when the US is far wealthier, healthier, secure and militarily more powerful than ever before to talk of absolute decline. That's not to say I don't want a more diffuse system of international power if just to keep them honest.
I think their fear is just in how quickly the chicoms are catching up (psychologically). We never really appreciated our relative dominance over the European powers until it was nearly gone they seem to be getting stuck in early. The actual power discrepencies -especially the spare capacity in the US are still atmosphreic.

The entire narrative of the Plan for the New American Century was to affirm US dominance essentially for the extreme long term not through military dominance but through proving that democracy was the best system of government and the US is guranteed to be the greatest democratic power.

Shame that fucked up for them over iraq - I think they do really need to clam down over china because it and to a lesser extent india are a house of cards.

The Romans and Spanish had very similar periods of worry but no one has occupied a position of absolute dominance like the US.
Not quite sure how a lecturer at a military college managed to miss the parallels of dominant global powers and vigilance/threat dynamics. Elements of Pax Americana are a product of fear of decline.

I hope I am not the only one who could imagine him scoffing at Britain worrying about Prussia in the 1890s when it was clearly the dominant global power....
Not having access to the full article I can't say if he does or not.

I'd have to point out that by the 1890s the Deutsches Reich was becoming like France a peer competitor with the British Empire and simultaneously an increasingly vital trading partner. Chimerica does come to mind though the power differential is much greater. There more to British worries than simple fear of decline, it had always been necessary to be vigilant about the balance of power across the Channel and London was if anything too distracted by its imperial possessions for its own good. This of course is being wise with hindsight, the apocalyptic wars of the 20th century were hardly predictable and the La perfide Albion had got by with devious and relatively modest interventions in Continental affairs.

The decline narrative has been part of US politics ever since I can remember, American optimism and soaring confidence has always trumped it. Americans, if anything, over estimate their nations power to shape the world. The US may have left the hubris of the unipolar moment behind it but still enjoys a level of superiority across a wide spectrum of fields over any other nation or likely grouping of nations that's unprecedented. With the USSR gone and linked at the hip with Red China the US really has no peer to be seriously concerned about. This is qualitatively different from late Victorian Britain.

Fettweis's main point seems to be this level of security does not lead to a rational assessment of risks but quite the reverse. What we do see is a dangerous leveling of threats and a quite paranoid assessment of their severity. A modest terrorist threat morphing into a WWII style clash of civilizations. His Georgian example isn't well chosen, after years being distracted in small Middle Eastern countries, the Kremlin flexed its mussels and a lot folk in DC suddenly realized they had taken it's eye of the geo-political ball, the old predators were still out there in the shadows and might actually be more dangerous than the latest bogeyman. Reality check over, they then went back to talking a few cave dwelling Arabs into an existential threat, it's what they do.
Yes there are substantive differences but dont forget its the British public who led the response to Prussia (we want eight and we wont wait) - not government policy.

Similarly the non-army Pentagon ranks have been straining at the bit to move onto the new air sea conflict build up but negligable value COIN ops seem to still hold a dominant lustre for a significant proportion of the US voting public. I would argue because they as the capitalist nation expect to see a return on investment that will never arrive.

In the end its the critical fault of all elite citizen led powers, the British, Spanish (clergy), Romans and Americas all focussed on the wrong threat in hindsight but they still drove the narratives in a way that the publics of the more autocratic also rans France, USSR etc. could never have dreamed of.

I get that was his thrust of his argument but it seems relatively pointless, especially the self serving histrionic title that hes been bounding about to drum up attentiuin (and he has been rightly shot down over it on JSTOR/ATHENS).
Discussion of the Great Game is widespread these days and academic commentators enjoy mental gymnastics as much as the next man. Christopher Fettweis' treatise reminds me of the debate about the number of angels that could dance on the head of a pin.
I would contest his assumptions that Americans are "fearful", "so conscious of threats" and "insecure". He is right that bad news sells newspapers, but pre-supposing that the public swallows every story whole is a mistake.
His interpretation of the American mid term criticism of President Obama where "Only in a deeply pathological society is reason a synonym for weakness." is wide of the mark. It certainly wasn't his reason that upset so many voters.
Fettweis' sanguine acceptance of the Russian invasion of Georgia is illuminating. Just "A minor flare-up of a long-standing regional grievance", well shucks and it's so far away.
And then the heroic summary: "The tendency for insecurity to expand with power is not merely paradoxical, it is pathological, an irrational aspect of international politics that, like individual psychopathologies, might be corrected if identified and brought into the open". This from a man whose resume does not include any clinical expertise or medical qualification to validate his opinions regarding the pathology of the human psyche.
Tom Ricks calls the essay "provocative", that is the same as calling your minister's decision "brave".

Aha have just heard that its drumming up attention for an oncoming book, would explain why it reads like an incomplete chapter with a trite tacked on conclusion.

Still massively disagree with the piece, my last comment on it would be that he seems to be arguing that if you are the local magistrate you dont have to lock or alarm your house?
I fell over this last night while reading something else (OT: Hitchen's account of his terminal cancer is well worth a look) that is along the same 'don't panic' lines:

Man Up, America!


It is not surprising that during these times we yearn for tales of another era, when the stakes were high and the choices more clear-cut. A spate of superb World War II books have come out this season, including Juliet Gardiner’s The Blitz: The British Under Attack (published in September, in the U.K.). When Americans refer to 9/11 as the day the world changed, they should be mindful of what London went through in the early days of the Second World War. On September 7, 1940, 348 Luftwaffe bombers crossed the English Channel. They were over London by late afternoon and for the next two hours ignited the city with incendiary bombs. That same evening, the Germans were back, raining 625 tons of high explosives on East London. The Blitz (from the German Blitzkrieg, for “lightning war”) went on for 57 consecutive nights and then spread to other cities in the U.K. It was estimated that by May of the next year more than 43,000 people had died in the strategic air raids. The English, being the English, just got on with it. A survey taken during this period found that weather had a greater impact than air raids on the day-to-day worries of many Londoners. As Gardiner observes, “egg rationing produced more emotion than the blitz.”

Americans were not without their own tales of epic struggle during the war. One such saga is told in Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand. Her last book, Seabiscuit, published nine years ago, was a masterpiece of nonfiction narrative, and made for a pretty terrific movie too. Unbroken is a more than worthy follow-up. In it, Hillenbrand tells the story of Louie Zamperini, a former Olympic track star for the U.S. who at 23 came close to breaking the four-minute mile. He made a heroic but losing effort in the 5,000 meters at the Berlin Games, in 1936, and would have been a gold-medal contender at the planned 1940 Tokyo Olympics had they not been canceled because of the war. Louie entered the service a few months before Pearl Harbor. Serving as a bombardier in the Pacific, he and the rest of his B-24 crew set out from Hawaii on May 27, 1943, on an emergency search-and-rescue mission. Louie wouldn’t set foot on American soil again for almost two and a half years. His wartime saga began, as does our excerpt, with a plane crash, followed by an almost unbelievably harrowing experience adrift on a life raft in the middle of the Pacific. He and two fellow airmen battled starvation, eating only the occasional raw albatross or fish. Zamperini’s story is certainly one of the most remarkable survival tales ever recorded. What happened after that is equally remarkable. Do yourself and the publishing industry a favor and buy the book after you read our excerpt, “Adrift but Unbroken.”

When you consider what this one man endured, or the entire city of London, whatever annoyances are bothering you, whatever problems you have in your own life, will seem minor by comparison. America, you have it pretty damned good. Smile.

Man Up, America! | The Magazine | Vanity Fair
I think the jesters still have the edge on bringing redemption though:[video=youtube;FNKUPvzAkFY]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FNKUPvzAkFY[/video]
In the end its the critical fault of all elite citizen led powers, the British, Spanish (clergy), Romans and Americas all focussed on the wrong threat in hindsight but they still drove the narratives in a way that the publics of the more autocratic also rans France, USSR etc. could never have dreamed of.

I get that was his thrust of his argument but it seems relatively pointless, especially the self serving histrionic title that hes been bounding about to drum up attentiuin (and he has been rightly shot down over it on JSTOR/ATHENS).
I think you are racing after a narrative fallacy, so are the chaps at JSTOR. You're comparing three failed empires with the US, a couple of which lacked the staying power of the Ottomans. Powerful states that behave astrategically are often slow to be punished by history but their fall can be as swift as that of the USSR, both classical Athens and Sparta come to mind, finally easy meat for the patient Persian superpower. But still, I'm interested, which citizen led Romans do you actually mean? The contrast with the suddenly empowered technocratic citizens of revolutionary France would be revealing.
I must say this is a fascinating thread--I just wish I understood half of it. I did note the IMHO idiotic assertion that the mid-trerm elections reflect a collective paranoia that confuses His "reason" with weakness. If He and his confidantes actually believe that we are in for a ver y interesting next 2 years indeed.
On Inspots Is a clear and equal enemy necessary to develop a valid grand strategy?
In times where powerful nations have had clear, and often equal, enemies, developing a real and viable grand strategy has usually happened. Necessity has dictated this requirement. One could argue that we have a clear enemy - al Qaida, terrorism, whatever - but is it really? We can't find their leadership (well, other than their #3 man repeatedly) or them massed on the battlefield which we could then use our military against. So it's not really clear. And it's certainly not equal. While today's enemies could hurt us, they are by no stretch of imagination an existential threat to the United States or any other western nation.

This question came to me after reading the passage I'm about to quote at length. It is from Winston Churchill's The Gathering Storm and in it Sir Winston is quoting an address he gave in March 1936 (it's on page 207 for those of you with the 1948 U.S. edition).

For four hundred years the foreign policy of England has been to oppose the strongest, most aggressive, most dominating Power on the Continent, and particularly to prevent the Low Countries falling into the hands of such a Power. Viewed in the light of history, these four centuries of consistent purpose amid so many changes of names and facts, of circumstances and conditions, must rank as one of the most remarkable episodes which the records of any race, nation, state, or people can show. Moreover, on all occasions England took the more difficult course. Faced by Philip II of Spain, against Louis XIV under William III and Marlborough, against Napoleon, against William II of Germany, it would have been easy and must have been very tempting to join with the stronger and share the fruits of his conquest. However, we always took the harder course, joined with the less strong Powers, made a combination among them, and thus defeated and frustrated the Continental military tyrant whoever he was, whatever nation he led. Thus we preserved the liberties of Europe, protected the growth of its vivacious and varied society, and emerged after four terrible struggles with an ever-growing fame and widening Empire, and with the Low Countries safely protected in their independence. Here is the wonderful unconscious tradition of British foreign policy. All our thoughts rest in that tradition today. I know of nothing which has occurred to alter or weaken the justice, wisdom, valour, and prudence upon which our ancestors acted. I know of nothing that has happened to human nature which in the slightest degree alters the validity of their conclusions. I know of nothing in military, political, economic, or scientific fact which makes me feel that we might not, or cannot, march along the same road. I venture to put this very general proposition before you because it seems to me that if it is accepted, everything else becomes more simple.

Observe that the policy of England takes no account of which nation it is that seeks the overlordship of Europe. The question is not whether it is Spain, or the French Monarchy, or the French Empire, or the German Empire, or the Hitler regime. It has nothing to do with rulers or nations; it is concerned solely with whoever is the strongest or the potentially dominating tyrant. Therefore, we should not be afraid of being accused of being pro-French or anti-German. If the circumstances were reversed, we could equally be pro-German and anti-French. It is a law of public policy which we are following, and not a mere expedient dictated by accidental circumstances, or likes and dislikes, or any other sentiment.
There's more if you want to read it, but that is the most coherent grand strategy I've ever read. Once could conjecture that the menace of Soviet communism was a strong and potentially dominating tyrant on the Continent. So this policy, this strategy, continued for another 50 years after this speech was given. Now there were no more threats to the peace and stability of Europe - and certainly none to the Low Countries. No wonder the UK National Security Strategy was so vapid. The strategy that had been used for 450 years until what is comparatively just recently became somewhat useless.

What about the United States? I wouldn't say that we've had the same strategy for 200 some odd years. At least I wouldn't say we've had a coherent one - possibly to improve our status in the world or our economic condition or something else so nebulous as to be of no value. But we did spend the first hundred years "taming" the land and consolidating the government's power over it. After that things get a little messy except for the World and Cold Wars (the latter of which I would argue was the longest we've ever gone with a single grand foreign strategy). So now what?

Are the UK and US unable to make a strategy because the thing that worries us most (an existential threat) just doesn't exist anymore? When we had enemies with grand strategy, we countered with a grand strategy (or in the quote above have an overarching grand strategy that most everything else fits in). But now we have an enemy that uses a strategy of tactics, which we've met with a strategy of tactics. Having an enemy whose abilities we exaggerate doesn't help - we create operational plans for tactical gains but just come up empty with grand strategy. Is that because we just haven't done it yet, that it's too hard, or that there just isn't one to be had? Why don't we have some overarching theme to our foreign policy like the Brits did for 450 years(!)? Once we get past the platitudes we usually use maybe we'll get there, but I'm not holding my breath. But we need to get there soon, because for the past 100 years in the US and the past 20 years in the UK, we've been letting our enemies dictate the level and validity of our strategic thinking - or even dictate that we shouldn't use strategy at all. I can only imagine what Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill, KG, OM, CH, TD, PC, DL, FRS would think of that. I'd guess not much.
The answer is obviously not, grand strategy should require no nemisis, it does help to focus the attention but various powers manage without a pressing threat.

Churchill rather romanticizes la perfide Albion's parsimonious and admirably amoral approach to the dark continent. It finally failed with the empire being rather more concerned with its distant possessions than the gathering storm in central Europe. London's survival and rescue by DC somewhat obscures the collapse that followed, Suez finally it rammed home. The pragmatic muddle of imperial Britain is not a model to emulate. It is a cautionary tale of how the construction of a short lived global empire can push a nation out onto the margins of power.


Kit Reviewer
Book Reviewer
Ta, the Rick's article seemed to me a rehash of Hofstadter's argument, an argument that IMHO is one of the most pertinent documents on American politics sine de Tocqueville. I've found myself returning to it over the last year or so as one of many lenses that I can analyse the current memes in US politics and media.
The pragmatic muddle of imperial Britain is not a model to emulate. It is a cautionary tale of how the construction of a short lived global empire can push a nation out onto the margins of power.
Viewed from a distance and with a powerful lens, I can see how you might get that impression. Where do you imagine Britain was, just prior to construction?
In respect of a separate argument have you noticed how advancing technology compresses history?

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