The Punk(s)

Now that Vice President Mike Pence has finished glaring across Korea’s demilitarized zone and things have calmed down a little, it may be time to take stock. Neither North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, nor his father, nor his grandfather, are or were nice people. The first established, the second and the third led, regimes as horrible and as totalitarian as any in history. To recall what Socrates once said about tyrants, had it been possible to open their souls it would have been found to be full of scars.

All three have often been called a danger to world peace, and Un himself has been described as a “punk.” Ever since the Korean War ended in 1953, the North has in fact been responsible for countless incidents, some of them dangerous indeed, along its border with the South. The number of people killed in these incidents runs into the hundreds. However, in Pyongyang favor it must be said that it has not fought a single war in or against any of its neighbors. Let alone countries far from its borders.

During this same period of sixty-four years the great, benevolent, apple pie-eating, mother-loving, and God-fearing American democracy, invariably inspired by the dream of liberty, equality and justice for all, has:

– Tried (and failed) to invade Cuba in 1961;

– Blockaded Cuba in 1962 (this particular act of war, probably the most dangerous in the   whole of history, almost led to a nuclear holocaust);

– Sent its troops to Vietnam (1963), where they waged war until 1973;

– Invaded the Dominican Republic in 1965;

– Invaded Cambodia in 1970;

– Sent troops to Lebanon in 1982;

– Invaded Grenada in 1983;

– Invaded Panama in 1989;

– Invaded Iraq in 1991;

– Invaded Somalia in 1993;

– Invaded Haiti in 1994;

– Bombed Bosnia in 1995;

– Bombed Iraq in 1998-99;

– Waged war against Serbia in 1999;

– Invaded Afghanistan in 2001;

– Invaded Iraq in 2003;

– Bombed Libya in 2011;

– Raided Yemen in 2017;

– Bombed Syria in 2017.

This list does not include US support, some of it military, to revolutions and counter-revolutions in countries such as Iran (1953), Indonesia (1965), Chile (1973), Nicaragua (1979-90), Serbia (2000), Georgia (2003, the Ukraine (2004), and Kyrgyzstan (2005). Directly or indirectly, Washington’s praiseworthy deeds have led to the death of millions of people.

With one exception (Afghanistan in 2002) all the bombings, invasions and interventions took place in countries that, with the worst will in the world, did not have what it takes to endanger to the mighty US. Without exception, they took place in countries that were small, weak, and often so far away that the average US citizen had never heard about them. Proving that, if you are a small, weak country, even one located on the other side of the world from the US, and plan to disobey Washington’s will while avoiding its oh-so tender mercies, the first thing you need are nukes and delivery vehicles to put them on target.

So can anyone please tell me who the punk)s( are?

Just Published!

Martin van Creveld, More on War, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2017

When the chips are down, the survival of every country, government and individual is ultimately dependent on war. That is why, though war may come but once in a hundred years, it must be prepared for every day. When it is too late—when the bodies lay stiff and people weep over them—those in charge have failed in their duty.

In almost every field of human thought and action, good philosophers abound. They have examined their subjects, be they aesthetics or ethics or logic or the existence of God, and dissected them into their component parts. Next they re-assembled them, often in new and surprising ways that helped students to expand their knowledge and gain understanding. Some even helped improve the ability of the rest of us to cope with real-world problems. Yet in two and-a half millennia there have only been two really important military theoreticians: Sun Tzu (544-496 BCE) and Carl von Clausewitz (1779-1831). All the rest, including quite a few who were famous in their own times, have been more or less forgotten. Today they are of interest, if at all, almost exclusively to the military historian.

Both Sun Tzu’s the Art of War and Clausewitz’s On War have had praise heaped on them by generations of soldiers and scholars. With very good reason, needless to say. Nevertheless, both are marked by serious problems. In part, that is because there are entire fields which they address hardly if at all. Including the causes of war, the relationship between economics and war, the technology of war, and the law of war. This even applies to naval warfare, an age-old but critically important topic that neither of them mentions in a single word. In part, it is simply because they are old. Being old, they have nothing to say about the many forms of war that have emerged since they were written and whose role in contemporary conflict is often decisive. Such as nuclear war, air- and space war, cyberwar, and asymmetric war.

What is needed, in other words, is a new theory of war. One that is succinct, comprehensive, and easy to read and understand. And one that, by taking a contemporary approach, filling the gaps, and expanding into new fields can take the place of the above texts both in military and civilian life, both in- and out of the classroom.

The purpose of More on War is to provide just such a theory.


“Van Creveld is incapable of writing an uninteresting book.”

Prof. Lawrence Friedman, Foreign Affairs.

Blaming Obama

As Aleppo has finally fallen and a new Republican administration, supported by a Republican Congress, is about to take over, everyone is pointing fingers at outgoing President Barak Obama. He left America’s allies in the lurch. He did not stand up to Assad, Hezbollah, Khameini, Putin, and other wicked people. He should have done this and he should have done that. He was hesitant and he was inactive and he was ineffective. He has left the US weaker than it was when he entered office. He was a second Carter (the worst thing, in this view, anyone can be).

The charges are baseless. What they overlook is the fact that, at the time the Syrian civil war broke out in May 2011, the U.S was just emerging from its involvement in two disastrous wars. One in Afghanistan, the other in Iraq. Between them these two wars cost the U.S tens of thousands of casualties, including thousands of dead. They also cost fortunes so large as to be almost incalculable. Yet neither of them has achieved anything except increase the mayhem in Central Asia and the Middle East respectively.

The man who created the situation that led to this mess was not President Obama. It was his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush. Bush, it seems, entered office without any particular agenda. That may have been why, once 9/11 had taken place and almost three thousand Americans had died, he reacted instinctively and ferociously by sending his troops into that graveyard of empires, Afghanistan. Initially almost no one could quarrel with his decision and almost no one did. With good reason, it should be added; a Superpower, if it wants to remain a Superpower, cannot afford to take a spectacular act of war such as 9/11 lying down without mounting an equally spectacular one in response.

What spoilt the party was the fact that, during the first weeks and months, the campaign seemed to go better than anyone had expected. Encouraging Bush and his evil geniuses, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, to extend what had started as a punitive expedition into a sustained effort to create a more or less stable, more or less democratic, Afghanistan—an unattainable objective if ever one there was. By early 2003 it ought to have been clear, as in fact it was to a growing number of people, that Afghanistan was not a minor wound in America’s side. Instead it was a rapidly growing, extremely malignant, cancer that was frustrating the efforts of Bush and Rumsfeld and Cheney to deal with it.

However, the evil trio refused to look reality in the face. Drunk with hubris, they decided to take on Iraq as well as Afghanistan. First they invented, and forced their intelligence services to “discover,” non-existent “weapons of mass destruction” to justify their decision. Next they launched a massive invasion much larger than the one in Afghanistan. Again the opening moves went well, encouraging the evil trio and providing them with all the back wind they could have wanted. Again, though, within a matter of months things started going sour.

When Obama entered office early in 2009 he did so with an explicit mandate to end the agony. Two years later it was these facts, and not any weakness on Obama’s part, which prevented him from doing more to help the Syrian militias topple Assad. Had he tried to do so, neither Congress nor public opinion, let alone those weathervanes, the media, would have supported him. Had he used his position as commander in chief to overrule them, and had the bodybags started coming in, they would almost literally have crucified him. So he did the maximum he could, which was to send in weapons—by way of the Saudis, who provided the financial muscle—as well as drones.

Drones, no doubt, are useful machines. Particularly because, being unmanned, they save casualties. Like the manned aircraft which they are increasingly replacing, though, on their own they do not win wars and will not win wars and cannot win wars. The more so when the armed forces that use them are increasingly made up of feminized, traumatized, politically-correct, pussycats; and the more so when those forces are backed up, if that is the term, by a country rightly tired of pouring out troops and treasure in useless wars that result in nothing but casualties.

And so the seeds of the present mess were sown. Perhaps I should add that all this did not take place against a domestic background of economic prosperity, as had been the case during World War II. Rather, even as the U.S vainly struggled with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq it was hit by the worst economic crisis in seventy years. The causes of the crisis do not concern us here. It is, however, worth pointing out that, entering the White House at a supremely difficult juncture, in economic matters as well as foreign-political/military ones Obama did the best he could. Not entirely without success, as the decrease of U.S military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq on one hand and the recent raising of interest rates on the other show.

Let the Republicans go on sticking pins into Obama’s effigy. Now that he is leaving the White House and Trump is coming in, all one can hope for is that the new president will do no worse than the old one did.

Neither Heaven nor Hell (I)

Part I

Recently I have been devoting a lot of thought to what life in the rest of the twenty-first century might be like. No doubt that is because, like so many old folks, I find myself playing with vague ideas about vague topics. Or perhaps it is the ideas that, floating in the air, are playing games with me? Anyhow. Some authors, looking forward to global peace, the suppression of poverty, advancing medical science, moral progress (yes, there are people who believe it is actually taking place) and similar goodies believe that the future will be heaven. When I was much, much younger, writing an essay about the “ideal” future and my hope of living to see it come about, I myself took this view. Others, perhaps more numerous, keep warning us that it will be hell. As, for example, when we run out of resources, or when growing economic inequality leads to violent disturbances culminating, perhaps, in war.

So here are some thoughts on the matter. spread over this week and the two following ones. They are framed in terms of tentative answers to ten critical questions, arbitrarily selected and here presented in no particular order like fruit in a salad. Enjoy the feast!

1. Will war be abolished? Whether war is due to the fragmented nature of human society, which never in the whole of history has been subject to a single government, or to the fact that resources are always limited and competition for them intense, or to tensions within the various war-waging polities, or the aggression and will to power that are part of our nature, I shall not presume to judge. Probably all these factors are involved; as indeed they have been ever since the first band of nomadic hunter-gatherers, wielding clubs and stones, set out to fight its neighbor over such things as access to water, or quarry, or berries, or women, as well as things vaguely known as honor, prestige, deterrence, etc.

One and all, these factors are as active, and as urgent, today as they have always been. That is why all previous hopes and efforts to put an end to armed conflict have come to naught. In the words of the seventeenth-century English statesman and jurist, Francis Bacon: There will never be a shortage of “seditions and troubles;” some of which will surely lead to politically-motivated, socially-approved, organized violence, AKA war.

2. Will we run out of resources? The fear that the point is arriving, if it has not done so already, where we humans exhaust the earth’s resources has been with us at least since the Christian writer Tertullian in the second half of the second century CE. And not without reason, as it seemed. At this time about one quarter of the population of the Roman Empire died of plague, perhaps reducing the total number from 80 to about 60 million.

Bad as it was, the crisis did not last. Over the two millennia since then the number of people living on this earth has increased about thirtyfold. No other plague, no war however destructive, has succeeded in permanently halting growth. During the same period the amount of resources extracted and/or consumed each year has grown by a factor of a thousand or more. Tet thanks to techniques such as saving, substitution, recycling and, above all, broadly-based technological progress, world-wide more people can afford to buy and consume a greater variety of resources than ever in the past. Recently the growing use of fracking for extracting shale oil has brought about a situation where even energy, which for over four decades has bedeviled the world by its ups and downs, has become available at a reasonable price and looks as if it will continue to do so; instead of peak oil, it seems that prices have peaked.

In brief: Tertullian, Malthus and their countless fellow prophets of economic doom, major and minor, are wrong. Local and temporary bottlenecks have always existed. One need only think of the shortage of wood and charcoal that led to their being replaced by coal, helping usher in the industrial Revolution in England. They will, no doubt, continue to do so in the future too. Pace Al Gore and his fellow “environs,” though, shortages so serious as to disrupt global economic life for any length of time are not in the cards. One could even argue that, given the background of continuing economic recession, many raw materials are underpriced; just look at what happened to the shares of Anglo-American from 2008 on.

3. Will poverty disappear? Some people think so. Pointing to the fact that, over the last two centuries or so, the standard of living in the most advanced countries has increased about thirty-fold, they expect prosperity to spread like ripples in a pool. It is indeed true that, except when it is deliberately manufactured as part of war, famine, famine of the kind that used to be common even in Europe before 1700 or so, has largely become a thing of the past.

That more present-day people can afford more and/or better food, hygienic facilities, clothing, warmth, housing, transportation, communication, entertainment, and many other things than ever before is obvious. No ancient treasure trove, no Ali Baba cave, could offer anything like the wares on display in any large department store. Even the Sun King himself did not enjoy many of the amenities which are now standard in any but the poorest French households.

There are, however, three problems. The first is that poverty is psychological as well as material. Of the two kinds, the former is much harder to eradicate than the latter. This is brought out by the fact that, even in Denmark which has the lowest poverty rate of any OECD country, just over five percent of the population say that they cannot afford food.

Second, poverty and its opposite, wealth, are not absolute but relative. People do not look just at what they themselves own, earn, consume and enjoy. They are at least as interested in the same factors as they affect their neighbors, role models, and enemies.

Third, the scale along which poverty operates is not fixed but sliding. When new products appear they are almost always luxuries, at any rate in the sense that, before they did so, no one felt any need for them. As time passes, though, luxuries have a strong tendency to turn into necessities. The histories of automobiles, personal computers, and mobile telephones all illustrate this very well. Each one caused life to re-structure itself until it became absolutely indispensable. Once this happened anyone who could not afford the product in question would define himself, and be defined by others, as poor; even if his economic situation was satisfactory in other respects.

Quite some economists go further still. They claim that inequality is growing. Also that, unless some pretty drastic measures, such as a 100 percent inheritance tax, are implemented, serious upheavals are going to upset even the richest and most advanced societies. But such a tax itself is likely to cause quite as many upheavals as it was designed to prevent. In brief: wealthy as future societies may become, there is no reason to believe that poverty will be abolished.

How is that for a starter? See you next week.

Guest Article: Sarajevo in the Baltic?


Karsten Riise*


Ever since Russia took over Crimea from the Ukraine in 2014, Western analysts have often pointed fingers at Russia and its leader. Then US Secretary of state Hillary Clinton even compared Putin with “Hitler.” Enough of that; here I want to point out the strategic dilemmas Russia is facing and the consequences that may result.

New Sarajevo - NATO - RussiaTo start with, it ought to be clear that Russia cannot live with the fact that Ukraine is becoming an instrument in the hands of NATO. Russia could, should it want to, launch deep military pincer operations with the objective of taking control of that country. In my view, a Russian-inspired regime-change in the Ukraine must and will come.

The Baltic Countries May Become a Threat to Russia

NATO cannot possibly counter a Russian regime-change operation in Ukraine. However, it is also necessary to analyze the military pressures which NATO can build up against Russia in other theaters, especially the Baltic. The following are some of the possibilities:

  1. NATO, with bases in the three Baltic countries, can block international shipping and air traffic to St. Petersburg;
  2. NATO can blockade and starve-out Kaliningrad;
  3. NATO can build up its forces in the Baltic so as to threaten a coup de main-type attack against Minsk, which is only about 125 km from Lithuania.

Briefly, NATO, by reinforcing its military presence in the Baltic, can answer a Russian regime-change in the Ukraine by strangling Kaliningrad and threatening Minsk, the capital city of Belorussia, Russia’s closest ally. In the long term, NATO can also use its foothold in the Baltic to build up growing military pressure on St. Petersburg and Pskov. Seen form Moscow’s point of view such moves would be unacceptable, perhaps unbearable.

Western media, politicians and “experts” are forever pointing fingers at Russian “provocations.” They conveniently overlook the provocations which NATO itself is carrying out right now, as well as those it may want to carry out tomorrow. We should not be naïve. Back in the days of President Reagan the US carried out numerous simulated nuclear bombing attacks deep into Soviet territory. Had this become known at the time, the US would have denied it. NATO thinking is that these simulated nuclear attacks were helpful in causing the Soviet Union to break down.

Needless to say, what worked for the USA against the Soviet Union is something NATO would like to repeat against Russia today. Indeed it is possible that NATO is even now secretly continuing Reagan’s policy, using its forces in the Baltic to launch simulated air, sea and land attacks on Russia. Even if it does not, it may be only a matter of time before NATO has gathered enough strength to do just that.

Time for Russia to Take on the Baltic Countries is Running Out

A RAND study, completed in 2016, shows that NATO does yet not have sufficient forces in place to protect the Baltic countries. It would take Russian forces a maximum of sixty hours to reach the capitals of two of the countries in question. Such a Russian move would leave NATO with some bad, very bad, options.

Though NATO has begun to significantly upgrade its forces in the Baltic, its position there remains very insecure. Partly because the three Baltic countries are geographically isolated, and partly because, should there be a confrontation, NATO reinforcements passing through the straits of Denmark into the Baltic Sea could be interdicted by Russia. But Russia should not expect the window of opportunity to remain open for very long.


Baltic Membership in NATO is Destabilizing

When both sides have good reason to feel insecure, the relationship between them becomes unstable and something dramatic may well happen. This is currently the case in the Baltic where Russia may feel an understandable need to take action to remove the future military threat from the three Baltic countries before proceeding to liquidate its unfinished business in the Ukraine.

Any Russian operation in the Baltic will have to take place before NATO’s growing presence there makes it too dangerous. By NATO Treaty, such an operation will be considered an attack on all NATO countries, the US included. But honestly: In such a case, will the US and Europe risk a nuclear war? Probably not. Thus Russia may bet on a limited conventional war; one which would lead to the end of NATO.

On 17 May 2016 one of Denmark’s largest newspapers, Berlingske Tidende, published an article by a retired NATO brigadier general. The article was written with some typical NATO rhetoric. But under the rhetoric the Danish brigadier general seemed to be genuinely scared. He fears that something violent may take place in connection with NATO’s maneuver, BALTOPS 2016, schedules to take place in the Baltic Sea from 3- to 19 June, as Russia’s window for action in that region may become smaller in the future. As I just explained, his worries are in line with own my analysis.

Russian Interest in (Temporary) Stabilization in Syria

The Russian operations in Syria bear strong similarities to those of the German “Legion Condor” during the 1930s Spanish Civil War. They enabled the Kremlin to test and train its most advanced weapons—and watch them working perfectly well. The lesson to NATO? Beware!

For a conflict in the Baltic, Russia will prefer to have all of its air force back after its success in Syria. Land operations in the Ukraine are better undertaken in the summer time, and a Baltic operation will have to take place before NATO builds up too many forces in the Baltic. Therefore Russia has an interest in reaching a settlement (at least temporary) with the West on Syria; one that may allow it to bring the rest of its military aircraft home. As NATO’s build up in the Baltic accelerates, Russia may only have short time left to act

A Sarajevo Effect?

A 2014 study by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Business Assessment (CSBA) shows that China has enough missiles to wipe out all ports and airports on Taiwan, and destroy Taiwan’s air force on the ground. Several RAND studies, including a US-China military balance assessment published in 2015, show that the US no longer enjoys an advantage over China in the Taiwan Strait. America’s overall advantage over China is also shrinking. Accordingly, why should China not exploit a US involvement in a European conflict in order to take over Taiwan? And why should Israel not use such an opportunity to strike at Iran’s nuclear installations? And why should Turkey not use it to invade Syria and northern Iraq? Other countries, such as Saudi Arabia and India, may also try to solve some issues the hard way. Insurgents in various North African, Central Asian and Southeast Asian countries may also seize the opportunity.

The price of oil has already started rising again. In a world such as the one we have just described, it may not stop at 50 or 100 or 150 dollars. It may go up all the way to 200 dollars, with gold rising in proportion. Stock markets have already peaked. If they cannot go higher, an insecure world will cause them to go off the cliff. And what about the dollar? The US can only finance its huge +3% foreign deficit and big public spending as long as its capital markets are safe and attractive, and the country itself is seen as a world-heaven of security.

Should the US turn out not to be strong enough to be on top of the situation, if conflicts explode in Europe, Asia and the Middle-East, trillions of dollars may flee the US, totally “reconfiguring” a world economy at war.

Welcome to the 21st century.

image001*Karsten Riise, M.Sc.(Econ) with a degree in Spanish, is former CEO of DaimlerChrysler Holding in Scandinavia and CFO of Mercedes-Benz in both Sweden and Denmark. Today he writes about international security, economics and politics.



Some time ago, someone called me a “cranky old man.” Now it so happens I am exactly the same age as Donald Trump (and Ronald Reagan, at the time he became president). So I decided to take it as a compliment.

The reason why Mr. X paid me the compliment was because I have written, in a forthcoming book, that the US armed forces, along with the remaining Western ones, had gone soft. As did the societies in which those forces are rooted. Understandably the idea that wealth, highs standards of living, and luxury can cause one’s people to go soft is not popular in the countries in question. That is precisely why I want to explore it a little further here.

From Lycurgus, Solon, Heraclitus, Herodotus, and Plato on, many ancient statesmen, philosophers and historians believed that history was cyclical. Rise and fall, rise and fall. Repeated over and over again. Medieval sages such as Honoré Bonet and, in the Islamic World, Ibn Khaldun agreed. So did some twentieth-century scholars such as Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee. The details vary from one thinker to the next. But the gist of the argument is always more or less the same; if ever there was a topos, (Greek, singular of topoi), meaning a theme or archetypical story that people keep telling themselves, this is it.

soldiersAs this particular topos goes, originally war was waged by men of poor, nomadic tribal societies like those of which, long ago, all of us used to be a part. At first they fought over such things as access to water, hunting- and grazing ground, domestic animals, and, not least, women. At some stage one tribe, often headed by a particularly able leader, defeated all the rest and united them into some kind of league, confederation, or federation. As the ancient Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Huns, Magyars, and Mongols all did.

Next, the victors took on their richer, settled, neighbors. They fought, triumphed, conquered, and subjugated. Having done so, they discarded their nomadic traditions and took up life in the cities under their rule. Exploiting the labor of others, they grew rich and soft. They also indulged in every kind of luxury, allowed themselves to be governed by women, and witnessed a sharp decline in fertility.

Having abandoned the military virtues, at some point they started looking down on them. Hiring foreigners to fight in their stead, they ended by losing the qualities that had made them great. Attempts to substitute technology for fighting power, such as were made both in fourth-century AD Rome and, repeatedly, in China, did not work. Nor is there any reason why they should, given that the barbarians could often capture or imitate the technologies and find renegades to operate them. As, for example, Genghis Khan and Timur did. Each empire in turn was overrun by its poorer, but more virile and aggressive, neighbors. More often than not subject peoples, long oppressed, rose and joined the invaders. The end was always the same: ignominious collapse.

The cycle formed the stuff of which history was made. Polybius, the sober, businesslike second-century BC Hellenistic historian, says that, in his time, “men turned to arrogance, avarice and indolence [and] did not wish to marry. And when they did marry, they did not wish to rear the children born to them except for one or two at the most.” And he goes on: “When a state has escaped many serious dangers and achieved an unquestioned supremacy and dominion, it is clear that, with prosperity growing within, life becomes more luxurious and men more tense in rivalry about their public ambitions and enterprises.”

The historian Livy, who lived about the time of Jesus and experienced the empire’s power at its height, says that Rome was “struggling with its own greatness.” And the poet Juvenal, a century later: “we are now suffering the calamities of a long peace. Luxury, more deadly than any foe, has laid her hand upon us, and avenges a conquered world.” Previously, he adds, success in life depended on military excellence. Now it led through some rich woman’s vulva.

Some of these thinkers and doers also proposed solutions. Lycurgus prohibited his Spartans from using gold and silver and made them lead lives so austere that they have become proverbial. Plato wanted his imaginary state to avoid external trade, as far as possible, so as to prevent it from growing luxurious. Interestingly, both of these also emancipated women. The former gave them much greater freedom than any other Greek city-state did. With the result, Aristotle says, that they became licentious and utterly useless. The latter liberated them from the need to look after their children, thus putting them on an equal footing with men in everything but physical strength.

Isocrates, the fourth century BC Athenian statesman, argued that, if Athens wanted to avoid repeating the cycle that had led to the ruin of its first empire, moderation and benevolence were the right tools to use. Three centuries later Cicero, the Roman orator and statesman, did the same. Polybius on his part claimed that Rome made war on the Dalmatians in 150 BC because “they did not at all wish the Italians to become effeminate owing to the long peace… [and] to recreate, as it were, the spirit and zeal of their own troops.”

In 101 BC Metellus Numidicus, censor and therefore in charge of Roman public morality, held a famous speech. The Republic, he said, was short of military manpower. But the solution was not to open the legions to property-less men as Marius had suggested. Instead he demanded that upper- and middle class men should share the burden, marry and have children. The title of the speech? De ducendis uxoribus, “about leading (marrying) women.”

Nor is the softening effect of wealth and civilization by any means the only topos around. One very widespread topos is the story of the helpless young woman who is waked up by prince charming (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty). Another, that of the prodigal son who, after many years of wandering, returns to his desolate father, mother, or girlfriend (Peer Gynt; Ruby Murray, “Goodbye Jimmy, goodbye”). Yet another, that of the noble loser who, having fought bravely, goes under through no fault of his own but maintains his dignity to the end (Spartacus, Robert E. Lee, Erwin Rommel). You get the idea.

Admittedly, all of these and many others are topoi. But that does not mean they are not true to life. To the contrary: it is precisely because they are often true that they developed into topoi and grew as popular as they did.

Food for thought here, no doubt.

Where China Stands

150610-S1609-20-Chinese-Brass-Seat-Guan-Gong-Yu-Warrior-God-font-b-Dragon-b-fontHad I posted this article even as little as eighteen months ago, the answer would have run somewhat as follows. Ever since Deng Xiaoping took over in 1979, China’s star has been on the ascendant. A backward, relatively small, economy has transformed itself. Achieving historically unprecedented growth rates, it is now the second largest in the world (in terms of GDP) and poised to become the first at some time between 2020 and 2030.

As China’s economy expanded, so did its armed forces and its foreign policy objectives. China is developing modern combat aircraft. China has started building a second aircraft carrier. China’s latest cruise missiles have the range to challenge the ability of the American Navy to assist Taiwan if necessary. China is actively seeking to dominate the huge area known as the South China Sea. And so on and so on. Such being the situation, the only question is how to manage Beijing’s spectacular rise; by seeking to “integrate it into the international system” (whatever that may mean) or by actively opposing it by every means short of major war.

A year later, what a change! By the headlines, Chinese economic growth has slowed to “only” 6.9 percent, the lowest in two and a half decades. The stock market is falling. The country’s debts threaten to overwhelm it. Thanks to the (recently abandoned) one child policy, the future of its labor force is in some doubt. China may have reached the point where Japan was back in 1990 (at that time Japan accounted for 10 percent of the world’s GDP; since then its share has been reduced by half). This state of affairs may cause Beijing to slow the pace of armament and moderate its foreign policy. Or else, to the contrary, it may force the leadership to become more belligerent by way of diverting its people’s attention from the country’s internal problems.

What is it going to be? No one knows. So here are some factors which will determine the outcome:

  1. China’s economic growth may no longer be as fast as it used to be. But it still maintains a pace that should be the envy of practically any other country on earth. Partly perhaps as a result, there are currently no signs that the Communist Party’s hold on power is weakening or that a revolutionary situation is being formed.
  2. China’s national debt is equal to 64 percent of GDP. Less than that of Germany (73 percent), the UK (82 percent), the US (104 percent), and Japan (216 per cent). In other words, among the world’s five largest economies China is the least indebted one.
  3. Unlike Japan in 1990, China is far from being a “mature” economy. As of 2014, 54 percent of its population lived on the land. That figure is comparable to those of backward countries such as Albania, Azerbaijan, Cameroon, and, towards the end of the alphabet, Syria. In other words, there still is plenty of room for expanding the industrial labor force, should growth resume.
  4. China has more or less active border disputes with every one of its immediate neighbors. This makes it hard for the leadership to focus on a single opponent and direct the country’s military policy accordingly. The more so because, over the last few years, fear of China has caused a growing number of its neighbors to strengthen their ties with each other as well as with Washington DC.
  5. China’s economic development is absolutely dependent on imported energy and raw materials. But for them, the country would very quickly revert to its pre-1979 state. However, geography has placed China in a position where it is separated from the Pacific by a chain whose links are formed by Korea, Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines. To make things worse still, its only access to the Indian Ocean leads through the Straits of Malacca. Cutting off the sea lanes in question would be relatively easy.
  6. Given these circumstances, in any major future armed conflict designed to prevent China from changing from a regional power into a global one the country’s navy would have to play a major role. However, though China has one aircraft carrier and has started work on another, both are, in reality, only half carriers. Even when the second one is completed the two together will not represent much of a challenge to the US Navy, which has eleven full size ones.
  7. A factor which is hardly ever mentioned in this context, but whose importance in  shaping the future will be critical, is the nuclear balance. At the moment, China’s nuclear forces, as measured in terms of the number of missiles and delivery vehicles, are no match for those of the US. This is very likely to remain so in the foreseeable future. But no matter. Unless someone in Beijing, or Washington DC, goes completely bonkers, fear of escalation, which may end in nuclear escalation, will prevail—just as, among nuclear countries, it has invariably done over the last seventy years.
  8. The same logic will govern China’s relations with its two nuclear neighbors, Russia and India. The former has the ability to wipe China off the map. The latter can tear off an arm (to use the old French phrase). Border incidents with both countries have taken place in the past and may well do so again. But large scale war? Hardly.

Final prognosis: Current talk of China’s economic decline seems to be exaggerated. Growth will resume, though probably not at the rates all of us have become familiar with over the last thirty-five years. Partly building on its economic power and partly moved by the need to sustain that power, China, like any other country throughout history, will continue to seek to realize its foreign policy objectives and build up its armed forces. It will not, however, risk large sale war either with its most important neighbors or with the US.

The New World Disorder

“A new world order” is in the making, said U.S President George Bush Sr. as the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union, its limbs broken, was lying prostrate. “The end of history” has come, proclaimed famed political scientist Francis Fukuyama. At the core of World War II, Fukuyama explained, stood a titanic struggle between three ideologies: liberal democracy, fascism, and communism. By 1945 fascism had been destroyed. Fifty-something years later, communism too had failed and would not rise again.clash_civilizations(1)

But that, Fukuyama continued, was only the beginning. As more and more countries became industrialized and developed a strong middle class, Hollywood and McDonald’s would spread the happy tidings. They would do away with all kinds of cultural relics, globalize the world, and make it safe for liberal democracy. Better still: since everybody knew that democracies never, ever fight each other, war itself would gradually disappear. The new world order, Fukuyama wrote, might be a trifle boring. But that seemed a small price to pay for the blessings of peace and, hopefully ever-spreading prosperity as well.

A quarter of a century later, most of our dreams have been shattered. True, fascism and communism in their classical forms have not made a serious comeback. But autocracy, which is almost as bad, continues to govern large parts of the earth’s population. Some autocratically-governed countries, such as Belarus and North Korea, have done badly. One, Russia, is currently fighting what may be seen either as a war of expansion or as a desperate struggle to assert itself and avoid disintegration. And at least one, China, has done spectacularly well.

As a Chinese friend told me, this is the first period in Chinese history when almost everybody has enough to eat. In a country as large, and over long periods as poor as China used to be, that is no mean achievement. And as a Nigerian student told me: When the Chinese come marching into a “developing” country they do not waste their time preaching democracy and human rights as Westerners always do. Instead they bring dollars, lots and lots of them. Nor are they shy of paying bribes where they think doing so will grease the wheels. The outcome is that, in quite some places, Chinese autocracy, far from being denounced for its lack of democracy and freedom, is praised as a model to follow.

Another widespread belief which did not come true was that wealth, generated by new technologies and better, read less coercive, methods of organization, would keep spreading. It is not that the world has become poorer. Rather what has happened is that the distribution of wealth has changed. As the French economist Thomas Picketty in his book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, has shown, not since the early years of the twentieth century has the gap between rich and poor been as large as it is at present.

The world has not become less diverse. In 1993, just four years after “The End of History,” the late Professor Samuel Huntington came out with The Clash of Civilizations. In it he argued that Fukuyama had been wrong. What rules the world is not ideology but identity. Shaped by “history, language, culture, tradition, and, most important, religion,” different identities make themselves manifest in the form of “different views on the relations between God and man, the individual and the group, the citizen and the state, parents and children, husband and wife, as well as differing views of the relative importance of rights and responsibilities, liberty and authority, equality and hierarchy.” “These differences,” Huntington concluded, “are the product of centuries. They will not soon disappear.”

Over the last quarter century struggles over just such identities have become the leading cause of armed conflict. Pace Fukuyama and many others, notably the American psychology professor Steve Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature (2014), the world has not become more peaceful. To the contrary: it has witnessed any number of ferocious armed conflicts in places as far apart as the former Yugoslavia, parts of Africa and Asia, the Middle East, and, most recently, the Ukraine. In all these wars far more civilians than combatants were killed. The total number of victims, men, women and children, runs into the millions.

So bad have some of these conflicts been that some of the states in which they were waged, far from advancing towards prosperity and liberal democracy, have simply collapsed. That includes Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, the Congo, Somalia, Iraq, Libya, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Several others, such as Chad, Nigeria, and Pakistan have been left almost equally government-less and may turn belly up at any moment. Supposing immigration, and the problems it creates, is allowed to continue unchecked, even Western Europe may not be immune forever.

The widespread incidence of war, and the even more widespread incidence of preparation for it, explains why military spending did not enter a slow, steady decline as many people during the early 1990s expected to happen. According to figures provided by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, “spending in 2012 was… higher in real terms than the peak near the end of the cold war.” In fact it was only in Europe that spending went down at all. By contrast, Russia, North Africa, the Middle East, East Asia, and South Asia have all seen sharp increases. So, between 2001 and the “end” of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, did the U.S.A development that will bring the trend to an end does not appear anywhere in sight.

Briefly, the world is in a mess. But is the mess really worse than it used to be? Worse, for example, than it was between 1914 and 1945? Worse than it was throughout the Cold War, when each Superpower had tens of thousands of nuclear weapons ready for immediate delivery and a nuclear holocaust sometimes seemed to be just around the corner? Worse than it was in 1945-75 when the various Wars in Indochina, the War in Algeria, and civil war in Nigeria, to list but a few, killed millions? Worse than it was in 1958-76, when first the Great Leap Forward and then the Cultural Revolution killed an estimated 45 million Chinese? Worse than in the 1980s, when Iran and Iraq used poison gas against one another? Worse than in the 1990s, when the civil wars in Angola, Mozambique and Sri Lanka were still raging?

Whenever the mess was particularly great many people thought the world was coming to an end. But it did not. To deny the widespread existence of war, death, horror and hunger would be both foolish and counterproductive. And of course we should do everything in our power to prevent them as far as we can. Yet on the edge of many raging conflicts, often even in the eye of the storm, plenty of decency, generosity, altruism, and, last not least, love have always sprouted. Certainly no less so than in any previous age.

By one story I read long ago, people once asked Mao Tze Dong whether, following a nuclear war, there would still be a world left. To this he is supposed to have answered as follows:

The sun will keep rising

Trees will keep growing

And women

will keep having children.


What War is Good For

I. Morris, War! What Is It Good For? New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014, pp.xi+496.*


Morris, a professor of classics and of history at Stanford University, thinks he can distinguish between two kinds of war. The first kind, which he calls “counterproductive war,” is waged by non-state entities against each other and also against what more developed communities exist. It is the oldest form of war by far, consisting of skirmishes and raids and leading to little but death and destruction. It prevalence was responsible for the fact that, among the simplest known societies such as the Yanomamo of Brazil, as many as 10-20 percent of all people used to come to a violent end. It goes without saying that a population consisting of tribes, all constantly fighting each other for honor and for resources such as water, cattle and women cannot produce much by way of a civilization. As Morris, quoting Thomas Hobbes, says, its members’ lives are almost certain to be nasty, brutish and short.

Enter the other kind of war, which Morris calls “productive.” Productive war was made possible by certain technical and organizational innovations the first and most important of which was the invention of agriculture. It enabled the “stationary bandits” who best knew how to use them to break the cycle and set out on the way to empire-building. To be sure, doing so was a slow process with many ups and downs. Some 9,000 years, Morris says, had to pass from the time the first steps were taken to about 200 B.C. By that date four mighty empires had arisen. One in the Mediterranean (Rome); one in the Middle East (the Parthian); one in India the Mauryan); and one in the Far East (China). All had this in common that they were, or soon became, centralized organizations under a powerful monarch. All extracted money from the peasantry and used it to hire soldiers, set up standing armies, and pacify the country.

Life under absolute government was not always fun. Still that government, and the armies on which it rested, did enable towns, i.e. the kind of civilization in which at least some people do more than just scratch the earth, to exist and, quite often, to flourish. Even more important: as they did so, the proportion of people who met a violent end went down by as much as four fifths.

Unfortunately it did not last. By about 200 A.D all four empires just mentioned were in a state of decay. In all cases the decay was brought about by nomads who, seeking “living space” as well as riches, overcame the empires’ defenses and poured across the borders. Attempts to stem the flood by using some of the invaders against the rest might work in the short term but proved counterproductive in the long run. Furthermore, as the rulers of each empire were left helpless to assist their subjects the latter sought shelter with local grandees. The outcome was what the author calls “feudal anarchy.” As dozens, sometimes hundreds, of tiny principalities fought each other tooth and nail the number of war-dead increased in proportion.

It was not until 1400 that the wheel—one is tempted to say, the wheel of fortune—again reversed course. This time the main trigger was the invention of firearms. However much tribesmen might excel in using the weapons they had purchased or captured, producing them was beyond their capabilities. Combined with the re-construction of standing armies, firearms enabled their owners to expand their power on a scale not even the ancient empires had approached. By 1700 or so, says Morris, death-by-violence had again fallen to Roman levels, though in fact the figures are too uncertain to allow definite conclusions to be drawn.

More and more “leviathans” (as Morris calls them) appeared in various parts of the world. Some fell, some rose again, in an infinitely complex process. Often they waged bloody war both against each other and inside their own outlying provides; by the first half of the nineteenth century, though, things had developed to the point where one of them, Britain, was able to act as a “globocop” and maintain a Pax Britannica over much of the world.

After 1945, following two ferocious world wars, that role was assumed by the United States. Throughout this, starting somewhere in the seventeenth century, the chances of any single individual around the world of dying by violence gradually went down to the point where it is now much smaller than it has ever been. In this way, “paradoxically” as Morris says more than once, war, “productive war,” has acted as the basis not just of power but of civilization itself. Nowhere more so than during the post-1945 years which, so far, seem to have been the most peaceful in the whole of history.

So far, the past. How about the future? Will the “long peace” endure and expand? Or will the wheel of fortune turn back as it did after 200 A.D? At the end of World War II there were only about sixty states in the world. Now there are three times as many. The splintering process does not appear to be over yet. Some of the new states gained their independence by peaceful means. But many did so by using armed violence or, at the very least, threatening to do so. That, incidentally, is something even the saintly Mahatma Gandhi did on occasion.

A few of the new states went on to build highly successful modern societies with relatively low levels of violence. Good examples are Malta, Israel—which, its problems with the Palestinians apart, has a very low murder rate—and, above all, Singapore. Many others did not do so and became known as “failed” states. In them, as events in such places as Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, the Sudan, the Congo, and others show, politically-organized lethal violence, AKA war, remains as widespread as it has ever been. The fate of many others, including the Central Asian Republics and large parts of Africa, seems to hang in the balance. A political scientist who tells the people of these countries that theirs is the most peaceful period in history will just make them smile.

Furthermore, as past events in Yugoslavia and current ones in the Ukraine indicate, even Europe, long considered (along with North America, Australia and Japan) one of the most peaceful regions of all, is not necessarily immune. The more so because the American globocop, under which Western Europe has lived since 1945 and Eastern Europe since 1990, seems to be losing some of its power. And the more so because of massive immigration from less successful countries; a factor which, though Morris does not even mention in this context, is becoming more important every day.

As I have written elsewhere, the most significant military development of our times seems to be the decline, much of it due to nuclear proliferation and deterrence, of large-scale conventional interstate war. In its place we see the rise of “non-trinitarian” war. Those who wage non-trinitarian war are the barbarians of old; fanatical and organized in ever-shifting groups that operate in a decentralized way.

As the atrocities Daesh is committing show, in point of ruthlessness they have nothing to learn. Unlike some of their predecessors they are often at home with the most advanced technologies. That includes computers and communications as well as propaganda techniques. In fact one could argue that, given the ability of those technologies to cross borders, they are more suited for the use of all sorts of terrorists, guerrillas and insurgents than in helping states to put them down. Assuming that such is indeed the case, the future does not look at all bright.

Morris’ book is not quite as original as he, and those who provided him with blurbs, would like us to think. Similar ideas concerning the rise of the state have long been advocated by the sociologist Charles Tilly. Some of Morris’ assertions are erroneous or at least too sweeping. For example, his claim (which has by no means been proved) that the barbarians who brought down the Roman empire fought mounted; or when, seeking to show how events happened more or less simultaneously in different places around the world, he exaggerates the decline of China from the end of the Han dynasty on. Contrary to what he says, one could argue that, in spite of some interruptions, the T’ang centuries, and even more so those of Song and Ming, were precisely the ones under which Chinese civilization outshone all the rest. Thus they do not fit the timetable he has postulated.

At other times Morris goes into more tactical and operational detail than is needed to substantiate his thesis. That is particularly true of chapter 5, which is basically a politico-military history of the years 1914-1990 and does not have much new to say. Since he only uses footnotes for quotes, some of his data cannot be checked.

On the whole, the closer the text gets to the present the more questionable it becomes. Nevertheless, the book’s very title—the idea that war, or at any rate some kinds of war, may actually be good for something—poses a challenge not only to incorrigible peaceniks but to serious scholars as well. Thanks to the easy and sometimes breezy style in which it is written, it is also accessible.

If you are at all interested in war and its impact on history, do yourself a favor and get a copy.


* Thanks to Morgan Norval who first brought War! What Is It Good For? to my attention.

The Monster

The monster—the Sunni militias which, equipped by the Saudis with the active backing of the U.S, have been waging civil war in Syria for over three years—has risen against its benefactors. Unable to make headway against Syrian dictator Basher Assad, they have turned to the much softer target that once constituted Iraq but is now, thanks to George Bush Jr, no more than an awful mess. Doing so, they shed any “secular” and “liberal” character they may once had possessed. Instead they revealed their true colors as murderous bandits who wage war with a ferocity rare even among Arabs.

Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and home to one of the world’s most important oil fields, has already fallen to them. As resistance seems to be crumbling, the capital, Baghdad, may well be next in line. Should that happen then the way to Basra and the Gulf countries in the south will be open. The outcome could well be another Afghanistan threatening to export terrorism, and perhaps more than just terrorism, both to the Gulf States in the south and to Jordan in the west—not to mention what may happen to the world’s economy should one of its main oil-exporting countries be knocked out..

And the West? Following more than a decade of warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq, its armed forces are exhausted and urgently in need of recuperation. Many of them have also been made the subject of endless cuts. As a result, their strength has been reduced to a fraction of what it used to be even as recently as the early 2000s. For some of them, the American ones in particular, new threats are looming in other parts of the world such as Southeast Asia. Perhaps most important of all, the politicians responsible for the wars in question have been largely discredited. Their successors, with President Barak Obama at their head, may engage in loose talk about the need to use force, as German President Joachim Gauk recently did. However, as President Obama has said, they will not spend any considerable resources to intervene in the ongoing struggle.

Nor, in truth, is there any reason to believe that, if Obama did respond to Iraqi Government pleas and did spend such resources, the outcome would be at all satisfactory. True, an American aircraft carrier, the appropriately named GWHH Bush, is now cruising in the Gulf along with its various escorts. However, the number of attack aircraft it can launch is limited while the distances they will have to cover (first in one direction, then back) to hit the Jihadists in their present location is measured in several hundred miles. That fact would impose strict limits on the number of sorties that can be flown—probably not much more than one per aircraft per day on the average. Since the ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) fighters hardly do a regular army form, any eventual strikes will also be faced with a lack of targets.

The U.S armed forces might also resort to their favorite weapon, i.e. drones. Experience in Afghanistan and elsewhere has clearly shown that drones, which are relatively small, cheap and expendable, are better suited to combatting irregulars who do not have an air force of their own than manned aircraft are. But deploying any number of them in the theater and arranging suitable bases from which they can be operated, maintained and supplied will take time. Time that may not be available.

Under these circumstances, and barring some miracle, the only real hope of containing the ISIS rests with Iran. Compared with other interested countries, Iran enjoys the enormous advantage that it is right next door to the theater of war. Consequently, to intervene, it would not have to fly forces there from halfway across the world. It is also a Shi’ite country. Hopefully that gives it some interest in making sure the ISIS Sunnis do not gain the upper hand over their own coreligionists, who form the majority in Iraq; let alone unite Iraq with Syria so as to create, in time, a single powerful Arab state.

Clearly, though, Iran will not act as the West’s policeman in Iraq without extracting a price. Presumably that price will include a. the relaxation, if not complete abolition, of economic sanctions; and b. turning a blind eye to the continuation of Iran’s nuclear project. Is the price worth paying and the risk—whose existence cannot be denied—worth taking? In the opinion of this author, the answer is yes. Perhaps an agreement can be reached that will allow Iran to pursue the project but neither test a bomb nor open declare it. For this the kind of agreement, U.S diplomacy over the last few decades provides several precedents.

Taking a wider view, how capricious, how full of surprises and hairpin corners, does life turn out to be! During the days of the Shah (reigned 1953-78) the U.S considered Iran its strong arm in the Middle East, buying its oil and providing it with some of the most advanced weapons of the time. Following the Islamic Revolution Iran became part of the “axis of evil” whereas the Iranians on their part insisted that the US was “the big Satan” (the title, “little Satan” was reserved for Israel). Throughout the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88 the U.S did whatever it could to support Iran’s enemies, even condoning Saddam Husein’s use of chemical warfare.

Now the tables have been turned again. Iran is good. whereas the Iraqi Sunnis—who President George Bush Jr. and his team hoped might follow up on the defeat of Saddam Hussein by building a modern, enlightened, even democratic Arab country in the Middle East—have become blacker than black.

As the saying goes, there is no end to illusions. And politics do strange bedfellows make.