A World of Chaos and Competition

“Without war, there would be no State”-  Heinrich von Treitschke

“Only a balance of mutual fear guarantees an alliance”- Thucydides, Book 3.

Hobbes gets kinda a bad rap in US public schools. In civics, his dour portrait usually hangs over an elementary lesson in political philosophies underpinning American Government, with a bullet-pointed list saying what a dim view he had of humanity and civilizations as a whole. It is through a recent attempt to undertake Michael Waltzers’ Just and Unjust Wars that I was reminded that Hobbes is Thucydides’ first main translator in English, and it is perhaps no wonder that Hobbes’ belief in a world of natural chaos and competition among men and nations is based on understanding of the concept of mutual fear and suspicions that drove Sparta to inevitably attack Athens, at least in Thucydides’ opinion. An excellent reassessment of the scenario and situation is available in Lawrence Freedman’s new book Strategy, which rejects the inevitability of Hobbes’ assessment, and reexamines the short-term nature of the causes for war and the attempts still being made to avoid it on both sides. Nevertheless, Hobbes’ view has ultimately come to underpin the theoretical assumptions of the KCL War Studies department as much as Clausewitz’s. Chapter Thirteen of Leviathan is gospel, and perhaps in a world of mostly military (and militant) academics, this is not surprising.

Thus while I have turned to the question of strategy under the tutelage of King’s, it is less and less a question of strategic self-promotion as it a strategy for besting one’s inevitable opponents. After all, this is War Studies, not Enlightenment Studies. But as I think back on it, I remember my indomitable World Studies teacher in my Junior Year of High School, Ms. Olden-Stahl, lecturing to us about history and the qualifications of what would be left in and what would be left out of only a year’s worth of material to be covered in class. She categorically rejected the notion that criteria for civilization was based on a readiness for military competition, and suggested instead a desire to understand cooperation, exchange, and cultural understanding as a prerequisite for defining history. She was, I see now, trying to overturn the world of European Military domination, and its subsequent historical narratives, tautologies, and assumptions, in order to present an alternate view of what constituted history and culture. Hence her preference for Herodotus over Thucydides, which used to get you laughed out of the room in classics departments across the world. She was fighting against the old guard, attempting to break the History department of Western Civ 101 thinking, and I have often considered whether she was right, and whether that ought to be reflected more in the realm of what I subsequently studied. Her banner was that of Braudel, Said, and the question of cultures in communication, not in conflict.

However, I still admit that I am more intimately attached to an understanding of military might and coercive ability to be the fundamental underpinning of states and human organization, and also that my classes on “softer subjects” never went as well for me as my studies of guns, germs, and steel. However, I do think that even in a world of chaos and competition a renewed understanding of the cultural and exchange factors identifying peoples, cultures, and civilizations do have a lot to teach us when looking at ways of fighting better, or not fighting at all. Failed strategies in polyglot and plural states, Afghanistan for example,  largely reflect only a preoccupation with military realities and the generation of certain formal revenues to put them into a similar footing in hard power, without understanding the cultural identity mechanisms that underpin how a country actually functions internally or externally. I am, of course, far from the only person to say that, but I appreciate the extent to which this influences my own thinking about strategy, and will allow for a greater flexibility in approach than thinking solely how to best my opponents by rendering them militarily impotent as Napoleon did at Jena or Zhukov at Berlin.

Herein lies the true picture of successful grand strategy, one that knows how to play carrots as well as play sticks.  As I prepare to discuss the question of strategy for British Defense this week, this shall form an excellent additional criteria for assessing successful strategy, and one that requires capital investments. Even when not in the process of COIN or Nation Building, this is an absolute requirement in the Home Office and MI6. In America, no matter how far we may ramp up to confront ‘conventional’ China, it is important that we realize that there will be nothing necessarily ‘conventional’ in the way China or East Asia may operate. We still need to study the Chinese down to their manner of saying hello and goodbye. We need to escape the pigeonholing that reading too much Ancient Greece can put us in; we are not confronting Hellenes on Hellenes, but rather the Hellenes against the Medes or the Hellenes against the Mayans.

Discuss.

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