Center for Strategic Communication

(by Adam Elkus)

A while ago, Lynn Rees and I discussed whether the concept of a culminating point was something that occurred more generally outside of warfare. One of the key aspects of a Clausewitzian understanding of war and strategy in general is the transience of advantage. Adaptation in war produces a Red Queen effect – because adversaries co-evolve throughout the course of the conflict. The result of war is also never final, as what was bought with blood and treasure can be potentially reversed or rendered irrelevant in the final analysis.

The notion of the culminating point is particularly fascinating in this regard. I quote Antulio Echevarria on this point:

Clausewitz saw the diminishing force of the attack, the culminating point of the attack, and the culminating point of victory as related concepts. Anticipating the modern concept of strategic consumption, Clausewitz wrote: “All attackers find that their strength diminishes as they advance.”*36 He then went on to identify seven factors which cause the depletion of the attackers strength: 1) occupation of the enemy’s country; 2) the need to secure lines of communication; 3) losses incurred through combat and sickness; 4) the distance from replacements of both material and personnel; 5) by sieges and investment of fortresses; 6) by a reduction of effort (moral and physical); and 7) by the defection of allies. Yet, he was also quick to point out that “a weakening of the attack may be partially or completely cancelled out … by a weakening of the defense.”* Thus, the depletion of the attacker’s strength, while demonstrably true, has no meaning unless it is considered in relation to the strength of the defender.

Drawing directly from his observations concerning the diminishing force of the attack, Clausewitz concluded that most attacks do not lead directly to the end of hostilities, but instead reach a culminating point at which the “superior strength of the attack[er] … is just enough to maintain a defense and wait for peace.”*By way of corollary, Clausewitz determined that the moral and physical superiority gained through a successful battle generally augmented the strength of the victor, adding to his superiority, but only to a certain extent, and this he called the culminating point of victory.*This circumstance, he pointed out, was particularly evident in wars in which it was not possible for the victor to completely defeat his opponent. The same factors that contributed to reducing the strength of the attacker also played a role in diminishing the moral and material superiority that a military force gained through victory:

Similar structures seemed to exist everywhere, like Kenneth Boulding’s theory of a loss of strength gradient in geopolitics, Ibn Khaldun’s notion of asabiya, the collapse of complex civilizationsdiminishing returns, subcultures “selling out,” a particular class of disputed Wikipedia articles, and “jumping the shark” on television. John Boyd even advanced a sort of cognitive culminating point in which failure to transition from a given cognitive state to a new one would increase internal disorder.

Now, Robin Hanson of Overcoming Bias has an interesting discussion of social influence that may further clarify the culminating point, though Hanson is not talking about a military campaign but the process of political and social change as a whole:

Imagine standing at the shore of a river. You scoop a handful of water, and throw it downstream. By how much do you expect that act to change the flow of the river into the ocean miles downstream? I expect the effect to be far less than a handful of water arriving a few seconds earlier. More like a few atoms arriving a few seconds earlier. The speed of a river is a balance between gravity and friction, and that balance is likely to be quickly restored after disturbances like throwing a handful of water.

This seems a pretty typical example of influencing the physical world. The vast majority of such influences quickly disappear. So if you want your influence to last, you have to choose carefully. For example, since on Earth nature only rarely moves big stones, you might succeed in assembling a stone wall that lasts for thousands of years. At least if other people don’t want to knock it down. Now consider trying to have a long term social influence. As with physical influence, we should expect that most efforts to influence the social world also diminish quickly away from the point of influence. After all, many aspects of the social world also result from balances between opposing forces. For example, if US independence was largely inevitable in the long run, then Thomas Paine could have at most influenced when exactly when the US became independent.

Hanson asks us to assume, though, that it was not inevitable and change could only come when a critical value had been reached. The extra effort, then, would lead to large scale change.  Hanson expands on this:

[T]ipping points must be rare – the vast majority of points can’t tip very far. Second, when many people can influence a social event, not only are most people only a drop in a tide of influence, most people are also only a drop in a tide of information. For example, imagine that people were pushing for or against US independence based on their best info on if that is good for the world. In this case Paine could only be in a position to tip the outcome if many other people also could tip the outcome, and if they were pushing in many different directions, with their net effects nearly balancing out.

In a case like this, Paine couldn’t be at all sure that a US revolution was a good idea. After all, an awful lot of people would have best info suggesting it was not a good idea. And in fact Bryan Caplan makes a good case that it wasn’t in fact a good idea. Of course many people might have been pushing based on private interests, instead of a common good. But this still wouldn’t give Paine much reason for confidence in his tipping the world to a better place. Either many others would try to help the world, or Paine could have good reason to think he is the only exception.

So are there any good ways to have long term influence? One idea is to find a social situation like the stone wall, where you can add things that aren’t likely to get moved, and where your stones aren’t likely to be added anyway a bit later by someone else. Perhaps doing intellectual work on highly neglected topics is something like this.

From the standpoint of politics, this is essentially Rees’ “Tragedy of the Geopolitical Nerd” rephrased in a different form. Two practical problems emerge, both of them severe. First, for most individuals having long-term social influence is Sisyphean. There is no way to reach a culminating point, as the additive effect of victories are minor relative to magnitude and speed of decay of strength. Forget overshooting the target — you will likely decay so fast you never reach it in the first place. Nonetheless, the exception is when many other individuals also push toward the culminating point in tandem (albeit in differing directions), each believing that their distinct push is important and worthwhile. This leads to the reaching of a kind of macroscopic culminating point. But Hanson eloquently illustrates the informational paradox embedded in this. How would you know, in such a situation, what sort of choice to make?

In terms of Washington, D.C. time (decades = thousands of years) Andrew Marshall perhaps epitomizes the Hanson prescription for how an individual can reach the culminating point. He became influential by creating an small office that looked at neglected subjects and also did not overly threaten any conceivable rivals in the military-industrial complex. In doing so, he was able to have substantial influence over the shape of American defense — and survive attempts to “move” his metaphorical stone wall. But as to further underscore Hanson’s point, it looks as if he has now entered the diminishing returns phase.