Center for Strategic Communication

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]


Top Billing! Scholar’s Stage What Edward Luttwak Doesn’t Know About Ancient China (Or a Short History of Han-Xiongnu Relations), pt. 1 and What Edward Luttwak Doesn’t Know About Ancient China (Or a Short History of Han-Xiongnu Relations), pt. 2

A tour de force set of posts.

A few weeks ago a friend passed along one of the least correct essays I have ever had the misfortune to read. It was written by  Edward Luttwaksecret agent  author of classic titles in the field of strategic studies like Coup D’état: A Practical Handbook,  Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire, and Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace. I was disappointed to find out that this particular piece, published in the Hoover Institute’s online magazine Strategika, closely mirrors a passage in Mr. Luttwak’s most recent best-seller, The Rise of China vs. the Logic of Strategy. In it Luttwak suggests contemporary Chinese foreign policy follows a pattern first seen in the foreign relations of the Han Dynasty two millennia ago [1]. To quote:

What is peculiar to China’s political culture, and of very great contemporary relevance is the centrality within it of a very specific doctrine on how to bring powerful foreigners—indeed foreigners initially more powerful than the empire—into a tributary relationship. Specialists concur that this doctrine emerged from the very protracted (3rd century BCE to 1st century CE) but ultimately successful struggle with theXiongnú (??) horse-nomad state,  just possibly remote ancestors of Attila’s Huns, but definitely the inventors of the Steppe State political system that would be replicated by all their successors, and more adapted than replaced even by the Mongols. 

Formidable mounted archers and capable of sustained campaigning (a primary objective of the Steppe State), the Xiongnú ravaged and savaged and extorted tribute from the perpetually less martial, and certainly cavalry-poor Han until the latter finally felt able to resist again. Even then, 147 years of intermittent warfare ensued until Huhanye (???), the paramount Chanyu (Qagan, Khan) of the Xiongnú, personally and formally submitted to the emperor Han Xuandi in 51 BCE, undertaking to pay homage, to leave a son at court as a hostage, and to deliver tribute, as befitted a vassal. That was a very great downfall from the familial status of earlier Chanyus of the epoch of Xiongnú predominance, who were themselves recognized as emperors, whose sons and heirs could have imperial daughters in marriage, and who from 200 BCE had received tribute from the Han, instead of the other way around. It is this successful transformation of a once superior power first into an equal (signified by imperial marriages) and then into a subservient client-state that seems to have left an indelible residue in China’s tradition of statecraft. [2]

I am a fan of the analytic approach Mr. Luttwak uses here. History is important. Ancient history is important. It might seem silly or frivolous to examine ancient polities in order to understand modern politics, but the insights this lens of analysis makes possible are hard to get through other means. Many of these insights come from seeing the world through the long view. The political and social structures civilizations are built on emerge on a timescale far longer than the lifespan of any individual human being. Many of the constraints societies face—be they physical or cultural—can only be seen clearly by examining centuries of conflict, competition, and collapse. 

Just as important as these recurring patterns of history are the perceptions today’s decision makers have of the past. China’s 3,000 recorded years of war and high politics offer many different lessons to the Chinese statesmen of the modern era. The lessons they choose to draw from this history shape the decisions they will make tomorrow.

Thus if Edward Luttwak wants to talk about how?the echoes of the Han-Xiongnu war are heard in 21st century China’s foreign policy, I am all ears.? Long term readers of The Stage know that there are few conversation starters I would find more thrilling to hear. Too many contemporary controversies cannot be understood until we step back and look at world affairs from the long view of history. 

But there is a catch in all this: the history has to be correct. It must accord to the facts. If one uses the past to interpret the present then your reading must be based on evenst that actually happened. 

This cannot be said for Mr. Luttwak’s essay. The story he tells simply did not happen. 

The American ConservativeA Realist’s Guide to Grand Strategy   

….What the “MIT School” of grand strategy—if you will—lacked was a book-length treatment to do battle with rival approaches. Not until Posen joined the cause withRestraint did the restrainers get a defining treatise.

….Restraint begins with a chapter that lays out key facts about the strategic position of the United States: the U.S. is “enormously powerful”—though “change is coming,” geography favors the U.S. due to its “ocean barriers and relatively weak neighbors,” and our nuclear arsenal means that nuclear and conventional attacks on the U.S. are either “suicidal” or “incredibly risky.”

Posen then proceeds to explain the twin pillars of liberal hegemony. First, it is hegemonic since “it builds on the great power advantage of the United States relative to all other major powers and intends to preserve as much of that advantage as possible.” It achieves this by building overwhelming military strength that dissuades potential challengers from even trying to compete with the U.S. and managing American-dominated security relationships across the globe.

Second, liberal hegemony is liberal, Posen explains, because “it aims to defend and promote a range of values associated with Western society in general and U.S. society in particular.” Democracy looms large among these values, particularly because this approach identifies “failed states, rogue states, and illiberal peer competitors” as the primary source of threats to the U.S. and global peace. In short, these latter-day Wilsonians believe that “the United States can only be truly safe in a world full of states like us, and so long as the United States has the power to pursue this outcome, it should.”

Posen argues that this strategy has not performed very well in the post-Cold War era and will only “perform less and less well” in the changing world of the future. Liberal hegemony has been, and will continue to be, quite costly in terms of blood and treasure: the U.S. has fought four wars since 1992, spent trillions of dollars in these conflicts and on maintaining the armed forces, and has suffered great opportunity costs in the process.  Liberal hegemony provokes other states to engage in “sustained obstructionism,” if not outright balancing against the U.S., and it has incentivized our allies, such as NATO and Japan, to “cheap ride” when they could contribute more—thus making the benefits of U.S. security commitments incommensurate with the costs.  Worse, some allies, such as Israel and Iraq, are “reckless drivers” that “do the wrong things,” and the U.S. has little ability to rein them in.

Small Wars Journal (Robert Bunker) – An Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) First Strategy 

Much has changed in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and Libya since my writing of two short essays on democractic revolution and democratic realpolitik in the Islamic world in Small Wars Journal roughly three and a half years ago. The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has not only complicated this potential democratization dynamic but has qualitatively changed it as a spoiler—at least in the two states it is presently operating in. Some context is required, however, to better understand what the assumptions were for the U.S. in its international policies directed at this area of the globe.  

A simple choice model (see Figure 1) provides an overview of U.S. and allied state preferences for all of the Arab Spring and pre-Arab Spring (e.g. Iraq) countries. All of these countries began with secular autocratic states (0 value) as their baselines—exemplified by the strongmen Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. The thinking was that—with demise of these autocratic states—the power and institutional vacuums that would emerge would be filled by a U.S. created democracy in Iraq and the revolutionary forces of democracy (+ value) in the other countries.

As it turns out, the sword of democracy was a rather blunt instrument and no match—when wielded by the indigenous peoples of these countries—to that of the sharper blade held by the various Islamist forces with their deeper spiritual and ideological commitment. These armed groups are composed of warriors gladly willing to die for their cause. The same, sadly, cannot thus far be said for the local forces of democracy. As a result, as secular autocratic states lost internal control of their terrorities, an Islamist state ‘jacking’ (- value) of the expected transition to democracy has taken place.

War on the Rocks (William McCants) – Zawahiri’s Counter-Caliphate 

The other day, al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri announced the establishment of a new al-Qaeda affiliate, “al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent.” What struck me about the announcement was not so much the creation of a new al-Qaeda franchise in the subcontinent—al-Qaeda has long had ties to the region and the affiliate’s new leader Asim Umar is already a known al-Qaeda insider—but rather the way Zawahiri framed the group’s creation. In his introductory remarks, Zawahiri stressed that the new group was, like al-Qaeda, under the authority of the “Islamic Emirate” ruled by the “commander of the faithful” Mullah Omar, the head of the Taliban. He then proceeded to heap praise repeatedly on the “commander of the faithful.” Why would Zawahiri spend so much time hailing Mullah Omar as the commander of the faithful when introducing a new al-Qaeda franchise, something he has never done before?

It must be al-Qaeda’s competition with the Islamic State, which declared the reestablishment of the caliphate in June. Since that time, al-Qaeda has been promoting Mullah Omar as the counter-caliph. As Cole Bunzel documented,al-Qaeda’s media wing released an old video of Bin Laden in July explaining his decision to give his oath of allegiance to Mullah Omar as commander of the faithful, a historical title of the caliphs. A questioner asks Bin Laden if his oath implies that he considers Mullah Omar to posses the “supreme imamate,” the prerogative of the caliphs, which Bin Laden affirms. Later that same month, al-Qaeda released a newsletter that begins with a renewal of the oath of allegiance to “Commander of the Faithful Mullah Muhammad Omar” and “affirms that al-Qaeda and its branches in all locales are soldiers in his army, acting under his victorious banner.”

Tim Kelleher – Why We Have No ISIS Strategy 

Steve Coll – Why ISIS is our problem 

Paul Pillar – ISIS in Perspective 

Cicero Magazine (Clinton Hinote)Why a War of Attrition Favors Us, Not ISIS

International Business TimesWhy Do People Join ISIS? The Psychology Of A Terrorist

The National InterestWhat Homer’s Iliad Tells Us about a U.S.-China War 


Charlie’s Diary – The referendum question

Jay Ufelder –What are all these violent images doing to us?

The Glittering Eye – The Goldilocks Foreign Policy  

USNI Blog (Tiago Alexandre Fernandes Maurício) –Expanding the Naval Canon: Fernando de Oliveira and the 1st Treatise on Maritime Strategy 

New York TimesForeign Powers Buy Influence at Think Tanks

John Hagel –Making a Movement: Narratives and Creation Spaces 

Brain Pickings –Leonard Cohen on Creativity, Hard Work, and Why You Should Never Quit Before You Know What It Is You’re Quitting 

Fast CompanyThe Importance of ritual to the Creative Process

Business Insider – Here Is What Coffee Actually Does To Your Brain 

Quartz –Your IQ isn’t constant: It changes over time 

That’s it.