February 1, 2006  

Well-traveled minds

In what we are still prone to call the “post-Cold War period,” Americans continue to have a difficult time sorting their way through first-order strategic questions. At the same time, there is a vast legacy of scholarly journals of strategy and politics, formerly given to dissecting every twitch of the former Soviet empire, its leadership and military. There is an even more immense mound of literature published by think tanks and research universities. All told, there’s more ink chasing fewer good ideas; separating the wheat from the chaff has never been harder.

Hence the “AFJ Reader,” which we hope will prove a reliable guide to those interested in and responsible for keeping current with these debates but without the time for endless reading. This reader will reflect the editor’s prejudices, no doubt, but the purpose is to point out a few things worth reading and, occasionally, those worth reading because they are so bad.

Apropos of our challenged strategic thinking, I heartily commend Eliot Cohen’s “The Historical Mind and Military Strategy,” in the fall issue of Orbis, published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute. A sound approach to strategy-making is rooted more in habits of mind than a formal, bureaucratic process; to Cohen, right thinking is the product of the “historical mind,” which “uses history as a mode of inquiry.” Those who read deeply in history “will detect differences as much as similarities between cases, avoiding false analogies. ? It will look for continuity but also for more important discontinuities; it will look for linkages between data points, but not be too quick to attribute causation.”

Cohen argues the need for a “well-traveled mind,” remembering that “history is a foreign country,” by reviewing his indoctrination as an Army intelligence officer. Training at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., in the early 1980s, he “learned a great deal about the organization and tactics of the Soviet Motorized Rifle Division,” which now seems a recondite subject but then was essential knowledge. But more insidious was the process: “templating a formation of this kind, predicting its basic dispositions and tactical patterns, [which] did not vary much from what my predecessors had learned 20 years before.” Cohen’s son is deployed with the 10th Mountain Division in Iraq, and “the days when a second lieutenant could hope to master his discipline through such formulaic knowledge [are] long gone.”

Thus the importance of historical understanding for today’s strategists: “To study military and strategic history in depth is to acquire a vicarious experience of the variability of warfare, to acquire a certain kind of flexibility that neither military doctrine nor any individual’s military experience can supply.” This is a far country from the simplistic “lessons learned” approach to knowledge that has poisoned military education and military minds over the past several decades. “The tendency of individuals and institutions is often to default to what they know, to comfortable and familiar narratives,” observes Cohen. And there could not be a better description of our strategic failings in the post-Cold War era.

Also worth reading, even though it’s published in the social-science bastard child of Harvard and MIT, International Security, is Aaron Friedberg’s tour of the horizon of scholarly opinion on the strategic standoff between the United States and People’s Republic of China. Friedberg’s “The Future of U.S. China Relations: Is Conflict Inevitable?” captures well the spectrum of elite opinion on the most important great-power question of our time: Whither the PRC? Friedberg’s bottom line is that while the propellants toward cooperation and confrontation are roughly equal, the balance is unstable. For Friedberg, a strategist at Princeton University who recently returned to the groves of academe after a two-year tour in the office of Vice President Dick Cheney, and, highest honor of all, a recent contributor to Armed Forces Journal, “[I]t is possible to imagine that a sudden breakthrough toward domestic political reform in China could open the way for radically improved relations with the United States. At the same time, however, it is conceivable that an unanticipated or mismanaged crisis (over Taiwan, for example, or North Korea, or in South Asia) could lead to the opposite result.” This might seem to be a Polonius-style summary, but Friedberg is rightly alive to the role of Chinese domestic politics — the internal spring that the United States can only affect indirectly — in determining Beijing’s future course.

Most interesting in Friedberg’s taxonomy of American attitudes toward China is the group he dubs “liberal pessimists.” This set of analysts, observing that the United States and the People’s Republic exhibit distinct strategic cultures, concludes that, despite many shared material interests, the possibility for conflict between Beijing and Washington originates in the nature of the two governments and their most basic political principles. To the liberal pessimists, China is “an authoritarian regime of dubious legitimacy with an uncertain grip on power” and “heavily dependent on the military and domestic security services for the preservation of domestic order.” But being good liberals, these analysts view the United States as the paradigm of a “crusading liberal democracy.” Friedberg quotes Michael Doyle: “The very constitutional restraint, shared commercial interests, and international respect for individual rights that promote peace among liberal societies can exacerbate conflicts in relations between liberal and nonliberal societies.”

In sum, the current conflicts with China are more likely to increase than recede, and may prove more intractable than manageable.

If those in the business of U.S. alliances read one scholarly monograph this month, they should pick up “The Wrong Side of the Hill: The Secret Realignment of UK Defence Policy with the EU.” As you can tell from the spelling, the study is a product of a former British soldier, Richard North, for the Centre for Policy Studies in London. North’s conclusions are that the incremental creation of a pan-European military-industrial complex is slowly undermining the special defense relationship and battlefield interoperability between the United States and Great Britain.

Despite the claim in recent government white papers that the requirement for close cooperation with U.S. forces remains central to British defense planning, the 1998 decision to create a European rapid reaction force sowed the “seeds of division” that is splitting the “special relationship.” Before then, “Britain was still actively engaged in major hardware development partnerships with the U.S. And it was buying weapons systems from the U.S. Since the St. Malo [summit of 1998], however, most of these partnerships have been terminated. Most new weapons have been of European design and, mostly, manufacture,” North says. “At the current pace of procurement, in a little over two decades, most of the major systems in service will be European.” North asserts that these Euro-systems will be more costly, less effective, and, most crucially, unable of being supported through American logistics networks, crippling the long-range deployment and sustainment capabilities of British forces — the capabilities that make them effective in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example.

Ironically, the last, best hope of halting the erosion of the special military relationship between the United States and Britain comes from a rather lowly radio, the British Bowman family of radios, to be exact. Nationally developed and now being introduced into the field, the Bowman radios — like all technologies of its generation — needed to be upgraded even before they went into use. The devices to be used at lower echelons are incapable of handling the increased flow of data; they have the usual “bandwidth” problems.

And they need to incorporate Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers. The question is: will the British continue to use U.S. GPS signals or switch to the European Galileo network? It may be, suggests North, that the future of the alliance rests on how this conundrum is resolved.

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• Information about Orbis, the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s quarterly journal of world affairs.

• “The Future of U.S. China Relations: Is Conflict Inevitable?” by Aaron Friedberg can be downloaded from the MIT Press.

• “The Wrong Side of the Hill: The Secret Realignment of UK Defence Policy with the EU” by Richard North is available from the Centre for Policy Studies.