The Dormancy of War

There are a number of alternate histories that place the beginnings of globalization much earlier than our current 1970s era pop-sociology conception.1 In these alternate conceptions, rather than a twentieth century phenomenon, a result of air travel or information technology, globalization is a continuous process stretching back hundreds of years, or perhaps running throughout all human history. Or perhaps it is something cyclical, proceeding in fits and starts, but the current bout only the latest in a long series.2

Another indicator here might be found in military history. We are blind to it because of a certain misnomer: only in the twentieth century are wars declared ‘world wars’ right in their titles. Ergo prior wars must have been parochial. But consider an alternate military history, more cyclical than linear. The trend in warfare towards globalization in scope (globalization as a continuation into the strategic of the tactical logic of flanking) and totalization in intensity is also long and runs a number of centuries prior to the twentieth.

Though only a European war, the Thirty Years War is often construed as the first time totalization comes clearly into view. There is a growing recognition that the Seven Years War / French and Indian War is “the first global war”.3

Battle of the Pyramids, 21 July 1798

Battle of the Pyramids, part of France’s Egyptian campaign, fought 21 July 1798, portrayed by François-Louis-Joseph Watteau

There is similarly growing recognition that the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars were also total and if not global, at least on the way to global. They were the impetus for Clausewitz’s idea of absolute war. David Bell has called them “the first total war.” They were fought from Spain to Moscow, in north Africa, the Eastern Mediterranean, Egypt, Syria and the Caribbean. Napoleon briefly considered marching the French army overland to attack the British in India. It was first in 1795 at the Battle of Muizenberg during the French Revolutionary Wars, then again in 1806 at the Battle of Blaauwberg during the Napoleonic Wars that the British acquired the Cape Colony from the Netherlands (at the time a vassal of France). The Mauritius Campaign was a series of naval and marine operations fought between the British and the French in the Indian Ocean from 1809-1811. In the midst of the penultimate example of first-generation warfare, France simultaneously fought a counterinsurgency war in Spain. On a brief hiatus from fighting Napoleon, Britain took on the United States in the War of 1812. The French Revolutionary War entailed the Levée en masse, the sort of mass conscription that would not be seen again until the First World War. Napoleon’s Grande Armée was comprised of 600,000 multi-national soldiers. The British naval blockade of France caused Napoleon to create the Continental System, a continent-wide embargo of Britain.

Imagine what the nineteenth century would have looked like had the Crimean War, the Austro-Prussian War, the Franco-Prussian War, Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, the Boer War or the Spanish-American War continued the trend from the Thirty Years War to the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars to the First World War. But that’s not what happened. Instead, total war, global war went dormant from 1815 until 1914. What transpired during this period were classical wars as a continuation of politics, wars fought for limited objectives, not wars of survival and annihilation. And then, after a century of dormancy, global total war returned.

One theory is progressive. That the wars of the twentieth century were so destructive that humanity looked over the precipice and took a step back, that great power wars came to an end in the cataclysms of the twentieth century, that this is the end of history. After the end of history, there may still be limited wars as a continuation of normal politics, wars of the type of the nineteenth century, but there will never again be the absolute war that we have seen in the past.4

But perhaps war is like solar cycles, with periodic minima and maxima. There does seem to be an alteration between twenty to thirty years of great wars followed by centuries of peace (see graph below). There was the bellum phase of The Thirty Years War from 1618 until 1648, followed by a pax phase of 144 years from 1648 until 1792. The bellum phase of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars lasted the 23 years of 1792 to 1815 followed by the Pax Britannica of 1815-1914.

Pax-Bella Cycle, 1618-2013

This was followed by the thirty year bellum phase of 1914-1945. Some historians — taking as inspiration Marshal Ferdinand Foch’s assessment of the Treaty of Versailles that “This is not a peace. It is an armistice for twenty years” — have begun to unify this period under the title of the “Second Thirty Years War.” This is not an unreasonable thing to do. The first Thirty Years war wasn’t as unified as its modern title would suggest. It had its lulls and different phases involving different constellations of combatants as well.

Since 1945 we have lived in the logic of pax phase named “The American Century,” and rather than seeing it as but the latest iteration of a cycle, under our comfortable conception of progress, we imagine it as eternal: it is the end of history (Francis Fukuyama is but this iteration’s Norman Angell).

How could there be such cycles? Perhaps a century is how long it takes society to unburden itself from a particularly painfully ingrained ‘lesson of history.’ A century is the timeframe of historical forgetting. By the time the July Crisis came around, the peoples of Europe had forgotten the cataclysm of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars and once more longed for war. Similarly today the United States is in the process of unlearning the meaninglessness of modern total warfare. Or perhaps a century is the durability of institutions. The Concert of Europe lasted that long. America’s international liberalism (the UN, GATT / WTO, IMF and IBRD, the EEC, NATO) will have a similar life expectancy. Or perhaps there is a relationship (that perhaps we might theorize via a Marxist- Leninist dialectical materialist mechanism) between state power shifts and economic Kondratiev supercycles.

This is perhaps preposterous. A grand narrative positing this level of law-adherence was the sort of thing that a historian of three or four generations ago could expound. But today we recognize that the phenomena under consideration are too complicated to be treated like physics, to be modeled as a variant of a sine wave. With only two and a half cycles — and a little cobbling and fudging to get even that — we certainly don’t have large enough of a sample size to induce any sound laws. Can the First and Second World Wars so easily be considered a continuity? What about the Seven Years War about which so much was made above? What about the American Civil War, often considered a preview of the totalization of war that was to come. In this regard, postmodernism, with its rejection of grand narratives is an attempt to become more scientific, more empirically grounded, is a rejection of grandiose abstractions. Today we are more prone to write off such a periodization of war and peace as merely an artifact of the evolutionary happenstance that primates have ten fingers (hence a base ten number system) rather than anything real.

But my real point here is not this particular theory, but that in our everyday thinking about this matter we’ve already taken a law and chalked it up as a safe operating assumption. Every bit as absurd as a simple cyclical theory of global war is the similarly simplistic theory of progress. I think there is a more limited point to be taken, compatible with modern sensibilities concerning the limits of historical enquiry — namely that rather than progress having safely transported us to the far shore of war, progress is as much a scientifically unsound derivation as is cyclicality and that absent human vigilance, total, global war stands ever ready to make its return.

Why does this matter? Because, again, the progressive, end of history theory is one in which many of us place a great deal of confidence. Uncontrolled escalation is a thing about which politicians no longer trouble themselves. That U.S. involvement in Syria might result in a larger conflict of the United States with Russia, or that a U.S. strike on Iranian nuclear facilities might produce a war engulfing all of Central Asia are scenarios that are beyond consideration owing to our confident, but implicit, knowledge of the laws of history.

But it should be noted how often the logic of history has covertly altered. The inflection points between the pax and bellum phases are subterranean. Its changed circumstances are only uncovered by us creatures of limited perception in out-of-control moments of shock and surprise.


  1. World Systems Theory, Janet L. Abu-Lughod’s Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350 (1989), Andre Gunder Frank’s The World System: Five Hundred Years or Five Thousand? (1993), Kevin O’Rourke and Jeffrey Williamson’s Globalization and History: The Evolution of a Nineteenth-Century Atlantic Economy (1999).

  2. Harold James’s The End of Globalization: Lessons from the Great Depression (2001)

  3. Daniel Baugh’s The Global Seven Years War 1754-1763: Britain and France in a Great Power Contest (2011); William Nester’s The First Global War: Britain, France, and the Fate of North America, 1756-1775 (2000); Tom Pocock’s Battle for Empire: The Very First World War, 1756-1763 (1998).

  4. Another, perhaps less grandiose expression of a similar sentiment would be James J. Sheehan’s Where Have All the Soldiers Gone?: The Transformation of Modern Europe (2008).

International Finance and the First World War in the East

The two things I’m working on right now are:

  1. Non-state actors and the First World War contest over areas of the near eastern empires — Hapsburg, Ottoman and Russian competition over the Balkans, Galicia, the Caucasus, Central Asia (“the Great Game”), the Adriatic Sea, the Black Sea and the Turkish Straits; and
  2. International financial and monetary economics in the late Long Nineteenth Century, namely from the late 1880s to the turn of the century. Specifically I am researching on a Master’s thesis on the classical gold standard, the Goschen Conversion, British international investment, “the economic taproot of imperialism”, the Long Depression of 1873-1896, the Baring Crisis, the U.S. Panic of 1893, the depression of the 1890s and the Morgan-Belmont Syndicate of 1895.

Do these have anything to do with one another beyond chronological adjacency? My interests here have been partly inspired by a few observations made by Samuel R. Williamson, Jr. at a Wilson Center discussion (July 1914: Revisited and Revised—or The End of the German Paradigm, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, D.C., 19 March 2012). In an answer (to a question posed by one of my advisors) during the question and answer period, he said, “The financial thing is one of those subtexts that needs to be studied” (at 1:09:31). Then in his concluding remarks he spent some time looking ahead, assessing what about the origin of the First World War remained understudied, returning to the issue of finance:

As we were talking about the financial thing, I was thinking about an injunction I was given in 1962 on the way to England by Ernest May, Sam Wells and my mentor, which was, “Look for the finance papers. You’ll find that’s what you need to be looking for. Look for the finance papers.” Well, I didn’t find the finance papers, but I found a lot of other good stuff. But the finance papers, there’s some real loads of stuff that are going to change the way people look at this and about the interaction. What’s interesting is, is whether many of the banks will not have destroyed this simply over the course of passage of time. The banks, just like about everybody else, prunes papers. And so this may be one of the things we will never know as much as we want to know about, but it’s an important subtext for the future. (at 1:22:10)

In this regard there are two research projects in progress that I can hardly wait to get my hands on:

  1. The first is that of Jennifer Siegel, an Associate Professor of modern European diplomatic and military history in the Department of History at Ohio State University. Her dissertation, completed at Yale University under the guidance of Paul Kennedy was published as Endgame: Britain, Russia and the Final Struggle for Central Asia (I.B. Tauris, 2002). She is currently working on a book to be titled For Peace and Money: International Finance and the Making and Unmaking of the Triple Entente, which will be “…an exploration of British and French private and government bank loans to Russia in the late imperial period up to the Genoa Conference of 1922…”
  2. The second is history doctoral candidate Hassan Malik’s dissertation, Bankers and Bolsheviks: International Finance and the Russian Revolution, 1880-1930, to be completed this year at Harvard under the supervision of Niall Ferguson. A longer description of what his dissertation will deal with can be found at the Social Science Research Council Dissertation Development Fellow page for his project. His twitter feed is here.

From these two projects, it seems that Professor Williamson’s assessment that finance remains one of the fecund future areas of research on the First World War era is an astute one (presumably it’s based on his finger on the pulse of research underway, not just proscription or surmise).

As long as I’m on the topic, I may also mention a third, related work that I am on watch for. In the new Preface to the 2010 reissue of Feroz Ahmad’s The Young Turks: The Committee of Union and Progress in Turkish Politics, 1908-1914 he writes that he is working on a sequel to cover the war years. His faculty page at T.C. Yeditepe Üniversitesi also lists a work, Turkey and the First World War, 1914-1918 as forthcoming. There have been a few recent books on the role of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War, but one by Feroz Ahmad could be the most significant of the crop.

For a student such as myself, the next few years are on a course to be promising ones.

Update, 19 May 2013: And Sean McMeekin’s forthcoming book on the Russian Revolution of 1917 will focus heavily on financial aspects as well.

Update, 26 March 2015: Jennifer Siegel’s For Peace and Money: French and British Finance in the Service of Tsars and Commissars was published by Oxford University Press in December of 2014. According to his page at Harvard, Hassan Malik’s Bankers and Bolsheviks: International Finance and the Russian Revolution, 1892-1922 is under contract to be published by Princeton University Press in 2016.

Inflation on the Gold Standard

Oh, hey, look, the U.S. post war gold bullion standard did not prevent inflation. It just meant that gold and the currency inflated together at the fixed rate. In fact, it was in part the high inflation of the late 1960s and early 1970s that forced the U.S. off the gold standard in 1971.

"Inflation's Stubborn Resistance," Time, Vol. 96, No. 24, 14 December 1970

Inflation’s Stubborn Resistance,” Time, Vol. 96, No. 24, 14 December 1970, pp. 102-112.

Via Neil Irwin, The Alchemists: Three Central Bankers and a World on Fire (New York: Penguin Press, 2013), p. 65.

The Russian Origin of the First World War

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Sazonov

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Sazonov

I am currently reading Sean McMeekin’s The Russian Origins of the First World War (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2011), Michael Reynolds’s Shattering Empires: The Clash and Collapse of the Ottoman and Russian Empires, 1908-1918 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011) and Barbara Jelavich’s Russia’s Balkan Entanglements (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991) for a comparative empires seminar focused on the European land-based empires (Habsburg, Ottoman, Russian).

These books about the Russian and Near Eastern origins of the War have me recollecting some of my previous conclusions about the origin of the First World War. In August of 2003 I read John Keegan’s The First World War (New York: Knopf, 1999) and at that time I composed some incomplete notes of my takeaway from Mr. Keegan’s description of the events and deliberations of the July Crisis. My conclusion then was that greater emphasis on Russia as an instigator of the First World War was warranted. I also thought, along with these historians listed above, that there needed to be a strategic motive more plausible than mobilization timetables and Slavic solidarity for Russia’s involvement. Here is a lightly edited excerpt from what I wrote then:

*  *  *

Having read thus far, there are a few things that puzzle me:

One of the necessary conditions of the war was Russian resistance to Austria-Hungary’s plan to punish Serbia. Keegan shows how the crisis was nearly avoided before gaining any momentum:

By the following morning, Saturday 25 July, both the British and French delegations in Belgrade reported home that Belgrade would agree to the Austrian demands, excepting the condition that imperial officials be admitted on to Serbian territory to supervise the investigations.

Even on that sticking point, however, the Serbians had not yet made up their minds. (56)

Keegan here establishes a check-point (or perhaps tries to make more painful the sense that all this could all have been avoided — baby, guess my name [I had been using the Rolling Stones’s “Sympathy For The Devil” as a foil for the tone of Keegan’s narrative —ed.]): “Even at noon on Saturday 25 July, therefore, five hours before the time limit attached to the Austrian note would expire, the crime of Sarajevo remained a matter between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, diplomatically no more than that” (57). What was it that transformed this local squabble into the war that would draw in nearly all of Europe?

Then, during the afternoon, word was received from their [Serbia’s] ambassador at the Tsar’s country palace that the mood there was fiercely pro-Serbian. The Tsar, though not yet ready to proclaim mobilization, had announced the preliminary “Period Preparatory to War” at eleven o’clock. The news reversed everything the Serbian ministers had decided. In the morning they had agreed to accept all ten Austrian demands, with the slightest reservations. Now they were emboldened to attach conditions to six and to reject absolutely the most important, that Austrian officials be allowed to take part in the investigation of the assassination on Serbian territory. (57-58)

It was these Russian actions preliminary to mobilization ordered by the Tsar that prompted the German Prime Minister to instruct his ambassador to issue the next day, Sunday 26 July, his first warning that mobilization “would mean war.”

Later, Keegan will quote L.C.F. Turner (“The Significance of the Schlieffen Plan” in Paul Kennedy, The War Plans of the Great Powers [London: Allen & Unwin, 1979]) in his assessment that the Russian decision to mobilize was “perhaps the most important …taken in the history of Imperial Russia and it effectively shattered any prospect of averting a great European war” (62). The Germans believed that every day of Russian mobilization not matched by Germany brought the Schlieffen plan closer to failure, for the premise of the plan was the France could be knocked out of a war in the time that it took Russia to mobilize. Each day’s lead Russia acquired was one fewer day in which to defeat the French.

I am going to tentatively advance the thesis here that the First World War was primarily a conflict between Austria-Hungary and Russia with the entire Western Front being fought merely for reasons structural to the European concert (e.g. the Schlieffen Plan, the Triple Entente). In support of this thesis, I would offer that the main locus of negotiation in the July Crisis was Germany, Britain and France trying to convince Austria-Hungary to accept mediation with Serbia and Germany trying to convince Russia to leave Austria-Hungary to destroy Serbia unharried by outsiders.

The question that needs more attention in this analysis is why were the Russian so “fiercely pro-Serbian.” There are a few passing remarks in Keegan. His suggestion that, “Russia, a great Slav brother, had tender feelings towards the Serbs…” is thankfully quickly qualified, “…but feelings are different from vital interests and certainly no motive for war” (53). Later he offers a more realistic reason, that Foreign Minister Sazonov “possessed in an acute form the Russian neurosis over control of the Balkans, with which went fears of a hostile power dominating the Bosphorus, Russia’s Black Sea exit to the Mediterranean and the wider world” (65). This is better, but still the emphasis is on feelings — neurosis and fears — and the reasons are confined to one man. If it is true that, as Keegan quotes approvingly, Russia’s decision to mobilize was “the most important …taken” and if the thesis that I am drawing from his presentation is correct — and he does come down on it pretty hard — then he is woefully short on its analysis. We get Sazonov’s fears, but what were the arguments employed by him and the rest of the Russian command on that 30 July afternoon at the Tsar’s summer residence? The Tsar was waffling. He issued and then rescinded a mobilization order, rescinded it owing to dire warnings received from the Kaiser. After the 30 July meeting with Sazonov he reissued the mobilization order. What did the Tsar believe? What strategic considerations overruled the Kaiser’s warnings of war?

*  *  *

Undoubtedly my assessments of the origin of the War are going to change considerably in the coming months and years. I saw Samuel R. Williamson, Jr., author of Austria-Hungary and the Origins of the First World War (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1991), this week at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars talking on “July 1914: Revisited and Revised—or The End of the German Paradigm“. He closed his remarks joking that the theory that he favors varies from one day to the next. Hopefully I will follow this post up once I complete these books and this course. My 2003 thoughts serve as a benchmark for subsequent assessments of the situation.

If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Squelch ‘Em

There are two major points — one lesser, one greater — to Neal Stephenson’s In the Beginning … was the Command Line (Wikipedia | Amazon). The lesser point serves to feed the superiority complex of computer geeks, namely that people who work closer to the machine are more awesome than people who work with their machines through layers of mediation. The greater point is that maintaining a high degree of control of the devices that shape our lives is a critical element of freedom in the information age.

It’s not about turning your nose up at GUIs and other user-friendly efforts in favor of arcane monochrome text interfaces. The point is that when you cede control of the devices that comprise your environment — that serve as the basis of your personal capabilities — when you cede these to manufacturers, marketers, designers, content providers, legislators, then the limits they seek to impose become your limits as well.

It is as extending and impacting this point that I think Cory Doctorow’s talk, “The Coming War on General Computation” is so important (28th Chaos Communication Congress, Berliner Congress Center, Berlin, Germany, 27 December 2011).

You should definitely watch the whole thing: it’s entertaining as well as one of the most cogent talks I’ve heard in some time. To me his outstanding points are two:

1. The never-ending desire for a certain kind of ease of use that comes through circumscribed functionality is an invitation to, a kind of lazy collusion with, the likes of Apple who are more than happy to sell you a device hobbled in a way that maximizes corporate returns (the walled garden):

So today we have marketing departments who say things like “we don’t need computers, we need … appliances. Make me a computer that doesn’t run every program, just a program that does this specialized task, like streaming audio, or routing packets, or playing Xbox games, and make sure it doesn’t run programs that I haven’t authorized that might undermine our profits”. And on the surface, this seems like a reasonable idea — just a program that does one specialized task — after all, we can put an electric motor in a blender, and we can install a motor in a dishwasher, and we don’t worry if it’s still possible to run a dishwashing program in a blender. But that’s not what we do when we turn a computer into an appliance. We’re not making a computer that runs only the “appliance” app; we’re making a computer that can run every program, but which uses some combination of rootkits, spyware, and code-signing to prevent the user from knowing which processes are running, from installing her own software, and from terminating processes that she doesn’t want. In other words, an appliance is not a stripped-down computer — it is a fully functional computer with spyware on it out of the box.

2. Media copyright is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the incentive of corporations to turn to political-legislative attempts to prevent the disruptions to their business models that result from technological change:

And even this is a shadow of what is to come. After all, this was the year in which we saw the debut of open sourced shape files for converting AR-15s to full automatic. This was the year of crowd-funded open-sourced hardware for gene sequencing. And while 3D printing will give rise to plenty of trivial complaints, there will be judges in the American South and Mullahs in Iran who will lose their minds over people in their jurisdiction printing out sex toys. The trajectory of 3D printing will most certainly raise real grievances, from solid state meth labs, to ceramic knives.

And it doesn’t take a science fiction writer to understand why regulators might be nervous about the user-modifiable firmware on self-driving cars, or limiting interoperability for aviation controllers, or the kind of thing you could do with bio-scale assemblers and sequencers. Imagine what will happen the day that Monsanto determines that it’s really… really… important to make sure that computers can’t execute programs that cause specialized peripherals to output organisms that eat their lunch… literally. Regardless of whether you think these are real problems or merely hysterical fears, they are nevertheless the province of lobbies and interest groups that are far more influential than Hollywood and big content are on their best days, and every one of them will arrive at the same place — “can’t you just make us a general purpose computer that runs all the programs, except the ones that scare and anger us? Can’t you just make us an Internet that transmits any message over any protocol between any two points, unless it upsets us?”

The way to think of all of this is as akin to the transition from feudalism to capitalism. There’s no reason to think that an information economy will be just more capitalism (to think so is a contribution to capitalism as the end of history). That a growing list of industries face disruption on a scale where it’s hard to see their business model surviving in absence of ever escalating state measures to construct markets that otherwise would fail (a point well made by Mr. Doctorow with his wheels analogy) suggests significant incompatibility between capitalism and the information economy.

The retort of the defender of capitalism here would be that the information economy is a creature of capitalism — without chip fabricators and integraters and intellectual property and venture capital and server farms, the information economy doesn’t happen. But of course the feudal baron would have said the same of the capitalist upstart. History is a realm of contingency. It is not a logical system. Contradictions — and the deleterious eddies that result — are perfectly possible. That the information economy might end up destroying the very basis for its existence is within the realm of possibility.

Or perhaps this is perfectly compatible with capitalism and effected sectors are merely the cracks through which we can see the lie of laissez-faire throughout the rest of the economy. The government takes a heavy hand in constructing markets everywhere they exist.

But the point is that previous economic transformations weren’t tranquil evolutions, didn’t happen in a discrete moment. The social transformations that we today package under the rubric “capitalism” benefitted some, but came at terrible consequence to others. Those who stood to lose prestige, revenue, power, opposed these changes, frequently by violence. For them, capitalism wasn’t just social change, it was immoral. Ownership of property by those who did not directly fight for it, property as a transferable abstraction, rootlessness, equality among the classes, attacks upon the ancient privileges of nobility, the undermining of seigniorial obligation, the money economy, the violations of guild oaths, the codification of techne (craft), the insolence of entrepreneurs: these were violations of the moral order of society.

The practices that have grown up around the frictionlessness of the information economy’s core commodities are called piracy by the partisans of our present order. It is immoral. It is theft of property (property is here an analogy growing threadbare at the margins from being stretched too much). It is the collapse of the basis of prosperity. But how is a system of constant content theft to be harnessed to our system of material progress? I haven’t the foggiest notion. But capitalism too was a post hoc ideological construct. At the time it seemed like the end of the world. Remember that by the time Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations, such processes were already far along. Smith wasn’t envisioning future pin factories: he was describing existent ones that he had recently visited.

Besides, if it is not within the scope of power to achieve these things, it does not matter the machinations of ideology. Ideology adapts. Moral and immoral will be renamed to accommodate the new arrangement of factors.

The Other Forgotten War

D.C. World War Memorial, Armistice Day, 11 November 2009

One could be forgiven for not knowing that there is a memorial to the First World War in Washington, D.C. (Wikipedia | Google Maps). The first time I stumbled across it, it was as an exploration of a curiosity. I wanted to figure out what that unknown building was, barely visible through the trees along Independence Avenue. To approach the memorial is to get a sense of what it must have been like for a Renaissance-era scholar on grand tour of the continent to come to Rome for the first time, when the ruins of Rome were still that: ruins — mysterious, forgotten, pillaged, unkempt, crumbling, ignored. The First World War Memorial is lost in a grove of trees on the south side of the Mall. It’s like coming across an abandoned temple in a forest. The flagstone paving stones of the walk up to the memorial are lose, scattered, broken and on their way to gravel. The memorial itself is blackened with mildew, its marble cracked and stained. It is like a mushroom that popped up in a forest clearing after a rain. Completed in 1931, its archaic inscription simply reads “The World War.”

Our wars aren’t merely matters of fact, narratives or parables from which we are to take the vaunted historical lesson. Our wars are tropes: they represent certain touchstones of the American consciousness. The Second World War was the good war: the forces of good arrayed against the forces of evil, proving the directionality of history. The Vietnam War is central figure in the right wing Dolchstoßlegende. They are all morality plays. The First World War is a forgotten war because it does not signify anything that fits easily into the American mythos. It is an amorality play. Its obvious meta-narratives of miscalculation, system effects, the amorality of state interest, the fleetingness of progress, the shabbiness of war, the divisions of class interest and the meaninglessness of our social conventions around war don’t figure in U.S. discourse on war. So the event is simply excised from the national consciousness, not a part of the pantheon of nostalgia writ in Neoclassical white marble in the nation’s capitol.

Mediocrity as the Camel’s Nose of Monsters

Though a central category of the critique of Modernity, the phrase “the banality of evil” is, owing to its origin, mostly associated with the Second World War and Hitler’s circle of power. John Quiggin takes the opportunity of Armistice Day to point out the relevance of the concept for the First World War (“Armistice Day,” 11 November 2009):

The cataclysm of the Great War brought forth monsters like Hitler and Stalin, who killed millions. But the War itself, with the millions and tens of millions of lives it took, directly and indirectly, was loosed on the world by political leaders more notable for mediocrity than for monstrous greatness.

The names of Asquith, Bethmann-Hollweg, Berchtold and Poincare are barely remembered, yet on any reasonable accounting they belong among the great criminals of history. Not only did they create the conditions for war, and rush (eagerly in most cases) into it, they carried on even as the death toll mounted into the hundreds of thousands and beyond. Even as the original grounds for war became utterly irrelevant, they continued to intrigue for trivial postwar benefits, carving up imagined conquests among themselves.

The First World War no longer seems like the nadir of civilization after the horrors of the Twentieth Century that were to follow — the collectivization and the famine, the purges, the Holocaust, Barbarossa, Stalingrad, Bataan, the area raids, the atomic bomb, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. But the First World War set the conditions. In this regard, mediocrity often prepares the ground for monsters.

Civilization is fickle and an inopportune mediocrity in governance is a great danger. Unhappily, this is probably the realm where ken pales and Fortuna runs amuck.

Michael Lind’s Unified Theory of U.S. Political-Economic Grand Strategy

On Friday, 24 July 2009 I went to see a New America Foundation panel discussion of The Power Problem: How American Military Dominance Makes Us Less Safe, Less Prosperous, and Less Free, by Christopher Preble, the Director of Foreign Policy Studies at CATO. Mr. Preble is, along with Andrew Bacevich, Robert Jervis, Christopher Layne and others, a member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy. It was a very Coalition-y event, with a panel comprised of ideological misfits amidst our ill-representative bipolar political spectrum. At one point Mr. Preble felt it necessary to state that people think he’s a Republican because he works at CATO, but that he is not.

I’m a fan of Mr. Preble, and a swath of other of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy thinkers. I have previously made Preble’s point with respect to Gareth Porter’s book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam (“Militarism: Loose It or Use It,” 3 February 2008). Mr. Porter’s book is a specific case study of Mr. Preble’s point with respect to the Vietnam War era.

What interested me most about this discussion was Michael Lind’s comments. When his turn came, off the cuff Mr. Lind spun one of the most trenchant, compelling and unified analyses of the last century of U.S. grand strategy I’ve ever encountered. Without saying it in so many words Mr. Lind shows how the present economic crisis is a systematic crisis resulting from the evolutions of an international system that is the product of a U.S. grand strategic and international political-economic bargain decided upon coming out of the interwar crisis years and the outbreak of the Second World War.1

A transcript of the relevant sections of Mr. Lind’s comments, as well as editor’s notes, follow (Mr. Lind’s comments are 0:43:03-1:00:15, I excerpt his comments starting at 0:45:11):

Michael Lind, Gordon Adams, Christopher Preble, Michael Cohen, The Power Problem, New America Foundation, Washington, D.C., 24 July 2009

I think if you look at both our national security policy and our global economic strategy — and there is one — these two things are not completely unrelated even though they’re usually discussed as though they’re on separate planets — you can understand both by referring to four countries, which happen to be the other four great powers or greatest powers: Germany, Japan, Russia and China. You can’t understand out national security strategy or our trade policies without thinking about these countries in particular.

First our national security strategy. As many people have pointed out — this is simply the standard interpretation2 — our foreign policy during the Cold War was one of dual containment. We were containing four countries, not just two. We weren’t just containing the Soviet Union and communist China, but we were also containing post-1945 West Germany and post 1945 Japan. And the reason the U.S. adopted this hegemonic global military strategy — which was not what it had intended in World War II. In the course of World War II the Roosevelt Administration in its planning assumed you would have a three power world, essentially the British, the Soviets and the Americans and that Chan Kai Check would govern China as a satellite of the Americans.

But in the Cold War this all broke down. And what evolved was a system in which the Germans and Japanese would be permanently demilitarized. Their security would be provided unilaterally by the United States. You can call it NATO, but it would essentially be a unilateral offer of guarantee for this disarmed Japan and this disarmed West Germany. At the same time the Soviet Union and China — which late in the Cold War became a geopolitical ally of the U.S. — would be contained, they would be outside of the system. And we would be protecting Japan and Germany — Japan from both China and the Soviet Union and Germany from the Soviet Union.

Now, what does that have to do with economics? There was a deal implicit in this strategy, which is, okay Germany and Japan you have this massive military industrial complex and unlike after World War I we’re not going to have punitive reparations and so on to bring about some future Hitler as a result of humiliation. We want to rebuild you and integrate you into this American-led system, including a global free trade system, or managed trade system. So the deal is, you don’t make tanks, you make cars, you don’t make guns, you make radios. So you will become civilian manufacturing superpowers and this is in the interest of the United States, at least according to American strategists because this will avert the reemergence of an independent Japanese military great power and an independent (even) West German military great power and the emergence of a multipolar world, with multipolar rivalries, like those of the 1930s.

So the deal, which was taken up more by Japan than by West Germany, which has had fairly liberal trade relationships, both with us and with its neighbors in Europe, was that you export to us and we will turn a blind eye to the fact that you, Japan, use non-tariff barriers to keep our products out of your markets, to the fact that you’re targeting particular industries in the U.S., to the fact that you’re hiring lobbyists in Washington to promote your industrial strategy in the 70s and 80s. We will turn a blind eye because we’re willing to sacrifice certain American industries — and here the libertarians part from my interpretation — we will sacrifice certain American industries in order to keep you part of the U.S. Cold War coalition and we will tolerate things that if we were not military allies and protectors we would never put up with. And so that was basically the pattern.

Now, the end of the Cold War comes along. There was a fascinating debate. I was sort of on the sidelines of it as executive editor of The National Interest, Irving Kristol’s foreign policy magazine by the way, back in the early 1990s, late 1980s. And you had the America first isolationists, you had the balance of power school, there were the liberal internationalists and so it was a fascinating debate. It was all shut down in the aftermath of the Gulf War and we’ve had the de facto basic same strategy under both Clinton and Bush and now under Obama — with the exception of the more aggressive neoconservatives slant.

And the decision was made — it sort of evolved, you know, it’s not a conspiratorial thing, but this became the new consensus after the Gulf War in 1991 — the decision was made we will continue the policy of dual containment. In other words, we’re not going to rethink it. We’re not going to say oaky, NATO, we’re going to admit Russia and turn it a concert of power, or we’re going to get rid of it, we’re going to come up with a new system and bring in the Chinese. No, basically we will continue to be Japan’s protector nation and South Korea’s, we will maintain these Cold War alliances and we will maintain NATO, which will be expanded, for fear — and I’m simply reporting, I’m not endorsing this because I agree, I think, with everyone on this panel that a certain paranoia has driven all of this — for fear that after reunification Germany would emerge as a Fourth Reich, this sort of lose canon neo-militaristic power. And so the geostrategic purpose for the expansion of NATO, it served both of the goals of dual containment after the Gulf War. You push NATO all the way up to the borders of a weakened, post-imperial Russia so you’re still containing Russia, no longer the Soviet Union, but the Russian Republic. And at the same time, you’ve embedded Germany even more deeply in this system of U.S. alliances, of hegemonic alliances.

It’s not a traditional alliance system. Traditional alliance system is more like the allies in World War I, World War II. … The American alliance system is a hegemonic system. We expect nothing, really, in return. They’re essentially client states and protectorates, most of our so-called allies. They’re not actual equal partners. We will protect them for what we perceive as out interest in a world order that’s beneficial to us. They really don’t have to do anything in return to protect us. But we don’t see this as charity, at least the establishment. This is promoting a world order.

We maintain this dual containment system after the Cold War. Paul Wolfowitz and others had a name for it in the early 1990s some of you may recall from stories in the New York Times and elsewhere.3 It was called Reassurance. That was the initial [name] during the first Bush administration. This was called the Reassurance Doctrine. We would reassure the other great powers of the world that because we would look after their geopolitical interests, they would not need to rearm and they could continue to devote their economic energy — in fact, George W. Bush said this at Westpoint in [2002].4 He said the other countries should concentrate basically on trade and we will maintain these enormous strengths [crosstalk]. My point is, this is not a crazy idea. I think all of us would agree that this is flawed and ultimately doomed, but there is a system here.

My final point in analyzing this consensus system is the economic counterpart since the Gulf War. And this is a system called Bretton Woods II. Bretton Woods II is the term that economists use for this very strange global economic order that evolved in the last twenty years. In which American consumers went into debt in order to purchase goods from primarily China. China has, at least up until the crash, 90 percent of the non-oil trade deficit with the United States. But even before China moved up in this decade, it was East Asian countries,5 to a lesser extent Germany in Europe. So you get this very odd system where the United States is the consumer market of first resort for the other three leading market or quasi-market economies of the world, which today are Japan, China and Germany. Japan, China and Germany all have substantial merchandise trade surpluses. The United States has had an ever growing merchandise trade [deficit].

When you read these discussions taking place on economy planet and national security planet, without the frame of reference to the bargain here it’s just kind of missing the point. There was a geopolitical bargain underlying America’s offer of unilateral access to U.S. markets, particularly to Japan which practices a fairly sophisticated form of mercantilism at the expense of U.S. exports. And then after the cold war the elites in the United States decided to extend this to China.

This brings us up to the present and why this system is collapsing before our very eyes. What worked for Japan, a country much smaller than the United States, they could trade with us while protecting their markets from American exports. This cannot work, that export-oriented model was doomed the moment China, the world’s most populous nation adopted it. There are simply not enough first word consumers in the U.S., or in the U.S., the E.U. and Japan put together, to accommodate all of the stuff that first China and now India are capable of doing. In that sense this bargain is doomed. This is one of the underlying reasons for this crash, because China would not have had these enormous dollar surpluses — some of the oil-exporting countries would have, but China would not have — had it had a more demand-oriented domestic consumption driven policy. It’s this export-oriented policy that allowed it to accumulate these dollar surpluses and indirectly, through purchasing American debt, for reasons we need not get into, but that also helped their exports, enabling American consumers to go on this binge which then helped build up what is really gross overcapacity in Chinese manufacturing.6 So this system has crashed now. It’s not coming back. … It’s run into its limits. So Bretton Woods II is dead as a global economic system. There is no other domestic consumer market, apart from the U.S., that is capable of accommodating all of the export capacity, not only of China, but of Japan and even Germany, which has trade surpluses with all its European neighbors.7

So how does this effect security policy? Well, my prediction is that the costs of digging our way out of this collapsed 1990s, 2000s post 1992 global economic system, which again rested on this geopolitical bargain between the U.S. and these potentially threatening great powers, except for Russia, which is becoming more and more of a resource power, but it was the other three major industrial great powers: China, Japan and Germany. We’re simply not going to be able to afford a military that’s at four of five percent, particularly a military which had as its actual purpose — and let me wrap up just by saying this — the actual purpose if you read Michael Mandelbaum, who wrote a very good book setting forth what I think is the establishment position,8 I’d recommend it to everybody, if you want a view from the inside. [crosstalk]

But he says the real reason we have this giant military is not because we need all these aircraft carriers in order to prevent jihadists from sneaking into the U.S. and getting on airplanes. We don’t actually need this giant army to deal with the North Koreans or this or that rogue state. Rogue states and terrorists — which are real problems I’m not diminishing this I may take them more seriously than some of the other people up here, I mean they’re problems.

If you look at the structure of our military, it is designed to intimidate China, Germany and Japan and Russia if they even think about rearming. That’s why we have the size of the military. Because it’s grossly oversized if you actually want to fight jihadists and AFPAC. But when people come out and say — as President George W. Bush is — that’s the purpose of our military: no one should even think about competing with our capabilities. Well, who’s thinking about competing with the capabilities of the U.S. military? A bunch of guys in suburbs or a cave in Afghanistan, Pakistan? No. We know what the countries are, the ones that can never be named as objects of U.S. Strategy: China, Germany, Russia, Japan.

I’ll end with a prediction. The collapse of Bretton Woods II is going to bring down this Reassurance strategy by creating a fiscal crisis for the American state, of which we are in the early stages because of the enormous debt from the bailout, combined with, if we avoid future bubbles, a fairly slow rate of growth. And this is going to create enormous political conflict in the United States. The defenders of the Pentagon — of whom I am one — I don’t want to cut to dangerous levels — but there’s going to be a battle between the Pentagon and the American Association of Retired Persons over if we’re going to cut government spending by two or three percent, is it going to come out of the Pentagon budget or are we going to slash Social Security … or are we going to slash and reform Medicare. And so my money is on the old people.

Editor’s Notes

  1. A thumb-nail sketch of this history: The formative political experience for the Second World War and early post war foreign policy establishment was the failure of Wilsonianism in the Interbellum years: the Great Depression, the downward spiral of beggar-thy-neighbor economic policies, the rise of fascism and militarism, the intensification of great power competition leading to a repeat of “the war to end all wars” and the eventual need for the United States to return to Europe for a second major war within 25 years. The post-war international system that these people — Harry Truman, George Marshall, Dean Acheson, George Kennan, Paul Nitze, Harry Dexter White; in Europe: John Maynard Keynes, Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman, Ernest Bevin — created was only partly spurred by suspicions of the Soviet Union. Its other motivating force was the avoidance of a third repeat of the pattern of world war that dominated the first half of the Twentieth Century. That system consisted of the suppression of great power competition under the political-military preponderance of the United States as the just guarantor of international order, combined with with market — and market only — based access to resources under a pseudo-legal international economic order in the IMF, the IBRD (World Bank) and GATT, eventually WTO. Already by 1960 this system was being challenged by a world recovering from the devastation of World War (Arthur Schlesinger reported that President Kennedy often said that “the two things which scared him most were nuclear weapons and the payments deficit”). For a decade the United States fought a rear-guard action to uphold its obligations, until the strain of guns and butter (the Vietnam war era inflation and current account deficit) lead the Nixon administration end the Bretton Woods policy of dollar-gold convertability on 15 August 1971.

    What followed was a period of monetary instability and a number of ad hoc attempts to remedy it — the Smithsonian Agreement (1971), The European Snake (1972), The Exchange Rate Mechanism (1979), the Plaza Accord (1985) — as well as a period of financial crises of increasing of increasing size and scope — the Latin American Debt Crisis of 1982-1985, the June 1982 ERM realignment and François Mitterrand’s liberal turn in the face of intense dollar-Deutche mark pressure on the franc, The Mexican peso crisis of 1994, the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997-98. All of these developments are evolutions of a system of dollar hegemony. Throughout this period the current account deficit grew in fits and starts, leading to the current crisis, whose primary cause is the faltering of the United States in its attempts to prop up the world economy by turning its consumer base into the buyer of last resort and mopping up the worlds excess money in its current account, consumer and fiscal debts.

    For my part, whatever its failings, this system has obvious competitive advantages over what came before it. Mr. Preble ends the session saying, “Power held by others is something to be welcomed, not feared.” I’m not so sure about that. There is, however, one failing with which I cannot argue: as Mr. Lind’s said, that of its being doomed.

  2. E.g. this is the interpretation of the reigning standard work on the early Cold War formation of U.S. grand strategy, Melvyn Leffler’s A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992).

  3. Tyler, Patrick E., “U.S. Strategy Plan Calls for Insuring No Rivals Develop,” The New York Times, 8 March 1992, p. A1. The document in question was the Defense Planning Guidance of 1992, early drafts of which were leaked to the New York Times. At the time, the Secretary of Defense was Dick Cheney. Mr. Wolfowitz was Undersecretary of Defense for Policy in the Pentagon. Secretary Wolfowitz had delegated the job of writing the document to his deputy, Scooter Libby, who had in turn delegated it to Zalmy Khalilzad. Participants in the discussions surrounding the Defense Planning Guidance included DOD Office of Net Assessment head Andrew Marshall and independent defense intellectuals Richard Perle and Albert Wohlstetter. These are the usual suspects. A subsequent, whitewashed Planning document omitting the language of dual containment was released as the official, final version, Tyler, Patrick E., “Pentagon Drops Goal of Blocking New Superpowers,” The New York Times, 24 May 1992, p. A1. See Mann, James, Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet (New York: Viking, 2004), pp. 208-215.

  4. Bush, Jr., George W. “Commencement Address at the United States Military Academy at West Point,” West Point, New York, 1 June 2002, (accessed 26 July 2009). The key passage would be as follows:

    Competition between great nations is inevitable, but armed conflict in our world is not. More and more, civilized nations find ourselves on the same side — united by common dangers of terrorist violence and chaos. America has, and intends to keep, military strengths beyond challenge (applause) thereby, making the destabilizing arms races of other eras pointless, and limiting rivalries to trade and other pursuits of peace.

    While overt talk of the strategy of hegemony was originally suppressed in the Defense Planning Guidance of 1992 (supra, note 1), after September 11th, 2001, the neoconservative element in the administration was ascendant, peoples’ sensitivities to bald talk diminished and the strategy became overt in the September 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States. Sanger, David E., “Bush to Outline Doctrine of Striking Foes First,” The New York Times, 20 September 2002, p. A1.

  5. Mr. Lind is here telling the long history of the present crisis. The intermediate history goes back to the dot-com bubble and the developing nation foreign direct investment bubble, precipitating the Asian financial crisis of 1997-1998, on which I have previously commented (“The Committee to Save the World, Ten Years On,” 26 March 2008).

  6. The idea that capitalism has entered a phase of overcapacity and hence perilously declining profit margins can be found in its most Marxist “propensity of capitalism to crisis” version in the two works of Robert Brenner, The Economics of Global Turbulence (Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2006) and The Boom and the Bubble: The U.S. in the World Economy (W. W. Norton & Company, 2002), both based on his special issue of New Left Review, “The Economics of Global Turbulence,” series I, no. 229, May-June 1998. Similar theories can be found in more mainstream versions in Robert Reich’s Supercapitalism (New York: Knopf, 2007) which draws heavily upon John Kenneth Galbraith’s The New Industrial State (Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin, 1967).

  7. The unnamed theory behind Mr. Lind’s reasoning about the current crisis is that of the “savings glut” (or alternately, demand dearth) advocated by, among others, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke “The Global Saving Glut and the U.S. Current Account Deficit” (Virginia Association of Economics, Richmond, Virginia, 14 April 2005) and Financial Times economic correspondent Martin Wolf, first in his special comment and analysis column, e.g. “The Paradox of Thrift: Excess Savings Are Storing up Trouble for the World Economy,” Financial Times, 13 June 2005, then in his book, Fixing Global Finance (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008). I’m tempted to say something to the effect that in these articles you have the “economy planet” whose orbit never crosses that of “national security planet,” of which Mr. Lind spoke — that the grand-strategic bargain underlying the savings glut is never addressed — but in the 2005 piece, Mr. Wolf writes:

    True, the huge current account deficit gives the US the happy combination of guns and butter in the short run. Since the external deficit is bigger than the fiscal deficit and also bigger than the amount that the US is spending on its armed forces, either of these can be regarded as a free lunch, if only for the moment.

  8. Mandelbaum, Michael, The Case for Goliath: How America Acts as the World’s Government in the Twenty-First Century (New York: Public Affairs, 2005)

Photograph, left to right, Michael Lind, Gordon Adams, Christopher Preble, Michael Cohen; courtesy of the New America Foundation; used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Space Rendezvous

Okay, so my posts on Apollo 11 have been a little Stanley Kubrick-esque. In the film 2001 (Wikipedia | IMDB), the proto-human throws a bone into the air where it is suddenly replaced by ship engaged in an elaborate docking maneuver with a rotating space station, set to Strauss’s waltz, Blue Danube. It is one of my favorite scenes in all of cinematography because of its purely aural-visual implication of the technological continuum from the first tool through the most unrecognizably advanced, and then, in the dance of space ships, the humaneness of otherwise inhuman machines .

On space maneuvers being like dance, here’s the official NASA Apollo 11 Spacecraft Commentary from the radio broadcast of the mission explaining what’s going to happen during the docking maneuvers of Command Module Columbia and Lunar Module Eagle (APOLLO 11 MISSION COMMENTARY, NASA, Manned Spaceflight Center, Houston, TX, 7/21/69 CDT 13:40, GET 125:08, 413/1, p. 466):

In all of these maneuvers Mike Collins aboard Columbia is spring loaded to do what is called a mirror image maneuver approximately a minute after the Eagle is scheduled to make its maneuver, and if for some reason Eagle can not make the maneuver, Collins would do the exact same maneuver only in reverse so that Columbia would in effect begin a CSM active rendezvous with Eagle.

The dance analogy seems apt here because, like Ginger Rogers with Fred Astaire, Michael Collins had to do everything that Buzz Aldrin did, only backwards and in a command module.