The Machiavelli of Maryland

Saturday, December 19th, 2015

People contact Edward Luttwak with unusual requests:

The prime minister of Kazakhstan wants to find a way to remove ethnic Russians from a city on his northern border; a major Asian government wants a plan to train its new intelligence services; an Italian chemical company wants help settling an asbestos lawsuit with a local commune; a citizens’ group in Tonga wants to scare away Japanese dolphin poachers from its shores; the London Review of Books wants a piece on the Armenian genocide; a woman is having a custody battle over her children in Washington DC — can Luttwak “reason” with her husband? And that is just in the last 12 months.


For the past 30 years, Luttwak has run his own strategic consultancy — a sort of one-man security firm — that provides bespoke “solutions” to some very intractable problems. In his long career, Luttwak has been asked by the president of Mexico to help eliminate a street gang that was burning tourist buses in the city of Mexicali; the Dalai Lama has consulted him about relations with China, European governments have hired him to root out al-Qaida operatives, and the US army has commissioned him to update its counterinsurgency manual. He earns around $1m a year from his “jobs”. “It’s always important to get paid,” he likes to insist. “It protects you from the liberal problem of good intentions and from being called an intriguer.”

It is tempting to imagine Luttwak as a man exiled to the wrong place and time, whose fate, like a character in Nabokov, has been reduced from old-world brilliance to something less grand in 21st-century America. It is not hard, after all, to picture him conniving at the Congress of Vienna, or plotting murders in the Medici court. He has the air of the seasoned counsellor to the prince who is dispatched to deal with the Mongols and returns alone, on horseback, clutching advantageous terms on parchment.

But only in America was the career of Edward Luttwak possible. The perpetually renewable reservoir of naivety at the highest levels of the US government has been good for business. During the cold war, Luttwak was often identified as a peculiar American species known as the “defence intellectual”. These were academics who served power, who were often impatient with democratic procedure, and who enraptured audiences — from thinktanks to military academies — with their elaborate projector-slide frescoes of nuclear apocalypse.

Read the whole thing.

How to Bring Powerful Foreigners into a Tributary Relationship

Monday, August 18th, 2014

What is peculiar to China’s political culture, and of very great contemporary relevance, Edward Luttwak notes, is its doctrine on how to bring powerful foreigners into a tributary relationship:

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. It was achieved with a specific “barbarian-handling” tool box first described by its early practitioner, the scholar and imperial advisor Lou Jing 199 BCE. His method was first applied when the Xiongnú were still very strong and the Han were not only tactically inferior (their chariots were totally obsolete for fighting mounted archers) but also beset by political divisions, so much so that a 198 BCE treaty required the payment of an annual tribute in kind (silk, grain, etc.), and the formal attestation of equality for the Chanyu embodied in a marriage alliance, formalized by imperial letters that make the equality fully explicit.

The first barbarian-handling tool is normally translated as “corruption” in English translations, but perhaps “addiction,” or more fully “induced economic dependence” are more accurate: the originally self-sufficient Xiongnú were to be made economically dependent on Han-produced goods, starting with silk and woolen cloths instead of their own rude furs and felt. At first supplied free as unrequited tribute, these goods could still be supplied later on when the Han were stronger, but only in exchange for services rendered.

The second tool of barbarian handling, is normally translated as “indoctrination”: the Xiongnú were to be persuaded to accept the authoritarian Confucian value system and the collectivistic behavioral norms of the Han, as opposed to the steppe value system, based on voluntary allegiance to a heroic (and successful in looting) fighting and migration leader. One immediate benefit was that once the Chanyu’s son and heir married an imperial daughter, he would be ethically subordinated to the emperor as his father-in-law — remaining so when he became Chanyu in turn.

The much larger, longer-term benefit of the second tool was to undermine the entire political culture of the Xiongnú, and make them psychologically well as economically dependent on the imperial radiance, which was willingly extended in brotherly fashion when the Han were weak, and then contemptuously withdrawn when the Xiongnú were reduced to vassalage. What happened between the Han and the Xiongnú from the equal treaty of 198 BCE to the vassalage treaty of 51 BCE, remained thereafter, and still remains today the most hopeful precedent for Han dealings with powerful and violent states — evidently the assigned role of the United States in the present Beijing world-view.

The method forms a logical sequence:

Stage One: start by conceding all that must be conceded to the superior power including tribute, in order to avoid damage and obtain whatever forbearance is offered. But this in itself entangles the ruling class of the still-superior power in webs of material dependence that reduce its independent vitality and strength.

Stage Two: offer equality in a privileged bipolarity that excludes all lesser powers, or “G-2” in current parlance. That neutralizes the still powerful Other party, and isolates the manipulated soon-to-be former equal from all its potential allies, preventing from balancing China with a coalition.

Stage Three: finally, when the formerly superior power has been weakened enough, withdraw all tokens of equality and impose subordination.

In Syria, America Loses if Either Side Wins

Monday, September 9th, 2013

In Syria, America loses if either side wins, Edward Luttwak suggests:

Indeed, it would be disastrous if President Bashar al-Assad’s regime were to emerge victorious after fully suppressing the rebellion and restoring its control over the entire country. Iranian money, weapons and operatives and Hezbollah troops have become key factors in the fighting, and Mr. Assad’s triumph would dramatically affirm the power and prestige of Shiite Iran and Hezbollah, its Lebanon-based proxy — posing a direct threat both to the Sunni Arab states and to Israel.

But a rebel victory would also be extremely dangerous for the United States and for many of its allies in Europe and the Middle East. That’s because extremist groups, some identified with Al Qaeda, have become the most effective fighting force in Syria. If those rebel groups manage to win, they would almost certainly try to form a government hostile to the United States. Moreover, Israel could not expect tranquillity on its northern border if the jihadis were to triumph in Syria.

Luttwak recently wrote about China’s lack of strategic thought and shared his thoughts on Conversations with History:

(Hat tip to our Slovenian guest.)

The Enabler

Sunday, April 21st, 2013

Edward Luttwak condemns South Korean as an enabler of North Korean tyranny:

A “palace system” drives the entire regime and its policies: To keep the Helots in isolated servitude cut off from the outside world, a stance of relentless bellicosity is kept up by the rulers year after year, decade after decade. Even though there has been no war for two generations, North Korean life is shaped by nonstop war propaganda, war censorship, martial law, and above all, a centrally planned war economy in which resources are allocated not exchanged.

But the inward projection of bellicosity is not enough, because the North Korean economy is so unproductive, especially in earning foreign exchange. To feed the palace system, North Korea must also extract payoffs from the outside world: some from enabling NGOs (food aid from which allows domestic food production to be used for army rations), some from the United States and Japan in exchange for Pyongyang’s nuclear promises (never kept), but most from the fellow Koreans of the South (whose payoffs are won by sheer intimidation). South Korean President Kim Dae-jung won the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize for his unprecedented reconciliation summit with Kim Jong Il, a moment when peace and even unification seemed imminent. Only later did the truth leak out: The summit had been purchased for $100 million in cash. Unsurprisingly, it led to nothing.

Unwilling to deter North Korea — which would require a readiness to retaliate for its occasionally bloody attacks and constant provocations, thereby troubling business and roiling the Seoul stock market — South Korea has instead preferred to pay off the regime with periodic injections of fuel and food aid, but most consistently by way of the North-South Kaesong industrial zone, in which some 80,000 North Korean workers are paid relatively good wages by South Korean corporations. The workers themselves receive very little of their salaries, of course, the majority of which gets funneled back to Pyongyang and makes up the North’s largest consistent source of foreign currency. Even under supposedly “hard-line” South Korean presidents, the Kaesong transfer has continued. It was not shut down when the North sunk South Korea’s Cheonan warship, killing 46 sailors; nor when the North opened artillery fire on a South Korean island, killing two soldiers and two civilians; nor when the North tested a nuclear device and launched a long-range ballistic missile. Even as the present crisis has unfolded, it was the paying South that feared an interruption of production at Kaesong, not the North, which reaps the benefits. And when media in South Korea noted with much relief that Kaesong was still open, the North Koreans promptly shut it down.

Having successfully extracted payoffs so consistently through threats and occasional attacks, the North is naturally at it again. Even though another nuclear test and the threatened launch of a mobile long-range ballistic missile appear imminent, a payoff from the South, not war on the Korean Peninsula, is the likely outcome. And Pyongyang knows this.


Friday, December 21st, 2012

Strategy lends itself to paradoxes, Edward Luttwak says.

Right now I’m wrapping my brain around the fact that left-libertarian philosopher-type-guy Aretae has declared WarfightingMCDP1, or the U.S. Marine Corps Book of Strategy — the best (nonfiction) book he has ever read:

It is more concise, to the point, correct, profound, unconventional, easy to read, and concept-dense than anything else on my bookshelf. Wow. For a moderately fast reader, the 100 pages of the book should take about 20 minutes to read. Large type, short sentences, clear meanings. But it is incredibly well thought through.

If you are overeducated in the ways of the Academy/Cathedral, and you want to learn additional ways to think, the military strategists/military historians are the best anti-academic thinkers around. But this book just blew me away. I thought I had learned to simplify, and say clearly (in in person presentations, not on the blog — the blog is for complex thinking that I need to share with someone). I am thoroughly impressed.

Why Fascism is the Wave of the Future

Thursday, October 4th, 2012

Edward Luttwak explains why Fascism is the wave of the future — writing in 1994:

[Among males age 45-54 with four years of higher education], the combined total income of the top 1 per cent of all earners increased sensationally, and the combined total of the bottom 80 per cent declined sharply. Again, that implies in one way or another a more than-proportionate quantum of dislocation. Needless to say, individual working lives cannot be dislocated without damaging families, elective affiliations and communities — the entire moss of human relations which can only grow over the stones of economic stability. Finally, it is entirely certain that what has already happened in the United States is happening or will happen in every other advanced economy, because all of them are exposed to the same forces.

In this situation, what does the moderate Right — mainstream US Republicans, British Tories and all their counterparts elsewhere — have to offer? Only more free trade and globalisation, more deregulation and structural change, thus more dislocation of lives and social relations. It is only mildly amusing that nowadays the standard Republican/Tory after-dinner speech is a two-part affair, in which part one celebrates the virtues of unimpeded competition and dynamic structural change, while part two mourns the decline of the family and community ‘values’ that were eroded precisely by the forces commended in part one. Thus at the present time the core of Republican/Tory beliefs is a perfect non-sequitur. And what does the moderate Left have to offer? Only more redistribution, more public assistance, and particularist concern for particular groups that can claim victim status, from the sublime peak of elderly, handicapped, black lesbians down to the merely poor.

Thus neither the moderate Right nor the moderate Left even recognises, let alone offers any solution for, the central problem of our days: the completely unprecedented personal economic insecurity of working people, from industrial workers and white-collar clerks to medium-high managers. None of them are poor and they therefore cannot benefit from the more generous welfare payments that the moderate Left is inclined to offer. Nor are they particularly envious of the rich, and they therefore tend to be uninterested in redistribution. Few of them are actually unemployed, and they are therefore unmoved by Republican/Tory promises of more growth and more jobs through the magic of the unfettered market: what they want is security in the jobs they already have — i.e. precisely what unfettered markets threaten.

A vast political space is thus left vacant by the Republican/Tory non-sequitur, on the one hand, and moderate Left particularism and assistentialism, on the other. That was the space briefly occupied in the USA by the 1992 election-year caprices of Ross Perot, and which Zhirinovsky’s bizarre excesses are now occupying in the peculiar conditions of Russia, where personal economic insecurity is the only problem that counts for most people (formers professors of Marxism-Leninism residing in Latvia who have simultaneously lost their jobs, professions and nationalities may he rare, but most Russians still working now face at least the imminent loss of their jobs). And that is the space that remains wide open for a product-improved Fascist party, dedicated to the enhancement of the personal economic security of the broad masses of (mainly) white-collar working people. Such a party could even be as free of racism as Mussolini’s original was until the alliance with Hitler, because its real stock in trade would be corporativist restraints on corporate Darwinism, and delaying if not blocking barriers against globalisation. It is not necessary to know how to spell Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft to recognise the Fascist predisposition engendered by today’s turbocharged capitalism.

The Cold, Paradoxical Logic of Strategy

Monday, September 24th, 2012

The realm of conflict is ruled by the cold logic of strategy, Edward Luttwak says — the cold, paradoxical logic of strategy:

(Hat tip to our Slovenian guest.)

The Leader-Led Trade-Off

Wednesday, September 21st, 2011

When George W. Bush met Vladimir Putin and said, “I looked into his eyes and saw this was a man I could really trust,” that prompted David Samuels to formulate this political thesis:

If you’re Vladimir Putin, and you rise to the top of this chaotic and brutal society after going through the KGB, you must be some kind of strategic genius with amazing survival skills, because the penalty for failure may be torture or death. This kind of Darwinian set-up exists in many countries around the world. What does it mean to be head of the security services in Egypt? It means that you had to betray your friends but only at the right time, and you had to survive many vicious predators who would have loved to kill you or torture you, or otherwise derail your career. By the time you become Vladimir Putin or Omar Suleiman, your ability to think ahead and analyze threats has been adequately tested.

By contrast, what does it take to become a U.S. Senator? You have to eat rubber chicken dinners, you have to impress some rich people who are generally pretty stupid about politics, and smile in TV commercials. The penalties for failure are hardly so dire. And so, American leadership generally sucks, and America is perennially in the position of being the sucker in the global poker game. That’s the thesis. So, tell me why it’s wrong.

Edward Luttwak does indeed tell him why it’s wrong:

Even if your analysis is totally correct, your conclusion is wrong. Think about what it means to work for a Putin, whose natural approach to any problem is deception. For example, he had an affair with this athlete, a gymnast, and he went through two phases. Phase one: He concealed it from his wife. Phase two: He launched a public campaign showing himself to be a macho man. He had photographs of him shooting a rifle, and as a Judo champion, and therefore had the news leaked that he was having an affair. Not only an affair with a young woman, but a gymnast, an athlete.

Obviously such a person is much more wily and cunning and able to handle conflict than his American counterpart. But when such a person is the head of a department, the whole department is actually paralyzed and they are all reduced to serfs and valets. Therefore, what gets applied to a problem is only the wisdom of the aforementioned wily head of the department. All the other talent is wasted, all the other knowledge is wasted.

Now you have a choice: You can have a non-wily head of a department and the collective knowledge and wisdom of the whole department, or else you can have a wily head and zero functioning. And that is how the Russian government is currently working. Putin and Medvedev have very little control of the Russian bureaucracy. When you want to deal with them, and I dealt with them this morning, they act in very uncooperative, cagey, and deceptive ways because they are first of all trying to protect their security and stability and benefits from their boss. They have to deceive you because they are deceiving their boss before he even shows up to work. And they are all running little games. So, that’s the alternative. You can have a wily Putin and a stupid government. Or an intelligent government and an innocent head. There’s always is a trade-off. A Putin cannot be an inspiring leader.

The Paradoxical Logic of Strategy

Tuesday, September 20th, 2011

The ability to think strategically is a gift, Edward Luttwak says:

The paradoxical logic of strategy contradicts the logic of everyday life, it goes against all normal definitions of intelligence we have. It only makes sense if you understand the dialectic. If you want peace, prepare for war. If you actively want war, disarm yourself, and then you’ll get war. Virile and martial elites understand that kind of thinking instinctively.

A Good Measure of Social Control in Iran

Monday, September 19th, 2011

There is a good measure of social control in Iran, Edward Luttwak says, and that is the price of genuine imported Scotch whiskey in Tehran:

[B]ecause it’s a) forbidden, and b) has to be smuggled in for practical purposes from Dubai, and the only way it can come from Dubai is with the cooperation of the Revolutionary Guard. The price of whiskey has been declining for years, and you go to a party in north Tehran now and you get lots of whiskey. And it’s only slightly more expensive than in Northwest Washington.

Israel’s success as a state has been made possible by Arab threats

Friday, September 16th, 2011

Israel’s success as a state has been made possible by Arab threats, Edward Luttwak says:

There are certain levels of violence that are so high that they’re damaging, and there are also levels that are so low they are damaging. There is an optimum level of the Arab threat. I would say for about nine days of the 1973 war, the level of violence was much too high. Even when Israelis were successful, the level of violence was destroying the tissue of the state. Most of the time, the violence is positive.

Lenin taught, “Power is mass multiplied by cohesion.” Arab violence generates Jewish cohesion. Cohesion turns mass into power. Israel has had very small mass, very high cohesion. If only the Palestinians understood that, they would have attacked the Jews with flowers.

Why are so many Jews so stupid about politics?

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

Why are so many Jews so stupid about politics?, David Samuels — of Tablet, “A New Read on Jewish Life” — asks Edward Luttwak:

They have not had a state for 2,000 years, they have had no power or responsibility and it will take centuries before they catch up with the instinctive political understanding that any ordinary Englishman has. They don’t understand politics, and of course they confuse their friends and their enemies, and that is the ultimate political proof of imbecility.

The People Revert to Their Natural Order

Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

Once a dictatorship falls and the regiment dissolves, the people revert to their natural order, Edward Luttwak notes:

A few Egyptians are Westernized, hence they have exited Islam whatever their personal beliefs may be. But otherwise, there is no room for civilization in Egypt other than Islam, and the number of extremists that you need to make life impossible for the average Westernized or slightly Westernized Egyptian who wants to have a beer, for example, is very small. The number you need to close all the bars in Egypt is maybe 15 percent of the population.

A Second Henry Kissinger

Tuesday, September 13th, 2011

If America had been able to tolerate a second Henry Kissinger, David Samuels says, that person would have been Edward Luttwak — but Luttwak does not agree:

Kissinger at 88 is writing brochures for Kissinger Associates. His last book on China is one such work written by the staff at Kissinger Associates. It is designed to curry favor with the Chinese authorities and nothing else.

I know him personally very well, but he is such a deceptive person; he’s a habitual liar and dissembler. Although I’ve spent a lot of time talking to him, I have no insight on him at all. His book ends with a paean to U.S.-Chinese friendship and how every other country has to fit in. I have to review it for the TLS, but I’ve been delaying it by weeks because I don’t know whether it is a case of senility or utter corruption.

Not the Usual Washington Think-Tank Product

Monday, September 12th, 2011

I love David Samuels’ introduction to his interview with Edward Luttwak:

Edward Luttwak is a rare bird whose peripatetic life and work are the envy of academics and spies alike. A well-built man who looks like he is in his mid-50s (he turns 70 next year), Luttwak — who was born in 1942 to a wealthy Jewish family in Arad, Romania, and educated in Italy and England — speaks with a resonant European accent that conveys equal measures of authority, curiosity, egomania, bluster, impatience, and good humor. He is a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Georgetown University, and he published his first book, Coup d’État: A Practical Handbook, at the age of 26. Over the past 40 years, he has made provocative and often deeply original contributions to multiple academic fields, including military strategy, Roman history, Byzantine history, and economics. He owns a large eco-friendly ranch in Bolivia and can recite poetry and talk politics in eight languages, a skill that he displayed during a recent four-hour conversation at his house, located on a quiet street in Chevy Chase, Md., by taking phone calls in Italian, Spanish, Korean, and Chinese, during which I wandered off to the porch, where I sat and talked with his lovely Israeli-born wife, Dalya Luttwak, a sculptor.

The walls of Luttwak’s donnish study — which is by far the nicest room in the Luttwaks’ house, with the best view, and might otherwise have served as the dining room, if Edward and Dalya were more like their neighbors — are lined with bookshelves containing the Roman classics, biographies of Winston Churchill, works on military history and strategy, intelligence gathering, Byzantine art, old atlases, and decorations and plaques from foreign governments. Luttwak’s work as a high-level strategic and intelligence consultant for the U.S. Defense Department, the National Security Council, the State Department, the Japanese government, and the defense departments and intelligence services of other countries in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East (he appears to be spending a lot of time in South Korea and China) is also augmented by a parallel life as an “operator,” about which he is both secretive and obviously proud.

While the details of Luttwak’s life as a private intelligence operative are sketchy, he has been actively involved in military and paramilitary operations sponsored by the U.S. government, foreign governments, and various private entities. By his own admission, he has been directly involved in attacks on physical targets, interdiction efforts, and the capture and interrogation of wanted persons — although “admission” is clearly the wrong word here, since he is almost boyishly eager for visitors to understand his familiarity with the nuts and bolts of special ops and cites his own field experience to support his estimations of people like Gen. David Petraeus, whose reputation as a counter-insurgency genius he dismisses as a fraud. He is also careful to state that his activities have never violated U.S. law. The Walter Mitty-ish component of Luttwak’s enthusiasm for his other life — academic by day, special operator by night — seems less significant in his psyche than a driving appetite for physical risk that has helped him understand military strategy and related policy questions in a way that the current generation of Western policymakers often does not.

Loved and loathed, and capable of living multiple lives, any one of which would quickly tire out a less intellectually and physically robust man, Luttwak glories in the undeniable fact that he is not the usual Washington think-tank product. His instinctive tendency to reject common wisdom as idiotic, combined with his need to prove that he is the smartest person in every room, has deprived him of the chance to shape events in the way that every policy intellectual not-so-secretly craves. Yet his first allegiance is clearly to the habits of mind that have made him one of the most brilliant strategic thinkers in America, capable of understanding the psychological and practical necessities that drive human action in a highly original, insightful and counterintuitive way.

We met last month, at the height of a rainstorm. What follows are selectively edited portions of the transcript of our interview, during which I made a point of not asking him about his childhood experience as a Jewish refugee in Europe, which seemed like a subject for a different conversation.