Future war will be more like ancient war

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

Future war will be more like ancient war, Robert Kaplan predicted, right before 9/11:

The terrorist nature of future outrages, the collapse of the distinction between military and civilian decision-making, the truncation of democratic deliberation over the use of force, and the vitiation of the laws of war, taken together, promises to make future war more like ancient war than anything Americans and Europeans have witnessed for many centuries. More specifically, the ancientness of future wars has three dimensions: the character of the enemy, the methods used to contain and destroy him, and the identity of those beating the war drums.

National security analyst Colonel Ralph Peters has written that American soldiers “are brilliantly prepared to defeat other soldiers. Unfortunately”, he goes on, “the enemies we are likely to face… will not be ‘soldiers’”, with the discipline and professionalism which that word implies in the West, but “‘warriors’ — erratic primitives of shifting allegiance, habituated to violence, with no stake in civil order.”

There have always been warriors who, as Homer wrote in The Iliad, “call up the wild joy of war”, but the collapse of Cold War empires and the disorder it has engendered — along with the advance of technology and poor-quality urbanization — has provoked the breakdown of families and the renewal of cults and blood ties. The latter includes both a more militant Islam and Hinduism. The result is the rise of new warrior classes as cruel as ever, and better-armed. This phenomenon embraces armies of murderous teenagers in West Africa; Russian and Albanian mafiosi; Latin American drug kingpins; West Bank suicide bombers; and associates of Osama bin Laden who communicate by e-mail. Like Achilles and the ancient Greeks harassing Troy, the thrill of violence substitutes for the joys of domesticity and feasting. Achilles exclaims,

You talk of food?
I have no taste for food — what I really crave
is slaughter and blood and the choking groans
of men!

Today’s warriors come often enough from the hundreds of millions of unemployed young males in the developing world, angered by the income disparities that accompany globalization. Globalization is Darwinian. It means the economic survival of the fittest — those groups and individuals who are disciplined, dynamic and ingenious will float to the top, while cultures that do not compete well technologically will produce an inordinate number of warriors. I have seen firsthand the creation of warriors at Islamic schools in Pakistani slums: The children of those shantytowns had no moral or patriotic identity except that which their religious instructors gave them. An age of chemical and biological weapons is perfectly suited for religious martyrdom.

Warriors also include ex-convicts, ethnic and national “patriots”, shadowy arms and drug entrepreneurs awash in cynicism, and failed military men — cashiered officers of formerly communist and Third World armies. The wars in the Balkans and the Caucasus in the 1990s featured all of these types reborn as war criminals. Whether in Russia, Iraq or Serbia, nationalism in our age is, Peters notes, simply a secular form of fundamentalism. Both religious and secular fundamentalisms arise from a sense of collective grievance and historical failure, real or imaginary, and preach a lost golden age. Both dehumanize their adversaries and equate mercy with weakness. Thus, while there are enormous differences between, say, a Radovan Karadzic and an Osama bin Laden, neither plays by our rules; both are warriors.

Hitler exemplified the warrior leader, a prototypical skinhead with a moustache who wrested control of an advanced industrial state. Anyone who assumes that rational economic incentives determine world politics should read Mein Kampf. None of the warriors we have seen since the fall of the Berlin Wall has presented a comparable strategic threat in part because none has had control over a state like Germany. But that could change: the further development and profusion of smaller, low-tech nuclear devices and of chemical and biological weapons will transform obscure “freedom fighters” into strategic menaces. While the average engagement during the Civil War featured 26,000 men per square mile of battle front, the figure is now 240; it will dwindle further as war becomes increasingly unconventional and less dependent on manpower. Moreover, an economy of scale is no longer necessary to produce weapons of mass destruction, nor can the United States sustain its monopoly over new military technologies, many of which are not expensive and can be acquired by present and future adversaries through free trade.

We may, of course, face military conflicts not only with warrior groups, but with great powers such as China. But rather than deploy its soldiers against ours, so as to play by our rules, an adversary may prefer to use computer viruses against us, or unleash its warrior-allies from the Middle East, supplied with its military technology, even while it denies any connection with such stateless terrorists. Russia, too, could make strategic use of terrorists and international criminals in order to fight an undeclared war. Precisely because the United States is militarily superior to any group or nation, we should expect to be attacked at our weakest points, beyond the boundaries of international law.

Effective responses to the outrages of these warriors are inconceivable without the element of surprise, making democratic consultation an afterthought. After all, war is subject to democratic control only when it is a condition distinctly separate from peace. In Cold War confrontations such as Korea and Vietnam popular opinion played a major role, but a protracted state of quasi-conflict marked by commando raids and electronic strikes on enemy computer systems — in which the swiftness of our reaction is the key variable — will not be guided by public opinion to the same extent. Such conflict will feature warriors on one side, motivated by grievance and rapine, and an aristocracy of statesmen, military officers and technocrats on the other, motivated, one hopes, by ancient virtue.


Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

Nostromo is Italian for “mate” or “boatswain,” a contraction of nostro uomo — “our man.” To sci-fi film geeks, it’s the name of the mining craft in Ridley Scott’s Alien.

But it’s also the name of a 1904 novel by Joseph Conrad, which, Robert Kaplan says defines and dissects the problems with the world just beyond our own, by examining Westerners and indigenous inhabitants of an imaginary South American country, Costaguana:

Nostromo is neither overly descriptive and moodily vague like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, nor is its ending entirely unhappy. For a civil society-in-the-making does emerge in Costaguana, but it is midwived by a ruined cynic of a doctor who has given up on humanity, a deeply skeptical journalist, and two bandit gangs, not by the idealist whose actions had helped lead to the country’s earlier destruction. Conrad never denies the possibility of progress in any society, but he is ironic enough to know that “The ways of human progress are inscrutable”, and that is why “action is consolatory” and “the friend of flattering illusions.” Charles Gould, the failed idealist of the novel, who believes absolutely in economic development, “had no ironic eye. He was not amused at the absurdities that prevail in this world.”

Nostromo is Conrad’s best and most difficult work, Kaplan says:

In this media-obsessed age — when “intellectuals” spend their evenings watching C-SPAN and CNN — people may be better acquainted with Heart of Darkness than with Nostromo only because the former is exceedingly short, as well as amenable to skimming, on account of a thin plot and lengthy landscape descriptions. In Nostromo, however, landscape ambiance is a tightly controlled, strategic accompaniment to political realism.

It matters today, because so little has changed in the “developing” world:

It is a tribute to Conrad’s insight that his description of Costaguana and its port, Sulaco, captures so many of the crucial tidbits and subtleties about troubled Third World states (particularly small and isolated ones) that foreign correspondents of today experience but do not always inform their readers about, because such details do not fit within the confines of “news” or “objective” analysis.

There are, for example, the handful of foreign merchants in Sulaco, without whom there would be no local economy; the small, sovereign parcels of foreign territory (company headquarters and embassies) to which people flee at times of unrest; and the obscure army captain who has spent time abroad hanging about cafés in European capitals, and who later finds himself back home, nursing resentments, and at the head of a rebellion provoked by soldiers who drink heavily.

There is, too, the “stupendous magnificence” of the local scenery — what Conrad calls a “Paradise of snakes”; the conspiracy theories begot by deep isolation and the general feeling of powerlessness and “futility”; and a wealthier, more developed part of the country that wants to secede because its inhabitants are even more cynical about the political future over “the mountains” than any foreigner. Conrad shows us, too, how bad forms of urbanization deform cultures: “the town children of the Sulaco Campo”, for instance, “sullen, thievish, vindictive, and bloodthirsty, whatever great qualities their brothers of the plain might have had.”

He describes oscillations between chaos and tyranny, and political movements named after their leaders — Monterists and Ribierists — because in Costaguana, despite the talk of “democracy” and “liberation”, there are no ideas, only personalities. He describes “the dread of officialdom with its nightmarish parody of administration without law, without security.” He describes a port, an ocean port no less, that because of Costaguana’s lawlessness is “so isolated” from the world.

His conclusion is of a sort that a novelist can make with less damage to his reputation than a journalist: “The fundamental causes [of the Monterist terror] were the same as ever, rooted in the political immaturity of the people, in the indolence of the upper classes and the mental darkness of the lower.” Giorgio Viola, an Italian who fought with Giuseppe Garibaldi and now lives in Costaguana with his dying wife and two daughters, believes, moments after several bullets strike his house and a mob tries to set fire to his roof, that “These were not a people striving for justice, but thieves.”

Back to Alien:

In James Cameron’s sequel, Aliens, the Marine transport vessel is named Sulaco. (Also in Alien, the escape vessel is named Narcissus, an allusion to another of Conrad’s works, The Nigger of the Narcissus.)

The problem with bourgeois societies

Monday, January 25th, 2010

The problem with bourgeois societies, Robert Kaplan says, is a lack of imagination:

A person raised in a middle or upper-middle class suburban environment, a place ruled by rationalism in the service of material progress, has difficulty imagining the psychological state of affairs in a society where there is little or no memory of hard work achieving its just reward, and where life inside a gang or a drafty army barracks constitutes an improvement in material and emotional security. Even to encounter first-hand such a society — whose instincts have yet to be refined by several generations of middle class existence — is not enough in the way of an education, since the visitor tends to see it as a laboratory for his or her middle class ideals, and thus immediately begins to find “evidence” for “pragmatic” solutions.

For example, the belief among Clinton administration experts that Haiti — which, with the exception of a U.S. Marine occupation from 1915 to 1934, has not known a civil regime since before the French left in 1804 — could be made “democratic” by yet another, even less comprehensive occupation demonstrates how our elites just don’t get it.

What Writing and Reading Used to be Like

Sunday, January 24th, 2010

To dip into the Decline and Fall is to know what writing and reading used to be like, Robert Kaplan says:

Gibbon’s elliptical elegance is rare in an age when a surfeit of information, coupled with the distractions of electronic communication, forces writers to move briskly from one point to another.

Rare, too, in an age of tedious academic specialty are Gibbon’s sweeping yet valuable generalizations. When Gibbon describes everyday people in poor nations as exhibiting a “carelessness of futurity,” he exposes one tragic effect of underdevelopment in a way that many more-careful and polite tomes of today do not.

Our academic clerisy, I’m sure, could point out factual inadequacies, along with examples of cultural bias, throughout the Decline and Fall. Yet nothing on the shelves today will give readers as awe-inspiring a sense of spectacle as the Decline and Fall: of how onrushing events almost everywhere — Europe, Africa, the Near East, Asia — so seamlessly weave together. At a time of sound bites on one hand and 500-page yawns about a single issue on the other, here, blessedly, is something for the general reader.

(Is it ironic to cite that snippet in a blog post?)

The Very Flower of Enlightenment Rationalism

Saturday, January 23rd, 2010

After attacking Christianity in the first volume of his Decline and Fall, Gibbon revealed himself not to be the embodiment of amoral despair, Robert Kaplan says, but the very flower of Enlightenment rationalism:

He was a conservative along the lines of his contemporary Edmund Burke, who saw humankind’s best hope in moderate politics and elastic institutions that do not become overbearing. Only rarely did imperial Rome or early Christianity display the necessary traits. Gibbon, like Burke, was shocked by the French Revolution. His Rome had also known violent mobs screaming noble platitudes in order to remove a tyrannical ruler, only to see another one set in his place.

Gibbon’s certainty that the tendency toward strife is a natural consequence of the human condition — a natural consequence of the very variety of our racial, cultural, and economic experience, which no belief system, religious or otherwise, can overcome — is reminiscent of James Madison in The Federalist. Madison, too, was convinced that a state or an empire can endure only if it generally limits itself to adjudicating disputes among its peoples, and in so doing becomes an exemplar of patriotic virtue.

A Standard for Literary Bravery

Friday, January 22nd, 2010

Gibbon’s Decline and Fall sets a standard for literary bravery, Robert Kaplan says:

He sought no one’s approval and was afraid of nothing. In his day the Church was a sacred cow; he was merciless in his exposition of its evolution. According to Gibbon, Christianity — to use the words of the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper in his introduction to the Decline and Fall — emerged from a “heretical Jewish sect” to become a “novel cult of virginity” and the most “persistent of the competing new Oriental superstitions,” eventually to capture power as a “revolutionary ideology.” Concerning the persecutions of the Christians, Gibbon concluded, after exhaustive documentation,
Even admitting, without hesitation or inquiry, all that history has recorded, or devotion has feigned, on the subject of martyrdoms, it must still be acknowledged that the Christians, in the course of their intestine dissensions, have inflicted far greater severities on each other than they had experienced from the zeal of infidels.

Not surprisingly, the publication of the Decline and Fall met with bitter controversy. Though the book was praised by the philosopher David Hume and others, attacks on Gibbon for his treatment of the Church were widespread and sustained: almost sixty denunciatory books about him were published in his lifetime.

The Disturbing Freshness of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

Robert Kaplan discusses the disturbing freshness of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:

If I could have one voice in my ear as I traveled through the Third World, with its innumerable rebellions and migrations; through Europe, as nationalism impedes unification; or through the United States, as it tries to reconstitute itself for a transnational age, the voice would be Gibbon’s, with its sly wit, biting irony, and fearless realism about an event that “is still felt by the nations of the earth.”

The collapse of Rome left in its wake the tribal configurations from which modern European states emerged, and I can think of no work that offers a shrewder historical perspective on today’s foreign and domestic news than the three volumes of the Decline and Fall that cover Rome from its territorial zenith, in the early second century A.D., under Trajan (the first and last Roman general to navigate the Persian Gulf), to the dissolution of the western half of the empire, in A.D. 476.

Those volumes offer more than just the story of Rome’s decline though:

Among other things, they constitute a general theory of history, a controversial interpretation of the birth of Christianity, an extended essay on military elites and the fickleness of public opinion, and an unequaled geographical and cultural primer on Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.
The Decline and Fall instructs that human nature never changes, and that mankind’s predilection for faction, augmented by environmental and cultural differences, is what determines history. In this Gibbon was influenced by the Baron de Montesquieu, who saw history not as mere politics and ideas but as a complex of cultural, social, and climatic forces. The brilliance of the Decline and Fall lies in Gibbon’s ability to build a narrative out of individual agency and the surprises of history — such as the empire’s restoration in the third century under the able rule of Claudius, Aurelian, Probus, and Diocletian — even as the sheer accumulation and repetition of events over centuries ultimately robs many an effective emperor (each with a distinct personality early in the story) of his identity in the reader’s mind, and as the initially successful restoration flows into the larger movement of decline. Only patterns, rather than individuals, endure at the end of the three volumes.

A Military Growth Industry

Wednesday, January 20th, 2010

Back in 1998, Robert Kaplan was noting that Special Forces were already a military growth industry:

The new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Henry H. Shelton, comes from the Special Operations Forces. In 1996 U.S. Special Forces were responsible for 2,325 missions in 167 countries involving 20,642 people — only nine per operation, on average.

These quiet professionals are low-key and discreet and vital for fighting small wars against criminal syndicates:

Considering that the threat posed by Russian mafias and Russian nuclear terrorists is now greater than that posed by Russian tanks and infantry, the military usefulness of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization will depend more on the integration of Special Forces within NATO’s largely conventional command than on the integration of the Czech Republic and other former Eastern-bloc states.

Then there are the gas and oil pipelines soon to be built through unstable tribal lands around the Caspian Sea, which will need protection; mounting problems with drug cartels; a predicted upsurge in the kidnapping of rich and politically prominent people and their children; the increase in climatic catastrophe, now that human beings are inhabiting flood- and earthquake-prone regions to an unprecedented extent; and worldwide rapid-fire urbanization. All these augment the importance of lean and mobile military units that conflate the traditional categories of police officers, commandos, emergency-relief specialists, diplomats, and, of course, intelligence officers.

Modern Special Forces soldiers bear little resemblance to Vietnam-era Green Berets:

The Vietnam-era men, most of them in their fifties, looked thuggish: guys without necks and occasionally with tattoos, guys you would not want to meet in the dark. The rest of the auditorium resembled a group of graduate students who happened to be in excellent physical shape.

Governments are determined not by what liberal humanists wish

Tuesday, January 19th, 2010

Governments are determined not by what liberal humanists wish but rather by what business people and others require, Robert Kaplan says:

Burma, too, may be destined for a hybrid regime, despite the deification of the opposition leader and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi by Western journalists. While the United States calls for democracy in and economic sanctions against Burma, those with more immediate clout — that is, Burma’s Asian neighbors, and especially corporate-oligarchic militaries like Thailand’s — show no compunction about increasing trade links with Burma’s junta. Aung San Suu Kyi may one day bear the title of leader of Burma, but only with the tacit approval of a co-governing military. Otherwise Burma will not be stable.

A rule of thumb is that governments are determined not by what liberal humanists wish but rather by what business people and others require. Various democratic revolutions failed in Europe in 1848 because what the intellectuals wanted was not what the emerging middle classes wanted. For quite a few parts of today’s world, which have at best only the beginnings of a middle class, the Europe of the mid nineteenth century provides a closer comparison than the Europe of the late twentieth century. In fact, for the poorest countries where we now recommend democracy, Cromwell’s England may provide the best comparison.

From Was Democracy Just a Moment? (1997).

Singapore and South Africa shred our democratic certainties

Monday, January 18th, 2010

Singapore and South Africa shred our democratic certainties, Robert Kaplan contends. Singapore’s success is frightening, he says, yet it must be acknowledged:

Lee Kuan Yew’s offensive neo-authoritarianism, in which the state has evolved into a corporation that is paternalistic, meritocratic, and decidedly undemocratic, has forged prosperity from abject poverty. A survey of business executives and economists by the World Economic Forum ranked Singapore No. 1 among the fifty-three most advanced countries appearing on an index of global competitiveness. What is good for business executives is often good for the average citizen: per capita wealth in Singapore is nearly equal to that in Canada, the nation that ranks No. 1 in the world on the United Nations’ Human Development Index.

When Lee took over Singapore, more than thirty years ago, it was a mosquito-ridden bog filled with slum quarters that frequently lacked both plumbing and electricity. Doesn’t liberation from filth and privation count as a human right? Jeffrey Sachs, a professor of international trade at Harvard, writes that “good government” means relative safety from corruption, from breach of contract, from property expropriation, and from bureaucratic inefficiency. Singapore’s reputation in these regards is unsurpassed. If Singapore’s 2.8 million citizens ever demand democracy, they will just prove the assertion that prosperous middle classes arise under authoritarian regimes before gaining the confidence to dislodge their benefactors.

Meanwhile, democratic South Africa has become one of the most violent places on earth, outside of outright war zones:

The murder rate is six times that in the United States, five times that in Russia. There are ten private-security guards for every policeman. The currency has substantially declined, educated people continue to flee, and international drug cartels have made the country a new transshipment center. Real unemployment is about 33 percent, and is probably much higher among youths. Jobs cannot be created without the cooperation of foreign investors, but assuaging their fear could require the kind of union-busting and police actions that democracy will not permit.

From Was Democracy Just a Moment? (1997).

Peru’s Subtle Authoritarianism

Sunday, January 17th, 2010

Robert Kaplan describes Peru’s subtle authoritarianism:

In 1990 Peruvian voters elected Alberto Fujimori to dismantle parts of their democracy. He did, and as a consequence he restored a measure of civil society to Peru. Fujimori disbanded Congress and took power increasingly into his own hands, using it to weaken the Shining Path guerrilla movement, reduce inflation from 7,500 percent to 10 percent, and bring investment and jobs back to Peru. In 1995 Fujimori won re-election with three times as many votes as his nearest challenger. Fujimori’s use of deception and corporate-style cost-benefit analyses allowed him to finesse brilliantly the crisis caused by the terrorist seizure of the Japanese embassy in Lima. The commando raid that killed the terrorists probably never could have taken place amid the chaotic conditions of the preceding Peruvian government. Despite the many problems Fujimori has had and still has, it is hard to argue that Peru has not benefited from his rule.

From Was Democracy Just a Moment? (1997).

Pakistan’s Most Successful Period of Governance

Saturday, January 16th, 2010

In 1993, Pakistan briefly enjoyed the most successful period of governance in its history, Robert Kaplan says:

The government was neither democratic nor authoritarian but a cross between the two. The unelected Prime Minister, Moin Qureshi, was chosen by the President, who in turn was backed by the military. Because Qureshi had no voters to please, he made bold moves that restored political stability and economic growth. Before Qureshi there had been violence and instability under the elected governments of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif.

Bhutto’s government was essentially an ethnic-Sindhi mafia based in the south; Sharif’s was an ethnic-Punjabi mafia from the geographic center. When Qureshi handed the country back to “the people,” elections returned Bhutto to power, and chaos resumed. Finally, in November of last year, Pakistan’s military-backed President again deposed Bhutto. The sigh of relief throughout the country was audible. Recent elections brought Sharif, the Punjabi, back to power. He is governing better than the first time, but communal violence has returned to Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi.

I believe that Pakistan must find its way back to a hybrid regime like the one that worked so well in 1993; the other options are democratic anarchy and military tyranny. (Anarchy and tyranny, of course, are closely related: because power abhors a vacuum, the one necessarily leads to the other. One day in 1996 Kabul, the Afghan capital, was ruled essentially by no one; the next day it was ruled by Taliban, an austere religious movement.)

From Was Democracy Just a Moment? (1997).

Our post-Cold War mission to spread democracy is partly a pose

Thursday, January 14th, 2010

Our post-Cold War mission to spread democracy is partly a pose, Robert Kaplan says:

In Egypt and Saudi Arabia, America’s most important allies in the energy-rich Muslim world, our worst nightmare would be free and fair elections, as it would be elsewhere in the Middle East. The end of the Cold War has changed our attitude toward those authoritarian regimes that are not crucial to our interests — but not toward those that are. We praise democracy, and meanwhile we are grateful for an autocrat like King Hussein, and for the fact that the Turkish and Pakistani militaries have always been the real powers behind the “democracies” in their countries. Obviously, democracy in the abstract encompasses undeniably good things such as civil society and a respect for human rights. But as a matter of public policy it has unfortunately come to focus on elections.

From Was Democracy Just a Moment? (1997).

Social stability results from the establishment of a middle class

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

Social stability results from the establishment of a middle class, Robert Kaplan argues:

Not democracies but authoritarian systems, including monarchies, create middle classes — which, having achieved a certain size and self-confidence, revolt against the very dictators who generated their prosperity. This is the pattern today in the Pacific Rim and the southern cone of South America, but not in other parts of Latin America, southern Asia, or sub-Saharan Africa. A place like the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire), where the per capita gross national product is less than $200 a year and the average person is either a rural peasant or an urban peasant; where there is little infrastructure of roads, sewers, and so on; and where reliable bureaucratic institutions are lacking, needs a leader like Bismarck or Jerry Rawlings — the Ghanaian ruler who stabilized his country through dictatorship and then had himself elected democratically — in place for years before he is safe from an undisciplined soldiery.

Foreign correspondents in sub-Saharan Africa who equate democracy with progress miss this point, ignoring both history and centuries of political philosophy. They seem to think that the choice is between dictators and democrats. But for many places the only choice is between bad dictators and slightly better ones. To force elections on such places may give us some instant gratification. But after a few months or years a bunch of soldiers with grenades will get bored and greedy, and will easily topple their fledgling democracy. As likely as not, the democratic government will be composed of corrupt, bickering, ineffectual politicians whose weak rule never had an institutional base to start with: modern bureaucracies generally require high literacy rates over several generations.

From Was Democracy Just a Moment? (1997).

States have never been formed by elections

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

States have never been formed by elections, Robert Kaplan notes:

Geography, settlement patterns, the rise of literate bourgeoisie, and, tragically, ethnic cleansing have formed states. Greece, for instance, is a stable democracy partly because earlier in the century it carried out a relatively benign form of ethnic cleansing — in the form of refugee transfers — which created a monoethnic society. Nonetheless, it took several decades of economic development for Greece finally to put its coups behind it.

Democracy often weakens states by necessitating ineffectual compromises and fragile coalition governments in societies where bureaucratic institutions never functioned well to begin with. Because democracy neither forms states nor strengthens them initially, multi-party systems are best suited to nations that already have efficient bureaucracies and a middle class that pays income tax, and where primary issues such as borders and power-sharing have already been resolved, leaving politicians free to bicker about the budget and other secondary matters.

From Was Democracy Just a Moment? (1997).