Is Strategy an Illusion? Karl Walling reflects on Richard Betts

From time to time in history, the very notion of “strategy” has come into question. Strategy, in this sense, means the ability to exercise some degree of “reflection and choice” in international politics and warfare; of being able to bring about a rational relationship between the exercise of power, especially military power, and policy objectives. Strategic skeptics, or in extreme cases, strategic atheists, if we may term them that, point to the recent failures of the United States in the Middle East (and before that, in Vietnam), and of the Soviet Union in the 1980s, as evidence that beyond a very limited point, policymakers’ efforts to exercise “strategy" points in the direction of imperial overstretch.

Read More

Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (1776)

Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, Common Sense, published in Philadelphia in January 1776, is properly recognized as a major turning point in the American Revolution.  Paine effectively publicized the basic argument that Patriots like John Adams and Richard Henry Lee had been making privately in the Continental Congress – that the cause of the

Read More

Starship Troopers? A Military Reading List from Down Under

Many of the books listed here deal with the history of war (for war knows no nationality), and of Australians at war and of the Australian Army. History provides us with an understanding of where we have come from as individuals and institutions, and offers intellectual tools to help us analyse and understand the issues and problems of our own time within their context. The study of history also helps soldiers understand the shape and nature of war; the great Prussian theorist, Carl von Clausewitz, observed that ‘war changes far less frequently and significantly than most people appreciate ... because the material culture of war, which tends to be the focus of attention, is less important than its social, cultural and political contexts and enablers’. The attainment of professional mastery lies in understanding and appreciating war in all its manifestations and dimensions.

Read More

The Role of Military History in the Contemporary Academy (Tami Davis Biddle and Robert M. Citino)

Tami Davis Biddle and Robert M. Citino published a white paper for the Society for Military History, “The Role of Military History in the Contemporary Academy.” The white paper provides an account of military history’s revitalization over the past four decades and assesses its current place in American higher education. According to the authors, in addition to the sub-field’s maturation in academic terms, its enduring popularity with the public and college students makes it an ideal lure for history departments concerned about course enrollments and the recruitment of majors and minors. Knowledge of the uses, abuses, and costs of war should also constitute a part of the education of future American leaders. 

Read More

Sir Martin Gilbert: History as Chronicle

In 1960, the eminent Oxford historian A.J.P. Taylor gave a bit of advice to young students. Avoid working on three things, because they are either irrelevant or already thoroughly plowed over: maps, Winston Churchill, and unpublished documents. Fortunately, at least in one particular instance, that advice was ignored. Sir Martin Gilbert, who passed away at the age of 78, was one of the most prolific of modern historians. He wrote 88 books, including histories of the Holocaust, of the world wars and of the 20th century. He is best known as the official biographer of Churchill, having assumed that duty after the second volume from Churchill’s son, Randolph (Gilbert had served as Randolph’s research assistant).

Read More

India’s Arthashastra: A Combination of Machiavelli and Clausewitz?

The Arthashastra describes the guiding principles necessary to secure the goals of the state within this circle of states. These include: a ruler ought to develop his state by augmenting and exploiting its resources and power; the state ought to try and eliminate enemy states; those who help in this objective are friends; a state ought to stick to a prudent course; a ruler’s behavior must appear just; and peace is preferable to war in attaining a goal. Under the framework of these principles, the Arthashastra describes six methods of foreign policy, all of which are designed to enhance the power of one’s state relative to other states and, if possible, to conquer or dominate them.

Read More

Tocqueville, Early American Foreign Policy, and Contemporary Chinese Politics

Classic works of comparative government and political sociology, such as Democracy in America, can also provide insights into other nations and cultures (which of course was one of Tocqueville’s purposes).  Does this hold true for non-Western societies as well?  In 2010, Ceaser published a paper for the American Enterprise Institute’s Tocqueville on China Project. According to Ceaser, Tocqueville was one of the first thinkers to treat two of the great themes that have preoccupied modern scholars of China: modernization and transition. His writings on these themes were the forerunners of such classic works as James Bryce's Modern Democracy (1921) and Samuel Huntington's Political Order in Changing Societies (1968), and they thus indirectly help inform the wave of scholarship in comparative politics on "democratic transitions" that appeared after the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989.

Read More

The Whale or the Elephant

Williamson Murray and Peter Mansoor urge U.S. policymakers and strategists who are considering the formulation of a grand strategy in the coming decades, to examine the fate of other great maritime/island powers which have wrestled with similar challenges. Of primary concern in this respect concerns the rise of China and the impact of its nascent power, both regionally and globally. The basic choice, they argue, is between a continental strategy, involving a land force commitment to allies in Eurasia; and one of an offshore balancing-maritime (blue water-limited liability) strategy, as being urged by scholars such as Christopher Layne, John Mearsheimer, and Stephen Walt.

Read More