Mahan, Choke Points, and the Panama Canal

The recent blockage of the Suez Canal by the container ship Ever Given is a reminder of the importance of maritime choke points as they concern international commerce and national security. Choke points are primarily the effect of natural geography, which is one of the critical dimensions of strategy. In some cases, however, human agency, especially technology, can affect the strategic importance of natural geographic features and relationships. The shift from sail to steam, then from coal to oil-fired ships. From roads to railways. From horses to internal combustion engines. From the ground to the skies — aircraft to ballistic missiles, to drones, and hypersonic vehicles. Another human agency is the construction of canals in a way that significantly alters the geopolitical terrain.

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Mahan, Choke Points, and the Panama Canal

The recent blockage of the Suez Canal by the container ship Ever Given is a reminder of the importance of maritime choke points as they concern international commerce and national security. Choke points are primarily the effect of natural geography, which is one of the critical dimensions of strategy. In some cases, however, human agency, especially technology, can affect the strategic importance of natural geographic features and relationships. The shift from sail to steam, then from coal to oil-fired ships. From roads to railways. From horses to internal combustion engines. From the ground to the skies — aircraft to ballistic missiles, to drones, and hypersonic vehicles. Another human agency is the construction of canals in a way that significantly alters the geopolitical terrain.

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Aristotle and Foreign Policy: An Examination of the Common Good and its Effects in International Affairs

The purpose of this essay is not to give Aristotelian warrant for some crude version of Realpolitik. Its purpose is to show the deep significance of the political common good, and that acting morally requires a robust notion of the common good. The implication, I believe, is that we cannot approach international politics from the neutral standpoint of an outside observer, but from the standpoint of citizens and statesmen within real and existing political communities which have their needs, desires, and fears. Abstraction from this standpoint, according to Aristotle, is a kind of abstraction from political and ethical thinking. Likewise, it is difficult to see how one can actually approach the problems of the international system as a citizen of the world, say, rather than as a citizen of a real place. Acting justly and prudently has to do with how we act toward our fellow citizens first and foremost, rather than the great undifferentiated mass of humanity.   Aristotle, then, gives a different account than Morgenthau regarding the place of the national interest. For while Morgenthau himself makes a deeply impassioned argument on behalf of the national interest with an eye toward alleviating the misery of totalizing war, Aristotle would remind us the fundamental purpose of the political community: the achievement of the common good. He reminds us that that pursuing the political common good is not the lesser of two evils, but rather a choiceworthy end, perhaps the most choiceworthy end.

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Aristotle and Foreign Policy: An Examination of the Common Good and its Effects in International Affairs

The purpose of this essay is not to give Aristotelian warrant for some crude version of Realpolitik. Its purpose is to show the deep significance of the political common good, and that acting morally requires a robust notion of the common good. The implication, I believe, is that we cannot approach international politics from the neutral standpoint of an outside observer, but from the standpoint of citizens and statesmen within real and existing political communities which have their needs, desires, and fears. Abstraction from this standpoint, according to Aristotle, is a kind of abstraction from political and ethical thinking. Likewise, it is difficult to see how one can actually approach the problems of the international system as a citizen of the world, say, rather than as a citizen of a real place. Acting justly and prudently has to do with how we act toward our fellow citizens first and foremost, rather than the great undifferentiated mass of humanity.   Aristotle, then, gives a different account than Morgenthau regarding the place of the national interest. For while Morgenthau himself makes a deeply impassioned argument on behalf of the national interest with an eye toward alleviating the misery of totalizing war, Aristotle would remind us the fundamental purpose of the political community: the achievement of the common good. He reminds us that that pursuing the political common good is not the lesser of two evils, but rather a choiceworthy end, perhaps the most choiceworthy end.

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Clausewitz’s Library

Ensconced within CSD's resource bank of Reading Lists we have an entry highlighting Clausewitz’s personal library, as recorded in his wife Marie's will. It may not be inclusive; and of course, he would have had access to the professional library at the Prussian Kriegsakademie. Military publications naturally constitute a significant number among the volumes, including Vauban’s treatises on fortifications and sieges; Johan von Ewald’s book on light infantry tactics; Henry Lloyd’s history of the Seven Years’ War; Montecucili’s memoirs; a study of Maurice de Saxe; Lazare Carnot’s textbook for engineers; George de Chambray’s account of Napoleon’s Russian Campaign in 1812; several of Georg Wilhelm von Valentini’s military works; Phillippe Henri de Grimoard’s treatise on general staff; and the field manual written by his mentor, Gerhard von Scharnhorst.

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Clausewitz’s Library

Ensconced within CSD's resource bank of Reading Lists we have an entry highlighting Clausewitz’s personal library, as recorded in his wife Marie's will. It may not be inclusive; and of course, he would have had access to the professional library at the Prussian Kriegsakademie. Military publications naturally constitute a significant number among the volumes, including Vauban’s treatises on fortifications and sieges; Johan von Ewald’s book on light infantry tactics; Henry Lloyd’s history of the Seven Years’ War; Montecucili’s memoirs; a study of Maurice de Saxe; Lazare Carnot’s textbook for engineers; George de Chambray’s account of Napoleon’s Russian Campaign in 1812; several of Georg Wilhelm von Valentini’s military works; Phillippe Henri de Grimoard’s treatise on general staff; and the field manual written by his mentor, Gerhard von Scharnhorst.

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Military Education and Mentorship: Fox Conner and Dwight Eisenhower

Mentoring future officers in the higher realms of strategy is a topic of much discussion within the military community, especially in terms of the applicability of the Classics, and literature more generally. A recently published collection of essays, Pershing's Lieutenants, catalogues important figures who served under General John J. Pershing in World War I, ranging from Marshall, Patton, and MacArthur to Captain Harry Truman. My initial impression is that the essay authors don’t always demonstrate the way in which the experience of the individuals in World War I affected their particular approach to and during World War II — which would have been of the most interest; however, this judgment is admittedly not based on a full read of the book. One of the figures featured in the volume drew my especial interest — General Fox Conner—because of his well-known role in mentoring younger officers, Dwight Eisenhower in particular.

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Military Education and Mentorship: Fox Conner and Dwight Eisenhower

Mentoring future officers in the higher realms of strategy is a topic of much discussion within the military community, especially in terms of the applicability of the Classics, and literature more generally. A recently published collection of essays, Pershing's Lieutenants, catalogues important figures who served under General John J. Pershing in World War I, ranging from Marshall, Patton, and MacArthur to Captain Harry Truman. My initial impression is that the essay authors don’t always demonstrate the way in which the experience of the individuals in World War I affected their particular approach to and during World War II — which would have been of the most interest; however, this judgment is admittedly not based on a full read of the book. One of the figures featured in the volume drew my especial interest — General Fox Conner—because of his well-known role in mentoring younger officers, Dwight Eisenhower in particular.

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Ulysses S. Grant’s Civil War Memoir and Strategy

It might be said that Ulysses S. Grant’s memoir killed him. The Civil War General and former President of the United States had no intention of writing a memoir. In a life so full of personal and professional crises, one final personal crisis compelled

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Ulysses S. Grant’s Civil War Memoir and Strategy

It might be said that Ulysses S. Grant’s memoir killed him. The Civil War General and former President of the United States had no intention of writing a memoir. In a life so full of personal and professional crises, one final personal crisis compelled

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Learning International Relations from Harold W. Rood

Dr. Rood’s special interest, within the rubrics of history and military history, was the growth of empires. He had intimate knowledge of the wars of German unification, and the two world wars, and Berlin’s parts in them. The expansion of Russia, succeeded by the expansion of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the Warsaw Pact and its overseas alliances, absorbed him emotionally and intellectually. 

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Learning International Relations from Harold W. Rood

Dr. Rood’s special interest, within the rubrics of history and military history, was the growth of empires. He had intimate knowledge of the wars of German unification, and the two world wars, and Berlin’s parts in them. The expansion of Russia, succeeded by the expansion of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the Warsaw Pact and its overseas alliances, absorbed him emotionally and intellectually. 

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Paul Rahe on Spartan Grand Strategy

The grand strategy the Spartans embraced had serious consequences for Lacedaemon’s posture in the international sphere as well. Their perch was precarious.  The Lacedaemonians understood from early on what history would eventually confirm: that it took but a single major defeat in warfare on land to endanger the city’s very survival. Even when their population was at its height, as it was in the late archaic period, there were never more than ten thousand Spartiates, if that; and the territory they ruled was comparatively vast. The underlings they exploited were numerous and apt to be rebellious. In Messenia, if not also in Laconia, the helots saw themselves as a people in bondage, and geography did not favor the haughty men who kept them in that condition.

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Paul Rahe on Spartan Grand Strategy

The grand strategy the Spartans embraced had serious consequences for Lacedaemon’s posture in the international sphere as well. Their perch was precarious.  The Lacedaemonians understood from early on what history would eventually confirm: that it took but a single major defeat in warfare on land to endanger the city’s very survival. Even when their population was at its height, as it was in the late archaic period, there were never more than ten thousand Spartiates, if that; and the territory they ruled was comparatively vast. The underlings they exploited were numerous and apt to be rebellious. In Messenia, if not also in Laconia, the helots saw themselves as a people in bondage, and geography did not favor the haughty men who kept them in that condition.

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Henry Kissinger, A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace, 1812-1822 (1957)

A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problem of Peace, 1812-1822, Kissinger's first book, was written in the early 1950s while Kissinger was a young doctoral student at Harvard. The book was initially not as famous or as influential as his later books. Its focus on diplomatic negotiations following the fall of Napoleon was seen by his peers as esoteric and out of tune with the times. In a world featuring nuclear weapons, why dissect the diplomatic wrangling of the 19th century? This view may have characterized the dissertation turned book at the time of its writing, but today Restored is widely regarded as essential reading for the student of strategy and diplomacy.

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Henry Kissinger, A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace, 1812-1822 (1957)

A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problem of Peace, 1812-1822, Kissinger's first book, was written in the early 1950s while Kissinger was a young doctoral student at Harvard. The book was initially not as famous or as influential as his later books. Its focus on diplomatic negotiations following the fall of Napoleon was seen by his peers as esoteric and out of tune with the times. In a world featuring nuclear weapons, why dissect the diplomatic wrangling of the 19th century? This view may have characterized the dissertation turned book at the time of its writing, but today Restored is widely regarded as essential reading for the student of strategy and diplomacy.

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Bhagavad Gita (3rd Century BC- 3rd Century AD)

Great works of literature, including religious literature, often have a major influence on the strategic culture and outlook of civilizations and nations. The Bible and Homer are certainly prime exhibits.  Yet such literature does not always generate a single strand of thought about war and peace, but often competing strands, or ideas that metamorphose under different circumstances. In a New York Review of Books essay, Wendy Doniger asks: How did Indian tradition transform the Bhagavad Gita (the “Song of God”) into a bible for pacifism, when it began life, sometime between the third century BC and the third century CE, as an epic argument persuading a warrior to engage in a battle, indeed, a particularly brutal, lawless, internecine war?

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Bhagavad Gita (3rd Century BC- 3rd Century AD)

Great works of literature, including religious literature, often have a major influence on the strategic culture and outlook of civilizations and nations. The Bible and Homer are certainly prime exhibits.  Yet such literature does not always generate a single strand of thought about war and peace, but often competing strands, or ideas that metamorphose under different circumstances. In a New York Review of Books essay, Wendy Doniger asks: How did Indian tradition transform the Bhagavad Gita (the “Song of God”) into a bible for pacifism, when it began life, sometime between the third century BC and the third century CE, as an epic argument persuading a warrior to engage in a battle, indeed, a particularly brutal, lawless, internecine war?

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Churchill’s Trial: Winston Churchill and the Salvation of Free Government

Churchill’s prescriptions, general and particular, were and are worthy of debate.  He might not have been willing to intervene in Indochina to pull French chestnuts out of the fire, but throughout his career he arguably expected the United States to support the British cause in regions that the United States might regard as peripheral. To American commanders during World War II, he seemed obsessed with fighting on the fringes rather than at the center, and by doing so he drained resources necessary to fight at the center, which defied the ultimate principle of economy. Sometimes, as during the American Civil War, slaughter is necessary to create the conditions for maneuver. But it surely can be said that Churchill’s works deserve inclusion in a list of the Classics.

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Churchill’s Trial: Winston Churchill and the Salvation of Free Government

Churchill’s prescriptions, general and particular, were and are worthy of debate.  He might not have been willing to intervene in Indochina to pull French chestnuts out of the fire, but throughout his career he arguably expected the United States to support the British cause in regions that the United States might regard as peripheral. To American commanders during World War II, he seemed obsessed with fighting on the fringes rather than at the center, and by doing so he drained resources necessary to fight at the center, which defied the ultimate principle of economy. Sometimes, as during the American Civil War, slaughter is necessary to create the conditions for maneuver. But it surely can be said that Churchill’s works deserve inclusion in a list of the Classics.

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