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Kissinger and China

Ten years after publication of Kissinger's On China, the reader is invited to assess Kissinger’s judgment in light of such events as the unwinding of the global financial crisis and increased Chinese assertiveness, the shift in American foreign policy towards a great power competition framework, and Covid-19. His book appeared shortly before Graham Allison’s influential and controversial work on the Thucydides trap. I extrapolated from his argument at the time — perhaps inaccurately, but worthy of consideration — that Kissinger concluded the rise of China towards its historic position as the Middle Kingdom, if accommodated properly to a globalized world, is more or less inevitable and, rightly understood, desirable.

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Reading “On War” for the First Time

Where to begin? Authors felled forests in pursuit of analyzing On War, the seminal work of Carl von Clausewitz. Renowned strategic thinkers in the ages since its publication expanded on, clarified, or critiqued its insights into the conduct of war. In this light, the vast collections of materials associated with On War hardly seem to call for another addition to their midst. What else is there to say? As it turns out, there is a great deal to discuss with one particular group – first-time readers of the classic.

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B. H. Liddell Hart, Strategy (1954)

The origins of Liddell Hart’s indirect approach are twofold. From a theoretical perspective, he is writing in response to military and political leaders who he claims misread and misapplied the theory of 19th century Prussian military thinker Carl von Clausewitz. From an empirical perspective, he is digesting the experiences of the World Wars, especially the stalemated trench warfare of the Great War and the mechanized and aerial battles of the fight against Hitler. Liddell Hart argues vigorously that the application of poorly understood Clausewitizian strategy fueled the bloodbath that was World War I and the slow adaptation of alternatives during World War II, all of which called into question the validity of the old theory and demanded reformulating how military force might be applied to achieve political aims.

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Sun Tzu, The Art of War (c. 500-300 B.C.)

This classic of Eastern thought draws from Taoist philosophy and addresses the conduct of war and competition between states with poeticism unlike any classic of Western military theory. Thought to be the transcriptions of a general’s advice to his king, The Art of War emphasizes the use of the unorthodox and deception to overcome adversaries without jeopardizing the dynasty’s existence during a period of increase lethality of warfare.

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François de Callières, The Art of Diplomacy (1716)

In The Art of Diplomacy, secret diplomacy is considered as embedded in the art of negotiation. In this regard, Callières notes that secrecy is absolutely necessary for the generation of confidence and understanding. He advocates that secret negotiations could help maintain peace and thus are necessary to manage relationships between states. Callières believes that before a diplomat could progress towards a negotiated settlement of a dispute, confidence and confidentiality have to be established. He explains that “an able minister will take care that no man shall penetrate into his secret before the proper time.”

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Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History (1952)

In writing The Irony of American History, Niebuhr provides a framework through which we can interpret, organize, and create patterns out of the facts of history.  In order to do so, Niebuhr points us towards three broad categories: pathos, tragedy, and most importantly for Niebuhr, irony.  The Cold War conflict between liberalism and communism, and in particular America’s role, is Niebuhr’s case study for understanding those categories of history.

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Giulio Douhet, The Command of The Air (1921/1927)

Giulio Douhet, an Italian army officer who never learnt to fly, first published one of military theory’s most recognized and controversial works on airpower, The Command of The Air, in 1921. Just three years after the end of the First World War and the first widespread use of airplanes in warfare, this new technology had yet to be fully integrated into military strategy. Douhet advocated a new strategic application for what he identified as the airplane’s superior capabilities in order to avoid the destructive stalemate of the First World War in future wars. Promising a quick and decisive end to war, The Command of The Air synthesized concepts, namely strategic bombing, an independent air force, the dominance of an offensive strategy, and breaking the will of the civilian population, among others, which contributed to the development of the modern air force.

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Jeremy Bentham, Principles of International Law (1786-1789/1843)

The older phrase law of nations, according to Bentham, refers to a certain discursive space only through the force of custom, or convention. However, he believed that a more appropriate designation should go beyond mere convention. According to Bentham, the phrase law of nations is a sign relying on the mediation of convention. Without the convention, "the force of custom," the phrase law of nations might be understood as one designating the domestic, municipal law of diverse nations. On the other hand, Bentham explains, that international is a term that stands in no need of the mediation of custom and convention.  To put it more simply, Bentham proposed to replace the concept of the law of nations with that of the law between nations.

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Tacitus, The Annales (early Second Century AD)

Like many of the great historians and thinkers of antiquity, Tacitus was renowned as a rhetorician and capable in the use of language, a skill that no doubt aided him as a writer of political history during the reign of the tyrannical Domitian. Indeed, his cognomen, meaning “the silent” is both ironical and true. For while Tacitus was known for speaking, in the Annales we see a deft use of omission and quietness in discussing the banal brutality of a Tiberius or a Nero, as well as double-meaning and discreet satire. Tacitus’ project is the problem of tyranny, and the possibility of virtue under tyranny.

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Julius Caesar, Commentarii de bello Gallico (mid-1st Century BC)

Great generals and statesmen are not always eminent men of letters, but the founder of monarchical Rome was such a man. He is so well regarded as a writer that for a time he was probably more known as a master of Latin prose, rather than the man who reshaped Western Civilization. Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44 BC), perhaps the most famous Roman of them all, was born a patrician. He rose to power by keenness of intellect as well as a healthy dose of democratic sympathies that made him one of the most popular politicians in Rome. Supposedly descended from Aeneas and Venus, as well as nephew to Gaius Marius, he did not lack an illustrious family. During Sulla’s ascendancy Caesar took the opportunity to gain military experience in Asia Minor, where he showed himself to be a conscientious officer. Caesar, like many Roman statesmen, used his military prowess and experience to his political advantage throughout his life, achieving the consulship in 59 BC. After his consulship he was chosen to be governor of Cisalpine Gaul, Illyricum, and Transalpine Gaul. Such extensive political responsibilities came with the command initially of four legions, probably between 15,000 and 20,000 heavy infantry. Caesar’s Commentarii de bello Gallico tells the story of how he used them.

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