How America can survive and even prosper in the 21st Century
Chapter Four of a series about America’s grand strategy
March 19, 2007
Zugzwang (from the German “compulsion to move”)
In chess, a zugzwang means that you believe that all moves weaken your position.
In the middle of a game, zugzwang typically occurs only in a player’s mind. It results from a lack of imagination, an inability to break free from his or her patterns of perception and analysis.
Without using this term, 4GW experts often describe American foreign policy as a zugzwang. They paint a grim picture of America’s geo-political situation, largely due to our self-destructive behavior. Fortunately there are brighter ways to see the world. To find a better path we should go back to T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, that powerful handbook for insurgents written during the Arab Revolt of WWI.
With the clarity of hindsight, in Iraq we too have been stupid and dogmatical. We have dealt with the Iraq insurgency “on the analogy of war.” But what of the next line?
Imagine seeing a person trying such a thing. How pitiful a sight, watching the poor fool spilling most of each attempt … his joy at the tiny morsel gained from each swallow.
Does America have so few strategic options that we must, in effect, attempt to eat soup with a knife?
Lawrence wrote this about his experience waging a successful insurgency. We take it as advice to try harder, to use greater force, to expend great ingenuity and effort. We miss the simple truth of Lawrence’s insight:
You have a knife and a bowl of soup. But what’s the context? Can you change the conditions of the problem? No cheating, just expand the rule set so that you too have a chance to win.
This is an analogy, and analogies are foolish nonsense – but even nonsense can stimulate creativity, and our sensible doctrines have gotten us into serious trouble in the Middle East. How does Lawrence’s insight help us see a different way to survive – or even win – in an age when 4GW is the dominant mode of warfare?
A spectre is haunting Europe … and the entire world
There is another perspective, different than the conventional one that has terrorized American so much that we have swollen the power of our government and invaded the Middle East.
Since WWII, a form of destruction has overshadowed the peoples of the world, more powerful than anything ever before seen in history. Apocalyptic, a tool of total annihilation, one that nobody trusts America to use with restraint or wisdom. Nor should we show restraint, for its fullest use can blot out our enemies -- leaving little behind for anyone but historians.
A few nations have tried to build defenses. Although possible in theory, most experts consider such efforts a waste of money and effort.
Colonizing the Future.
American culture appears destined to sweep across the globe.
Some, like Charles Allen (author of God’s Terrorists: the Wahhabi Cult and The Hidden Roots of Modern Jihad) blame Hollywood and the Left for the enmity many Moslems feel towards us. In this view America has polluted the world with its combination of degeneracy, pornography, and radical feminism – and Jihad is a natural if regrettable response to this.
Perhaps the conflict is more fundamental. Perhaps western culture, which America has refined to peak intensity, threatens other cultures. In Silicon Valley they speak of “mindspace.” America exports our culture to fill the minds of the world’s children. In a forthcoming book Martin van Creveld describes this as “colonizing the future.”
European nations colonized the world, with results that will echo for centuries. The resulting wars dominated the 20th century, fought by Europeans to obtain colonies and everybody else to free themselves. The 21st century might see equally vicious wars as other peoples fight to decolonize the future.
America as a global menace.
Some societies can adapt, absorbing elements of our culture but retaining their essential soul. For most, including many societies recently thrown from pre-technological forms into the modern world, cultural extinction may be the only option. Extinction is, of course, the fate of most cultures as it for most species. The Hittites, the Scythians, the Etruscans are only memories. It’s a nearly endless roll of societies that made some contributions, large or small, to humanity’s store of knowledge and art … only to fade away.
To many foreigners American culture is a virulent and lethal virus, attacking at their most vulnerable point: their children. We act like the Pied Piper, stealing away their young by offering a different vision of life’s highest values. To gays we say come out of the closet. To women we say throw off the shackles of male domination. To atheists, heretics, and agnostics we say glory in your independence of thought. To all we offer sexual freedom, liberation from the domination of their elders, and opportunities to obtain wealth in non-traditional ways.
Consider the difference between the roles of women in western states vs., for example, Saudi Arabia. Western women are full citizens: voting, owning property, choosing not just their husbands but even their sexual partners. Saudi women, although also full citizens and entitled to own property and businesses, must, for example, be escorted by a close male relative in order to travel abroad; they inherit at half the portion of their male siblings; and they find their testimony as worth only half that of any man.
Even more powerful than our ideology, our technology “defeats” biology by freeing gender from sex. Control of contraception for both men and women, especially women, is devastating for cultures based on highly differentiated gender roles – as is true of many cultures in the Middle East. .
The impact of western culture on Islam was clearly foreseen by Sayyid Qutb, Egyptian intellectual and Islamist (1906 – 1966) when studying in 1949 at the University of Northern Colorado at Greeley, Colorado.
We should not expect the members, let alone the elites, of other societies to like the challenges we inadvertently force upon them. After all, most Americans despise some aspects of our culture. Nor will the elites of other lands obligingly and quietly die to ease their societies’ adoption of western ways, as did King Mongkut of Siam in the 1951 musical The King and I, by Rodgers and Hammerstein.
Many nations oppose this American “virus”, each in its own way. The French government legislates to de-Americanize their language and support their native arts. The Canadian government erects barriers to American media. The Chinese government censors the internet. Some fundamentalist Islamic leaders declare jihad.
The difference between French legal actions and Islamic fatwas is that the latter exacerbate a millennial-long, often violent, conflict between Christianity and Islam and give it renewed appeal and intensity to Muslims.
Who is playing offense? Who is playing defense?
This perspective helps us understand an otherwise puzzling aspect of the current geo-political situation: who is playing offense and who defense?
From one perspective, Islamic jihadis have suddenly decided to retake their lost lands, such as Spain, and declare war on the Great Satan (i.e., America, or perhaps western civilization). Why attack now, and why attack us? These have been the subject of fascinating and often fevered speculation, mostly without much evidence or even logic.
A simpler explanation is that Islamic societies, like those of so many other societies, feel threatened by American culture. However the contrast – and therefore the danger – is greater for them than, for example, the French. Their need to respond is equally evident, as the instinct for self-preservation is both ubiquitous in practice and enshrined in the law of nations. Whether America’s cultural “aggression” is deliberate or inadvertent is not relevant to those defending against it.
Let’s check this conclusion by another line of logic. One objective of modern war – that is, of the past few centuries – is to gain the moral high ground, usually by portraying the other side as the aggressor. This has proved decisive in wars from the American Revolution to the USSR-Afghanistan War. Popular sympathy usually goes to the defender, as most nations are more likely to be defenders than attackers.
In today’s global community what nation consistently appears among the most disliked and the most likely to disturb the global peace? America.
Is a successful defense possible?
Probably not, for three reasons. First, ideas and technology have always spread irresistibly. Cultures that have walled themselves off, such as China did for centuries, suffered from it.
Second, globalization makes all borders porous. Travel and trade allow cultural contagions to spread rapidly across the globe.
Third, modern communications technology allows the first two factors to change cultures in years instead of over generations.
Who is at fault? Us or them?
Please consult a priest or philosopher for answers to such questions. This author only discusses what was, what is, and what might be.
The military dimension of this conflict
We couple an offensive cultural strategy with an equally offensive military strategy. Although labeled “defensive”, we maintain a chain of approximately 737 bases encircling the world plus a massive military force that intervenes in foreign lands every decade or so. Our actions speak louder than our words. Those not on friendly terms with us might find this combination threatening.
As is so often the case in history, this conflict is structural. We will not change ourselves to suit others. It’s our culture and their problem.
So what do we do?
What should we be doing, playing offense or defense?
Both. Neither. The terms are meaningless, except as generalities. Worse, they imply that we compete against everyone else. If so, what is the prize? Who cares? After all, what does it mean to “win” the clash of civilizations”? The Soviet Union was a global menace for several generations, spreading communism and revolution over the globe – until it collapsed.
Our goal should be to make this the best possible America, safe and secure. Success at this will come as we build momentum through imagination, initiative, and effective execution.
We need to make time our ally, so we can prosper through the tumultuous transitional years ahead. There is no perfect security in this world, only in the next. Let’s arrange things so that our enemies, not us, look with fear on the coming of each new year.
Athens held a winning position similar to ours, and threw it away in an imprudent war.
Do we need a grand strategy?
American might be structurally unable to successfully implement large and complex strategies, as discussed in this author’s “The Myth of Grand Strategy.” Perhaps this is a problem inherent to a democracy. Athens also had difficulty with long, complex plans.
Athens’ leaders rose through a small number of career paths, none of which selected for strategic skills. This is also true about leaders in America’s government.
An apparatus built with such people can accomplish little, and might be incapable of rational planning or competent execution. This kind of official apparatus worked for American during the 19th century era, the era of small government, but repeatedly failed us during the 20th century. The challenges of the 21st century might be even greater, hence the need to either reform our government or change our approach to geo-politics.
A problem concerning our implementation of a grand strategy.
Despite its millennia-long intellectual heritage, our religion has become an unquestioned dogma taught to our children, who are given no knowledge of its supporting reasons or inherent fallacies. This often gives them an arrogant assumption of superiority when abroad.
Yes, a belief in human rights has diminished our ability to work with other cultures.
This is seen in the work of some neoconservatives, who assume that we're the good guys bringing civilization to the dark corners of the world. No wonder they are baffled by 4GW theory, with its emphasis on obtaining the moral high ground. They appear confident that we have it, and sometimes seem not to see the possibility of alternative views. This is not a new problem. Leaders of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations assumed that the Vietnamese people would know that, unlike the French who preceded us, we were not colonialists. Many were unable to see this distinction.
The belief that our values are universal and supreme conflicts with our equally dogmatically held belief in multiculturalism. Cognitive dissonance between these might account for much of America’s inability to adapt to changes in the world. It is as if we borrowed from George Orwell to create a synthesis: “all cultures are equal, but some are more equal than others.”
Some simple recommendations.
From this perspective flows a few simple recommendations, as a substitute for a Grand Strategy.
Recommendation #1: Do not increase the cohesion of our enemies. Try not to make new enemies.
Great regional powers are emerging, and we can no longer greet them with suspicion or outright hostility. New cultures are emerging, or re-emerging, and we must embrace them as part of the human pageant rather than disdainfully judge them vs. our ideas. On what basis do western values become “human rights?”
Multiculturalism might work well in this new world (even if disastrous as domestic policy), as a belief in the sovereignty and freedom of each people. They can and must find their own way, even if they fail. This is the risk and price of freedom.
We should stop meddling in the affairs of others, which usually serves only to increase the cohesion of our enemies. Tell the CIA to focus on gathering intelligence, and leave foreign ops for Mr. Phelps and the Impossible Missions Force.
Similarly, our government should cease our “holier than thou” criticism of other governments and societies. Instead it should focus on building alliances and minimizing conflicts with our enemies. Let our non-governmental agencies blast their discordant exhortations about the human rights gospel (literally translated as “good news”) across the world.
We need not applaud aspects of other societies that we consider wrong or evil, but should not presume that Americans stride the planet as gods – to define right and wrong for everybody.
Recommendation #2: Don’t gamble. As Pericles recommended, adopt slow but sure tactics.
We should cultivate a reluctance “to travel a long distance to kill foreigners at great expense” unless we have great need (paraphrase of a comment by Jim Henley).
Americans have many strengths, as our great progress has shown. That does not make us great at everything. Not great warriors, or deep thinkers, or master strategists. We are a parochial society, which means not well-suited to manipulate foreign cultures.
Let’s allow America’s private sector do what it does so well, build the wealth and happiness of our people. Let’s focus our government at what it knows best, our own land and people. We can help the people of other states through research, free trade, charity, and teaching. We have much to teach other peoples, and much to learn. Sharing one’s culture is seldom offensive to others if done as equals and with respect to others.
Unfortunately such recommendations are difficult to implement, as they require concentration upon our limits and problems. Crusades are more fun, at least for those who do not actually fight them. High risk endeavors generate excitement and the prospect of great gains, and accrue power to their leaders.
Until failure. Then the bills come due. Fortunately there are ways to influence the world other than force.
Perhaps it is time to return to a place in the global ecosystem more in accord with the views of our Founders. The following is as true today as it was when written:
Recommendation #3: Survive until we win.
Here is a “to do” list for a strong 21st century America.
Of course, we need an offensive capability in order to deal with evident threats. Developing diplomatic mechanisms to do this might be our primary foreign policy goal in the 21st century.
How to do these things is obvious in general terms. We all know what needs to be done. For example:
The next chapter in this series continues this proposal, discussing the use of military force in an age of 4GW.
The opening of this chapter was inspired by John A. Nagl, whose innovative book How to Eat Soup With a Knife re-introduced T. E. Lawrence into modern discussions of counterinsurgency warfare. This is a must-read for anyone interested in the dynamics of the Iraq War.
Stay tuned to DNI for additional chapters in this series.
Please send your comments and corrections on this article to
Fabius Maximus was the Roman leader who saved Rome from Hannibal by recognizing its weakness and therefore the need to conserve its strength. He turned from the easy path of macho “boldness” to the long, difficult task of rebuilding Rome’s power and greatness. His life holds profound lessons for 21st Century America.
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