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The Thucydides Roundtable

October 13th, 2016

Genesis:

  1. Announcement, by T. Greer
  2. Marching Orders, by Mark Safranski
  3. Panel of Contributors, by Mark Safranski

Book I:

  1. An introduction, by T. Greer
  2. Fear, honor, and Ophelia, by Lynn C. Rees
  3. The Broken Reedby Jim Lacey
  4. How Group Dynamics Brought Sparta and Athens to War, by Joe Byerly
  5. It Would Be A Great Warby Cheryl Rofer
  6. Knowing Thyself and Knowing the Enemyby Marc Opper
  7. Political Rhetoric in Book I: Truth or Action?, by Pauline Kaurin
  8. Failed Visions of Strategic Restraint, by Mark Safranski
  9. Reflections in a Beginner’s Mindby Charles Cameron
  10. Reflections from a Clausewizian Strategic Theory Perspective, by Joseph Guerra
  11. Honour or reputation?by Natalie Sambhi

Book II:

  1. Beware Greeks Bearing Faulty Assumptionsby Pauline Kaurin
  2. Tactical Patterns in the Siege of Plataeaby A.E. Clark
  3. When Bacteria Beats Bayonets, by Joe Byerly
  4. Everybody Wants a Thucydides Trap, by T. Greer
  5. On Pericles, Strategy and his Regime, Part Iby Mark Safranski
  6. Treason makes the historian, by Lynn C. Rees

Book III:

  1. Treatment of the Enemy in War: Cruel to be Kind?, by Pauline Kaurin
  2. The Most Violent Man at Athensby Mark Safranski
  3. The Medium of Heralds, by Cheryl Rofer
  4. A Layered Textby Joseph Guerra
  5. Understanding Stasisby A. E. Clark

Book IV:

  1. What a Man Can Do”, by Pauline Kaurin
  2. General Demosthenesby A. E. Clark
  3. History is Written by the Losers, by T. Greer
  4. Hoplite Perspectiveby Mark Safranski
  5. Devastationby A. E. Clark

Book V:

  1. What Would the Melians Do? Power and Perception in a Time of Deep Connectivity, by Steven Metz
  2. The Melian Dialogue: Athens’ Finest Hourby A. E. Clark
  3. Men of Honor, Men of Interestby T. Greer
  4. Debating the Dialogueby A. E. Clark

Book VI:

  1. The Diva and the General: Who Wins?, by Pauline Kaurin
  2. Spot the Alcibiades Pointsby T. Greer
  3. The State with the Golden Armby A. E. Clark

Book VII:

  1. Syracuse Through the Eyes of a Samurai, by A. E. Clark

Book VIII

  1. What Do You Mean by “We”?, by A. E. Clark

Concluding Analysis

Addenda:

  1. Cleon Revisitedby Mark Safranski
  2. Fellow Thucydideansby Mark Safranski
  3. Hoffman on Reading Thucydidesby Mark Safranski
  4. Wyne on Revisiting Thucydides’ Explanationby Mark Safranski

Vitals:

A survival kit for all time

Other Sources:

A survival kit for some time

New Article up at Divergent Options

January 16th, 2017

[by Mark Safranski / “zen“]

I have a piece up at Divergent Options, a new national security site that aims to provoke thought regarding foreign policy with a concise template that distills the essence of foreign policy problems and provides but does not recommend options. As DO describes it:

What We Do:  In 1,000 words or less, Divergent Options provides unbiased, dispassionate, candid articles that describe a national security situation, present multiple options to address the situation, and articulate the risk and gain of each option.  Please note that while we assess a national security situation and provide options, we never recommend a specific option.

Who We Communicate To:  Our intended audience is National Security Practitioners worldwide.  We keep our articles short and to the point because we know that Practitioners have a limited amount of time and are likely reading our content on a digital device during a commute, a lunch break, or in-between meetings

My post is an effort to reconnect Syrian policy, widely regarded as a disaster by most foreign policy pundits, back to a coherent grand strategy.

Syria Options: U.S. Grand Strategy 

[…]

Background:  Aleppo has fallen and with it the last shreds of credibility of President Obama’s policy on Syria.  None of Obama’s policy goals for Syria since the Arab Spring revolt were achieved.  In Syria, the Assad regime has crushed western-backed opposition fighters with direct Russian and Iranian military ground support; the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) still controls swaths of Syrian territory[1] and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally Turkey has conspired with Iran and Russia to exclude the U.S. and UN[2] from Syrian settlement talks.

Significance:  While Syria itself is of little strategic value to the U.S. beyond secondary implications for Israeli security, the utter failure of the Obama administration has brought U.S. diplomatic prestige to a nadir reminiscent of the Iranian hostage crisis or the fall of Saigon.  Worse, defeat in Syria occurred in a broader context of successful Russian aggression in Ukraine, uncontested Russian meddling in an U.S. presidential election, and perceptions of U.S. strategic concessions to Tehran in the Iran nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA[3]).  Should the next administration want to accomplish more than Obama, it is vital that they  1) address Syria within the context of increased Russian-U.S. competition and 2) seize the initiative in restoring the influence of U.S. leadership with substantive and symbolic policy changes in regard to Syria and Russia.

Read the rest here.

Thucydides Roundtable, Book VIII: What Do You Mean by “We”?

January 13th, 2017

[by A. E. Clark]

. . . who, though he is received as the . . . accomplisher of ministerial measures, has only a private game to play. (Anon., The Vicar of Bray: A Tale, 1751)

At the siege of Plataea, we noted that the metaphor of a game implies certain mythic simplifications such as the representation of conflict as a sequence of moves allotted, in alternating turns, to the two sides. Another such simplification built into the game metaphor is the assumption that each contestant is monolithic and pursues a goal that can be summed up as victory for that side. In Book VIII, Thucydides explodes this assumption.

That “Athens” is not a unitary actor but a bitterly divided society — actually, two societies at war with each other — becomes clear when the Athenian military in Samos is pitted against the government back home

The struggle was now between the army trying to force a democracy upon the city, and the Four Hundred an oligarchy upon the army. (8.76.1)

and later when the hoplites at the Piraeus strain against the oligarchs in the upper city (8.92). The tension between The People and The Few, as Thucydides calls them, is one of the deep drivers of events throughout the Hellenic world at this time. After the pathos of 8.24.3-4, where the sufferings of Chios are sketched sympathetically:

…after this [third defeat] the Chians ceased to meet them in the field, while the Athenians devastated the country, which was beautifully stocked and had remained undamaged ever since the Persian wars. Indeed, after the Spartans, the Chians are the only people that I have known who knew how to be wise in prosperity . . . if they were tripped up by one of the surprises which upset human calculations, they found their mistake in company with many others . . .

it is startling to learn one reason for the Chians’ difficulty:

There were more slaves at Chios than in any one other city except Sparta, and being also by reason of their numbers punished more rigorously when they offended, most of them when they saw the Athenian armament firmly established in the island with a fortified position, immediately deserted to the enemy, and through their knowledge of the country did the greatest harm. (8.40.2)

A specter was haunting Greece. A widespread ideology of liberty contradicted the reality of acute inequality — an inequality not only of wealth but of civil and human rights — and the fault lines ran through every state. At Samos, the division was perceived as comparable to that between two different species, for after an uprising

…the popular party henceforth governed the city, excluding the landholders from all share in affairs, and forbidding any of The People to give his daughter in marriage to them or to take a wife from them in future. (8.21.1)

In Athens’ death-spiral, there is no shortage of oligarchs who would betray their city to the enemy rather than lose their domestic position (The wall in Eetionia 8.91.3, the garrison at Oenoe 8.98.3).

It is not only classes, however, but individuals who complicate the clash of states by pursuing their own private interests. Tissaphernes’ first overture to Sparta springs from his hope of solving the typical problems of an administrator under the Great King, notably a hole in his budget for which he will be held responsible (8.5.5). The course of Sparta’s subversion of Athens’ empire depends on a “keen competition” between Tissaphernes and Pharnabazus (8.6.2) as well as between Endius and Agis (8.12.2). Bad blood between Pedaritus and Astyochus rises to the level of a formal accusation of treason (8.38.4) and Astyochus and Dorieus come to blows (8.84.2).

But the supreme example of self-dealing on the part of a general or statesman, the figure who bestrides Book VIII like a venal and brilliant colossus, is Alcibiades. By the end of the tale, is there anyone whom he has not betrayed?  Thucydides explains his cynical advice to the Persians to let both sides exhaust each other:

” . . . because he was seeking means to bring about his restoration to his country, well knowing that if he did not destroy it he might one day hope to persuade the Athenians to recall him.” (8.47.1)

This is the man, we recall, who promoted the Sicilian expedition in order to thwart a political rival “and personally to gain in wealth and reputation.” (6.15.2)

Thucydides thus anticipates a branch of economics called Public Choice Theory, the study of how agents — that is, officers of a corporation or a polity — may pursue their own private interests to the detriment of the organization they serve. It is a problem which corporations seek to solve by “aligning” compensation with performance so that their employees will find it in their own interest to increase the corporation’s profit. This is precisely what Pericles sought to arrange by such devices as death benefits for the families of fallen soldiers: “Where the rewards for merit are greatest, there are found the best citizens.” (2.46.1)

Other societies have relied on psychological identification at least as much as economic incentives.  The Communist Party of China has for many years taught the citizenry to view the Party-State as their parent. This exploits — as a free resource, so to speak — the filial devotion long ingrained in Chinese culture. Other sovereigns have associated themselves with the supernatural to which their culture gave reverence: “There’s such divinity doth hedge a king.” And of course sovereigns have always employed symbolic recognition as an incentive, because it is much cheaper than economic incentives. When it was pointed out to him that the Legion d’Honneur was a bauble, Napoleon said, “It is with baubles that one leads men.”

That even holders of high office tend to act on their own account, and that the destiny of nations is often the hard-to-predict resultant of individual self-seeking and dissembling, emerges in this final book (and chiefly in reference to Athens).  That may be why it contains no speeches. The speeches of Thucydides are artful constructs summarizing collective interests; but here the collective is dissolving into individual components.

Thucydides Roundtable, Book I: Honour or reputation?

January 11th, 2017

[by Natalie Sambhi]

Should we discuss honour and war?

The question struck me when thinking about the three reasons Thucydides offers for going to war: fear, honour and interest. Fear and interest seem, to some degree, straightforward: ‘fear’ is an emotion to which we respond by pursuing security, and ‘interest’ defining the upper limits of when we should pursue the use of force. But what role does honour play?

Broadly defined, honour encompasses a sense of justice, what is morally right, values and beliefs. It could also encompass reputation, if that is intimately tied with a sense of doing what is right. However, the meaning of honour can vary from person to person, from state to state, and changes over time.

In his post on Book 1, Mark quotes Archidamus at length. In the excerpt, Archidamus assesses whether Sparta should go to war with Athens by comparing the relative military strengths and warfighting skills of Sparta and Athens. After establishing that the military balance favours the Athenians, he adds:

“Meanwhile our honour will be pledged to keeping on, particularly if it be the opinion that we began the quarrel. For let us never be elated by the fatal hope of the war being quickly ended by the devastation of their lands. I fear rather that we may leave it as a legacy to our children; so improbable is it that the Athenian spirit will be the slave of their land, or Athenian experience be cowed by war.”

It is not just for reasons of military inferiority that Sparta will lose, Archidamus is concerned that the Spartans might be compelled to fight for reasons of honour, and drag out the war. This prompted me to consider how the role of honour has changed in our consideration of war since Peloponnesian times. How is it defined today and what role should it play in war?

Today we do not speak about honour as blatantly as we do security and strategic interests when going to war. Leaders do not state they plan to commit troops on the basis of ‘saving face’ (as Mark points out in his Book 5 post), ‘guarding honour’ or even to pursue revenge, even if that may be the case.

An obvious problem is ‘honour’ can be quite subjective and defined in myriad ways depending on its context. We are encouraged often to ‘do the honourable thing’, in other words, to ‘do the right thing’. But in its extreme, doing something just for ‘honour’ can also appear irrational or illegal. The example that springs to mind is an ‘honour killing’ where a family member who has shamed the family is killed by a relative as a form of restoring the group honour or community standing.

In the context of war, how do we talk about restoring honour at a state level? We are far prone to think about the commitment to war in terms of strategic interest. But I’d like to use the example of Australia to show how ‘honour’ as a concept in pursuing war has lingered.

Then Australian Prime Minister John Howard was in Washington when the US was attacked on 11 September 2001. The next day, he told a press conference he intended to support a US military response, admittedly without yet receiving an American request. In a speech to the Australian Defence Association in October 2001, Howard explained why he chose to invoke the articles of the ANZUS Treaty and to commit troops to fight in Afghanistan:

“If we left this contest only to America, we would be leaving it to them to defend our rights and those of all the other people of the world who have a commitment to freedom and liberty. We will not do it. We admire their strength and greatness, but Australians have always been a people prepared to fight our own fights.

To do anything less on this occasion would be both strategically inept and morally indefensible, especially given the strength of our mutual commitment with the United States under the ANZUS Pact.

Other civilised countries of the world have also recognised the global nature of the threat and the need to meet it.

The UN Security Council unequivocally condemned the attacks in New York and Washington, and affirmed the need for all nations to combat by all means the threats to international peace and security caused by such terrorist acts.”

He clearly states a desire to be a good ally but an intention to uphold Australia’s reputation as a defender of Western norms; as Howard saw it, to sit out that conflict would have made the country appear cowardly. Australia’s strategic rationale for participation was defined in terms of fighting terrorism, assisting our American ally, and liberating the Afghan people from the tyranny of an oppressive regime.

In Howard’s case, ‘doing the the right thing’ sounds like ‘honour’ but is actually ‘reputation’. If Australia were to fight for ‘honour’, what would that have looked like? Fighting to uphold reputation as ‘willing to fight’ and ‘being a good ally’ could be seen ironically as a face-saving way of appearing honourable. It allowed Australia to commit a mentoring and reconstruction force to one province and special forces deployments on specific missions to meet that reputational threshold, without having to clearly define what defending honour looked like.

By 2013, ‘doing the right thing’ was characterised as building girls schools in Uruzgan province. That is, of course, an honourable thing to do. But it was not the reason ADF personnel were committed to Afghanistan. Did Australia fight for ‘honour’ or ‘reputation’?

Should we acknowledge honour in war? What do we mean when we go to war, in the 21st century, for ‘honour’?

U.S. Strategy Board – An Idea Whose Time Has Come?

January 10th, 2017

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]

Image result for Nixon Kissinger the Team

Dr. Frank Hoffman has a piece up in Eurasiareview.com assessing the merits of an idea that in my humble opinion has some utility not merely for the incoming Trump administration but the institutional national security bureaucracy – a Strategy Board.

A Presidential Strategy Board: Enabling Strategic Competence – Analysis

The National Security Council (NSC) staff was once called the Keepers of the Keys, managers of the coordinating process that is central to an administration’s ability to plan and conduct a successful grand strategy.[1] The NSC has had an evolving role, as has its staff.[2] The NSC evolves to the strategic context that any administration faces, and it must also reflect the information processing and decision-making style of the president. The inbound Trump administration will soon face the challenge of integrating America’s diplomatic, military, and economic tools and applying them globally and coherently.

Many have offered advice on how to properly focus NSC staff as well as the “right size” of the group. NSC structures and processes are designed to fulfill the needs of the president and should support his policy and decision-making requirements. These may vary from president to president to fit information processing and decision-making styles as well as the character of an administration’s foreign policy. Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, the president-elect’s National Security Advisor, will manage the evolution of the NSC team to best support Mr. Trump and establish processes and coordinating mechanisms to tee up presidential decisions and implement the foreign policy initiatives of our 45th President.

[….]

More importantly, we have misdiagnosed and mislabeled the problem. The White House’s real shortfall is strategy formulation, not planning. Strategy is not planning, but a good strategy enables proper planning.[20] Hence, I contend that the solution lies in creating a Strategy Board.

The Deputy National Security Advisor—President-elect Trump has tapped K.T. McFarland for the position—would chair the Strategy Board, and the board would not duplicate the existing system of Deputy and Principal’s committees. Its composition would include serving government officials below the existing committee structure from the Departments, NSC, and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) staff members as well as external members from outside government. Like Eisenhower’s board, this group would be charged with anticipating problems, generating solutions independent of Departmental preferences/inclinations, and proposing cost effective strategies. The planning details of approved strategic initiatives would be delegated to the respective Departments.

The board would conduct long-range strategic planning processes for presentation to the Deputy and Principal’s Committees at regular periods, including presidential strategy directives assigning priorities and resource allocations that would shape or inform Departmental budgets.[21] OMB representation would improve the connection between policy and budgets, enhancing long-term implementation and strategic coherence.

Read the whole thing here.

This is a good idea as strategic excellence has been a quality not greatly in evidence in American statecraft in the previous sixteen years and many have argued that we have been adrift since the end of the Cold War. The time horizons of the NSC and the IC are chronically driven by a sense of urgency toward the short term, to “reporting” over “analysis”, to tactics and political gestures over strategic perspectives – something a strategy board with some gravitas in its members would help counterbalance.

I had a related proposal five or six years ago that was more blue sky than Dr. Hoffman’s strategy board, focusing on the long to very long term American grand strategy:

Time for a Grand Strategy Board? 

….The President of the United States, of course has a number of bodies that could, should but do not always provide strategic advice. There’s the Defense Policy Advisory Board, an Intelligence Advisory Board,  the National Intelligence Council, the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, the Office of Net Assessment and not least, the NSC itself and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whose Chairman, by act of Congress, is the military advisor to the President and Secretary of Defense. While strategic thinking does percolate from these entities, many have very specific mandates or, conversely, wide ranging briefs on matters other than strategy. Some operate many levels below the Oval Office, are filled with superannuated politicians or have personnel who, while intellectually brilliant, are excessively political and untrained in matters of strategy. The Joint Chiefs, the professionals of strategy, are highly cognizant of the Constitutional deference they are required to give to civilian officials and are very leery of overstepping their bounds into the more political realms of policy and grand strategy.

What  the President could use is a high level group just focused on getting strategy right – or making sure we have one at all.

I’m envisioning a relatively small group composed of a core of pure strategists leavened with the most strategically oriented of our elder statesmen, flag officers, spooks and thinkers from cognate fields. A grand strategy board would be most active at the start of an administration and help in the crafting of the national strategy documents and return periodically when requested to give advice. Like the Spartan Gerousia, most of the members ( but not all) would be older and freer of the restraint of institutional imperatives and career ambitions. Like the Anglo-American joint chiefs and international conferences of WWII and the immediate postwar era, they would keep their eye on the panoramic view.

Read the rest here.

We have seen in many administrations and not least in the last two, a tendency toward insularity and groupthink, to politicized intelligence, to cutting subject matter experts out of the policy loop to better put forward much cherished but stridently evidence-free ideas and a general approach that eschews basic strategic thinking in favor of grasping for momentary tactical advantages to please domestic political factions. This lack of overarching strategy to tie together the strands of policy so that our bureaucracies pull in the direction of reality is why we lose wars and repeatedly get diplomatically outmaneuvered on the world stage by second and third rate powers.

A strategy board would not be a silver bullet. It won’t cure White House micromanagement by itself or keep the NSC from going rogue or make Defense, CIA or State produce workable options for the POTUS in a timely fashion. But a strategy board could well help clarify thinking at the inception and challenge the various players to pull together intellectually and operationally. It could makes things better.

And at the rate America has been going lately, we could hardly do worse.

Scots and British values

January 7th, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — Scots by clan, audibly British to American ears, and American by friendship, long residence, and weather preference ]
.

Here’s a pair of tweets I picked out to comment on a while back, when writing was a lot more effort than is is now — and will hopefully be in the near future. The second is pretty obviously a serpent-bites-tail example, but I suspect “haggis” and “Scottish” are close enough conceptually (staggeringly close) to qualify the first as a serpentine loop too — why else would Rifkind have mentioned the Scottishness of the fiver?

Serpent-bites-tail logic is pretty cut and dried — but it can express itself in some pretty elusive / allusive forms.

**

Scots wha hae!


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