Sunday, August 7, 2011

Putting up after shutting up

It has been roughly 9 months since the start of this blogging experiment, and we've never quite lived up to our grand designs ("we're going to post every other day, and it's going to be amazing and ground-breaking and thought-provoking and awesome"). Yet we've managed to have some fun with it, and it gave us an excuse to have more nerd-tastic conversations ("What do you think of this for a blog post..."). We've been a bit more successful on Twitter (much more conducive to our writing attention spans it seems), and thoroughly enjoy engaging with the defense/security Twittersphere.

While the tone of this post is one of farewell, that is not what is intended. Res Publica Belli will stick around. One day, perhaps in the near future, perhaps in the distant, the pace of posting will pick up and we'll take another swing at our initial grand design. As it is now, though, life is taking us in slightly different directions.

Our very own Kautilya, smiter of the Mercator Projection, is embarking on his journey of service to our country in less than two weeks. He's off to Ft. Leonard Wood to be whipped into shape and eventually emerge as an officer in the United States Army. I for one am incredibly proud of his decision and know that he will make a fine soldier, and a great officer and public servant. Best of luck to you Kautilya, and be sure to keep us updated as you regain internet privileges.

I am headed to Afghanistan for a 7 month stint with the Marine Corps at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand Province. Never having been a Marine (or worked particularly closely with them before), it should be a learning experience at the least. Once I land and get my bearings, I'll try to post periodic observations here. I'm guessing I'll be more active on Twitter, if history tells us anything.

Though we've made pretty miserable bloggers, both Kautilya and I are excited to be going places where we are in the position to make meaningful contributions to the defense/security field that so fascinates us. After months of shutting up (punctuated by flashes of brilliance of course), we look forward to finally putting up.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Freeing the Prisoners of the Mercator Projection

Travel writer Robert Kaplan recently observed in his stereotypically elaborate prose that we're all “prisoners of the Mercator projection.” Andrew Exum’s point that it’s a “great name for a band” aside, Kaplan is actually on to something. We imagine maps are objective, particularly familiar ones like the Mercator. In reality, nothing but our historical biases defines what’s up, down, left, and right. Small changes make big differences in what story a map tells, and alternatives to the Mercator can give new meaning to world events.

The central concern of mapmaking is 'projection': how physical space is visually portrayed. The world is a 3D surface, but maps are a 2D medium; we need to ‘unpeel’ the globe onto a paper. The aforementioned Mercator projection has assumed its Stockholm-syndrome hold on our spatial concept of the world because it’s based on navigational absolutes: the lines of latitude and longitude. While useful for traversing the triangle trade, the Mercator projection vastly distorts the sizes and shapes of continents, leading to a profound overemphasis on Europe and North America (The West Wing described this best).

One alternative is the Peters projection, which is area-normalized: it a
djusts latitude so that the actual sizes of continents are consistent across the entire map. At first jarring, this projection is closer to the 'truth'-- what you would see on a globe-- than the Mercator projection. South America and Africa are enormous, and Europe emerges as just another small Asian peninsula.

Yet even the Peters projection contains deeply-encode
d biases about how we view our world. Walk into any cheeky anthropology department and you're likely to see an upside-down map, with south at the top. It doesn't take a self-righteous lecture on Eurocentricity to realize how unfamiliar the world looks when China takes center stage. If the department is especially progressive, they'll sport an upside-down Peters projection, which is intimidatingly oceanic.

For maps of smaller areas, like individual countries or cities, why not abandon north and south altogether? In most cases the interesting axis of topographic or historic information won't be so conveniently polar. The expansion of the United States was the story of a frontier gradually being pushed forward, not a line moving to the left. Why not portray it from some point over the Atlantic Ocean, looking west over successive waves of expansion? The 2010 Times Atlas of World History tentatively moves in this direction with a map whose perspective is nearly as informative as the information it includes. Similarly, the same Atlas' treatment of the Mughal Empire abandons a rigid north-south axis for one that correctly draws the eye towards the passes to Central Asia. Kaplan’s already argued that a trans-Indus axis is far more important than the geological concept of a 'subcontinent.'

So why stop at a single region? Why not change our entire concept of a global map to emphasize the realities of geographic and human relationships rather than an arbitrary system of grid lines? After all, it is only the coincidence that magnetic rocks point towards somewhere n
ear Greenland that we think of north as 'up' in the first place. What is preventing us from designating any point on the globe as the 'north pole' and drawing a new map from that reference point?

In fact, it's nothing but our own biases. The mental gymnastics required to imagine unpeeling the globe with a point other than the North Pole for reference get tricky, but luckily we have computers to help us. An enterprising Dutchman has written a program to perform just this task, and the results are stunning. The first thing you notice about a map drawn with the 'pole' somewhere new is how wrong it looks. All of a sudden, the Mercator projection (which is what the program is rendering) is obviously, completely inadequate. "Europe doesn't look like that," you think, forgetting that any Mercator map is equally distorted, no matter where its poles. The distortion just happens to now be located somewhere we think we know well.

A map tells a story, and the map of the 21st century world can tell no other story but globalization. Continental blobs separated by swathes of blue don’t tell us much about our planet as a coherent whole; the need for navigational aids fades in comparison with the need for understanding. This projection-- with the poles in the Indian and Pacific oceans-- minimizes the distortion to land while joining together the continents into one large, human habitat. At a glance, grand trends in our history are made obvious: transcontinental flights passing over Greenland recall the quest for the Northwest Passage; the steppes of Central Asia assume their easily-traversed centrality; and bottlenecks like Hormuz, Malacca, Panama, and Gibraltar are but gates to the vast oceanic superhighway. This is a map of global human history, a map truly for our time.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Whither the generalist?

Last week, this post by Alex Thurston over at Sahel Blog made the rounds on the Twitter-sphere. The post was tweeted approvingly by a number of folks, and I agree with a lot of what is said. He certainly raises important questions about expertise that bloggers should ask, many of which I frequently ask myself as I offer commentary on issues here at RPB. And his comments on the difficulty of separating wheat from chaff, and the dubious signaling power of association with institutions are spot on.

I do take issue with one line in the post, and the pervasiveness of the opinion behind it. Alex writes
But many foreign affairs “experts” (old and new) claim expertise without possessing what I see as the key requirements for foreign affairs expertise, especially knowledge of local languages and local history.
This is a statement I've seen in many places in various guises, from Josh Foust to Abu Muqawama, often used while the poster is dismissing the opinion/perspective/insight of whomever they disagree with.

Is this really the important distinction for foreign affairs "experts," the two boxes that always must be checked for commentary to be valid and useful? By this logic, the fact that I lived for a couple years in Scotland, can understand a Glaswegian, and know the outline of the Auld Alliance, the Scottish Enlightenment, and the Treaty of Union, I've fulfilled the key requirements to offer expert comment on the Scottish National Party's 5 May electoral victory. It doesn't. Yet the fact that I read work by a lot of smart folks whose passions and careers revolve around reporting on Scottish politics is enough to give me some basic context for discussing the issue, perhaps not from a position of authority but certainly from a potentially useful vantage point. (I'm not planning a post on the election, other than to congratulate my friend Humza Yousaf, one of the youngest MSPs ever elected!)

In the same way, many intelligent people write valuable, persuasive contributions to discussions on regions and issues about which they lack the key elements of expertise (by Alex's definition above). These are the generalists, with a breadth of knowledge and interest, but lacking depth in the majority of the issues on which they engage. We've all read spectacular posts (and even articles and books) on Pakistan by authors who don't speak a lick of Urdu or Pashto. Several respected authorities on terrorism or Al Qaeda can't read Arabic. Yet I don't think we would suggest that their contributions should be discarded. Expertise in local language and local history should definitely inform discussion of issues, but its inclusion shouldn't drive the exclusion of informed, thoughtful commentary from those not possessing "expertise."

For isn't that why we are all here in the first place, to both gather others' and share our knowledge and perspective (in addition to the rather ornery folks that revel in argumentation)? Some may be more valuable than others on particular issues, but there is merit in a myriad of people, armed with some minimum measure of fact, offering different viewpoints and opinions. And if the Twitter-sphere and blogosphere is good for anything, it is letting you know when you are misinformed, but I'll be damned if there isn't value in being wrong as well.

Let's keep a spot at the table for the generalist. We'll all be better off for it.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Conversation on the Legacy of Empire

Before you ask, yes, this is how Kautilya and I spend our days. I originally planned to clean this up into a more polished post, but decided to just go with the original emails.

The catalyst for the discussion was the early April BBC News article entitled "Is Britain to blame for many of the world's problems?"


For what it's worth, my perspective (largely informed by a very non-postmodern course of study followed by living in India) is that cultures have dominated each other throughout history-- indeed, it's one of the only constants of human civilization that we exploit. Given progress, it was inevitable that eventually some power would exert such influence across the entire globe. While acknowledging the myriad problems Imperialism caused, we can be thankful that it was acted out by the West. For all the horrors, atrocities, and legacies-- all of which are replicated at smaller scale across the globe and throughout time-- the West dominated the globe in a relatively progressive and positive manner. Particularly England. So the real question to me isn't "is Britain to blame for many of the world's problems," but "given that eventually some power would dominate the entire globe, how miserably did Britain do?" And of course the corollary, "how is the United States doing?"

Or, at the risk of getting too grand-historical, if we are to evaluate successive empires against the standard of their own power and their own times (as I propose here), rather than by absolute standards (as the two authors in the link do), then how do we assess the morality of the actions of the United States?


I think I’m right there with you on this one. As you indicated, barring a parallel and relatively equal pace of technological advancement, the supremacy of more advanced nations/peoples over those who hadn’t developed was somewhat inevitable. And I agree that the West has perhaps better track record of balancing exploitation with somewhat enlightened progress than powers in other regions of the world; after all, the Roman Empire’s greatest impact wasn’t necessarily just in destroying cities and enslaving populations, but also-and more lastingly-in bringing technological advancement, infrastructure, laws, language to a vast swath of territory. Arguably, and correlation certainly doesn’t equal causation, that legacy (itself built on the colonizing impulses of the Greek city-states) laid the foundation for the technological leaps forward of Europe. Granted, there’s a PhD in proving or disproving that statement, but I think you get my point.

It might be a bit of a cop-out, but obviously the legacy of imperialism and colonialism is incredibly complex, and I have no doubt that living as a subjected person beneath a colonial administration was hardly pleasant. As a bit of an aside, I also think it is very important in this conversation to isolate the British, and to a much lesser extent the French, philosophy and practice of colonial rule, as it had a significant emphasis on not simply exploitation, but improvement in infrastructure, rule of law, education, etc (the whole “White Man’s Burden”). Certainly more than many Western powers – here’s looking at you Belgium, Italy, and Spain. It’s also important to take into account the historical context of the whole imperial enterprise. Obviously the atrocities committed by the Brits in India (Sepoy Rebellion 1857 on up) were terrible, but they were at a time when the British weren’t far removed from having committed the same riot-control, fire-on-the-crowd murder on their own people (Peterloo Massacre 1819). And given the wider global context of potential great power rulers at that time, my choice of colonial overlord would have been the British, hands-down.

This is getting a bit long and out-of-hand, but I’d almost argue that generally the British legacy of colonial rule from an institutional perspective is a positive one, while their mistakes were made during the process of decolonization (most notably the Afghanistan/Pakistan/India borders, African borders disregarding tribes, and failure to accommodate Jews and Palestinians). Yet the burden of those mistakes can almost equally be laid at the feet of the entire international system at the time, in which all countries failed to coordinate decolonization, refused to reevaluate antiquated colonial boundaries, and failed to fully adapt colonial institutions to the realities of independence. The pressure to “get out now” from both their domestic population and the colonial population was too great, and their resources much too constrained for those to have been realistic options. And failing to have addressed all of those things (and probably a myriad of others), I don’t see how any country, not just Britain, could have avoided “blame for many of the world’s problems.”

Thursday, January 27, 2011

China and Democracy

I am in no way qualified or comfortable speaking about events in Tunisia and Egypt (someone who is both). I’ve been watching from a distance, and have been inundated by the pundits discussing popular uprisings and the potential for democracy in the region. And again, as I have in the past, I’ve found the overwhelmingly positive view of the rise of democracy striking. I’ll add my personal feelings here that, normatively, I am in favor of self-determination and the rights of citizens to participate in their government, and, with the proper framework (protection of minority rights, etc), democracy is a positive thing. Yet from the perspective of a state’s self-interest, democracy in another state can be counter to their interests and certainly a threat to the stability of the system. This idea is not something intuitive or very palatable to most in the US. Tumult in the Arab world brought this to mind, but I explore it below in relation to China, the rise of which has been the topic of recent posts by Ezra Klein and the Daily Dish, among others.*

We all know China is rising, and undoubtedly the rapid economic, military, and geopolitical growth of that country is something that the US (and other Western countries) must manage carefully. So far, things have been peaceful, and relations between the current hegemon and the country that might very well become a great power challenger, while at times strained, have generally been at least civil. China has chosen the “peaceful rise” route, and has pursued, for the most part, a “smile strategy” (PDF) in an attempt to reassure regional rivals. Granted, not everyone is so sanguine about the persistence of this “peaceful rise.” Realists like old reliable Mearsheimer see an era of great power competition (PDF) for hegemony in Asia as a forgone conclusion, an inevitable consequence of China’s quest for security as its “power” grows. Tension between the US and China seems to be more frequent. As things stand now, I’d probably fall somewhere in the middle: as China grows and her global reach expands, there are going to be any number of new friction points between China and the US, but I find it hard to imagine open conflict between the two states. Impossible? No. Improbable? Yes.

The notion that the adoption of democracy in China would entrench the peaceful rise and diffuse competitive tension is sometimes explicitly noted and other times implied, but it is a very real theme when the topic of China is broached. I find this to be incredibly irritating for several reasons. First, the possibility (and very real existence) of illiberal democratic regimes has been described in great detail by Fareed Zakaria and others. The idea of a China where national “free and fair” elections are held but citizens have little or no insight into the mechanisms of government and activities of the true powerful and thus are completely isolated from policymaking is not a stretch. In such a scenario, there would be little expectation for a change in behavior from China. Second, even with a reasonable level of democracy and liberalism in China, competition and even conflict with the US could still arise. Widespread Chinese nationalism or a simple dislike and resentment of the US might very well lead to an elected government more disposed towards conflict than the government currently in place in China. Nationalism has long been an important force in China, and its rapid economic and geopolitical rise has led to a resurgence of popular nationalistic pride. As Robert Kaplan, Zakaria, Amy Chua and others have argued, the period of democratic transition can be one of great political and economic upheaval and instability, a situation that could allow significant opportunities for nationalism to flourish, as occurred in several of the post-Soviet republics. A Chinese nationalism could potentially become even more entrenched in such a chaotic time, and certainly could prove an important rallying point for a bevy of new voters.

I suppose all of the above is a long way of saying “be careful what you wish for.” A democratic China may not prove to be the panacea that many in the US and Europe often seem to think.

* Which I am no more qualified to speak on than Tunisia and Egypt, but I will use it to discuss more general IR themes.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Introduction, and a response

I'd like to thank Stilicho for the chance to write here-- it's been a while since I've put my thoughts down, and I'm excited to be a part of the debate. I'm a youngster currently working at a defense contractor in Washington, DC. As a new cog in the military-industrial complex, I enjoy reflecting on the balance between maintaining my progressive values and understanding that all change is gradual. Is the principled view from the outside more ethical than the pragmatism it takes to effect real change? Does my compensation inherently lead towards a compromised worldview? What does it mean to call myself a 'liberal' as I take part in the greatest concentration of power in history and live in a sanitized bubble? I try to ask myself these kinds of questions when the conversation turns to drone strikes and troop levels.

I've been following this protracted debate at Ink Spots and elsewhere. On this blog, Stilicho convincingly argued that the 'grand enemy' is usually just a shortcut to a grand strategy, a shortcut that in the United States has become "a difficult thing to abandon." I'd go one step further and argue that the political structure of the United States precludes any kind of grand strategy but one focused on a grand enemy.

No matter how beautifully articulated, a grand strategy still needs to be implemented by individuals. Just as a sports team's manager needs to align a season's strategy with the aspirations of his players, a national leader must ensure that the interests of critical power brokers fall in line with the chosen grand strategy. In other words, individual incentives need to support the net effort.

Successful grand strategies include a domestic element part and parcel. Byzantium's themes relied on the ambitions of individual generals, and China's "harmonious world" line isn't much more than a caution against internal dissent. The character of the Spanish empire's growth stemmed directly from its religious and class identities, while North Korea controls its foreign policy by simply quashing all non-governmental actors. A grand strategy must reflect the realities of domestic decision-making as much as any foreign policy challenges.

The United States will never have a grand strategy without a grand enemy for the same reason we're stuck with a two-party system. In a political system that rewards binary policy positions, forces winner-takes-all politicking, and always carries the chance for a drastic change in leadership, there is simply no room for anything but the simplest, clearest, and most sloganistic grand strategy. There is hardly any mechanism within the USG that rewards the kind of subtle, long-term planning and execution required by all but the most elementary foreign policies. Can we develop outstanding bilateral relations through a tireless DoS? Sure. Do we develop and implement advanced, far-sighted military policies through the USD for Policy? Absolutely. But will we ever be able to form a meaningful grand strategy centered around anything but a clear and present danger, one so obvious that it rewards a Congressman at the ballot box? No way. That' s not how our democracy works.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Grand Strategy, Grand Enemies, and Acquisition Cycles (Oh My)

The conversation about grand strategy and the need for a grand enemy has been underway over at Ink Spots (and here and here). A number of folks including Adam Elkus and Zenpundit have weighed in on the debate. Aside from being well-worth a read, the discussion has helped me clarify some of my own thinking on the topic, and set the stage for this post.

It was actually a post by Matthew Yglesias, not technically related to the grand strategy/grand enemy debate that prompted this post:

The fact of the matter is that there’s a lot of uncertainty about what kind of “hard” security problems we’ll face 25 years from now. The conservative approach to hedging against that uncertainty is to look at the hard security realm and basically say we should do everything. Keep our nuclear arsenal in place and spend more on modernization. And build missile defense. Invest more in counterinsurgency capabilities. Use the present-day military more aggressively. Build every weapons system the engineers can think up. It’s an uncertain world and a lot can go wrong, so let’s do more more more more.

Twenty-five years ago, the Soviet Union was the perceived primary threat to the US, and grand strategy, strategy, and budgetary priorities stemmed from that widely accepted fact. Roughly twenty-five years ago, the competition for what would become the F-22 Raptor was launched, nineteen years ago the design was selected, and six years ago the planes saw their first official deployment. That’s almost twenty years from defining the requirement in 1986 for a new air superiority fighter to leapfrog Soviet Su-27 Flankers to the first deployment in late 2005.

How radically has the grand strategic and strategic environment changed in the twenty years since the requirement was made? No Soviet Union, and no true immediate threat of air-to-air combat between services equipped with well-matched aircraft. US preponderance is unmatched, and, for the most part, unchallenged in any conventional way. Most of the impetus that drove the requirement for the F-22 Raptor is gone, yet the cancellation of the program at 187 caused a huge uproar and required immense political capital wielded by President Obama and Secretary Gates to get it done.

Absent a grand enemy, the strategic and budgetary logic behind the F-22 (and other Cold War-era procurements) rings hollow. Grand strategy can be understood to frame and inform policy, and policy drives strategy and budget, but the relative grand strategic incoherence of the current moment in the US muddies that process, and has knock-on effects. As I’ve posited elsewhere, a grand enemy is not a requirement to develop a coherent grand strategy, but it is valuable shortcut, particularly when the previous consensus enemy disappeared almost overnight. When you’ve spent forty years defining yourself in opposition to a grand enemy, and building your policies, strategies and budget priorities in opposition to a grand enemy, it becomes a difficult thing to abandon.

Now, I’m aware that grand strategy is different than strategy which in turn is different than budgetary issues. But I can’t help but think that the fact that we have weapons on a twenty-year acquisition cycle is going to make the grand enemy a very attractive, very resilient idea in US national security discourse. “This system was perfect to counter the Soviets, now think of how well it will perform in the inevitable conflict with China!” Fast forward twenty years from today. “The promise of this system helped neutralize the Chinese threat, think of what it can accomplish against [insert enemy here].”