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Trump’s “Space Force”: A Predictable Future of War and Chaos

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On December 20, 2019, US President Donald Trump signed the National Defense Authorization Act, creating the newest military service since the US Air Force was established in 1947. Although the United States Space Force is intended to bolster this country’s overall power in an expanding geostrategic competition with Russia – the usual or orthodox sort of national response amidst our structural global anarchy – its plausible effects will likely be destabilizing. At its core, the critical US policy error committed here is both conceptual and historic; that is, it consists of failing to recognize that literally millennia of Realpolitik-generated competitions have ended in more-or-less catastrophic forms of war. In essence, therefore, by creating Space Force, Donald Trump will merely have passed America’s most basic military posture “from one untenable position to another….” Apropos of this flawed transmittal, this article by Professor Louis Rene Beres will further clarify certain assorted details and informed expectations.

“What is the good of passing from one untenable position to another, of seeking justification always on the same plane?”-Samuel Beckett, Endgame

Significantly, US President Donald Trump’s newly announced “Space Force” represents an ironic reaffirmation of past policy failures. More precisely, when understood as a witting extrapolation from core Trump policies of “America First,” the operational role of this newest US armed service will be to extend Realpolitik[1] or power politics “vertically,” into space. Prima facie, at best, the predictable result will be the same as it has always been here on earth.  At worst, this result could be utterly baneful and uniquely catastrophic.

Space Force will be founded upon certain conspicuous failures of the past. It will project entire centuries of intellectually vacant policy expectations into still another dimension. Accordingly, Americans should now be inquiring: What conceivable “good” can be expected from such a persistently injurious military posture?

The answer is plain. Instead of “America First” or any of its prematurely celebrated derivatives, a rational and well-intentioned American president should reject all zero-sum derivatives or corollaries of “classical” belligerent nationalism. Any American policy that intentionally seeks to maximize its own national well-being at the expense of others will be acting against certain peremptory norms of international law[2] and against its own dominant security interests. By definition, any such policy – especially in the midst of “Cold War II” [3]– could prove incoherent, indefensible or even altogether irrational.

Nothing could be more apparent to anyone who bothers to take the trouble to think logically and historically about such serious matters.[4] In candor, the requisite analyses are by no means dense or esoteric. Indeed, on such long-documented matters of policy, history is unambiguous.

To clarify further, the world is a system. Always, everything is interrelated.  Inter alia, no American foreign policy success can ever be achieved at the sacrificial expense of other countries and peoples. And absolutely no such presumptive success is sustainable if the rest of the planet must thereby expect a consistently more violent and explosive future.[5]

 Here, on earth, the basic story is always the same; it is always about certain inane and self-destructive inter-state competitions.

Here, on this irremediably interdependent planet, the national tribe, in one belligerent manifestation or another, has long undermined all needed opportunities for creating a durable and authentic world order.

Still, it is exactly this latest expression of corrosive national tribalism that is championed by Mr. Trump’s Space Force. When all cumulative policy impacts are taken into careful account, this “soulless”[6] derivative of America First will inevitably emerge as anything but patriotic. What else should we reasonably conclude about a planned military posture that injures this country and various others abjectly, and at the same time?[7]

Though counter-intuitive, Space Force represents a US security posture that is badly misconceived and prospectively lethal. Left unchallenged, it will further exacerbate the deliberate Presidential choice of endless belligerence as a favored medium of American military well-being. What is required, instead, is the readily decipherable opposite of Space Force. What is needed, immediately, is a markedly broadened US awareness of human and societal interconnectedness.

 Always, history is instructive. From the 1648 Peace of Westphalia to the present fragmenting moment, world politics has been shaped by a continuously shifting balance of power and by variously relentless correlates of war, terror and genocide.[8] Ideally, of course, hope should continue to exist. To be sure, there is no rational alternative. But now it should sing much more softly, unobtrusively, in an aptly prudent undertone.

 For Americans increasingly endangered by seat-of-the-pants Trump foreign policies, however, more will be required than sotto voce modulations. Merely to survive on this imperiled planet, all of us, together, will have to rediscover an individual human life, one consciously detached from ritualistic patterns of conformance, mindless entertainments, shallow optimism, or any other disingenuously contrived expressions of some retrospectively imagined tribal happiness. At a minimum, such survival will demand a prompt and full-scale retreat from what Donald Trump has termed “America First” and from all of its rapidly dissembling correlates. In this regard, Trump’s Space Force is the foreseeable result of a much deeper societal pathology, a know-nothing American populism that drives out intellect and reason in favor of deliberate mystifications and a collective self-delusion.

 Jefferson and America’s other Founding Fathers had already understood: There is always a necessary and respectable place for serious erudition. Learning from history, Americans may yet learn something from “America First” that is useful to opposing any actual iterations of a planned Space Force. They may learn, even during this national declension Time of Trump, that a ubiquitous mortality is far more consequential than any glittering administration promises of “supremacy,” “advantage” or “victory.”[9]

In The Decline of the West, first published during World War I, Oswald Spengler asked: “Can a desperate faith in knowledge free us from the nightmare of the grand questions?” Assuredly, this remains a vital query, but one that will never be adequately raised in our universities, on Wall Street or anywhere in the Trump White House. Still, we may learn something productive about these indispensable “grand questions” by more closely studying American roles and responsibilities in a changing world politics.

At that point we might finally come to understand that the most suffocating insecurities of life on earth can never be undone by further militarizing space and abrogating pertinent international treaties.

In the end, even in American foreign policy decision-making, truth is exculpatory. In what amounts to a uniquely promising paradox, Space Force can help illuminate a blatant lie that may still help us see the underlying truth. This peremptory truth is not really mysterious or unfathomable. Americans require, after all, a substantially wider consciousness of unity and relatedness between individual human beings and (correspondingly) between adversarial nation-states.

There is no more urgent requirement.

None.

Though seemingly oriented toward greater American power and security, building an American Space Force would merely propel this country’s military strategy from one untenable posture of belligerent nationalism to another. What the proponents of Space Force ignore, inter alia, is that all national security options should be examined from the standpoint of their cumulative impact. Accordingly, if the credible effect of this new America First policy initiative will be to spawn various reciprocal postures of belligerent nationalism among principal foes (e.g., Russia and potentially China) the net effect will prove sorely and comprehensively negative.[10]

Far better for President Trump to consider the relevant insight of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin offered in his masterwork, The Phenomenon of Man: “No element can move and grow except with and by all the others with itself.” While not conceived with any particular reference to global chaos[11] or national military strategies, this elucidating fragment of the French Jesuit philosopher’s wisdom applies here with substantial purpose and an altogether exquisite perfection. Summing up, Space Force, in all its apparent detachment from historical experience, represents a move in the wrong direction, a determinative step “forward” into another dimension of prospective international conflict, but a consequentially retrograde step nonetheless.


[1] See, by this author, Louis René Beres, Reason and Realpolitik: US Foreign Policy and World Order, Lexington Books, 1984; and Louis René Beres, Mimicking Sisyphus: America’s Countervailing Nuclear Strategy, Lexington Books, 1983. Regarding philosophical foundations of Realpoliitk: “Right is the interest of the stronger,” says Thrasymachus in Bk. I, Sec. 338 of Plato, THE REPUBLIC (B. Jowett tr., 1875).  “Justice is a contract neither to do nor to suffer wrong,” says Glaucon, id., Bk. II, Sec. 359.  See also, Philus in Bk III, Sec. 5 of Cicero, DE REPUBLICA.

[2] According to Article 53 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties: “…a peremptory norm of general international law is a norm accepted and recognized by the international community of states as a whole as a norm from which no derogation is permitted and which can be modified only by a subsequent norm of general international law having the same character.” See: Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, Done at Vienna, May 23, 1969. Entered into force, Jan. 27, 1980. U.N. Doc. A/CONF. 39/27 at 289 (1969), 1155 U.N.T.S. 331, reprinted in 8 I.L.M.  679 (1969).

[3] In expressly political science terms, positing the influence of “Cold War II” means expecting that the world system is becoming increasingly bipolar. For early writings, by this author, on the global security implications of just such an expanding bipolarity, see: Louis René Beres, “Bipolarity, Multipolarity, and the Reliability of Alliance Commitments,” Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 25, No.4., December 1972, pp. 702-710; Louis René Beres, “Bipolarity, Multipolarity, and the Tragedy of the Commons,” Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 26, No.4., December 1973, pp, 649-658; and Louis René Beres, “Guerillas, Terrorists, and Polarity: New Structural Models of World Politics,” Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 27, No.4., December 1974, pp. 624-636.

[4] But one should be reminded here of Bertrand Russell’s trenchant observation in Principles of Social Reconstruction (1916): “Men fear thought more than they fear anything else on earth – more than ruin, more even than death.”

[5] To the extent that any such American foreign policy violates international law, it would also represent a corollary violation of US law. In the sober words of Mr. Justice Gray, delivering the judgment of the US Supreme Court in Paquete Habana (1900): “International law is part of our law, and must be ascertained and administered by the courts of justice of appropriate jurisdiction….” (175 U.S. 677(1900)) See also: Opinion in Tel-Oren vs. Libyan Arab Republic (726 F. 2d 774 (1984)).The specific incorporation of treaty law into US municipal law is most expressly codified at Art. 6 of the US Constitution, the so-called “Supremacy Clause.”

[6]  Both Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung thought of “soul” (in German, Seele) as the intangible essence of a human being. Neither Freud nor Jung ever provided any precise definition of the term, but it was not intended by either in some ordinary religious sense. For both, it was a still-recognizable and critical seat of both mind and passions in this life. Interesting, too, in the present context, is that Freud explained his already-predicted decline of America by various express references to “soul.” Freud was plainly disgusted by any civilization so apparently unmoved by considerations of true “consciousness” (e.g., awareness of intellect, literature and history), and even thought that the crude American commitment to perpetually shallow optimism and material accomplishment at any cost would occasion sweeping psychological misery.

[7] From the standpoint of classical political and legal philosophy, such a national policy would be the diametric opposite of the statement by Emmerich de Vattel in The Law of Nations (1758): “The first general law which is to be found in the very end of the society of Nations is that each Nation should contribute as far as it can to the happiness and advancement of other Nations.”

[8] International law remains a “vigilante” system, or “Westphalian.” This latter reference is to the Peace of Westphalia (1648), which concluded the Thirty Years War, and created the now still-existing decentralized, or self-help, state system. See: Treaty of Peace of Munster, Oct. 1648, 1 Consol. T.S. 271; and Treaty of Peace of Osnabruck, Oct. 1648, 1., Consol. T.S. 119, Together, these two treaties comprise the Peace of Westphalia.

[9] See by this author, at Oxford University Press:  https://blog.oup.com/2016/04/war-political-victories/

[10] Included in this assessment must be the expanding risks of US Presidential nuclear decision-making. By this writer, see Louis René Beres, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists  https://thebulletin.onuclear rg/2016/08/what-if-you-dont-trust-the-judgment-of-the-president-whose-finger-is-over-the-nuclear-button/

[11] Although composed in the seventeenth century, Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan still offers an illuminating vision of chaos in world politics. Says the English philosopher in Chapter XIII, “Of the Natural Condition of Mankind, as concerning their Felicity, and Misery:” During chaos, a condition which Hobbes identifies as a “time of War,” it is a time “…where every man is Enemy to every man… and where the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” At the time of writing, Hobbes believed that the condition of “nature” in world politics was less chaotic than that same condition existing among individual human beings -because of what he called the “dreadful equality” of individual men in nature being able to kill others – but this once-relevant differentiation has effectively disappeared with the spread of nuclear weapons.

LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth and most recent book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (2016) (2nd ed., 2018) https://paw.princeton.edu/new-books/surviving-amid-chaos-israel%E2%80%99s-nuclear-strategy Some of his principal strategic writings have appeared in Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard University); Yale Global Online (Yale University); Oxford University Press (Oxford University); Oxford Yearbook of International Law (Oxford University Press); Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon); Special Warfare (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (Pentagon); The War Room (Pentagon); World Politics (Princeton); INSS (The Institute for National Security Studies)(Tel Aviv); Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Israel); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; The Atlantic; The New York Times and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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Foreign fighters a ‘serious crisis’ in Libya

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The 20,000 foreign fighters now in Libya represent “a serious crisis” and “a shocking violation of Libyan sovereignty”, UN Acting Special Representative Stephanie Williams said on Wednesday, during the latest meeting under the country’s political dialogue forum. 

Seventy-five people from across the social and political spectrum of Libyan society are taking part in the forum, aimed at establishing a transitional body that will govern the country in the lead-up to elections next year.  

“You may believe that these foreigners are here as your guests, but they are now occupying your house.  This is a blatant violation of the arms embargo”, said Ms. Williams, who also heads the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL). 

“They are pouring weapons into your country, a country which does not need more weapons. They are not in Libya for your interests, they are in Libya for their interests. Dirou balkom (take care). You have now a serious crisis with regard to the foreign presence in your country.” 

Chaos, ceasefire and dialogue 

Following the overthrow of President Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Libya descended into chaos, resulting in the country being divided between two rival administrations: the Government of National Accord (GNA), based in the west, and the Libyan National Army (LNA), located in the east. 

The sides agreed a ceasefire in October in Geneva, after mediation led by Ms. Williams. Provisions included the withdrawal of all military units and armed groups from the frontlines, and the departure of mercenaries and foreign fighters from the country.   

The ceasefire paved the way for the start of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF), with a first round of talks held in Tunis from 7- 15 November.  The outcome was a roadmap to elections on 24 December 2021:  the 70th anniversary of Libya’s independence. 

Women participants also issued a statement outlining a series of principles and recommendations for improving women’s participation in the political process and governance.  

The second round of talks began last week, with Wednesday marking the third virtual meeting of the parties.  

Corruption, misgovernance and ‘political tourism’ 

Ms. Williams highlighted ongoing challenges in Libya, pointing out that some 1.3 million citizens are expected to need humanitarian assistance in January. 

She also reminded participants of the country’s “terrible” electricity crisis, stating “I am not pointing fingers.  This is a crisis in the west and in the east. You have a crisis of corruption. You have a misgovernance crisis, and now you have only 13 of 27 powerplants that are functioning.” 

Although around $1 billion is needed immediately to avert a complete collapse of the electrical grid, she said “this is very difficult now because of the divisions in the institutions, and because of the epidemic of corruption and this kleptocratic class that is determined to remain in power.” 

Meanwhile, human rights abuses are a daily reality nationwide, with reports of kidnapping, arbitrary detentions and killings, and estimates indicate that there are nearly 94,000 cases of COVID-19, though the actual number could be higher. 

“While there is a lot of political tourism going to different countries and capitals, the average Libyans are suffering, and the indications of improvement for their situation are not there,” said Ms. Williams. 

‘Time is not on your side’ 

For the UN envoy, the LPDF is the best way for Libya to move forward.  Underscoring that there is “a direct cost for inaction and obstruction”, she warned participants that the clock is ticking. 

“I know that there are many who think that this whole dialogue is just about sharing power, but it is really about sharing responsibility for future generations”, she said. 

“This is my ask of you as we have the discussions today in going forward, because, and I will say it again, time is not on your side.”

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The Need to Reorient New Delhi in the Indo-Pacific

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Beijing’s overt expansionism in South Asia and the South China Sea (SCS) continues to threaten India’s maritime security. The rise of China as an Asian military and global economic power has also disrupted the inherent security and multilateralism of the Indo-Pacific region (IPR).

In response, New Delhi along with others has adopted the concept of the Indo-Pacific. However, over the last decade New Delhi’s orientation in the IPR has been particularly “Pacific-oriented”, resulting in a less than comprehensive approach to India’s maritime security priorities in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

India’s Strategic Goals in the Indo-Pacific

China’s so-called “peaceful rise” has been betrayed by Beijing’s growing territorial designs in South Asia and the SCS; the ongoing buildup along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), and China’s militarised outposts in the SCS are evidence to this. These designs have also been operationalised through economic measures under its predatory Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), of which the “silk road” is a challenge to India’s maritime security.

India’s strategic competition with China has provoked the expansion of national material capacity and foreign policy measures. These are aimed at developing and preserving collective regional security and multilateralism, in India’s primary and secondary interest areas.

However, over the years, New Delhi’s adoption of the IPR concept has witnessed a disproportionate emphasis on the eastern sub-region of the Indian Ocean (EIO) in terms of its maritime security priorities, resulting in a Pacific-oriented approach. A number of factors have brought about such an orientation.

A Pacific-Oriented Approach and the EIO

First, India’s strategic advantage along the “Indo-Pacific straits”. The “Malacca dilemma” gives New Delhi an edge over China’s energy supply-lines, and regional trade from the IOR to the western Pacific Ocean. This advantage is furthered by the development of material capacities, most significant of which has been the establishment of India’s first integrated command on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

The Andaman and Nicobar Command’s (ANC) surveillance and kinetic capabilities not only improves India’s own security status, but also signals its contribution in preserving collective regional security in the EIO, for example, through the India-Australia-Japan-US Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD), or Quad.

Second, the origins of the IPR concept in the now famous “confluence of the seas” speech delivered by PM Shinzo Abe to the Indian Parliament in 2007. The  mention of,  “[a] “broader Asia” that broke away geographical boundaries…”, or Southeast Asia, highlighted the political locus of the IPR’s confrontation with an “assertive China”. The continued militarisation of the SCS, growing tensions in East Asia, and the US-China strategic competition, helps perpetuate Southeast Asia’s prominence in the IPR discourse.

Third, New Delhi’s continuation of the “Look East” policy as the “Act East” policy (AEP)  in 2014. Building on historical ties with Southeast Asia, New Delhi placed ASEAN at the core of the AEP. ASEAN is also considered “central to India’s footprint in East Asia”. These foreign policy measures, focused on developing resilient trans-regional connectivity and supply-chains, flow past the EIO, from the Andaman Sea, through the Malacca strait, to Southeast Asia and beyond.

Fourth, and finally, India’s growing importance in the US-China strategic competition. China’s economic influence in Southeast Asia, along with its large military capabilities, poses a threat to the US’s position as an influential extra-regional power. The recently ratified Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) has been the latest in a list of disruptions to the US’s predominance in the IPR. 

As India’s maritime goals continue to converge with that of the US and its regional allies – Japan, Australia, and the Republic of Korea – New Delhi’s interests will stretch further into the Pacific theatre, to the SCS, East China Sea and Western Pacific. In fact, some suggest that the idea of a military command on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands was in fact, first discussed by President Bill Clinton and PM P.V Narashima Rao as a deterrent against China in 1995.

Furthermore, the US defines the IPR as, “…the region which stretches from the west coast of India to the western shores of the United States…”, thereby excluding the WIOR from its strategic approach to the Indo-Pacific theatre. This explains why the sub-region is understated in India’s IPR discourse. 

While Indian Navy (IN) manoeuvres in the region have been generally limited to the IOR, the recent Galwan Valley clash saw an IN warship deployed to the SCS; coincidentally, during an ongoing US naval exercise in the area. There is also a growing call for the expansion of IN presence to the Western Pacific, beyond its mission-based deployments.

Reorienting New Delhi Towards the WIOR

This Pacific-orientation has resulted in the omission of the western sub-region of the Indian Ocean Region (WIOR) from India’s strategic approach to the IPR. The use of the term “Indo-Pacific straits” for those between the EIO and Southeast Asia, already exclude the sub-region from India’s strategic approach to the IPR.

A comprehensive approach to the IOR should obviously entail an emphasis on India’s maritime security priorities in both sub-regions of the IOR.

This in turn will allow New Delhi to realise its interests in the larger Indo-Pacific theatre.

The WIOR is physically a much larger arena, with different regional and extra-regional actors. However, it is a significant arena within the IPR for much of the same reasons as the EIO

The main obstacle of the WIOR, when placed within the IPR concept is that India’s approach to the region diverges greatly from its current IPR partners. Differing priorities, conflicting interests and historical contexts, for example with regards to Pakistan and Iran, have generally muted the region.

The decision to hold the second phase of the 2020 Malabar Exercise in the Arabian Sea is a welcome move in reinforcing the sub-region in India’s IPR approach. New Delhi’s reception of the recently signed Maldives-US defence agreement is also a sign of India’s slow reorientation to the WIOR.

India’s position in the WIOR gives it a number of strategic advantages. The Indian peninsula along with the Lakshadweep Islands and Laccadive Sea, offers New Delhi a unique edge in protecting and overseeing much of the world’s goods trade from the Atlantic Ocean, and energy supplies from West Asia to the Pacific Oceans. The development of material capacities in this arena will act as a springboard for the further enhancement of collective regional security.

The growing participation of extra-regional actors in the WIOR, such as France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the EU, signals to New Delhi the need to include the region in its IPR approach. Pursuing mutually beneficial security and economic arrangements with actors besides its existing IPR partners will also help circumventing current contrasts in maritime priorities and geostrategic interests.

More importantly, China’s growing military and economic presence in the Arabian Sea, through the “string of pearls” and the “maritime silk road”, remains a threat to India’s traditional ties to, and its status as a net-security provider in the WIOR. The Chabahar Port in the Balochistan-Sistan province in Iran is one such economic interest that has seen much controversy; the recent exclusion of India from the Zahedan railway project, and the subsequent agreement of a $400 billion strategic partnership between China and Iran.

The WIOR is also of concern to India due to extant interests, such as maintaining a strategic advantage vis-a-vis Pakistan, enhancing trade with Afghanistan and East Africa, piracy/terrrorism in the Arabian Sea, and energy supplies from the Middle East.

Conclusion

To secure India’s maritime priorities in the IOR, but also consolidate its vision for the IPR, New Delhi needs to reorient itself, determine its strategic advantages in the WIOR, and develop national capacity and foreign policy measures equivalent to those in the EIO.

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On the Universality of the “Logic of Strategy” and Beyond

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Just like several other scholars, military strategist Edward Luttwak argues that “the universal logic of strategy applies in perfect equality to every culture in every age”.[i] This implies that there is indeed one logic inherent to strategic thought, which, according to Luttwak, “cannot be circumvented […] and must be obeyed”.[ii]Mahnken further underpins the idea of the universality of the logic of strategy with the argument that war is a human activity and human nature has not changed throughout time.[iii]When considering Colin Gray stating that “there is an essential unity to all strategic experience in all periods of history because nothing vital to the nature and function of war and strategy changes”, it seems rather natural to accept a certain inevitability of strategic conclusions.[iv]

It is therefore necessary to pose the question which implications the existence of a universal logic of strategy might entail. If such a universally valid logic is assumed to exist, those who understand – or rather master – it best and manage to uncover its underlying cognitive mechanisms will be the most successful actors within the international system as they will be more able to foresee and therefore counter the strategies of possible opponents.

Additionally, to investigate the notion of a logic of strategy is particularly relevant considering the prospect of future wars. If there is a logic of strategy, which is further universally valid, then neither the scenario of a militarized outer space, nor the invention of highly lethal, insuperable biological weapons or the increasing development of and reliance on artificial intelligence will have any substantial, altering effect on it. This thought is congruent with Colin Gray, who claims that it would be a major fallacy to fall prey to the assumption that the invention of ever more modern weapon systems might change the presumed continuity inherent to strategy.[v] In this respect, it must also be emphasized that a certain trust in a universally valid logic of strategy must be handled carefully and must not confine strategic thinking. Hence, the notion of a logic of strategy hints towards the very practice of strategy.[vi]

The term “strategy” itself evolved over time and certainly captured a different meaning before World War One than it does today. This caesura was introduced by Freedman, who argues that this experience led to a widening of the concept “strategy” and to several attempts of redefinition, thus diverging from earlier notions of the concept as provided by von Clausewitz and others.[vii] However, Whetham points out that the notion of strategy and its inherent logic already permeated pre-modern eras, even if it was not yet considered or referred to as such by the respective protagonists.[viii]Approaching the term from a contemporary perspective, Gray very prominently defines strategy as “the bridge that relates military power to political purpose”.[ix]Angstrom and Widen engage with the term similarly when they write that strategy must be viewed as a rationalist process that reconciles “the political aims of war and the military aims in war”.[x] The notion of strategy can therefore be boiled down to the combination of means, ways and aims.

The term “logic” shall in this essay be understood as a rational process of reasoning that is based on various premises and finally leads to the acceptance of a valid conclusion.[xi]Considering that the sub-discipline of strategic studies was traditionally occupied with the question whether and to what extent strategic action is subject to historical, economic, social and technological regularities and patterns – thus whether certain premises indeed necessarily lead to specific strategic conclusions – the assumption of a specific “logic of strategy” does not seem far-fetched. Therefore, this essay argues that indeed a universally valid logic inherent to strategy can be identified, having overcome the constraints of time and space. However, this logic is not the only one. Strategy further operates along the lines of a time- and space-bound, actor-specific logic, which is why strategy must be perceived through a multidimensional lens – and which finally makes strategy so difficult.

On the logic of strategy

When approaching the notion of a logic of strategy, it is necessary to emphasize two preconditions. Firstly, the utility of the use of military force as an important tool of statecraft must be acknowledged.[xii] Secondly, one has to consider the general overarching perception of international politics that widely underlies the field of strategic studies, namely the notion of an anarchic self-help system with independent states at its center, which are all armed to a certain extent and therefore find themselves in security dilemmas.[xiii] Within this framework we will now consider what might constitute the logic of strategy.

When elaborating on the question whether there exist “guidelines” that inform strategic thinking, Gaddis concludes that the fact that strategists do not always have to start from square one increases the likeliness of a certain logic of strategy.[xiv] According to Angstrom and Wilden, the logic of strategy unfolds as its design necessarily bases on three core pillars.[xv]Firstly, military and political ends are perceived as two distinct aspects that need to be put into accordance, the application of military means serving the political ends. Moreover, the actor being concerned with strategy does not have unlimited resources at his/her disposal. Therefore, the aspect of the scarcity of resources is to be viewed as a cornerstone or fixed determinant of the underlying logic of strategy. This is a crucial factor because, as Gray points out, examples like Imperial France, Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union all demonstrate that the pursuit of political ends beyond one’s means is bound to fail.[xvi]Thirdly, Angstrom and Widen emphasize that the logic of strategy builds on the confrontation of opposing wills, which accounts for strategy’s interactive and consequently dynamic nature.[xvii] This component might be captured best by Beaufre, who approaches strategy as “the art of the dialectic of two opposing wills using force to resolve their dispute”.[xviii] It is crucial to highlight that the “opposing will” belongs to an intelligent, capable opponent. These three elements that define the logic of strategy are further interlinked, leading to repercussions among them.

As strategy describes the use of military means for the achievement of political ends, several authors have thus attempted to categorize the possible ways to use force. For instance, Robert Art distinguishes four functions of the use of force: defense, deterrence, compellence and swaggering.[xix] Why is this categorization important when reflecting on the logic of strategy? This is because the possible ways to use force (independently of which form the specific “force” takes) are not time-bound. When for example thinking of deterrence, one might be tempted to assume that this specific way to use force is inextricably linked to the deterrence function of nuclear arms in combination with the principle of mutually assured destruction (MAD). However, as Lonsdale vividly illustrates, Alexander the Great already mastered the interplay of military power and psychological effects and made use of coercion and deterrence in order to expand and sustain the newly shaping borders of his empire.[xx] This demonstrates that the logic of strategy operates on the basis of a certain toolkit of ways to use force, which have persisted over time.

Another aspect which could be interpreted as part of a universal logic of strategy might be its inherent paradoxicality. This feature is above all emphasized by Edward Luttwak, who postulates that the whole strategic sphere is permeated with a paradoxical logic deviating from day-to-day life’s ordinary “linear” logic.[xxi] He underpins this notion by referring to the proverb “Si vis pacem, para bellum”, the idea of nuclear deterrence (thus the interpretation of one’s readiness to attack retaliatory as genuinely peaceful intent) or by providing specific examples.[xxii] In this sense he draws attention to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and claims that the Japanese were able to create a momentum of surprise only by neglecting crucial preparations.[xxiii] This means that within the realm of strategy, Luttwak’s paradoxical logic finds thorough application as the straightforward “linear” logic is viewed rather predictable and is therefore more likely to be punished.

In sum, the aspects outlined above could be perceived as being universally valid, throughout time and space. However, as will be argued, there is more to the logic of strategy that must be considered.

Going Beyond Strategy’s Universal Logic

In the following, the attempt should be undertaken to challenge the notion that there is indeed only a logic of strategy. One could firstly argue that strategy, bridging between military means and political objectives, is not only grounded in the specific universal logic as outlined before but that strategy is also always a choice among several available options. Then the question follows, if all options available would theoretically all be equally feasible, require the same resources and are similar in terms of effectiveness, which strategy would be adopted? One could argue that this depends on the involved actors, which, even if acting under the premise of rationality, are rooted in their specific historical, social and political contexts.

Strategy is therefore clearly not designed within a vacuum. The contents of strategy do not only derive from what was described above as composing the universally valid logic of strategy. If we return to the definition of “logic”, the term was understood as a process of thought, which leads from several given premises to a valid conclusion under the condition of rationality. Therefore, also the given time- and space-bound circumstances under which a certain strategy is formulated could be considered as forming their own logic. Angstrom and Widen summarize these circumstances as strategic context, which unfolds along the lines of six dimensions of politics (without claiming to be exhaustive): geography, history, ideology, economy, technology and the political system.[xxiv] Instead of treating them as mere contextual factors, it is important to consider the respective as constituting their own logic, along which strategy is aligned. However, Angstrom and Widen emphasize that these actor-specific factors only bear limited explanatory power and that it is difficult to assess to what extent these factors influence the design of strategies.[xxv] This, nevertheless, does not invalidate the notion that these actor-, time- and space-specific circumstances should be considered as another logic by itself. Acknowledging the existence of more than one logic of strategy penetrating the realm of strategy would further emphasize the importance of the specific embeddedness of strategy – without undermining the significance of the above identified universally valid logic of strategy. One would consequently accept that when it comes to strategy, one encounters several logics in action.

Conclusion

When returning to the initial question, which implications the existence of a logic of strategy would have, specifically regarding the prospect of success, it is worthwhile to consult Richard Betts, who asks “Is Strategy an Illusion?”.[xxvi] He argues that effective strategy is often impossible due to the unpredictability and complexity of the gap between the use of force and the aspired political ends.[xxvii] However, it is indeed because of this overwhelming complexity in which strategy operates that its underlying logics should be reflected upon. Gaddis refers to the universally valid features of the logic of strategy as a “checklist”, which shall be considered to contribute to the design of a successful, effective strategy.[xxviii] As was demonstrated above, it is nevertheless also crucial to consider the additional specific time-and space-bound logic of strategy. To understand the strategy of potential opponents, it makes sense to deconstruct its logical foundation, to consider the universally valid logic of strategy but also the respective underlying actor-specific logic. Strategy thus operates along a multidimensional logic, both universally valid and time- and space-bound. This is what makes strategy difficult but acknowledging this conceptual aspect might notwithstanding contribute to its further mastery.


[i]Luttwak, Edward N., The Rise of China vs. the Logic of Strategy (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2012), vii.

[ii]Ibid., viii.

[iii]Mahnken, Thomas G., The Evolution of Strategy… But What About Policy? Journal of Strategic Studies 34 no. 4 (2016), 52.

[iv]Gray, Colin S.,Modern Strategy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 1.

[v]Gray Colin S., Why Strategy Is Difficult. JFQ (1999), 8.

[vi] Cf. Lonsdale, David J. and Colin S. Gray (eds.), The Practice of Strategy: From Alexander the Great to the Present. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2011).

[vii]Freedman, Lawrence. The Meaning of Strategy: Part I: The Origin Story. Texas National Security Review 1 no. 1 (2007), 90-105.

[viii]Whetham, David, The Practice of Strategy: From Alexander the Great to the Present. Edited by John Andreas Olsen and Colin S. Gray. War in History 21 no. 2 (2014), 252.

[ix] Gray, Modern Strategy,17.

[x]Armstrong, Jan and J. J. Widen,Contemporary Military Theory. The Dynamics of War (New York: Routledge, 2015), 33. Original emphasis.

[xi]Hintikka, Jaakko, Logic. Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessible via: https://www.britannica.com/topic/logic [accessed: October 25th 2020].

[xii]Art, Robert J., To What Ends Military Power? International Security 4 no. 4 (1980), 35.

[xiii]Gilpin, Robert G., No one Loves a Political Realist. Security Studies 5 no. 3(1996), 26.

[xiv]Gaddis, John Lewis, Containment and the Logic of Strategy. The National Interest 8 no. 10 (1987), 29.

[xv] Armstrong and Widen, Contemporary Military Theory, 46.

[xvi]Gray, Why Strategy Is Difficult, 10.

[xvii] Cf. Armstrong and Widen, Contemporary Military Theory.

[xviii]Beaufre, André, An Introduction to Strategy (London: Faber and Faber, 1965), 22.

[xix] Cf. Art, To What Ends Military Power?

[xx]Lonsdale, David J., The Campaigns of Alexander the Great. In: John A. Olsen; Colin S. Gray (eds.). The Practice of Strategy: From Alexander the Great to the Present (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2011)33.

[xxi]Luttwak, Edward N., Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2001), 2.

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] Ibid., 6.

[xxiv] Cf. Armstrong and Widen, Contemporary Military Theory, 36-43.

[xxv] Ibid., 42-43.

[xxvi] Cf. Betts, Richard K., Is Strategy an Illusion? International Security 25 no. 2 (2000), 5-50.

[xxvii]Ibid., 5.

[xxviii] Gaddis, Containment and the Logic of Strategy, 38.

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