Link. The blog is dead, but well-worth reading for the sort of person who enjoys Luttwak. This is very different from agreeing with Luttwak, or thinking that he’s particularly worth listening to.
Epistemic status: Attempting to distill a distillation (CoPS’ analysis) of a distillation (written records: books, monographs, interviews, etc) of a distillation (insights and thoughts of generals, soldiers, spies, thinkers, intellectuals, academics, diplomats, bureaucrats, and more) of a distillation (war and politics, throughout time and space). For the purposes of this blog post, as in most of my “Insights from X” series, I will spend relatively little time critically examining the premises of the author, and focus on what they believe and how they think. In general, I am not trying to losslessly compress what people are saying: that would take more insight and time than I feel I have to offer. Rather, if the ideas presented here intrigue you and you wish to explore them further, I recommend reading the original.
- Strategy is downstream of politics
There’s the well-worn phrase of Breitbart’s that politics is downstream of culture. One of the arguments of CoPS is that strategy is downstream of politics. The reason that Kennan’s thoughtful call for a more moral and more enlightened America to confront the Soviet Union over negotiating tables and radio waves was turned into containment was that it was executed by the political figures of the time. Moynihan might respond that “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.” Moynihan had his own views about what culture was, and what (white) salvation looked like, but the point that it is possible to change culture persists. Why are some countries corrupt when others aren’t? Frequently, we can point to particular political shifts that seem to have had a substantial impact, from Chester Arthur to Lee Kuan Yew. This is difficult.
“Culture is not instantly subject to conscious human design. It’s plastic, able to bend but only with effort. This plasticity is a result of culture being tightly intertwined with instinct, the inherited mental hardware of man. Instinct only changes through biological evolution over the ages of the Earth. This makes it hard to change culture, which is a hybrid of hardware and software. Culture can change but the process is long, arduous, and only happens over extended periods of time.”
CoPS acknowledges this possibility. “Politics is subject to the pull of culture but it has its own beat and its own rhythm. Politics can turn the tables and shape culture but the effort is power intensive. Since it’s uphill battle, culture usually has the upper hand.”
CoPS expands this into an entire “stack”: culture -> politics -> strategy -> operations -> tactics, but I think that the politics -> strategy link is most likely to be new to readers, as it was new to me. Operations, summarized, is the thing you do when dealing with the size of Russia and need a scale in between “the biggest military scale” and “prepping for a battle, or avoiding one”. Grand strategy is “contain China via reinforcing the seas” vs “emphasize trade to make Chinese cost of initiating aggression too high”. Operations is “have the Marine Corps make installations to control 1000-mile radius sea areas” vs “A mobile military is a useful military”. Tactics is which islands you take over.
2. Americans want normalcy.
Americans don’t want to fight, but more than that they don’t want to engage. They are, as a group, deeply myopic, and happy that way. Culture as CoPS works with it is about the “unspoken assumption”, and as hard to change as you might expect from that description. Culture can be fought by politics, but politics is always at a disadvantage.
3. How much decline?
Falling life expectancy. NIMBYism. Increasing isolationism. Dying cities. Dying regions. A despised elite, and a political class that is both increasingly wealthy and increasingly irrelevant. Increased focus on internal fights over external ones. Declining schools. Increasing regulatory capture, and increasing rewards to regulatory capture. LAmerica looks like a nation in decline. But how much, in what ways, and for what reasons?
4. Honor cultures
Reading enough to understand honor is critical for anyone to whom it doesn’t come naturally. People who don’t have the protection of a state have to rely on their own reputation to defend them. They must respond to slights with aggression that seems stunning to the tamed middle classes, or else show themselves weak.
5. OODA Loops
Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. CoPS is a massive Boyd fan, and has inspired me to read more Boyd.
(Link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:OODA.Boyd.svg. No changes were made.)
“War is a strategy intended to make the enemy conform to your political desires when doing so is contrary to what they’d do if they possessed both the power to resist and sufficient knowledge about your true political desires.”
“WWI is largely overlooked in American memory because of distance and the short amount of time it took for us to go over there, whip the Hun, and win the war. WWI looms larger in the memory of other nations whose wartime experiences were decidedly less satisfactory than America’s. They built monuments to unspeakable loss, grief, and human suffering while America built victory monuments and went home.”
I don’t know how to describe this one.