Brazil does soft power right!


Apologies for going quiet again. To add to recent tumults, the winter term has segued into the spring term in Newport, and I somehow squeezed in a week of lectures and a symposium on “Maritime Power in the XXI Century” at the Escola de Guerra Naval, the Brazilian Naval War College, hard by the renowned Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio de Janeiro. The events convened in conjunction with “Velas LatinAmerica 2018,” Brazil’s answer to the international fleet reviews held from time to time by major seafaring nations. A squadron of Latin American tall ships berthed near the fleet base for the occasion.

The journey marked just my second foray south of the equator and my first to South America. Venturing into a new frontier seldom disappoints—and certainly didn’t this time. The Marinha do Brasil, or Brazilian Navy, is a marvelous host. These naval diplomats take pride in their country and their service, and they know how to showcase Brazil for foreigners—amassing diplomatic goodwill in the bargain.

Contrast that with heavy-handed Chinese diplomacy. Soft power isn’t that soft for China. It’s gotten increasingly pushy, and transparently self-serving. In large measure Beijing strives to overawe others with China’s awesomeness, or coopt them through economic inducements. But for an easygoing nation like Brazil, soft power is about showing visitors the country and letting them draw their own conclusions without the hard sell. You don’t need to lay the salesmanship on too thick when you’re confident in the product you’re selling.

To borrow an old metaphor from my friend Toshi Yoshihara, China dabs on perfume to augment its soft power. A Brazil—or for that matter a Taiwan, to name another country that does soft power right—exudes pheromones! Perfume is often cloying. It wears off and has to be reapplied—potentially at great expense and effort to the wearer. Pheromones come natural.

Give me the Brazilian paradigm for soft power over China’s any day.

Arms control isn’t an end in itself


Current events—and a sidebar discussion at last week’s Breaking the Mold Workshop—put me in a . . . Star Trek frame of mind. A fellow participant wondered aloud why the United States should keep honoring arms-control accords with Russia when Russia is flagrantly in breach of them.

Good question.

Arms control is a tool for restraining the development or proliferation of certain classes of weaponry deemed particularly provocative, destabilizing, or cruel. Arms control has a long lineage, dating at least back to the papacy’s effort to ban the crossbow in medieval times. I have no beef with arms control in principle. Heck, in a past life I used to teach arms control and nonproliferation to impressionable young undergraduates down in Athens, Georgia, and gallivanted around the globe advising governments on how to crack down on gunrunning.

But arms control shouldn’t be an ideology. Arms control isn’t the answer to all questions at all times, any more than routine negotiations, economic sanctions, or war are always the answer. Think about it. A solemn agreement may not work. One or more parties may subvert it. It may work for awhile but outlive its usefulness. And so forth. It’s self-defeating to bind oneself to forego some capability when a competitor flouts its commitment to forego that capability. One-sided fealty to a treaty or convention distorts the balance of power—and increases the likelihood of war and defeat for the party that keeps its commitments.

Hence the Star Trek tie-in. Best I know—the sci-fi epic’s makers never explain how this state of affairs came about—some diplomatic genius in the Federation’s past thought it would be a good idea to ink an agreement foreswearing the development of a cloaking device that renders starships invisible to enemy sensors. Such a device grants a cloaked vessel a massive tactical advantage over a vessel not thus equipped. It can decline battle; it can hit and run, flitting in and out of battle; it can pound away from any angle with good prospects of evading Federation phaser or torpedo counterfire.

One of two things must have happened: either Federation diplomats unilaterally signed away stealth technology—and evidently the capacity to defeat it, judging from how Federation crews flounder when confronted with the technology—or the hostile Klingon and Romulan empires consented to a ban yet ignored their commitments and fielded cloaking devices anyway. Yet the Federation clings to its commitment. As a result Federation starships, superior to their peers in most respects, constantly get pummeled in encounters with rival starfleets.

In short, the Federation squandered its military edge through foolish diplomacy—and gave away Starfleet’s capacity to deter Klingon or Romulan aggression, hearten Federation member planets, and recruit new allies. Dumb. Evening the military balance is not a good thing when a freedom-loving society is trying to outface predatory neighbors. Abrogating a dead treaty is sometimes necessary, albeit distasteful.

Now, the original Enterprise crew found a solution: Kirk and Spock ran a ruse to get aboard a Romulan cruiser and steal a cloaking device. They even managed to mate it with systems on board the Enterprise. Problem solved? Hardly. By the time The Next Generation rolls around some decades later, it becomes glaringly obvious that Federation weapon scientists—probably at the behest of their political masters—have failed to follow up on the theft of cloaking technology, either to incorporate it into Federation spacecraft or to defeat enemies outfitted with it.

The worst part is the fatalism and even sanctimony Picard, Riker, and the NCC-1701-D crew display toward the ban on cloaking devices. Not only have they resigned themselves to a permanent enemy advantage, they seem appalled when it turns out Starfleet has been experimenting with cloaking technology on the sly—technology that not only renders a starship invisible but also lets it phase through solid matter. It turns out Commander Riker had taken part in such experiments in a previous assignment on board USS Pegasus. The writers portray Riker’s old skipper as eeeeevil for wanting to restore long-lost technological parity to Starfleet, or even leapfrog the foe. Riker is complicit and needs to atone for it.

Me, I’ve always had a soft spot for the Pegasus experiment, regardless of how much it violated Federation civil-military relations. It may have been wrong—but it represented an effort to correct a bigger wrong that political leaders should have corrected long before.

They say problems look like nails when you sport a hammer. This jest rightly warns against making military force the first resort in international controversies. But it’s possible to obsess over any implement of statecraft, making it an ideology. Economic sanctions are one. Americans have reflexively reached for the economic brickbat ever since the days when Sam Adams rallied boycotts against British goods in pre-revolutionary Boston. International law is another. Americans are smatterers in law, as Edmund Burke observed during our Revolution. We put our faith in agreements that codify our interests or principles—and find it hard to withdraw that faith when a covenant is overtaken by events. Reverence for agreements takes on inertia, in real life as in the fictional Star Trek universe.

Agreements are pieces of parchment, not sacred writ. What the signatories do is what infuses substance into them. A compact should command our allegiance so long as all parties honor it. It reverts to paper if a partner disregards its obligations—and it can and should be scrapped at that point. Let’s not be like feckless Federation diplomats.

Chilling freethinking in the USAF


What would this post say and when would it appear if I had to clear it with a four-star admiral or general beforehand? A safe bet: it would be anodyne to the point of meaninglessness, and it would appear so late there was no point running it.

And that would be a feature–not a bug–for certain segments of the defense bureaucracy.

Including, it seems, the U.S. Air Force. Over at Defense News today, a doughty team of reporters carries the sad tale (click here) that service chieftains have ordered a clampdown on public outreach. Note Valerie Insinna, David B. Larter, and Aaron Mehta, the move “creates a massive information bureaucracy in which even the most benign human-interest stories must be cleared at the four-star command level.”

Two factors will chill public communications from the USAF: time and fear.

Time, in that draft press releases, interviews, and so forth will have to undergo “staffing” at multiple levels of the bureaucratic hierarchy. Time is delay. By the time a proposed story or event receives the stamp of approval, chances are its moment will have passed. I saw this as an editor at Georgia: I stopped soliciting material from government officials for our small journal because “pre-publication review” slowed it down for weeks or months–at which point why bother?

And even what PR issues forth will be increasingly banal. Fear of career repercussions will prime the overseers of USAF public affairs to squelch anything that could create the slightest controversy. Top leaders have biased the system against proceeding. It’s rather like the lawyer who’s assigned to advise a commander on rules of engagement. The lawyer is there to keep the commander out of jail. His reflex? To counsel the commander against taking the shot if there’s the slightest ambiguity to the situation. Inaction is safer than effectiveness.

Similarly, subordinates will try to put top leadership’s wishes into effect. Each reviewer will afford a proposal exacting scrutiny–and strike anything that hints at controversy. To do otherwise would court a backlash, damaging careers within the PR apparatus. But it gets worse. The leadership’s ukase will discourage individual airmen from speaking their minds in public, whether in professional journals, newspapers, or blogs. “The penumbra of this memo is worse than the memo itself. If you’re already an Air Force officer, who is disinclined to talk to the press, this just gives you one more reason to think it is not career enhancing to talk to the press,” former Secretary of the Air Force Whit Peters told Defense News.

Exactly right. Admiral Jim Stavridis exhorts sea-service professionals to dare to read, think, and write. To which air-force potentates are replying: oh, no, you don’t!

It’s one thing to suppress information about tactical information such as force movements or the specific technical characteristics of weaponry or sensors. It’s quite another to wall off the service from the world. Edward Luttwak sees beating ourselves up in public as a key advantage of an open society relative to closed societies like the Soviet Union or, today, Communist China. Scrutiny and debate help make us better; closing off scrutiny and debate carries us toward the authoritarian model in which keeping up appearances is everything and operational excellence is secondary.

Imposing a chilling effect fosters groupthink–and groupthink makes military institutions stupid (click here). Let’s thaw out the deep freeze, U.S. Air Force.

Is America a maritime nation?


Put that question to a crowd of seafarers and you might be surprised what answer you elicit. I chaired a seminar at our Current Strategy Forum a few years back and posed just that question to the participants. And didn’t need to pose another. People appeared deeply worried and frustrated at the state of American sea power. They seemed to agree: the nonnaval elements of maritime power are in decay.

Also on the No side of the ledger, John Grady reports over at USNI News (click here) that the U.S. Maritime Administration is short nearly two thousand qualified civilian mariners while the U.S.-flagged merchant fleet is famously–in fact, dangerously–lean in numbers.

There are historical reasons for the dearth of American merchantmen. Thank you, Confederate raider CSS Alabama. But in part the MARAD seems to be another victim of the just-in-time thinking that has held the U.S. Navy in thrall since around the turn of the century. You refuse to keep excess capacity on hand in peacetime in order to hold down costs. Efficiency is the watchword for this just-enough philosophy. Excess is waste.

That makes sense in the business world, where rival firms are trying to outcompete you, not kill your workers or blow up your plant. But in wartime just enough means a shortfall. You need surplus capacity to manufacture and transport warmaking materiel in bulk, and to make up the losses you will suffer in action.

Mahan fretted that the character of the American people and government might not support seaborne pursuits over the long haul. In particular he worried about that core of nautical expertise without which no seaward enterprise can flourish for long. Without a corps of naval architects, shipwrights, and able seamen, American sea power could prove brittle when struck a sharp blow in combat.

America remains a naval power with a navy that rules the waves. Whether it remains a maritime power in the fullest sense is increasingly in doubt.

Who cares whether Sun Tzu lived?

Sometimes someone says something that’s not only not right, it barely qualifies as wrong. Exhibit A: I recently heard a veteran scholar claim that Sun Tzu’s Art of War doesn’t matter because no individual named Sun Tzu ever lived. As a factual matter that’s probably true. China specialists have long pondered whether The Art of War is a product of solo authorship or was compiled over time in antiquity. The weight of opinion seems to favor the latter.

So what?

Saying a work has no value because its provenance is uncertain is rather like discounting the Iliad and Odyssey because—as some classicists maintain—no individual named Homer ever lived. If not, no one poet composed those poetic masterworks. They were handed down through oral repetition and amended over the centuries until they reached their present sublime state. But at least skeptics of Homer’s existence or authorship don’t dispute the importance of the Greek sagas; they simply quarrel about the poems’ origins as a matter of historical exactitude.

A great work is a great work whether or not we know who wrote it—and whether or not it was a collective project of the ages.

What intrinsic value does The Art of War command? Start with the obvious: it’s replete with insights into the nature of war and strategy. To name just one, Sun Tzu the book demands that the general and sovereign know themselves and know the enemy lest they find themselves in dire peril on the battlefield. Common sense, you say? Maybe—but Aristotle observes that common sense is the highest form of philosophy. Supplicants to the oracle at Delphi entered the temple through a doorway inscribed with the words Know Yourself.

Was Aristotle wrong, and was the oracle wrong because we don’t know who carved the inscription? Studying diplomatic and military history reveals that common sense is honored more in the breach than the observance. Classic works help us analyze past failings and successes while avoiding pitfalls apt to befall us in our own time. They help us get our bearings.

Reading Sun Tzu also helps us understand how we, allies and friends, and potential foes will make war. What we read shapes how we think and what we do. The Chinese treatise inspired British soldier B. H. Liddell Hart to declare that indirection, a quintessential Sun Tzuian concept, should constitute the core of any military strategy. In turn American admiral J. C. Wylie declared that Liddell Hart’s notion of the indirect approach could unite warriors from the ground, maritime, air, and insurgent/counterinsurgent domains behind a common strategic vision—ameliorating the differences of worldview that plague debates among those who operate in different domains and thus approach strategic questions from starkly different standpoints.

For Wylie, then, an idea from The Art of War could furnish the basis for a unified field theory of strategy. From China to Britain to America: that’s some testament to the durability of a perhaps-mythical Chinese general’s thinking.

And of course there’s Sun Tzu’s influence in the East, in China in particular. Mao Zedong borrows liberally from Sun Tzu in his influential writings on how the weak overcome the strong. (Mao also borrows from Clausewitz, another scribe my nameless veteran scholar deems of no value.) The Great Helmsman remains an inspiration to Chinese statesmen to this day. For example, Beijing’s first official Military Strategy (2015) depicts the Maoist concept of active defense as the “essence” of Communist Chinese martial thought.

Shaping military thought across the centuries and across the globe: quite the accomplishment for a nonexistent figure of no consequence.

What mold does the USN need to break?

Sorry for my silence: tumult has been the order of the day around here. I managed to injure myself quasi-seriously during last week’s nor’easter, then plunged into the first week of the spring term and a “Breaking the Mold” Workshop in the historic Mahan Reading Room at the Naval War College.

it was a good week, believe it or not. A lot of goodness trumps a little bit of pain.

Big Navy sponsored the workshop as a catalyst for strategic innovation, and a stimulating event it was. Chatham House rules were in effect to foster freeform debate, but I’ll be putting out a barrage of posts with my takeaways here and expanding some to article length. First things first: what is “the mold” we as sea-service professionals need to break? Just before we closed out the Asia working group on archipelagic defense, our group moderator canvassed each person for a final statement. Rather than try to say something erudite about strategy, I posed that question.

To utter silence. Which was the point of asking. Hard to execute your mission without deciphering key words and phrases.

This is no slight. Workshop-goers offered countless innovative ideas over the two days of deliberations, These were all to the good. Nevertheless, they fell mostly into the realm of hardware, tactics, or budgetary combat, whereas the subtitle for the gathering was “War and Strategy in the 21st Century.” An unmanned airplane or submarine is not a strategy; these are implements of strategy. They are means, whereas strategy refers to ways for using means to fulfill national ends. Strategy harnesses power to realize purposes.

Which to my mind is the mold that needs to be shattered: a culture that’s increasingly out of sync with the strategic surroundings. Hardware, tactics, and programs lie downstream of culture. Obsessing over them gets priorities backwards. Revise naval and Beltway culture till they’re in tune with the times, and the other things will come naturally. We will devise methods and instruments to compete with good prospects of success.

You see where I’m going with this. Breaking a culture is a human—not material—challenge. It may mean realigning training and education, career patterns and incentives, recruitment practices, and much more. The naval service needs to reward traits and skills it needs to transform itself and discourage those that impede progress. But procedural tinkering may not be enough. The U.S. Navy reinvented its institutional culture for World War II—but only after the Imperial Japanese Navy broke the mold for it at Pearl Harbor.

And even then the cultural project demanded ruthless policies. Submariners unable to adjust to the new mission in the Pacific—raiding merchantmen—were summarily dumped from their commands if they failed to produce results after two patrols.

The hard truth, judging from SUBPAC’s experience, is that changing an institution’s culture sometimes means changing out personnel–and thus ending careers of those captive to old habits of thought. If the navy leadership stays true to its own history, breaking the mold and casting a new one promises to be a trying process with a heavy Machiavellian component.

Revolutions claim victims.