The Art of Nonlearning in the Real World

Chuck Spinney
Marmaris, Turkey

13 April 2008

The administration’s theory and practice of grand strategy can be summarized by the sound byte, “You are either with us or against us.” But the art of grand strategy is far more subtle than this. The late American strategist, Col John R. Boyd (USAF Ret) evolved five criteria for synthesizing and evaluating a nation’s grand strategy.

From the perspective of the United States, Boyd argued that we should shape domestic policies, foreign policies, and military strategies so that they:

  • pump up our resolve and increase our solidarity,
  • drain away the resolve of our adversaries and weaken their internal cohesion,
  • reinforce the commitments of our allies to our cause and make them empathetic to our success
  • attract the uncommitted to our cause or makes them empathetic to our success
  • end conflicts on favorable terms that do not sow the seeds for future conflicts

These criteria can be thought of as guidelines for evaluating the wisdom of specific policies or actions. But it is obviously difficult to define policies that simultaneously conform to and strengthen to all these criteria. The challenge is particularly difficult for the unilateral military strategies and the coercive foreign policies so popular with the self-referencing foreign policy elite on both sides of the aisle. Military operations and political coercion are often destructive in the short term, and these destructive strategic effects can be in natural tension with the aims of grand strategy, which should be constructive over the long term.

Moreover, the more powerful a country, the harder it becomes to harmonize the often conflicting criteria for a sensible grand strategy. Overwhelming power breeds hubris and arrogance which, in turn, carry a temptation to use that power coercively and excessively. But lording over or dictating one’s will to others breeds resentment. Thus, possession of overwhelming power increases the risk of going astray grand strategically.

That risk is particularly acute for aggressive external actions, policies, and rhetoric that are designed to prop up or increase internal cohesion for domestic political reasons. Very often, the effects or military strategies or coercive foreign policies that are perceived as useful in terms of domestic political cohesion backfire at the grand-strategic level because they strengthen our adversaries’ will to resist, push our allies into a neutral or even an adversarial corner, or drive away the uncommitted … which together, can set the stage for continuing conflict.

The German invasion of France through neutral Belgium in 1914 is an classic example of how a policy shaped by inwardly focused strategic considerations (in this case, an inordinate fear of isolation and a two front war) can induce a self-referencing leadership elite into perpetrating a grand strategic disaster on the most colossal scale for the most “rational” of reasons.

Germany was not trying to conquer Belgium or France in WW I. But she became obsessed with the idea that it was necessary to attack and defeat the French army very quickly in order to knock France out of the war before France’s Russian ally could mobilize in the East. The German leadership elite thereby convinced itself of the strategic need to invade a small neutral Belgium, but the obsession with military strategy blinded it to the grand strategic effects of such an invasion. In the event, the invasion of Belgium enraged the civilized world. It handed the British a propaganda windfall that the Brits milked to the hilt.

Over the next four years, the Brits successfully constructed an image of Germany as being an unmitigated evil force (which was not the case in World War I). This, combined with continued grand strategic obtuseness on the part of German elite (e.g., the Zimmermann Telegram, unrestricted submarine warfare, etc.), served to effectively isolate Germany at the grand strategic level.

Even America, with its large German population and considerable anti-British sentiment, rejected its long tradition of neutrality and joined Germany’s enemies. No doubt the British grand strategic success during the war also helped also to fuel the arrogance that led to the excessively vindictive atmosphere at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919, which ended the conflict on onerous terms that helped to sow the seeds of future conflict. By deviating from the criteria of sensible grand strategy in victory, Britain (and Italy and France) inadvertently helped to pave the way for the emergence of true evil in the form of Nazi Germany.

Today, the world is still paying a price for Germany’s grand-strategic disaster in 1914 and Britain’s ruthless grand-strategic exploitation of that disaster — the problems in the Balkans, the Middle East, the Russian heartland, and the Caucasus, to name a few, have roots reaching back to destruction of world order between the invasion of 1914 and vengeance of 1919. So perhaps the lesson is this: Whenever a great power fails to adequately consider the criteria shaping a sensible grand strategy, painful unintended consequences can linger for a very long time on a global scale.

Recent events suggest that the administration has learned little from their grand strategic blunders, and that their incompetent “with us or against us” grand strategy will continue to play out in a very unfavorable way in the Middle East. As Robert Fox argues in a recent piece in The Guardian, the vice-president’s belligerence and the administrations aggressive anti-Iran rhetoric are driving our Sunni allies into the arms of Russia. By extension such a grand strategic evolution could needlessly increase tensions with Russia and induce US support for an even more belligerent posture toward Syria, Lebanon,and Iran by Israel, making it even more difficult to resolve the Palestinian question.

This does not bode well for the future … at least until the current administration departs from the world scene and the US switches to a grand strategy that is more in line with Boyd’s criteria.

Comments are welcome; please observe our comment policy [I’m out of the country until 20 April, so moderation may be delayed.]

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Filed in Uncategorized | 5 responses so far

5 Responses to “The Art of Nonlearning in the Real World”

  1. Fabius Maximuson 14 Apr 2008 at 9:03 am 1

    Great artice, as usual from Spinney!

    Here is another article discussing American grand strategy using John Boyd’s insights:
    “The Myth of Grand Strategy”
    http://fabiusmaximus.wordpress.com/2006/01/31/myth/

  2. […] Jason Heath wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptChuck Spinney Marmaris, Turkey. 13 April 2008. The administration’s theory and practice of grand strategy can be summarized by the sound byte, “You are either with us or against us.” But the art of grand strategy is far more subtle than … […]

  3. Sven Ortmannon 14 Apr 2008 at 1:57 pm 3

    I miss the important option of deescalation including giving up some too far stretched objectives.
    That’s very important for a good grand strategy in many situations – the attempt to win all the time instead of accepting draws is not always a good idea. This is especially then the case when past poor grand strategy has created avoidable enemies.

    Think of Germany and the UK at about 1900-1913 – if Germany had scaled back in the naval arms race, it might have changed the entire, unfortunate alliance situation.

  4. seydlitz89on 14 Apr 2008 at 6:39 pm 4

    This article is interesting on a couple of differnt points. . .

    First,

    “Germany was not trying to conquer Belgium or France in WW I. But she became obsessed with the idea that it was necessary to attack and defeat the French army very quickly in order to knock France out of the war before France’s Russian ally could mobilize in the East. The German leadership elite thereby convinced itself of the strategic need to invade a small neutral Belgium, but the obsession with military strategy blinded it to the grand strategic effects of such an invasion.”

    Germany’s situation in 1914 is one of the great debating points among military historians and history buffs in general. What if, and had it only been so. . .

    The Germans probably would have been better off going on the defensive in the West and attacking in the East, but that would have left the French Army fully mobilized on Germany’s border (and how many times had the French fought their wars in Germany prior to 1914?).

    What really scared the hell out of the German General Staff was the Russian upgrade of their railnet with French support, but this was tempered by other (economic) considerations.

    Russia was essentially subverting her own interests to those of France (and by association Britain), since war was obviously not in Russia’s interest in 1914, in fact there was clear evidence to show that a long conflict would lead to revolution (as in 1905). It is also of interest that much of the more successful of Russia’s business class were in fact Germans, some of whom’s families had lived in Russia for centuries, and that Russia continued to trade with Germany via Scandinavia up till mid 1915, when under pressure from the Allies, “pogroms” (this is how Svechin describes the situation in his book, “Strategy” pp 109-110) were intiated against German businesses in Moscow.

    From this perspective, Germany’s “turning movement” through Belgium doesn’t look so irrational . . . If only the General Staff had known that Russia was not really operating according to her own interests. . . but that would not really have been a logical assumption, at least not in 1914.

    My other point concerns our beloved VP, but that will have to wait for my next post, since I don’t wish to go over the limit.

  5. colkenton 16 Apr 2008 at 6:33 am 5

    Excellent work Chuck using Boyd’s principals of Grand Strategy to identify the deficiencies of ours and it consequences.

    For starters presidential candidates should be called upon to lay out a Grand Strategy to the electorate as part of their campaign and platform before pandering to their constituencies. Like starting a successful project, it begins with a good specification.

    I have noticed for some time Russia has been “eating our lunch” with their use of energy and surplus foreign reserves (a lot of it with our US$) for their own geopolitical purposes. One must admire what appears to be a coherent and effective grand strategy. However I cringe at how we have had a grand strategy forced upon us by a strong central government of our own making through a lack of participation or without our representation.

    Really, what are our geopolitical bargaining assets today? Negative foreign reserves, dying manufacturing base, an imploding financial system with its toxic exports, weakening reserve currency, worlds largest debtor, extremely maligned international moral standing, non world class educational system..on and on. In our grand strategy what is left to bargain with to advance our interests in the world? The only ace we have is a nuclear armed wolf on the prowl used as an economic/political “hit man” or enforcer. Not a good hand, only one ace, to deal in the world of geopolitical poker. Our bluff could be called at any time with catastrophic results.

    The current TV mini series “John Adams” is inspiring and instructive to the importance of a grand strategy. As it was during this nation’s early history, not unlike today, in one respect a competitive battle between the ones who had a vision of building a nation vs those who wanted to cannibalizing it for thier institutional and or regional interests. Today as one who takes an accounting of America, it appears like we are literally cannibalizing ourselves into third world country status. Americans sense it when polling shows most believe we as a nation “are on the wrong track”. It is imperative a grand strategy with a vision and based upon solid, proven principals emerge for all, Government and private alike, to emulate if this great country of ours is to survive and flourish into the next generation. Who among the candidates for our next President has the wisdom do deliver?