In the aftermath of the First World War, military theorists across the West were desperate to fashion a path around the next war’s trenches. Engineers and tacticians spent that war tinkering away on machines that promised an escape from attrition: the gas shell, the U-boat, and the armored tank were all deployed with these hopes. All were found wanting. The aeroplane was not expected to have quite the same impact. The flying contraptions of the First World War were feather-like: they were both too light for heavy ordinance and too slim for bulky fuel storage. Few of these biplanes and triplanes could penetrate deep behind enemy lines. None carried a payload capable of making a serious dent in the nearer trench works. Thus the incipient air forces of the First World War were chiefly used to reconnoiter the static defense works of the enemy—or to shoot down the enemy’s reconnoiterers. But the airmen flying and dying in Europe’s gray skies dreamed of something more.
You may remember a piece I wrote last summer. It was a review of Vladislav Zubok’s book, A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War From Stalin to Gorbachev. Zubok contends that the collapse of the Soviet Union should be understood as a consequence of generational turnover. I was attracted to the idea; generational turnover is the very mechanism I had identify as the key to American history in my essay “Culture Wars are Long Wars.”
A few weeks ago I came across an infographic that illustrates why the policies of the modern Chinese Communist Party are even more generationally bound than either the old CPSU or the current U.S. federal government:
Xi Jinping regularly exhorts China’s diplomats, propagandists, journalists, writers, filmmakers, and cultural figures to “tell China’s story well.”The slogan flows naturally from the operating assumptions of Party state strategists: in their telling, a central pillar of any nation’s “comprehensive national power” (综合国力) is what these Chinese have labeled “discourse power” (话语权).
Discourse power is the ability to mold the assumptions, conceptions, and values of foreign princes and peoples. The concept sits midway between Beltway talk of “soft power” and the sort of influence leftists describe with the phrase “cultural hegemony.” Discourse mirrors the instrumentalism of the first term—discourse power is not just a set of static social relationships or societal norms, but a tool to be wielded—but is far less associated with happy-go-lucky rhetoric about admiration, emulation, and attraction so closely bound up in American conceptions of soft power.
Triumphant victors of the Cold War would conceptualize the issue in such terms: the victors of any given cultural conflict always believe they have won through the wide appeal of their vision and the free choice of those attracted to it.
In all of my reading on Afghanistan, two books stand out. Both were highlighted in my list of the best 10 books I read in 2021: Carter Malkasian’s The American War in Afghanistan: A History and David Edwards’ Caravan of Martyrs: Sacrifice and Suicide Bombing in Afghanistan. Both authors are fluent in Pashto. Both draw plentifully from Taliban primary sources. Both have had hundreds of conversations with Afghans of all classes. Together they provide a powerful picture of the way the war has changed Afghan—especially Pashtun—society. The war in Afghanistan was first and foremost a war within that society. America chose to back one side of this civil war. These books lay out exactly what each side of this war was fighting for.
Or so I write in an essay published this weekend in Palladium. To understand the Taliban’s victory, I argue, you must understand what made the Taliban different from the wider Pashtun society from which they sprang.
I have an op-ed out in the New York Times today arguing that we must intentionally ground our response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in careful, cost-benefit calculation instead of emotional reaction or moral fervor. The piece is given the unfortunate title “Ukraine’s Cause is Righteous. That Shouldn’t Shape Policy.” My argument is not that the rightness of the Ukrainian cause does not matter, but that in moments of crisis it is easy to do things that feel right even if they do not help us achieve the right outcomes. The righteous demand to do the right thing—now!—unnaturally speeds the tempo of decision making and warps the policy review process. The end result are statesmen rushing into policies whose consequences they have not fully gamed out.
Several days ago the U.S.-China Perception Monitor published an essay in both English and Chinese by Hu Wei, a prominent think tanker in Shanghai. It argues that the war in Ukraine is bound to go poorly for Russia and thus China must moderate its support for Putin’s failing regime lest the post-Putin world turn against the PRC.
The Western response to Russian invasion falls hard and fast. The actions of the E.U., the Anglosphere nations, and Japan are both extraordinary and consequential: multiple NATO states have brazenly declared their intent to arm Ukrainian forces with conventional ammunition, precision munitions, and even military aircraft. European airspace is closed to all Russian planes. Western capitals have not only announced sanctions on Kremlin oligarchs, but also restrictions on Russia’s central bank. Russian institutions are being removed from the SWIFT system. The Norwegians— in a maneuver sure to be copied—have dumped all Russian assets in their sovereign wealth fund. Olaf Scholz repudiated the last decade of German defense and energy policy with one speech. And now there is talk of bringing Sweden and Finland into NATO.
None of these actions are as audacious as the Russian invasion which precipitated them. They are a natural, proportional, and even predictable response to Putin’s decision to settle the question of Ukrainian nationhood through the force of arms. Yet it is precisely the naturalness of our policy that we should be wary of. A righteous reaction may be a dangerous one. The imperatives of action disguise an ugly truth: in the field of power politics it is outcomes, not intentions, that matter most. Failure to slow down and examine the assumptions and motivations behind our choices may lead to decisions that feel right in the moment, but fail to safeguard our interests, secure our values, or reduce the human toll of war in the long run.
Approximately three hours ago, the official twitter account of the United States Embassy in Kiev posted this meme. The meme is idiotic at even the surface level: in face of Russian claims that Ukraine is a 20th century political fiction artificially dividing the Russian people into national categories that would not have made sense to any European who lived before Lenin, and that this cradle of Russian culture should not be allowed to fall within the geopolitical ambit of a hostile anti-Russian alliance, the American embassy tweets a meme that highlights Kiev’s role as the origin point of Russian civilization. This is not hard. A Russian sixth-grader could explain why celebrating the glories of Kievan Rus does not subvert Putin’s claims about the history of the Russian nation so much as reinforce them.
The American diplomat who posted this meme should have known this.
The political project of the “post liberals” is not my own. Many of their critiques of contemporary American life and politics mirror what I have written; many of their suggestions for the future of the American right I easily endorse. θBut the grander their essays, the broader their harangues, the less convincing they become. I suspect our most important divide concerns our understanding of history.
A Scholar’s Stage forum member reports that he and a friend recently finished reading John Darwin’s After Tamerlane. Enraptured by Darwin’s account of flourish and fall, they ask what else they might read to understand the rise and decline of peoples and powers over the course of human history.
In my mind there are four central parts to this tale: