The Rise and Fall of Civilizations: A Reader Course

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:

Continue Reading

Learning From Our Defeat: The Skill of the Vulcans

The national security teams of Bush 41 and Bush 43, America’s most accomplished and most reviled set of statesmen officials… were the exact same set of people. The authors of America’s Cold War victory were the architects of America’s 21st century defeats. There lies the mystery! With more collective experience under their belts than any foreign policy team since the Founding Era, with a greater list of accomplishments than any group of national security elites since the creation of the modern national security state, the statesmen-officials of the second Bush administration should have accomplished glorious deeds. They should have lived up to their track records. Instead, they delivered failure and catastrophe. How could this have happened?

Continue Reading

As the Generations Churn: The Strategic Consequences of Cultural Change in Communist Russia… and China?

Vladislav M. Zubok’s A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War From Stalin to Gorbachev is a surprising counterpart to my essay, “Culture Wars are Long Wars.” That essay proposed a general theory of cultural change. Key to its thesis was the observation that most cultural change does not occur because people change their ideas, but because people with new ideas replace people with old ones. As most people form their essential political worldview by the time they are 30 and only adapt it on the edges to new circumstances, only the most earth shaking events have the power to fundamentally shift the frameworks and values that the majority filter their politics through. Large scale cultural shift is largely a story of generational churn.

While the focus of that piece was on American domestic politics, this is a general phenomena that applies across cultures and time periods. Vladislav Zubok understands this. The generational nature of political change is a recurring theme of Failed Empire, which chronicles the ups and downs of Soviet diplomacy from the end of World War II to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. While we often describe Soviet history in terms of the leader reigning at the top of the system, Zubok argues that shifts in Soviet strategic behavior reflected not only the differing leadership styles of the various CPSU General Secretaries, but broader transitions from one generation of leaders to another.

Continue Reading

We Must Learn From Our Defeat

Twenty years ago a nation comfortable but aimless was thrust by violence into a new reality. “Does anybody but me feel upbeat, and guilty about it?,” asked one conservative columnist a few weeks later. “I feel upbeat because the country seems to be a better place than it was a month ago. I feel guilty about it because I should be feeling pain and horror and anger about the recent events.” But he was not the only one to feel this way.

Continue Reading

Scrap the Myth of Panic

If there is one lesson the world should learn from the great pandemic of 2020, it is this: we must discard the myth of panic.

Or at least this is the case I make in an essay I have just published in Palladium. Fear of mass panic was key to delayed action against the epidemic in the PRC:

Continue Reading

In Favor of Bad Takes

Over at the Duck of Minerva Daniel Nexon has posted a reflective essay on the way the political science blogosphere has changed over the last two decades. Nexon’s IR-themed group blog was one of the first “political science blogs” of the aughts; at the old blogosphere’s height it was the largest academic-IR themed blog on the internet. I first encountered it around that time, when debates from the “strategy sphere” were spilling into the larger online conversation. America was debating the wisdom of the surge and our path forward in the Middle East, and blogs like Duck of Minerva dove into the controversy.

Though he couches his disappointment in diplomatic language, Nexon is bummed about the state of online poli-sci…

Continue Reading

Historians, Slaves of Fashion?

Daniel Gullotta’s Age of Jackson podcast is one of the few I listen to regularly. In 2021 I don’t have a lot of spare bandwidth to keep track of developments in my favorite field of American history, but I do listen to his interviews with new authors in the field to stay somewhat up to date. Listening to a book talk is not the same thing as reading a book, of course, but it is better than slowly having years of labor slip away from memory with disuse.

Continue Reading

The Framers and the Framed: Notes On the Slate Star Codex Controversy

Let’s talk about the grand Slate Star Codex brouhaha. A lot of people have already written about this. Here is the original New York Times piece that started the controversy. [1] Against the Grey Lady we have Cathy Young, Robby Soave, Micah Meadowcroft, Matthew Yglesias, Freddie DeBoer, Scott Aaronson, Noah Smith, and Dan Drezner, as […]

Continue Reading