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:

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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?

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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.

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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…

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Public Intellectuals Have Short Shelf Lives—But Why?

Image Source Several months ago someone on twitter asked the following question: which public thinker did you idolize ten or fifteen years ago but have little intellectual respect for today? [1] A surprising number of people responded with “all of them.” These tweeters maintained that no one who was a prominent writer and thinker in […]

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Why Didn’t China Give Birth to Democracy?

“The nominal form of [China’s] government… is an irresponsible autocracy; its institutions are likewise autocratic in form, but democratic in operation.” —Herbet Giles, The Civilization of China (1919) Yuhua Wang and Mark Dincecco have an interesting paper out in the Annual Review of Political Science. The paper offers and tests a new hypothesis for why […]

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China Was Never an Empire of the Mind

“Let us go forward as with other matters and other measures similar in aim and effect – let us go forward in malice to none and good will to all. Such plans offer far better prizes than taking away other people’s provinces or lands or grinding them down in exploitation. The empires of the future […]

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America Will Always Fail At Regional Expertise

I have argued before that any potential American foreign policy or ‘grand strategy’ that requires  statesmen with a nuanced understanding of a foreign region’s cultures, politics, and languages to implement it is doomed to fail. Regional acumen is a rare trait, and one I greatly admire. But it is rare for a reason. Regional acumen […]

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