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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“How Xi Jinping’s New Era Should Have Ended U.S. Debate” With Peter Mattis

What kind of world does the Communist Party of China want? How can we know what they are thinking? These questions are the subject of “How Xi Jinping’s ‘New Era’ Should Have Ended U.S. Debate on Beijing’s Ambitions,” a report by National Intelligence College professor Dan Tobin that was originally published as testimony to Congress. This episode uses Tobin’s research as a starting point to discuss a web of issues at the core of Western attempts to understand the Chinese system. We talk about why Western analysts often struggle to understand the Communist Party, which parts of the “China watching” world are most successful doing this, and why any of this should matter to the “average” American citizen with no particular stake in China.

Joining me (Tanner Greer) to discuss this report is Peter Mattis. Mattis is a Senior Fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and most recently was the Senate-appointed staff director at the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, where he was part of the legislative team that passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, and the Tibetan Policy and Support Act. He is the coauthor of Chinese Communist Espionage: An Intelligence Primer and the author of Analyzing the Chinese Military: A Review Essay and Resource Guide on the People’s Liberation Army (2015).

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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:

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Engagement’s Second-Order Catastrophes

Scott Rozelle and Natalie Hell’s book Invisible China is an interesting if somewhat dry look at the development challenges China faces over the next 20 years. Chinese officials are perhaps the book’s main target audience. Rozelle and Hell worry that unless Communist officialdom takes drastic action soon, China will be stuck in what has been called the “middle income trap.”

But this post is not about China. Rather, it is about what China did to Mexico. Mexico is the cautionary tale Rozelle and Hell want to scare Chinese officials with. “If you don’t reform now,” they seem to argue, “what you did to Mexico will be done to you!” That is a boogeyman worth fearing.

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Fear the First Strike

The closing days of the First World War gave birth to modern combat. Previous to these developments, advances in firepower made titans of the trenchworks. For four years the trenches were assaulted: for four years storms of steel mowed all offensives down. But as the war reached its end tactics were developed to storm through the gauntlet. Stephen Biddle has called these tactics, and what evolved out of them, “the modern system of battle.” The closing developments of the 1918 made offensives possible again—but the playing field remained tilted towards the defender.

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Against the Kennan Sweepstakes

Image source  Last month there was a minor hullabaloo about the latest entry in the “Kennan Sweepstakes,” a long document published by the Atlantic Council titled “The Longer Telegram.”1 I read it three times.   I did not like it.  This week Foreign Policy gave me some column space to explain why. I will note here […]

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All Measures Short of a Cross Straits Invasion

Much of what I have written about Taiwan defense issues assumes that the primary challenge facing Taiwanese forces and their allies is defeating (and thus deterring) a proper amphibious invasion. Two recent reports argue—convincingly, I think—that this assumption is wrong.  In his testimony to Congress a few weeks ago, former DIA analyst Lonnie Henley asks […]

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Understanding Taiwanese Nationalism: A Historical Primer in Bullet Points

  Noah Smith has a recent substack note discussing Taiwan. In the comments section there are a number of heated arguments over whether Taiwanese language, history, politics, and so forth are enough to justify thinking of Taiwan the way Smith does: as its own “civilization.” When reading through these debates I was struck by the […]

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Bootstrapping Marx With the Peasant Masses

One of the great ironies of 20th century history: Marxist revolutionaries could only ever  seize power in the wrong countries. Marx imagined a revolution of industrial proletariat; he expected that this proletariat would at first achieve its aims in highly industrialized nations like England and Germany. His theory of socialism presupposed that a successful transition […]

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