Wanted: A Stupid-Proof Strategy For America


“Hadrian’s wall at Greenhead Lough” by Velella,
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In a recent War on the Rocks piece Iskander Rehman argues that the United States should not favor a foreign policy of retrenchment because United States policy makers are simply too daft and out of touch with the world to play the part of a modern day Castlereigh:

An increasing number of U.S. thinkers and academics have argued in favor of a similar policy of masterly inactivity — alternatively labeled retrenchmentrestraint, or offshore balancing. Drawing attention to the United States’ privileged geographical position and rapid move toward energy independence, they have, to some extent, re-appropriated a distinctly American notion of “free security” that goes back to the early days of the Republic and corresponds to what the late political scientist Stanley Hoffman once referred to as America’s“quietist” tradition. According to these thinkers, the United States should extricate itself from the suppurating wound that is the Middle East, revise or abrogate most of its alliance commitments, and adopt a less forward-leaning military posture.

There are many problems with this approach. They range from the historically flawed notion of “free security,” to the operational challenges associated with attempting to project military force into a geographically distant area without the logistical benefits of local basing structures. Perhaps one of the most structural limitations to offshore balancing, however, is contained in its very designation. Indeed, the very notion that American bureaucrats, from their windowless offices in Washington, could act as modern-day Richelieus or Castlereaghs, predicting and fine-tuning regional configurations of power, while engaging in deft over-the-horizon balancing acts, seems both anachronistic and unrealistic. [1]

Rehman has outlined one of the central problems of  policy punditry in 21st century America. It doesn’t pass the StupidProof (TM) test.

Strategists and analysts often wish American policies were grounded in a sophisticated strategic vision implemented by a cadre of disinterested statesmen who have a nuanced understanding of the world and its doings. This is a fantasy. America is a democracy. Its statesmen must justify their actions to the masses on a set electoral time table. Top level bureaucrats are mostly chosen for partisan reasons. Important foreign policy decisions usually have more to do with value signalling on the domestic stage than a sober assessment of American interests on the international one. Leaders in both the executive and the legislative branches surround themselves with aids and hanger-ons with no special expertise or experience in foreign affairs. For basic economic reasons (which I have explained before), few Americans learn foreign languages. The American media do not care very much about foreign affairs, and the issues they do care about are given attention disproportionate to their import. These journalists, like almost all Americans, are appallingly ignorant of the history, religious traditions, and cultural quirks of foreign peoples. Policy must be filtered through layers of unresponsive bureaucracy, and the various agencies that implement these policies are poorly coordinated. To top if off, senior policy officials do not read books.

To these enduring elements of American politics we must add the distinctive features of the present moment: a divided, hyper-partisan federal government so severely gridlocked that long term planning is not possible; falling budgets that sharply constrain American activity abroad; and a wild upsurge in populist fervor that focuses political attention inward and demands simplicity from all candidates who wish to win over the masses.

We may lament these realities, but they are realities. They will not change in the short-term. Some may never change at all. Any successful strategy for America must be a strategy that can be created, sustained, and implemented in this system. No foreign policy too nuanced to be shouted by Donald Trump on the campaign trail or too complex to survive intact as it is passed from one layer of bureaucracy to another can succeed here. Any strategy dependent upon wise and measured leadership at the top or a committee of genius forecasters and planners directing policy from the middle will fail. In short, American policy must be StupidProof. If it cannot be implemented by the inept and uninformed, then it will not be implemented at all.

However, after stating the problem so wonderfully Rehman suggests a curious solution. He argues that because we Americans are too isolated, uneducated, and myopic to successfully retrench, America must be “deeply engaged and invested in key regions” across the globe. He explains things this way:

The walls of Ancient Rome and Imperial China may seem alluring metaphors to those weary of U.S. involvement in a Middle East wracked with horrendous violence and sectarian conflict. These same thinkers may also find themselves nodding their heads in approval at the Raj-era articulation of masterly inactivity, wondering whether it might not be wiser for Washington to let China continue to alienate its Asian neighbors through its own obduracy without instructing U.S. forces to engage in risk-laden acts of forward presence, such as freedom of navigation patrols. However, the historical record shows that the reality of great power rule has always been more complex. The Roman frontier was never rigid and absolute. As classical historians have noted, Roman security was highly contingent on the shrewd management of tribal peoples well beyond regularly patrolled areas. The Teutoburg massacre was partially the result of a case of a “green on blue” incident with a local proxy ruler, Arminius, who decided to turn his weapons on his imperial patrons. In many other cases, however, deeply embedded Roman political agents proved remarkably adept at utilizing, or allying with, Gallic and Germanic tribes to further their own imperial ends and better shield territories under Roman rule. In Imperial China, dynasties proved most successful when they engaged with the peoples of the steppe, and used their vast walled structures as launching pads into Mongolia and Central Asia rather than as static fortifications….

In short, great power security has never been coterminous with retrenchment, and the preservation of primacy is closely linked to deep engagement, rapidly deployable military presence, and a profound knowledge of local conditions. Even if the United States did decide to adopt a less forward-leaning posture, it appears poorly equipped to offshore balance, or successfully micro-manage regional actors from afar. As my colleague Tom Wright has observed, we now live in a post-imperial era. The United States leads an order in which it enjoys a “privileged position, but it does so only because the vast majority of states want it to be that way.” Unlike the Colonial Empires in the 19th century, the United States “cannot just sit down with its competitors and rewrite the futures of independent countries and their populations.” And even if it could, it is debatable whether a freshly retrenched America would possess enough regional acumen to conduct well-qualified judgments, or to accurately predict regional convulsions and realignments. The recent track record in this regard is pretty poor, whether it comes to failing to predict system-shattering events such as the Arab Spring or misjudgingthe extent and pace of revisionist actors’ actions, whether in the South China Sea, Eastern Ukraine, or Syria. These prediction errors can be attributed to intelligence failures, but also point to a wider problem: the surprising inability of one of the world’s most ethnically and linguistically diverse countries to understand foreign motives and behavior. [2]

This misreads both the history of imperial Rome and that of imperial China.

The Romans had nothing close to the “area experts” of today. Indeed, they had precious few experts at all. During the Principate the empire’s primary decision makers were the emperor and his personal entourage (the amici principis or “friends of the princeps”), the governors and their personal staff, and the commanders of legionary forces. Most often these commanders would be the governors themselves, though sometimes they would be men specially appointed for particular campaigns, like Germanicus and Corbulo, and in rare crises the commanders of individual legions (legati legioninis) would be forced to make important decisions of state. None of these men received any special training in foreign languages, cultures, diplomacy, or statecraft before attaining high rank. Men were more likely to be chosen for their social status than proven experience or familiarity with the region they were assigned to govern.  The education of these officials was in literature, grammar, rhetoric, and philosophy, and their ability to govern was often judged on their literary merits. The historian Susan Mattern discusses one example of this in her masterful study of Roman strategy, Rome and the Enemy. The key passage comes from Tacitus, who reports that the Emperor Nero was better placed to deal with Parthian shenanigans in Armenia than Cladius, for he was advised by Burrus and Seneca, “men known for their expertise in such matters” (Annals 13.6). Mattern writes:

The historian assumes that the decision about Armenia will be made personally by the emperor in close consultation with his advisers. The character and social position of these advisers is important to him: Claudius is reviled for consulting freedmen, and the idea that a woman, Nero’s mother, might have some influence here is repellant. It is especially interesting to note that Seneca took part in this and presumably other important foreign affairs decisions, because a large body of his work survives and can be examined. It is also interesting that Tacitus describe Seneca and Burris as exceptionally qualified to advise me road in this case, though it is probable that neither have substantial military experience or specialized knowledge about Armenia or Parthia. [3]

Sextus Afrianus Burrus’ military experience before his elevation to Praetorian Prefect was limited to one term as military tribune. He was born in the heartland of the empire, and there is little evidence to suggest he spent substantial time outside of it. Lucius Anneas Seneca was Nero’s childhood tutor before he was his adviser. Then, as now, his reputation chiefly lay on the strength of his work as a dramatist and moral philosopher. These were entirely typical backgrounds for powerful Roman officials. As Mattern demonstrates with dozens of other examples, this was true both for those who governed from Rome and for those sent out to the provinces.  In her words, “Social rank, literary accomplishment, and loyalty emerged as three critical factors in a choice of Rome’s most powerful officials.” [4] Regional expertise and strategic acumen were not part of the job description.

We shouldn’t be surprised, therefore, to find that the Romans had a terrible understanding of the geography, culture, and political structures of the foreign lands on their borders. Roman armies rarely knew anything about the geography they campaigned in until their soldiers tramped across it. Even border areas under the empire’s control for centuries were described in grossly inaccurate terms by Roman geographers, and these gaps in knowledge occasionally had dire strategic consequences for Roman campaign forces. [5] Romans had trouble distinguishing cultural and linguistic groups from political units, and struggled to understand the cultural traditions of ethnic groups, like the Jews, who had long been a part of the empire. What Romans understood about the people on their frontiers had much more to do with rhetorical conventions and artistic stereotypes handed down to them from the classical literary tradition than from actual observation of barbarian ways. [6]

This had significant strategic implications. Between the conquest of Dalmatia in the early days of the Principate and the arrival of the Huns in the days of Late Antiquity, it is difficult to find an enemy on Rome’s northern borders that was not created by Rome itself. Rehman has already noted that the greatest defeat of the Principate, that of Teutoburg Forest, was the work of man in Rome’s employ. Teutoburg is but one point in a pattern that repeated for centuries. Most Germanic barbarian groups did not live in oppida, as the Celts did, and had little political hierarchy to speak of. When Romans selected local leaders to negotiate with, favor with trade or other boons, and use as auxiliary allies in war they were transforming petty chiefs into kings. Roman diplomatic norms, combined with unrelenting Roman military pressure, created the very military threats they were hoping to forestall. [7]

A very similar story can be told about Imperial China’s forays onto the steppe. One of the frustrating things about the English-language historiography on Sino-steppe relations are the many attempts to pigeon hole Chinese strategy into narrow binaries: trade vs. war, engagement vs. retrenchment, and so forth. [8]  A close examination of the individual conflicts between Chinese dynasties and nomadic empires expose these descriptions as too narrow. Any given dynasty had half a dozen different responses to the nomadic threat it faced, and each statesmen added a unique flair to his own solution. Some dynasties opted for wars of extermination, others for strong defensive perimeters and buffer polities that allowed little contact between the world of steppe and sown, some tried to co-opt tribal leadership through subsidies and marriage alliance, while yet others tried to pacify the nomads by building strong networks of trade and tribute. One common response was to “use barbarians to fight barbarians” (yi yi zhi yi 以夷治夷) — in essence, to subsidize and favor one group of nomads over other, stronger groups who posed a more direct threat to Chinese interests. Absent outright conquest, this was as “engaged” as the Chinese could get on the steppe. It was a risky strategy. Occasionally it went horribly awry, as when the Jurchens, initially supported by the Song Dynasty to place pressure on their enemies, the Liao, conquered not only the the Song’s enemies, but half of the Song’s territory as well! This “Humiliation of Jingkang” was one of the greatest military disasters of Chinese history. The story would repeat itself a century later when the Jurchen’s own dynasty, the Jin, backed a young warlord named Temujin as their man on the steppe. After he defeated his enemies there Temujin would be crowned as Chinggis Khan. [9]

The lesson Rehman seeks is hard to find in these histories. The most obvious conclusion is the opposite of his: unipolar powers have never been able to deftly intervene in the affairs of others. When all roads lead to Rome, no Roman learns barbarian. Rome succeeded despite of its continual interventions in barbaricum, not because of them. The story in imperial China is quite similar, and success there–where military parity between the barbarians and the forces of civilization was usually much closer than in Rome–is much harder to find. Its notable that the only dynasty that managed to fully nullify the barbarian threat was a dynasty that began as a group of barbarians itself. Long before the Manchus conquered China they began to form marriages alliances with Mongolia’s noble houses and incorporate Mongol units into its armed forces. Steppe politics was built into the Qing’s DNA, and they played the game masterfully. [10] Ethnic Chinese dynasties had a much tougher job coming to terms with their enemies on the steppe.

But we don’t need to turn to ancient geopolitics to see how poorly unipolar powers fail to manage the intricacies of the world around them.  Rehman wonders if  “a freshly retrenched America would possess enough regional acumen to conduct well-qualified judgments, or to accurately predict regional convulsions and realignments.” But as Rehman has already chronicled, America does not possess these wonderful things already.  America doesn’t need retrenchment to lack “regional acumen” and the ability to “accurately predict regional convulsions.”  The United States has spent the last seven decades actively engaged in all corners of the earth, and it still lacks the kind of human capital Rehamn argues for. Whether America is retrenched or whether its influence is felt in every crisis to convulse the globe is immaterial.  Americans just don’t do regional acumen. If Rehman’s preferred foreign policy requires them to, then it will never be implemented.

Thus you can see the weakness inherit in Rehman’s conclusion:

A regional competitor’s home court advantage does not only apply to the density of its localized military systems or to the advantages provided by its interior lines of communication. It also extends to less tangible aspects of great power competition such as knowledge of the socio-cultural terrain, networks of human contacts, and access to effective proxies that can advance the regional state’s interests. If the United States wishes to preserve its positional status as the world’s leading power, it needs to remain deeply engaged and invested in key regions such as Eastern Europe, Asia and the Middle East, however tempting it may sometimes seem to do otherwise. As the former Secretary of State George Schultz has noted, diplomacy, like gardening, requires sustained, patient efforts, in order to bear fruit. One might also add that effective statecraft, like good wine, requires a knowledge of what the French call “terroir”— a deep grasp of the region’s climate, terrain, and local conditions. That’s not something you can do from an office thousands of miles away. [11]

The United States of America has been more intimately involved in the far-flung regions of the Earth this century than it has in any other. But our record is dismal. Despite spending 14 years in Afghanistan, we still don’t recognize who our real enemy in South Asia is. We have deeply involved ourselves in the politics of the Near East for the last decade but have been blindsided by the Arab Spring, the Syrian civil war, and still cannot explain the success of ISIS. An entire generation of Kremlinologists graduated from American universities in the waning days of the Cold War, but we find ourselves unprepared and surprised by Russian moves in Ukraine and now the Middle East. Japan has been the bed rock of the U.S. alliance system in Europe for six decades, but we still don’t understand it’s strategic priorities. The list could go on. Like many things prized by the French, terroir is something Americans never will value. Rehman calls for a sensitive foreign policy of implemented by regional experts with proven acumen. What we need is a foreign policy that can be understood by any big-dollar donor–and if they pay enough, implemented by them too.

In short, we need a foreign policy that is StupidProof.


[1] Iskander Rehman, “Remote Control Statecraft: The Limits of Offshore Balancing,” War on the Rocks (29 October 2015).

[2] Ibid

[3] Susan P. Mattern, Rome and the Enemy: Imperial Strategy in the Principate (Berkely: University of California Press, 1999), p. 7.

[4] Ibid, 21. For Roman ideas of education and generaliship, see Brian Campbell, “Teach Yourself How to Be a General,The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 77 (1987), pp. 13-29.

[5] For example, Trajan’s campaigns in Dacia, which created the strategically vulnerable proruption of Dacia Triana, were likely founded on the common belief that the ocean was only 396 miles North of the Danube river. For Roman geographic generally, see Mattern, Rome and the Enemy, pp. 24-66;  for Dacia, ibid, 61.

[6] On stereotypes see Thomas Burns, Rome and the Barbarians: 100 BC-AD 400 (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2003), 22-24, 94, 137; Mattern, Rome and the Enemy, 67-80; on conflation of culture and political units, Burns, Rome and the Barbarians, passim; one particularly clear example of flawed Roman ethnography is Tacitus’s account of the Jews in Histories 5.2-5, the flaws of which are easy to see as significant Jewish sources have survived to provide inside accounts of Jewish life and customs.

[7] Burns, Rome and the Barbarians, passim; Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 452-459

[8] For example, see Sechen Jachid and V. J. Symons War and Peace along the Great Wall (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989); Thomas Barfield, The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China, 221 BC-1757 AD.

[9] The most accessible English language history of Humiliation of Jingkang is found in Frederick Mote, Imperial China 900-1800 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), ch. 11.

 On the Jin’s support of Temujin, see Paul Ratchnevsky, Genghis Khan: His Life and Legacy, trans. Thomas Haining (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), pp. 49-54; Thomas Allsen, “The rise of the Mongolian empire and Mongolian rule in north China.” in Cambridge History of China: Volume 6: Alien Regimes and Border States, 710–1368 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 344.

[10] Nicola Di Cosmo, “The Rise of Manchu Power in Northeast Asia,” lecture at U.C. Berkeley (Berkely, California), 28 June 2013; “From Alliance to Tutelage: A Historical Analysis of Manchu-Mongol Relations before the Qing Conquest,” Frontiers in Historical China, Vol 7, iss 2 (2012), 175–197; Peter Perdue, China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2005), pp. 109-127.

[1] Rehman, “Remote Control Statecraft

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You know, I didn't find that economic explanation persuasive then, and I don't now.

The first problem is that when there is a crisis and all the serious people declare that SOMETHING MUST BE DONE, the small community of experts in that region find many people bidding for their time. Training new experts requires five or ten years, and the people doing the training have less time for research and travel.

The second problem is that unless the decisionmakers have some domain expertise, they will be at the mercy of their 'experts.' Hiring locals has obvious dangers, since US foreign policy is unlikely to be in their interest, and deciding which locals can be trusted requires knowledge of the region.

The story of American intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq show many examples of these problems, and the great costs to the US which resulted from them. So I would place less emphasis on the economics (because economies are shaped by human choices, and the cost of hiring a hundred people with humanities or social science PhDs is pocket money to any large American federal bureaucracy) and more on the cultural quirks in the US which lead to technological and 'scientific' knowledge being valued over linguistic and humanistic.


"The second problem is that unless the decisionmakers have some domain expertise, they will be at the mercy of their 'experts.' Hiring locals has obvious dangers, since US foreign policy is unlikely to be in their interest, and deciding which locals can be trusted requires knowledge of the region. "

I don't disagree with this. It is an excellent description of the problems with he current system.

However, I think these problems can be explained in economic terms.

There are two ways to look at this. One is from the perspective of the college student trying to decide whether or not he/she wants to study a foreign language. The other side comes from government demand.

A student has to evaluate whether or not the investment in time and money required to learn a new language is worth it. In doing so they have to square these facts: 1) In the private sector, there will almost always be someone who has near native level fluency from the region in question and who will work for lower pay 2) For the average private sector job knowing a foreign language does not translate into higher paychecks–about $600 for extra for every $30,000 (see here: http://www.isegoria.net/2014/03/is-learning-a-foreign-language-really-worth-it/ ) 3) Government demand for foreign language speakers varies widely from crisis to crisis. (e.g. Kurdish speakers would be very useful now; no one knew that 15 years ago).* 4) The government will only hire you if you don't do the things many people who love a foreign culture enough do–marry a non-citizen, live abroad for many years, and so forth. 5) On top of that, government jobs rarely compete with the private sector anyway. If income is what you want you might as well take the MBA.

So the economic decision isn't the government's (who is quite willing to finance your entire language education is you agree to work with them when you are done, see here http://www.nsep.gov/content/critical-languages and https://www.borenawards.org/boren_scholarship/basics.html ), but the economic decisions of the potential employees that matter. It just does not make economic sense for these students to learn a foreign language.

*You could say that the government could create artificial demand and hire 200 hundred Kurdish speakers (and every other obscure lang across the globe) as a reserve…. but what exactly would those people do when their is no war or crisis in Kurdistan?

Isn't the traditional (late 19th and early 20th century British and French) solution to hire regional experts, park them in some teaching or research or bureaucratic post which pays modestly but is not too demanding, and call upon them at need? Modern history is not my specialty.

For (1) it seems that similar problems apply to the public and private sectors: hiring locals to drive a hard bargain with other locals, or provide advice on local conditions, may not work well unless someone overseeing them has some knowledge of the local culture and languages. It seems to me that your points 3 and 4 are pretty culturally specific; people in the US choose to set up certain requirements for certain jobs, and chose not to keep many regional and language experts on retainer. American bureaucracies throw vast amounts of money at some unlikely projects which are framed as technological and scientific (and distributed across the right congressional districts etc. etc.)

I don't think that looking at the choice of whether to learn a language in terms of expected income is a wise choice. The purpose of learning a language is to enable the learner to do something which they could not do at all without that language, whether reading sources, enjoying spoken and written art, escaping someplace they do not want to live for somewhere better, traveling outside of areas where many people share a lingua franca with them, or communicating with a would-be partner. That is different from deciding whether to buy clothing or learn to sew it oneself, or whether to take an evening course in hopes of raising your canola yields a few percent, because in the end what you want is the clothing or the income and how you get it is not so important. (The other issue is that many types of institutions are not very good at teaching and measuring language skills; the Canadian case is federal officials who check off a requirement to learn French or English to a certain level without actually gaining much proficiency). As you say, humanities and language training are rarely an efficient path to wealth.

I agree that Americans have no reason to beat themselves up about their elites being especially ignorant about the wider world and its peoples … as you say that is pretty common for people living inside a hegemony whether they are Babylonians or Bostonians. Its awfully hard to find a society whose leaders behaved the way old-fashioned political scientists or economists said they should, and just trying to understand the strangeness and diversity inside the US could devour someone's whole life.

A lot of British foreign lang experts were aristocrats who had other sources of income to get them through.

Most imperial administrations were shoe string operations that relied on local intermediaries and translators. the problem you identify here: "hiring locals to drive a hard bargain with other locals, or provide advice on local conditions, may not work well unless someone overseeing them has some knowledge of the local culture and languages." was exactly their problem. Locals used imperial government to settle personal feuds and enrich personal connections all the time, and the officials barely knew it.

That is one point in favor of the Roman imperial system. They organized their presence in new lands along the lines of patronage known in Rome. They favored the locals they leaned on unabashedly. Imperialist France and GB aimed for impartial and benign rule, but were forced into favorites as a matter of practical necessity.

I don't think that looking at the choice of whether to learn a language in terms of expected income is a wise choice.

Be it wise or not wise, this is how most people do it. (This is less obvious to us Americans 'cuz most people look at that choice and decide not to study the language. But if you look at people from non-English speaking parts of the world and ask 'em why they study English, most say quite frankly that they do for economic or career reasons).

I think we are miscommunicating. My point is that only a minority of language learners (particularly a minority in higher educational institutions!) seek to slightly improve their income within their home country [so here we disagree on an empirical point], and that North American universities are bad at teaching languages and measuring the results, so looking at language learning in terms of RoI helps reinforce a certain kind of discourse within the US ("everything is a market"), but not to understand the world. English is a trade language, so people often learn it for work … but people learn Japanese or Arabic for different reasons, and there are plenty of people who learn English to watch American films or read Harry Potter or participate in coder culture.

We really don't know much about how Rome operated on the ground. We have a few letters written by upper-level administrators, a few histories written by and for a vanished elite who valued literary style as much as accuracy, and a lot of miscellaneous inscriptions, coins, pots and such.

What would we know of British India if all we had was some parts of Macaulay and a biography of Curzon? Maybe all the Roman expertise was in the officers of the auxiliaries? Or freedmen from the areas? Or maybe they just got along without it, since they had overwhelming power.

And pretty much nobody knew where they were with any precision before mercator. You just followed the roads until you got there.

Empires succeed when they are RELATIVELY well run (relative to competitors, not relative to some imaginary ideal), prosperous (OK, maybe this should have come first) and have sufficient ruling class asabiya to forestall factions pulling each other down even to the point of cooperating with powerful enemies. These things evolve and fade on some sort of mysterious timetable that is only apparent (and then, apparent in ten different plausible versions) AFTER THE FACT.
Great men can arise and make a difference. Sometimes for hundreds of years to come. But even they have to work with what exists, not what they just wish existed.
But there are stupidities and then there are stupidities. Even average men should have been able to do better than the US elite did (while possessing such overwhelming power) in the last 14 years. Sometimes, the luck of the draw is against you.
On the other hand, your opponents may do worse. The hive mind is not very smart, but maybe (as Churchill may have meant) it is smarter than the alternatives. There is still hope.