Book Review Series: Musings and meanderings from my 2023 reading explorations – Part 2

In a sense all historians are revisionists, for each tries to make some contribution that changes our understanding of the past. When we use the term revisionist, however, we generally mean something more fundamental: a writer who tries to change the reader’s mind in a major way by providing a new general interpretation, one that sharply and thoroughly reexamines the established way of looking at a matter.

Donalds Kagan, Thucydides: The Reinvention of History (p. 23)

As I noted in Part 1, in thinking of the geopolitical events of the day, particularly the Russo‑Ukrainian war, I happened to come across Telford Taylor’s MUNICH: The Price of Peace. I was intrigued by it because at the time – and as much today, where we can see the disinterest by many conservative Republicans in the US Senate and House of Representatives in further funding Ukraine – I assumed that at some point the US and other European allies assisting Ukraine would resort to appeasement. By this, I mean reducing the military aid and support to Ukraine – kneecapping them in a sense – to convince/pressurize Ukraine to give up its sovereignty over Ukrainian land coveted by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Understandable. After all, Ukraine is far away, Russian missiles are not falling on any US territory, there are pressing issues at home, and then there is inflation – the price of gasoline at the pump is up, as it is for eggs, bread, meat, clothes – so why not spend the money on fixing things that voters can relate to? As shortsighted and misguided as this thinking may be, one cannot blame the hardworking, taxpaying, citizen-voter. The onus, the responsibility, rests with the elected officials to give valid and persuasive reasons why appeasement is not an option. Expecting what is playing out today with donor-fatigue by the US and its European allies supporting Ukraine, I thought I would cast a wide reading net, starting with history and international affairs. Here are five books in this category. Nothing links them other than certain themes that relate to statecraft and war-making.

MUNICH: The Price of Peace, Telford Taylor, Vintage Books, 1979, 1084 pages

In the world of international affairs, “Munich” has come to describe a conciliatory, yielding approach to the resolution of conflicts, and in this sense “Munich” is commonly coupled with a policy of avoiding confrontations of force by giving way to the demanding party, a policy to which the term “appeasement” is attached. (p. xi)

American Secretary of State George C. Marshall said in a speech at Princeton University in 1947, “I doubt seriously whether a man can think with full wisdom and with deep conviction regarding certain of the basic international issues today who has not at least reviewed in his mind the period of the Peloponnesian War and the Fall of Athens.” He was obviously referring to Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War, a monumental work relevant even today (see e.g., Graham Allison’s Destined for War, where he examines the phenomenon known as Thucydides’ Trap). With modesty, having never served in the foreign service nor trained as a diplomat, I would say the same thing about Telford Taylor’s MUNICH.

Packed with details on the personalities, the ongoing events at the time around Europe, the discussions held within and between the foreign ministries involved, the Machiavellian machinations of the key protagonists, the misreading of events by even some of the most astute diplomats and politicians, this is a tour de force. A must read for our time, especially concerning the Russo‑Ukrainian war. Divided into six parts, Taylor covers in the first 67 pages the events of 29 September 1938, where Neville Chamberlain, Prime Minister of Britain, and Edouard Daladier, Premier of France agree – in the presence of Benito Mussolini, Il Duce and Prime Minister of Italy – to Adolf Hitler’s demands to annex the borderlands of Bohemia and Moravia, known as Sudetenland, which at the time was part of Czechoslovakia. During the discussions and at the signing of the agreement, there were no Czechoslovakian representatives.

Having given the reader the ending, Taylor spends the next five parts moving backwards and sideways, brilliantly giving context to the internal and external political and geopolitical events. He masterfully lays out the facts and details, allowing the reader to draw conclusions, while also linking the strands of information in offering his own conclusion, which he carefully presents with sufficient wiggle room, thus allowing for other possibilities, slim as they may be, to be entertained. Aside from being an accomplished recontour of events logically and meticulously presented, Taylor is a marvelous writer. His style is clear, fresh, and simple, with an occasional dash of playful wit – especially when detailing the various characters, big and small, that shaped the events in one way or another that led to the shameful Munich Agreement.

MUNICH: The Price of Peace is a thoroughly sourced historical narrative of superpowers superimposing their will on a weaker state to supposedly avoid disaster, when in fact, close scrutiny and attention to the trees as well as to the forest show that both Britain and France were vying for time to build up their respective militaries for a war that conspicuously loomed and was appreciably inevitable. In the words of popular Czeck poet Josef Hora, “In the days of our sorrow when others, more powerful, have decided to beggar our ancient country, lift up your heads, all of you, in pride and calmness. It is not we who should be ashamed.”

The situation with Ukraine is different. Yet, with its fate and freedom and sovereignty in no small part reliant on the pragmatic generosity of the US, the EU, and some states – imbued by realpolitik collective and self-interests – analogies can be drawn, and lessons learned by revisiting the events that led to the Munich Agreement, the sleepwalking harbinger of WWII. Perhaps why, if were I to limit myself to selecting only one book from this entire series, I would select MUNICH: The Price of Peace.

THE SHIELD OF ACHILLES: War, Peace, and the Course of History, Philip Bobbitt, Anchor Books, 2002, 919 pages

We are at a moment in world affairs when the essential ideas that govern statecraft must change. For five centuries it has taken the resources of a state to destroy another state: only states could muster the huge revenues, conscript the vast armies, and equip the divisions required to threaten the survival of other states. Indeed posing such threats, and meeting them, created the modern state. In such a world, every state knew that its enemy would be drawn from a small class of potential adversaries. This is no longer true, owing to advances in international telecommunications, rapid computation, and weapons of mass destruction. The change in statecraft that will accompany these developments will be as profound as any that the State has thus far undergone. (p. xxi)

Thus, with these opening words to the Prologue, Philip Bobbitt – constitutional law and history professor, and distinguished lawyer of considerable experience in intelligence, national security, and foreign affairs – begins his magisterial treatment of the development of warfare, the history of international relations, and constitutional law, in THE SHIELD OF ACHILLES: War, Peace, and the Course of History. In this tour d’horizon, Bobbitt grapples with big picture historical events and evolutionary trends. He invites the reader to consider that we are no longer living in the world of the nation-state that emerged from the 1648 Peace of Westphalia. With the end of the Long War of the nation-state (1914‑1990), the nation-state is less involved/relevant in shaping the future, as nation-states mutate into what he calls market-states, which, by virtue of their nature, will meet the challenges of the new world order.

THE SHIELD OF ACHILLES is actually two books. Book I, State of War, deals with the state, focusing primarily on the relationship between war and the constitutional order of the state. Book II, States and Peace, deals with the society of states, focusing on peace settlements and their structure in the international order.

Book I, State of War, deals with war as it relates to individual states. It is divided into three parts. In Part I, The Long War of the Nation-State, Bobbitt takes us from Thucydides’ treatment of the Peloponnesian wars (and what he identifies as epochal wars) to 1990, which, in his view brings us to the end of the Long War. By epochal, Bobbitt refers to wars that historians have viewed as completed campaigns or merely parts of a more extended conflict – with the constitutional basis of the participants being in play. The Long War (WWI to the end of the Cold war), “was fought to determine which of the three alternatives – communism, fascism, or parliamentarism – would replace imperial constitutional orders of the nineteenth century.” Part II, A Brief History of the Modern State and its Constitutional Orders, advances the thesis that epochal wars ushered in “profound changes in the constitutional order of states” as a result of necessary strategic and constructional innovative initiatives – bureaucracies, systems for taxation, broader franchise, public education, and mass conscription – exploiting possibilities and opportunities created by the new domestic political environment. Part III, The Historic Consequences of the Long War, views the Long War as just another epochal war, bringing about “the emergence of a new form of the State, the market-state.” His thesis is that the “constitutional/strategic dynamic of five centuries” is shaped the expectations “about the future structure and purpose of the market-state.” And by market-state, Bobbitt means that states now depend on international capital markets and where the multinational business network affects stability in the world economy, giving preference to management by national or transnational bodies.” In his words:

Like the nation-state, the market-state assesses its economic success or failure by its society’s ability to secure more and better goods and services, but in contrast to the nation‑state it does not see the State as more than a minimal provider or redistributor. Whereas the nation-state justified itself as an instrument to serve the welfare of the people (the nation), the market-state exists to maximize the opportunities enjoyed by all members of society. (p. 229)           

Before going on to Book II, here is an interesting observation on war as defined by Carl von Clausewitz, which resonates in what is being playing out in Gaza, as the Israeli Defence Forces prosecute the war against Hamas. According to Bobbitt:

When Clausewitz wrote his most famous and most misconstrued sentence, “War is the continuation of politics by other means,” he intended to remind the readers that the destruction and human sacrifice that attends war could only be justified to the extent that war was absolutely necessary to accomplish political goals. One might go further and say that it is a corollary to this truth that if the political question that impels states to war is not resolved in that war, then the peace that ensues may be only a pause. (p. 63)

There is a great deal of truth to this, which is why – irrespective of how you feel about the way Israel is prosecuting the war – its reasons for insisting that the war ends only when Hamas is completely destroyed (elusive as this goal may be) is not without foundation.

Book II, State of Peace, deals with peace as it relates to the society of states. It too is divided into three parts. Part I, The Society of the Nation-State deals with the society of states as we know them and currently live in them. Part II, A Brief History of the Society of States and the International Order, revisits the historic conflicts that shaped the modern states through peace congresses and peace agreements that ended epochal wars, contributing to constitutional innovations in the society of modern states, culminating in the end of the Long War in the 1990 Charter of Paris for a New Europe (also known as the Paris Charter). Part III, The Society of the Market-State, visualizes and hypothesizes possible worlds depending on choices made, which, in turn, will determine the degree of sovereignty retained. The nation-state model links sovereignty to territorial borders. Beyond its borders, a state earns recognition based on its ability to defend its borders. The international order, such as it has become, challenges this model of state sovereignty, casting uncertainty on the entire system because of five developments identified by Bobbitt:

    1. recognition of and adherence to international human rights regardless of internal laws;
    2. widespread development of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction;
    3. proliferation of global and transnational threats (e.g., disease, pollution, famine);
    4. global economic regimes impervious to borders in the transfer of capital; and
    5. global communication networks penetrating cultures.

As dense as this modest synopsis sounds, do give THE SHIELD OF ACHILLES a chance – especially if you are interested in international affairs and how the law has intersected with, and shaped, and was shaped by historical events, most notably epochal wars and the peace agreements that followed. As historian and legal scholar, Bobbitt also shines in his treatment of international law as it relates to statecraft, war, and peace. If only interested in the history and future of war, read Book I; those interested in the history and future of international society, read Book II.

THE SHIELD OF ACHILLES: War Peace and the Course of History is a clear, concise, compelling read. I unreservedly recommend it.

STRATEGY: A History, Lawrence Freedman, Oxford University Press, 2013, 751 pages

From Homer came the contrasting qualities represented respectively by Achilles and Odysseus, of biē and mētis (strength and cunning), which over time – for example, in Machiavelli – came to be represented as force and guile. This polarity continued to find expression in strategic literature. Outsmarting the opponent risked less pain than open conflict, although winning by cunning and subterfuge was often deplored for lack of honor and nobility. There was also the more practical problem that reliance on deception was apt to suffer diminishing returns as opponents came to appreciate what they were facing.… A preference for force or guile might reflect a temperamental disposition, but it could not be a strategy in itself. That must depend on how best to turn a complex and developing set of affairs to advantage, which in turn must depend on an ability to persuade those who must implement the strategy that is wise. (p. 23)

Everything you wanted to know about strategy and more. Sir Lawrence Freedman, Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King’s College London, never disappoints. Reviewing THE FUTURE OF WAR: A History, I wrote:

Freedman serves a tour d’horizon by looking at how wars of the past sparked the imagination for wars of the future. It is a fascinating and rewarding read, replete with references from historians, chroniclers, military theorists, novelists, film makers, and others – all of whom, informed by the past and guided by imagination, predicted, conceptualized, and shaped how future wars will or should be fought, sparking innovative thinking and technologies to dominate the military theater offensively and defensively.

The same applies here, as I expected. The Future of War was published five years after STRATEGY. The only thing different is that this book is about strategy – in all its forms and uses. This is what makes this book so invaluable to any student of strategy – no matter what the discipline. Freedman looks at the art and science of strategy holistically as it is considered, appreciated, and utilized in just about every aspect in life. This not only informs of how strategy is used in disciplines other than the ones the reader may be engaged in, but also provides valuable insight in drawing comparisons and practical strategic approaches to situations calling for thinking outside-the-box.

STRATEGY is divided into five parts. Part I, Origins, focusing primarily on military strategy, has five chapters on the origins of strategy of the Western culture, covering the Hebrew Bible, classical Greeks, Sun Tzu, and Machiavelli. His astute observations on Thucydides as a historian and chronicler are worth quoting even if somewhat lengthy, for they encapsulate the essence of strategy upon which Freedman will elaborate on throughout – a golden thread that adorns the tapestry he presents:

As a historian, Thucydides exemplified the enlightenment spirit, describing conflict in unsentimental and calculating terms, posing hard questions of power and purpose, and observing how choices had consequences. He dismissed explanations for human affairs that depended on capricious fate and mischievous gods and concentrated instead on political leaders and their strategies.… His narrative illuminated some of the central themes of all strategy: the limits imposed by the circumstances of the time, the importance of coalitions as a source of strength but also instability, the challenge of coping with internal opponents and external pressures simultaneously, the difficulties of strategies that are defensive and patient in the face of demands for quick and decisive offensives, the impact of the unexpected, and – perhaps most importantly – the role of language as a strategic instrument. (p. 30)

Part II, Strategies of Force, has 12 chapters ranging from the new science of strategy to the myth of the Master Strategist, further dealing with military strategy, featuring topics on Clausewitz, nuclear games guerrilla warfare, and the revolution of military affairs. Part III, Strategy from Below, has 10 chapters dealing with political strategy, featuring topics on Marx, Bakunin, black power and white anger, and race, religion, and election. Part VI, Strategy from Above, has eight chapters dealing with business strategy for managers and organizations. Part V, Theories of Strategy is the shortest, with only three chapters, considering contemporary contributions to the social sciences, seeking to draw and link the main theme of STRATEGY.

As disparate as the topics and material covered, Freedman excels in showing how strategic thinking – decisions taken based on set approaches and calculated risks informed by experience and empirical studies – shape decision-makers’ actions. Not everything is applicable to every discipline, but as a trial lawyer who appreciates the importance of strategic thinking – from developing the theory of a case, to the strategies employed, to the tactical decisions requiring quick thinking and decisive action – even in the face of appreciable uncertainty of the choice made and the resulting outcome – STRATEGY offers valuable information and insight for innovative thinking. Pity I have not found time to plow through his latest book, Command: The Politics of Military Operations from Korea to Ukraine, in which, no doubt, he examines commanders and their decisions in major historical events through, among things, his keen appreciation of strategy.

And if you are like me and interested in strategy, I also recommend some other books on strategy which I’ve found rewarding:

Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft and World Order, Charles Hill, Yale University Press, 2010.

ON GRAND STRATEGY, John Lewis Gaddis, Penguin Press, 2018.

REALPOILIC: A History, John Bew, Oxford University Press, 2016.

THE ART OF STRATEGY: A Game Theorist’s Guide to Success in Business and Life, Avinash K. Dixit and Barry J. Nalebuff, W.W. Norton, 2008.

HUBRIS: The Tragedy of War in the Twentieth Century, Alistair Horne, Harper Collins, 2015, 382 pages

For Aristotle, arete (virtue or excellence) was something that falls between two extremes, between excess on the one hand and defect on the other. It is to be judged according to the circumstances – there is no advance prescription that tells us what to do. But we can be guided by recognizing the two extremes and looking for the mean.… Hubris is plainly always the extreme of excess, and by accepting that it lies in wait for us – whether we are a warlord or a simple citizen – we are better equipped to avoid it. That is not to say that we should always be cautious, or that acts of daring are wrong. Far from it. What we and our leaders need to understand is that the exuberance that follows victory all too easily leads to the wrong decision. Perhaps there are other clues that hubris is creeping upon us.… [A] racist contempt for the enemy has often been a symptom indicating that a leader and even his people are in the grip of hubris – and heading for trouble. (pp. 343-344).

Sir Alistair Horne spent the better part of his life (1925-2017) writing books on strategy, diplomacy, and statecraft. In HUBRIS: The Tragedy of War in the Twentieth Century, Horne sets out to prove his thesis of hubris as the harbinger of bad tidings to euphoric and arrogant military leaders drunk with notions of victory-inevitability based on past triumphs – often against great odds.

While his limited choice of events from merely the first half of the twentieth century may seem insufficient for a historian to draw conclusions, or capricious and perhaps idiosyncratic (as he notes), in my opinion this is one of the strengths of this little gem. A masterful analysist of engaging prose with a discriminating eye for essential detail and appreciative color, Horne informs without overwhelming or conflating. He delivers.

With wisdom, expectational knowledge of history, and a keen understanding of human behavior Horne examines in five chapters how six pivotal military battles waged with unguarded (over)confidence from earlier military successes and/or undertows of stereotypical racism, led to consequentially disastrous reversals.

Horne starts with the battle of Tsushima in 1905 between an awakening and ambitious Japan and a powerful and naval-superior Russia. Despite the profound difference in military/naval might, Japan annihilated most of the Russian fleet in Port Arthur – an event that at the time shocked the world. The significance (and exuberant hubris that would recklessly fuel Japan’s territorial ambitions) can not be overstated. Since the Middle Ages, no European power had been thumped by a non-European country. As Pankaj Mishra puts it in FROM THE RUINS OF EMPIRE: The Intellectuals who Remade Asia (an exquisite and penetrating read):

Described by the German Kaiser as the most important naval battle since Trafalgar a century earlier, and by President Theodore Roosevelt as ‘the greatest phenomenon the world has ever seen’, the Battle of Tsushima effectively terminated a war that had been rumbling on since February 1904, fought mainly to decide whether Russia or Japan would control Korea and Manchuria. (p. 1)

This victory essentially put Japan on the naval map, as it went from strength to strength in building up its armed forces, and in particular its navy, as it set out to occupy coveted land of its neighbors. Inescapably, Japan would have another go at Russia (by then the Soviet Union), this time on the plains of Mongolia at the Battle of Nomonhan in 1939. Against the odds, Japan, having bitten more than it could chew, was served a humiliating defeat.

Horne then moves to the Battle of Moscow in 1941, where Hitler, overreaching (much like Napoleon) by invading the Soviet Union – having self-deluded himself of his unequal military genius and of Germany’s unrivaled military prowess – got bogged down, suffering sustained and irreversible losses at the hands of a rag-tag, anemic Soviet military, gutted when some of its finest high and mid-level officers were purged by Secretary General (dictator) Joseph Stalin.

Back to the Pacific, Horne takes us to 1942 to the Battle of Midway between Japan and the US. Having convinced itself that the US navy was severely crippled, if not spent, for months and perhaps years, as a result of its sneak attack on Perl Harbor, where most of the US’s fleet was lost, Japan pressed forward with abandon. In the grip of hubris, as Horne warns us against, Japan suffered a catastrophic defeat, turning the tide of the war in favor of the US. But for the Battle of Midway – which Japan unnecessarily but enthusiastically welcomed – the war in the Pacific, and Japan’s fortunes, might have netted a different outcome.

In the final chapter, Horne turns to two major military battles that span from 1950 to 1954 – Korea and Dien Bien Phu. That General MacArthur made rash and at times uninformed decisions in prosecuting the Korean War are widely accepted. A figure larger than life (who also carried himself as such, much to the dismay of US President Truman), as Supreme Commander of the Southwest Pacific Area, Mac Arthur led the US to victory against Japan – though much more credit is owed to Admiral Nimitz, Commander in Chief, US Pacific Fleet. Thinking that he knew better than others, and not heeding advice or reflecting clearly on the realities on the ground, General MacArthur blundered into a quagmire that would unnecessarily cost the lives and limbs of thousands of troops under his command at the hands of a weaker, smaller, ill-equipped force. Despite it all, General MacArthur never accepted the folly of his decisions, his ill-chosen strategy, or his unappreciation of the known unknowns, let alone the unknown unknowns.

The Battle of Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam in 1954 was a humiliating defeat for the French, who, despite having tasted the loss of freedom while occupied by Nazi Germany, was desperately trying to resuscitate its colonial glory by lording over, among other, the Vietnamese – its former colonial subjects. France’s undoing is as much due to its unappreciation of the will, strength, and ingenuity of the north Vietnamese soldiers under General Võ Nguyên Giáp, as it is to the (racist) notions of occidental superiority of the French defenders of Dien Bien Phu. Underestimating the capabilities and intelligence and will of enemy forces, especially on account of race or ethnicity, can lead to calamitous results – something the US would learn no sooner than when France abandoned its colonial aspirations and hightailed it out of Vietnam. As things turned out later in Algeria, it seems the French had yet to learn to discern the clues of hubris. Ditto for the US, as can be seen from its ill-conceived invasion of Iraq in 2003 – likened to a “cake walk” and a “slam dunk” from the outset.

THE FUTURE OF POWER, Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Public Affairs, 2011, 300 pages

Today, power in the world is distributed in a pattern that resembles a complex three‑dimensional chess game. On the top chessboard, military power is largely unipolar and the United States is likely to remain supreme for some time. But in the middle chessboard, economic power has been multipolar for more than a decade, with the United States, Europe, Japan, and China as the major players, and with others gaining in importance. Europe’s economy is larger than America’s. The bottom chessboard is the realm of transnational relations that cross boarders outside of government control, and it includes nonstate actors as diverse as bankers electronically transferring sums larger than most national budgets at one extreme and terrorist transferring weapons or hackers threatening cybersecurity at the other. This chessboard also includes new transnational challenges such as pandemic and climate change. On this bottom board, power is widely diffused, and it makes no sense to speak here of unipolarity, multipolarity, hegemony, or any other such clichés that political leaders and pundits put in their speeches. (p. xv)  

Few have the breadth and depth of knowledge in national security and foreign affairs as Joseph S. Nye, Jr. A pragmatic, bold, and innovative thinker, Nye comprehensively analyzes power as it exists and wielded in world affairs in THE FUTURE OF POWER. Skillfully synthesizing data, events, and scholarship, like a good doctor, having dissected the causes of the symptoms and reaching a diagnosis, he identifies prescriptive measures that build on lessons learned from the past and tailors them for the evolving world order, illuminating what lies ahead. If I was limited to describing this book in one word, it would be magisterial. Most of what Nye has written on foreign and world affairs is generally of this range and standard.

As I was reading this book, I was thinking of the opening lines of Lt. Col. Nathan Jessup (Jack Nicholson) in the film A Few Good Men, when he lectures Lt. Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise): “We live in a world that has walls. And those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it?”  Obviously, he was speaking of the use of military or hard power – but so, so myopically if you consider the threats and challenges any state of any size or of any strength faces today, and ominously, will face tomorrow. I am talking about countering acts of violent extremism, insurgencies, nuclear weapon proliferation, environmental disasters due to climate change, epidemics and pandemics, famine, migration caused by insecurity and lack of basic humane living conditions, conflicts, financial-market meltdowns, wars of aggression, artificial intelligence, and the mother of all future warfare – cyberwar.

Great powers such as the US, perhaps more so than less powerful states, need to think creatively in how they will need to exercise their power – not just for their own sake, but for the sake of all humanity. Not idealistically, but pragmatically. Here is where Nye, in no small measure, illuminates the path forward.

THE FUTURE OF POWER is divided into three parts. In Part I, Types of Power, Nye sets the stage by discussing power in the forms it is generally understood – power in global affairs, military power, economic power, and soft power. There is no one definition of power. We can all appreciate military and economic power. Soft power is a bit more nebulous, but it too is generally appreciated as Nye categorizes in its three forms: culture, political values, and foreign policy. Of course, how these types of power are applied are dictated to a large extent by whether policymakers, or should I say a state, approaches its internal affairs which in turn influences their external/foreign affairs based on realism or liberalism. More on this later.

In Part II, Power Shifts: Diffusion and Transitions, Nye discusses the diffusion of power and the emergence of and effects of cyberpower, and power transitions – particularly, America’s inevitable decline as the sole superpower, and of its power on the world stage in general, influenced indubitably by its internal affairs. Hence the need for a rethink and recalibration of how and on what criteria it should judiciously exercise its power. This ties in what I mentioned earlier in identifying the most obvious of challenges the global community faces today, and more expediently tomorrow now as the cyberage in which we live will become ever more increasingly precariously dangerous.

In Part III, Policy, Nye elucidates the advantages of smart power, postulating that it is time for the US (though equally relevant to other states) to abandon realism and liberalism for an innovative and perspicacious approach, which he calls neoliberalism. Before I go further, a few words on realism and liberalism as promised.

Realism views the world in terms of a state’s primary aim to preserve its security, with military force as the ultimate instrument. The writings of Thucydides and Machiavelli articulate realism in its purest form. It is an inward-looking approach to world affairs driven by competing self-interests, placing the state’s affairs above all else (and the rest be damned if necessary), perhaps best exemplified by the famous quote in Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War, where the Athenian emissaries to the leaders of the Island of Melos said: “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” Liberalism approaches world affairs almost completely the opposite – more of a communal approach. Measured power is used through state economies, with cooperation and the fostering of freedoms and rights being the driving aim.

Underpinning Nye’s concept of liberal realism is smart power. As described to Nye by a high US State Department official in the Obama administration, “smart power [is] the intelligent integration and networking of diplomacy, defense, development, and other tools of so-called ‘hard and soft’ power.” Nye identifies five questions that should be answered in fashioning a smart strategy:

First, what goals or outcomes are preferred?

Second, what resources are available and in which context?

Third, what are the positions and preferences of the targets of influence attempts?

Fourth, what forms of power behavior are most likely to succeed, and

Fifth, what is the possibility of success?

Based on a smart power strategy, Nye asserts that “the old distinctions between realists and liberals needs to give way to a new synthesis,” liberal realism, to which he offers five smart power strategies relevant to the US – though as noted earlier, they can be relevant to other states just as well:

First, start by understanding the strengths and limits of American power.

Second, stress the importance of developing an integrated grand strategy that combines hard power with soft attractive power into smart power of the sort that won the Cold War.

Third, the objective would have key pillars of providing security for the United States and its allies, maintaining a strong domestic and international economy, avoiding environmental disasters (such as pandemics and negative climate change), and encouraging liberal democracy and human rights at home and abroad where feasible at reasonable levels of costs.

Fourth, require policies that gradually reduce dependence on oil while realizing that the American economy cannot be isolated from global energy markets and that the United States must not succumb to costly and counterproductive protectionism.

Fifth, look to long-term evolution of world order and realize the responsibility of the largest country in the international system to produce global public or common goods. 

I’ve just covered the highlights of THE FUTURE OF POWER. It offers much more. A must read for anyone interested in statecraft, grand strategies, and international affairs.

 See part three of this series.

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About Author


Author: Michael G. Karnavas

Michael G. Karnavas is an American trained lawyer. He is licensed in Alaska and Massachusetts and is qualified to appear before the various International tribunals, including the International Criminal Court (ICC). Residing and practicing primarily in The Hague, he is recognized as an expert in international criminal defence, including pre-trial, trial, and appellate advocacy.

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