Welcome to the League of Mad Strategists
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Welcome to the League of Mad Strategists


Imagine, if you will, a congress of the League of Mad Strategists. Huddled around a world map in some nondescript, dark-paneled room are Prussian soldier and theorist Carl von Clausewitz, Center for Strategic and International Studies scholar Edward Luttwak, and intellectual gadfly Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Together the theorists debate the nature of international competition and warfare, and identify some solutions to — or at least ways to think about — timeless problems.

Clausewitz starts. He's the prophet of interaction, yet he's all about rationality. Indeed, the precept that cost/benefit analysis must govern any war effort lies at the heart of his landmark treatise On War. But events have a way of confounding the most level-headed soldier or stateman. That's because the enemy gets a vote in competitive endeavors, and he invariably casts it to thwart our goals.

Compounding this clash of wills is the inexorable human tendency to overextend oneself amid the throes of combat. Which is where Luttwak weighs in, invoking the "paradoxical logic" of competition. Combatants that press their advantage further than they should expose themselves to "ironic reversals" of battlefield fortune. Overextension results in a local mismatch of forces.

Even the strong are prone to ironic reversals. They attenuate their strength when fighting far from home. A weaker power defending its home ground can raise the costs to its adversary to prohibitive levels, or even prevail outright. But the defender is hardly immune to overextension. If it succumbs to temptation, the conflict takes on a seesaw character. That's why Clausewitz likens armed strife to a wrestling match on a grand scale. The belligerents grapple constantly for strategic advantage. The momentum lurches back and forth erratically, like mercury.

To take a real-world example, Luttwak believes China has let hubris — outrageous arrogance that begets self-defeating behavior — get the best of it. By picking fights with its neighbors simultaneously, he maintains, Beijing risks uniting a hostile coalition that can push back. I concur.

Finally Taleb gets into the act. The keeper of the Black Swan — the notion that human beings are linear thinkers highly susceptible to the unforeseen — suggests a remedy for ironic reversals of fortune. Or rather, he suggests how leaders can arrange things so as to benefit from fateful, and unavoidable, turnabouts. His latest theory goes by the ungainly term "antifragile." Taleb points out that we usually assume the opposite of "fragile" is "robust," or "resilient," or some other synonym connoting the ability to withstand unexpected setbacks.

Not so, says this mad hatter of social science. In reality some systems actually benefit from Black Swans. Leaders sort through the wreckage, reflect, and improve. A fragile system shatters when struck a sharp blow; a robust system lumbers on; an antifragile system reaps positive gains. Big, ponderous, centralized organizations tend to be fragile. Decentralized, nimble organizations can recoup their mistakes, which are many but remediable. They adapt to and learn from Black Swans.

Memo to statesmen and commanders: decentralize your organizations, push authority down to junior people, and watch marvels commence.

May 20, 2013 at 00:30

I'll expand on that. This perfectly describes HM Revenue and Customs and why they are failing to prevent Tax Avoidance. Top heavy, centralised and slow to react whilst the tax avoiders (Black Swans)  take advantage of every unexpected consequence of legilsation. 

May 20, 2013 at 00:26

This perfectly describes everything that is wrong with HMRC 

Callum Lane
May 16, 2013 at 19:46

Sun Tzu is a fascinating insight into the oriental mindset, but is he a strategic theorist per se? I always understood Sun Tzu to be a collection of of thoughts and sayings on warfare and strategy, but not a unified theory of warfare and strategy such as Clausewitz purports to be.

May 15, 2013 at 17:56

"Considering the times in which Sun Tzu allegedly wrote, isn't it a bit naive to consider him a proponent of war without fighting, something that I beleive is more a politically convenient interpretation of what he meant as opposed to any statement that he actually made?"

It's not naive or bluff.  Sun Zi's view of victory without war is indeed considered the highest form of strategy by chinese. 

May 15, 2013 at 05:02

Considering the times in which Sun Tzu allegedly wrote, isn't it a bit naive to consider him a proponent of war without fighting, something that I beleive is more a politically convenient interpretation of what he meant as opposed to any statement that he actually made? If anything, all that is attributed to him is little more than encouraging leaders and commanders to think outside the square.

May 14, 2013 at 21:13

Funny also how you call up Sun Zi as this master of strategy, whereas Luttwak in his recent China related book goes to great lengths to point out how the Chinese have a pretty poor strategic history, and how the belief that China has some kind of innate "strategic genius" is pretty flawed from a historic POV. 

May 14, 2013 at 18:54

"George Friedman (father of STRATFOR and "The Next 100 Years")"

Friedman has always been one of the poorest political analysts in the U.S. in my view. And that next 100 years book is nothing but a farce.

The Coming War with Japan


Leonard R.
May 14, 2013 at 17:46

That's pretty good analysis. That's also why it may be time for a few black swans to start nesting inside China. 

I was talking about Taleb with someone at lunch today. I need to read up on him.

May 14, 2013 at 15:32

Funny how the memo to statesmen and commanders concluding this particular ramble calls for decentralization while a previous analysis of China's current spate of spats with her neighbors was blamed, ironically enough, on a decentralized military structure that allowed local commanders too much leeway in determining what actions to take!

At issue here is that out of all these military thinkers, the acknowledged and undisputed master of military theory, Sun Tzu, remains conspicuously absent.  In any line up of great military thinkers, leaving him out is akin to leaving the Hindenburg out of a treatise about zeppelin catastrophes.  Perhaps it is because amongst Sun Tzu's teachings is the art of winning without fighting.

A prime example: China recently made an incursion into Indian-controlled territory along their disputed Himalayan border.  The end result?  India demolished an outpost it had nearby as a precondition for the Chinese to withdraw back to the Line of Actual Control.  There was no fight, no exchange of gunfire, nothing of the sort.  China got what it wanted, which was the removal of an Indian forward base.  What did it cost China?  A return to the status quo.  In effect, its provocation got China what it wanted.

The same logic is likely what drives China right now.  None of these disputes is new.  Only the level of and sophistication of the gear is.  By escalating an existing situation, China positions itself for a win-win situation.  If her neighbors seek dialogue, something no one seems to have genuinely offered in the past, China wins.  China's goal has always been to seek bilateral rather than multilateral agreements with her neighbors regarding territorial disputes, so in bringing others to the table, China wins.

If China's neighbors back down in the face of military force or the threat of force, China wins again.  There is always the fantasy of a pan-Pacific/anti-China alliance, but the reality of it is that few of the other Pacific Rim nations are willing to be the frontline fighter in what would essentially be a fight for the maintenance of American primacy in the Far East.  We tend to view other nations as unthinking piles of resources without a will, interests, or ambitions of their own and tend to react with anger and/or violence when they remind us that they too would like to be treated like sovereign nations.

The problem with China's current outburst of activity is not that China is overreaching itself.  Note that it has maintained an even if not amiable relationship with Russia and the other former Soviet republics.  

No, the problem with China's current strategy is we find ourselves unable to exploit it to our advantage.  When the Soviets reached out, we were ready, willing, and able to slap their hand and slap it hard.  These days, however, China is getting us to overreach ourselves, not the other way around.  China has gone no further than it believes it has the advantage.  We, on the other hand, have been skipping to and fro spending billions of dollars attempting to counter China's every move.  From the establishment of AFRICOM to our pivot to the Pacific, China has us spending money we don't have to counter moves we can't match.   

May 14, 2013 at 14:44

Throw in a little Paul Bracken (whose treatise on "The Second Nuclear Age" is absolutely eye-opening) and a little George Friedman (father of STRATFOR and "The Next 100 Years") and you've got yourself a great mix of strategical and intellectual delight. In fact, put this lot in the next presidential cabinet and I dare say that we needn't worry about any future threat.

May 14, 2013 at 11:45

"By picking fights with its neighbors simultaneously, he maintains, Beijing risks uniting a hostile coalition that can push back."

But China has not deployed anything against them which means it costs nothing for China. But look at Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, the Phillipines, Vietnam, etc. They have spent billions on new weapons depriving their ailing economies the vital finance injections. They have been buying world's most expensive weapons! It is a form of economic attrition. The country with a higher GDP growth rate drags countries with a lower growth rate into a military spending spree. Who will last? Obviously China. China may run this for a few years, exhaust its adversaries with higher and higher defence spend leading to lower economic growth in these countries. Thereafter, they will be compelled to cut back on defence, address social issues and political opposition at which time China will make the move!

USA is also in a dilema where to position its military assets. Deploying from Darwin to Japan thins out the forces and is very expensive.

Thirdly, some countries in the region may give up warding off China out of economic exhaustion and opportunism.

An alliance of the affected countries don't mean much to Chinese military might. But the above 3 scenarios do make a tangible difference in the region.

John Frary
May 14, 2013 at 05:53

I propose a rule are consideration: That the only large bureaucracies capable of self-reform are armies which have suffered defeat. This seems to work because junior officers  rise through the ranks to replace the brass-bound bureaucrats and apply the lessons they learned and combat after some years of reflection. This seems consistent with the theory of decentralization.

May 14, 2013 at 02:38

Clausewitz was much more than a theorist – having been there and done that!

May 13, 2013 at 23:07

Fascinating piece on subsidiarity.

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