The obvious naturally intelligent agent is the human being. Some people might say that worms, insects, or bacteria are intelligent, but more people would say that dogs, whales, or monkeys are intelligent. One class of intelligent agents that may be more intelligent than humans is the class of organizations. Ant colonies are a prototypical example of organizations. Each individual ant may not be very intelligent, but an ant colony can act more intelligently than any individual ant. The colony can discover food and exploit it very effectively as well as adapt to changing circumstances. Similarly, companies can develop, manufacture, and distribute products where the sum of the skills required is much more than any individual could master. Modern computers, from low-level hardware to high-level software, are more complicated than any human can understand, yet they are manufactured daily by organizations of humans. Human society viewed as an agent is arguably the most intelligent agent known.
David J. Poole and Alan K. Mackworth, Artificial Intelligence: Foundations of Intelligent Agents, 2010, 6.
Plucking a few events out of the vastness of the world and declaring them to be the news of the day is a mysterious and complicated project. Sometimes what’s news is inarguable—the outbreak of war, a head-of-state transition, natural calamity—but very often it falls into the category of the resonant incident. It isn’t a turn in the course of history, but it strikes editors as illustrative of something important.
— A particularly nice quote that Jay Ulfelder found from Kitty Genovese case.
Ancient Romans had a game similar to rugby called Harpastum. The goal was to get the ball to the end, and since there were no rules on grappling, injuries were high. Beyond that the rules varied. Galen, the famous Roman physician, claimed that harpastum was one of the greatest exercises “better than wrestling or running because it exercises every part of the body, takes up little time, and costs nothing” it was”profitable training in strategy”, and could be ”played with varying degrees of strenuousness.”
Danny Butterman: Have you ever fired two guns whilst jumping through the air?
Nicholas Angel: No.
Danny Butterman: Have you ever fired one gun whilst jumping through the air?
Nicholas Angel: No.
Danny Butterman: Ever been in a high-speed pursuit?
Nicholas Angel: Yes, I have.
Danny Butterman: Have you ever fired a gun whilst in a high speed pursuit?
Nicholas Angel: No!
A while back, Daniel Drezner wrote a prescient post about the emotional exhaustion that he observed as indicative of a certain persuasion in foreign affairs analysis:
The key things to realize about the neoconservative worldview is that:
1) Reputation and the image of strength are everything;
2) Countries bandwagon to the strong states and eschew the weak states.
3) Even the slightest concession in the present weakens one’s reputation and strength for the future; so
4) Any concession in a present negotiation ineluctably leads to unconditional surrender in the future.
Where I think Drezner errors is his ascribing this tendency solely to the neoconservative worldview. This isn’t really a failing that necessarily issues from the neoconservative perspective — in large part because the much-overused “neoconservative,” like its similarly neo-‘d cousin “neoliberal,” is a clumsy moniker for a more diffuse set of beliefs, ideas, personalities, and policies than its promiscuous usage implies. Hence, as some early readers of this post reminded me, it’s hard to say what “neconservatives” Drezner’s analysis applies to. But that isn’t really the important part of why the tendency is more general.
With a few alterations, this Drezner précis could also describe the domestic political “horse race” coverage that Nate Silver so famously battled against. A world where every incident that receives a lot of press coverage is a “Game Changer”, a world where the election is forever “up in the air” despite statistical evidence to the contrary, and a world where victory depends on the strength, cunning, and resolve of powerful men alone.
Or, more colloquially, the world that Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3's villain Vladimir Makarov describes with his speech during the MW3 reveal trailer: “It doesn’t take the most powerful nations on Earth to create the next global conflict. Just the will of a single man.”
To call this a Great Man theory of history or world affairs is to misdiagnose. Take 24's Jack Bauer, for example. Jack Bauer is integral to saving the day every season of 24. We can’t laugh entirely at this notion — recent work in international relations shows that the hero can’t be dismissed. Leaders do shape the structure of the international system, even if they are also constrained by it. But the idea that the hero is important (and how important he is) isn’t really the key assumption (or debating question) posed by this kind of worldview.
Rather, every action movie is just a snapshot of one bad day/week/month out of many more in a year. Jack Bauer may have to be on point for those unlucky 24 hours, but what does he do the rest of the year? Likely write paperwork, practice his marksmanship at the range, and deal with a number of lesser cases that never rise to the all-consuming importance of That Day In Which He Expends Bullets and BlackBerries Like A Endless Round of Team Deathmatch. All of that occurs offscreen and doesn’t matter - just like Jack Bauer is never shown on the toilet or doing any other sort of mundane activity.
The biggest structural unrealism embedded in 24 is the idea that only That One Day matters. That the fate of the nation and sometimes the world hangs in the balance for 24 hours, and depends entirely on Jack, Chloe, and the team. Those 364 other days? Irrelevant. The problem with this worldview when applied to any large-scale endeavor, be it an election or international security crisis, is that in real life it will never be clear which day is the critical time. There is no clock steadily ticking down, no Kiefer Sutherland voice-over narration. There will be, however, a very many days that seem at first glance to be important but upon closer analysis can be dismissed as noise — pure and ephemeral randomness. And a lot more determines the dynamics and end result than just Jack’s marksmanship and Herculean ability to rapidly maneuver throughout the greater Los Angeles and New York City areas in defiance of the worst traffic in America.
Worldviews that place great importance on the notion of a singularity at which the fate of the world will be decided by the clashing wills of titans have a bad habit of seeing every instance that laps up press attention and fits a comfortable Gotterdammerung/Armageddon narrative as the time to pray to Saint Jack to pick up his pistol and his BlackBerry, instinctively say “dammit Chloe,” and leap into action and stop the terrorists.
So what happens when you (1) over-classify game changers and (2) inevitably see most of your game-changer predictions fail? You can rationalize it by one (or both) options from this menu:
Upon closer examination, both perspectives are essentially the same. They just use a different argumentative strategy. The first one simply ignores the past, the second one uses it instrumentally as part of a narrative (see: Munich analogies) that finds great moments in history where the iron dice is cast and the fate of Mom, Apple Pie, and The Flag hangs in the balance.
ThinkProgress blogger (and soon to be Project X'er) Zack Beauchamp tweeted a while ago that structures, regularities, and fundamentals matter — and that while domestic analysts studying politics had come to understand this, foreign policy analysts did not. The problem is that the perspective that one garners from taking into account structures, regularities, and fundamentals is one that sees a high level of noise in the world and attempts to develop highly precise tools for cutting through it to find the signal. It is a perspective that leads to "incremental" and "dull" analysis and better fits the temperament of the accountant than the romantic.
When it comes to much of what we regard as politics and punditry, the lack of passion and romanticism that soberness necessitates is a feature, not a bug. Many are drawn to politics because they are romantics, full of passion and aesthetic verve rather than statistics books or “dull” and “incremental” scholarship about the stuff of both domestic and intentional affairs. It is no wonder, perhaps, that the kind of worldview I describe here is more than just action movie heroics taken as holy writ. It is also in many respects a kind of throwback to the sort of Victorian-era mythos and tropes that Spengler and others mined for their works. The world has become decadent and complacent, unable to notice a vigorous, vital, and evil force emerging from the darkness. It strides over the weak forces of order, defeating them with frightening ease. A titanic battle looms, one that will be the defining struggle of the age.
As art, there is nothing more sublime than this sort of aesthetic. It’s what makes John Boorman’s Excalibur the greatest of all of the cinematic representations of the Arthur mythos. And it’s what, on a more vulgar level, made 300 and Lord of the Rings so popular at the box office. It is the height of drama, tension, and narrative payoff. If everything wasn’t on the line, why watch Rocky fight in the first place? But as a guide to everyday life — well, there have been entire dissertations written on how using themes that could have been stolen from Wagner operas as a wellspring for your political philosophy and rhetoric leads to dangerous ideas about public policy.
Andreesen-Horowitz’s Marc Andreesen, commenting on Newsweek's recent game of “Where’s Satoshi?” tweeted that “there is a growing CP Snow-style divide between people who trust math/science/tech and people who trust people/institutions.” That’s true, but it’s also lamentable — the world genuinely needs those who both are versed in the technical as well as the social and political. Both intersect, as Herbert Simon implies with his metaphor of an technological artifact’s “inner laws” and outer environment that those laws intersect with.
But another far more serious divide looms — between those who see politics in “dull” and “incremental” terms and those who view politics as a sort of literary romance. Unlike Andreesen’s divide between the technical-trusters and the people/institution-trusters, this one is harder to bridge. There isn’t necessarily an natural or obvious intersection between the two camps. There is very little romanticism in R scripts, Bayes, or prediction models. The lyrical and passionate Nassim Nicholas Taleb of “Black Swan” fame seems to be the exception to the rule, but an exception nonetheless.
So if you’re analyzing politics, you can regard the world as a dark and uncertain place full of noise and randomness — with your tools as imperfect and fallible tools you use to try to find the signal. It’s a viewpoint that I’ve struggled with myself, in large part because of my instinctive attraction to the romantic view. Hey, at the end of the day I bought MW3 because of the Makarov “will of a single man” voiceover in the trailer. I’m not automatically in the first camp — if I was, why would I need to go into a PhD program if I’ve already learned that sort of analytical mindset? I haven’t, and I’m still working on it.
You could, however, forego the attempt entirely. You can aim for the romantic view, where the answers are already known, every struggle is the beginning of that 24 hours ticking down, and the man who wins is he who can fire a gun whilst jumping through the air. It might be more fun, it might save you from being “dull” and “incremental,” but it’ll also, as Drezner argues, exhaust you. Many people have opted for this fork in the road instead.
Maybe one day can matter — though not as a metaphysical, Splengerian conflict. If one day matters, it is as the product a particular confluence of structures, fundamentals, leaders, information, and conflicts. And we acknowledge that one day can make the difference while also acknowledging that the outcome could also be the slow accretion of other days that cumulates in strategic decision. Or perhaps the thing we want to explain or predict is a combination of the two. The choice bolls down to whether or not we want to approach such an analysis from the romantic perspective — or whether we aim for something else more frustrating, incremental, inconclusive, and ultimately more rewarding.
I have mostly stayed out of the debate between Robert Farley and his air minded critics. But the recent War on the Rocks response to his piece makes me want to comment on how remarkably weak the responses to his book have been. Let’s be clear that I disagree with Farley’s thesis as well. But since this topic isn’t really that interesting to me, you’ll have to talk to me offline if you want to know why.
Rather, what interests me is simply how little reflective thought has gone into the actual institutional and social scientific dilemmas this subject raises.
There are two dominant problems that are clear to any causal observer of inter service architecture and the military institutions literature.
(1) Institutions have biases, some of which may be general (e.g. Barry Posen’s argument that mil institutions will seek to maximize autonomy and offensive doctrines) and others specific to whatever culture or operational code structures institutional life.
(2) What is optimal for one actor is not the basis by which that actor’s performance ought to be decided. Aggregate effectiveness, not institutional effectiveness, matters when the actor is part of an overall grouping that must cooperate to achieve some goal.
This paragraph from the response flat-out denies the former issue and minimizes the second:
“An independent Air Force, drawing on decades of combat experiences in the air domain, is best suited to create air-centric doctrine. United States dominance in the five core Air Force missions would be diluted and dominance in the other domains would be at risk if the other services were forced to absorb the Air Force’s mission and responsibility for air domain doctrine. ….
Each branch of the U.S. military has unique, service-specific priorities based fundamentally on the domain in which it fights. ….By focusing on one domain, each service organizes itself to maximize effectiveness in that domain. Adding additional domain requirements would create an intrinsic conflict in organization.”
This response is premised on the idea that discrete domains exist and each service — like a firm in economics — maximizes comparative advantage. But while domains are a nice way for DoD budgeteers to differentiate organizational roles and missions, Sam Liles convincingly argues that for the most part they are completely artificial:
United States doctrine and force structure is built around the domains of air, sea, land, space and now cyber. Domains as defined create cylinders of capability that can be merged and fought within. The domain construct is as much a historical artifact as it is an efficient categorical system. The military force structure to fight within these domains is an air force, army, and navy. The Marine Corps is an expeditionary force between the sea and land (and other tasks as designated). This structure as defined has inherently created a strategic blindness to the capacities, capabilities, and risks of conflict where they meet. This is especially true when dealing with cyberspace.
Hold up your left hand and look at your fingers. Each finger denotes a domain that United States doctrine defines. The palm of your hand represents the joint functions of these domains. When formed into a fist this meshing of national power assets represents a significant amount of power that is bent toward national strategic objectives.
I encourage readers to click through and read his “alien invasion” hypothetical to see just how artificial the service-domain distinctions are. What this implies is that services don’t get a cookie for maximizing effectiveness in their particular area of specialization. If the price of one service achieving its maximal effectiveness in one area is an suboptimal overall military utility then optimal effectiveness isn’t the goal to be sought.
To see just how ridiculous this idea is, imagine would happen if your car crashed and the manufacturer explained it away as “maximizing rear wheel domain effectiveness.” You want a functioning automobile, not something that accepts an overall task inefficiency because of the importance of having each discrete component optimized to the fullest extent possible. And even is this analogy is generous in that it requires accepting that organizational bias isn’t restraining the organization from maximizing its own discrete area of specialization.
Here’s how to argue against Farley.
(1) Either deal with the service culture/aggregate effectiveness arguments or argue that they’ve been misconceptualized. Don’t ignore them altogether.
(2) Argue that the status quo, while inefficient in many respects, is superior in some way to Farley’s preferred alternative. Perhaps there may be a larger benefit to a 3-service architecture (such as, perhaps, using inter-service competition to reduce the military’s collective action power and thus optimize civilian control? Again, I’m not interested in in this issues so it’s up to you, dear readers).
Right now, though, the responses to Farley’s book have looked as troubled as the F-35 production cycle.
For most of my time in undergrad and my terminal MA, the dominant object of discussion revolved around several theme (which are still being debated today, I might add):
The neo-Clausewitzian position, epitomized by the writings of Colin S. Gray, is that war has one nature but many characters. Understandings of a particular character that diverges in some fundamental way from underlying logic will only lead a theorist astray.
That said, as I’ve often discussed with my friend Nick Prime, we often conflate theories of strategy with theories of war. A theory of strategy follows naturally from a theory of war, but concerns a subset of war — the organization of violence for political purpose. Much in the same way game theory can be used to explain the decisions of actors in the international system, but isn’t necessarily a theory of international politics in and of itself. Strategy in war is a heuristic hunch about how we can gain advantage with violence or the threat of violence.
As a neo-Clausewitzian theorist, Gray has synthesized the writings of many different general and domain-specific military theorists into a unified whole, even if some of them (such as Wylie and Clausewitz) do not mesh together perfectly. Still, the fundamental contention of the neo-Clausewitzian school — which also to some extent approximates ideas of strategy from business theorists like Rumelt and Mintzberg — is that strategy itself does not fully specify its implementation. Strategy is a map that we use to get from here to there, but actually takes the form of tactics.
This is in part why as a research matter and a theoretical matter strategy is pernicious. We can obviously see the tactics in any given operation, war, or campaign, but the underlying strategy that they served (or didn’t) is more elusive. Does the composition of tactics serve any coherent strategy? Or do we have “tactics without strategy?”
On the idea of operational art and levels of war — the idea of discrete levels of war, besides serving as a justification for political-military authority/budgets (“My bombers are *strategic,* your tanks are just *tactical*”) seems to fit with our uncertainty over whether or not everything we do in an armed contest can fit into a neat strategy/tactics distinction. After all, what we referred to as strategy in the 19th century seems fairly small-scale and evokes images of wars small enough that the fate of nations could be decided in large, decisive Napoleonic battles. Is there not a process of tactical composition that goes on, with differing tactical structures composed of substructure components? A theater of war vs. a particular campaign, a particular campaign vs. an operation, an operation vs. battle, etc etc. Indeed, that is what James J. Schneider argued in his military history of operational art and his metaphor of operational art as the “loose marble” of war.
On that note, we can just say that all manifestations of strategy are tactics, but did not that Clausewitzian Aleksandr Svechin make some qualitative distinctions between layers?:
Insofar as we try to achieve positive goals, an operation is an incomparably more economical way of expending military force than local battles. Soldiers are very capable of seeing the difference between operational rationalism and operational shoddiness and are much more eager to sacrifice themselves when they feel that they are on the way to achieving the ultimate goal of a war. Commanders who abuse local battles themselves give evidence of the poverty of their operational talents. What may be completely impossible on a local scale or will require incommensurate sacrifices may be achieved incidentally and much less expensively on an operational scale.
Second, the similarities between various domain-specific “grammars” of war — while obvious in theory — seems to be difficult to sort out in practice. Hence the perennial arguments about whether or not institutional knowledge about guerrilla warfare is perishable, whether or not we need new ideas of war because of cyber warfare, etc etc. On the latter subject, while I disagree with Rosa Brooks about Clausewitz and cyber-attacks, the more I learn about computers and computer science the less confident I am in Thomas Rid’s ideas about cyber attacks, Clausewitz, and warfare. Certainly I don’t think that cyber warfare invalidates the general neo-Clausewitzian idea that Gray expresses. But the specifics —as with debates about insurgency, terrorism, and Clausewitz — matter.
These are all difficult questions. However, there is one way we can look at this that may resolve some of the tensions. First, I’m talking now of strategy — strategic interactions and our ways to model and explain them — not war itself. Let’s run through some assumptions of the neo-Clausewitzian corpus as a preliminary:
I have already argued elsewhere that differing strategic problems produce variation in models of strategic reasoning. Here I will argue that we can utilize ideas from computation to further explore dimensions of strategy from a neo-Clausewitzian perspective.
The art of computer programming rests on aspects of computation that are generalized and unchanging. Hence this is why a given algorithmic problem is often usually just a problem instance of a more general issue. Creativity in implementation is needed, but at the end of the day the core problems of computation are structured by formal properties of mathematics and physics. This explains why concepts from discrete and combinatorial mathematics can be literally represented as data structures or algorithms. The goal of computation is to take something as input and return a desired result, and the ingredients involved are structures and operations of various sorts.
That said, when it comes to the art of crafting programs, we see a nesting effect. A programming language is characterized by primitive data types that are combined into more complex composites. Data structures can hold various forms of data. Operations on data produce programs, and various operations have differing scope, impact, and relationship to other operations. Finally, programs themselves are often the result of modular subprograms that are patched together to create a desired effect. As a machine, the problem of all of the interacting subparts can produce undesired effects (or “friction”).
How programs are designed and composed is a product of rigorous debate. There are different styles of programming (functional, imperative, object-oriented), differing ideas of design (design patterns, etc), and differing debates about tools. There isn’t necessarily an objective answer to any of these questions, though practitioners can behave as such.
The core takeaway, though, are the elements of nestedness of components. A program can be thought of as a structure composed of building blocks of various size — though the interaction of all of those building blocks does not flow solely in one direction. And while philosophies, methods, and design styles all differ the core dynamics have a foundation independent of particular style or technology. Most problems a software engineer faces are just instances of more general kinds of puzzles.
The process of strategy has many similarities. Though at core, a strategy consists of combining tactical operations together to produce a desired result, tactics themselves are produced by combinations of smaller subcomponents. A strategy is modular at core, in that generalized tactics can be swapped and customized to fit particular needs. Land operations differ in application but are structurally similar — no matter the geographic location or political objective. There is not an discrete operational art, though the art of command from the perspective of Bagration and how many levels of composition were needed to produce it vs. Cannae is obviously distinct.
One might also view the idea of historically recurring types of weapon systems and organizations (the argument that Archer Jones makes) as abstract data types vs. particular data structures. The recurring nature of different operations of war (siege, pursuits, intelligence, attack, defense, logistics, etc) throughout history is also an argument for the idea of an abstract and unchanging idea of strategy composed of abstract and unchanging tactics and tactical subcomponents. This is also something that Jones and Hans Delbruck both tried to emphasize in their particular work, although Jones was more explicit about the idea of strategy as composite.
The implication of this ability to see strategy as a process of combining nested abstract subcomponents is the realization that generalized/abstract strategic problems also re-occur throughout history. If the core problem is using violence to achieve the policy, then particular problems concerning the organization and use of violence will be transitive across history. Intelligence and strategic warning, for example, was just as much a problem in the Bible as it was in Pearl Harbor in 1941. Most problems that practitioners encounter are specific instances of more generalized problems, though practitioners will often be tempted to regard them as unique.
I should hasten to add that war is neither an art nor a science, it is a practical activity. It also concerns human beings and social organizations, not computer programs. Knowledge of these particular abstractions will not, contra von Bulow or Jomini, provide a plug and play template for analyzing or conducting warfare. A particular context (Clausewitz’s “real” war not “ideal” war) and the will of the adversary will be judge of what is right to do and what is not.
And while the actual structure and operations of strategy may fit the description I’ve listed above, the way decisions are made about particular compositions and organization is, as Gray and others argue, not just about structured problem-solving but also a function of politics, morality, culture, geography, resources, technology, and the enemy. Empirically, strategy as a whole shouldn’t be assumed to represent the optimal way of solving a political problem — only the way that political intercourse manifests itself in a particular organization of violence.
That said, from the perspective of a descriptive theory of the instrumental aspect of strategy (e.g. structure and function), the neo-Clausewitzian idea that Gray describes can be further explained by the scheme I have outlined above. It also, while abstract, does not rest on ideas like “eternal human nature” or metaphysics. Rather, it argues that the process of organizing violence to accomplish a political goal and thwarting an adversary’s effort to do the same can be described and decomposed at a high level of formalization and abstraction, and contextual problems, structures, or operations thought to be unique can be shown to be part of a general class of things. Finally, it also leaves room for new structures and ideas (space power, cyberpower, etc) to be both added on as both new abstractions and nested under more general ones.
Strategic theory is personality and domain-driven — theoretical progress will come when we, as Gray and Lawrence Freedman are currently doing, look at the practice independent of the domain or the personality.
The Imperial Camel Corps
From the National Army Museum
In 1884 a British Camel Corps was formed for the Gordon Relief Expedition to the Sudan. In 1915 the Camel Brigade (later the Imperial Camel Corps), made up of British, Indian, Australian and New Zealand troops, was raised for…
Camels on camels
A Question For Obama’s Syria Critics: What Are the Alternatives?
This weekend, on CNN’s State of the Union with Candy Crowley, John McCain reacted to the failure of the latest round of Syrian peace talks by declaring that the Obama administration’s “policy towards Syria has been an abysmal failure and a disgraceful one.”
It’s a common refrain for the Republican senator, one often accompanied by praise for the Gulf states’ comparatively greater and less cautious support of the Syrian rebels. “Thank God for the Saudis. Thank God for the Qataris,” he said at the Munich Security Conference this year. This time around, McCain said that there are viable options other than U.S. military intervention that Washington is not pursuing in Syria. But he failed to articulate them, with the exception of further boosting the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Notwithstanding the question of how the Saudis and Qataris feel about McCain thanking his God for their work, the senator is mistaken in thinking that the core interests of the Gulf states align with America’s. In Syria, as in Iraq, the Saudis see the conflict as a case in which fellow Sunnis have come under siege, which explains the kingdom’s support for hardcore Sunni Islamist fighters throughout the region. Saudi Arabia just announced that it will supply Syrian rebels with mobile anti-aircraft missiles, something that Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey has strongly resisted.
Read more. [Image: Reuters/Goran Tomasevic]
A critic shouldn’t be obligated to propose alternatives. That said, any criticism of a policy also makes an implicit judgement about whether or not it is possible to move higher up on the solution landscape. If there’s no way to do it, then being stuck on a local maxima is still better than sitting at the function’s minima.
If we’re looking at a problem like Syria, the constraints involved must be taken into account. And those constraints are obvious. There is simply no political appetite for intervention, and had the White House engaged in a discrete intervention its hawkish critics would have likely — as in Somalia — been the first to jump on the administration when things went haywire. The administration’s ability to influence events on the ground is hazy at best.
The administration is doing what we would expect it to do given what we know about domestic politics — it is splitting the middle. Splitting the middle may or may not be worse than avoiding action, but given the necessity to square the circle between regional partners, hawkish domestic critics, and a public that does not want intervention, it is what we would expect to happen.