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Whither the “City Upon a Hill”? Donald Trump, America First, and American Exceptionalism

Whither the “City Upon a Hill”? Donald Trump, America First, and American Exceptionalism

In order to understand Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda, we must examine the master narrative that underpins it. Trump breaks with all modern presidents not just because he challenges the postwar “liberal international order,” but because he…

The Collapse Narrative: The United States, Mohammed Mossadegh, and the Coup Decision of 1953

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On Aug. 19, 1953, elements inside Iran organized and funded by the Central Intelligence Agency and British intelligence services carried out a coup d’état that overthrew the government of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. Historians have yet to reach a…

The City Is Neutral: On Urban Warfare in the 21st Century

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Contrary to what is often supposed, urban warfare is not more difficult than other types of warfare. The combat environment is neutral, just like every other environment. Urban warfare is, however, likely to be more prevalent in coming years, which is why it…

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The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are presently the focus of a dangerous contest between the People’s Republic of China and Japan, one that even now has the potential to spark a military conflict that could draw in the United States. How has this come about?…

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Unlocking the Gates of Eurasia: China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Its Implications for U.S. Grand Strategy

What is the Belt and Road Initiative and what implications could it have for America’s grand strategy? As many observers have pointed out, China’s Belt and Road suffers from a number of problems and ambiguities. However, it is a much more coherent, potent,…

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Renowned for his fierce intellect, mastery of the dark arts of propaganda, and unshakeable belief in the centralizing virtues of the French monarchy, Cardinal Richelieu’s actions as chief minister under Louis XIII from 1624 to 1642 have been heatedly debated…

When Do Leaders Change Course? Theories of Success and the American Withdrawal from Beirut, 1983–1984

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Why did the United States withdraw from Lebanon in February 1984? How did new information shape policymakers’ proposals to expand, maintain, or terminate the intervention? Drawing upon declassified records, we challenge the conventional narrative that the…

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How dangerous are nuclear crises? What dynamics underpin how they unfold? Recent tensions between North Korea and the United States have exposed disagreement among scholars and analysts regarding these questions. We reconcile these apparently contradictory…

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Rethinking the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons and American Grand Strategy

Nuclear weapons have long played a central but often unappreciated role in American grand strategy. In spite of the unimaginable consequences of their use in war, we know far less about how the bomb shapes U.S. national security and world politics than we…

Disentangling Grand Strategy: International Relations Theory and U.S. Grand Strategy

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This article assesses the underlying sources of disagreement among competing scholarly treatments of U.S. grand strategy. It argues that much of the debate centers on differing conceptions of the roles of power and domestic and international institutions in…

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In this paper, I review three major purposes for arms control negotiations — disarmament, stability, and advantage. In the first part of the paper, I compare the three purposes against the causes of war literature to show that each provides a defensible…

What Is Grand Strategy? Sweeping a Conceptual Minefield

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Amidst acute geopolitical flux, the study of grand strategy is necessary for scholars and strategists alike. As a framework for scholarship, it trains attention on the highest-order questions of international relations: why, how, and for what purposes states…

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The free peoples of the world look to us for support in maintaining their freedoms. If we falter in our leadership, we may endanger the peace of the world — and we shall surely endanger the welfare of our own nation.

 –Harry Truman, 1947[1]


We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.

 –Donald Trump, 2017[2]


I. Introduction

While there has been ample scholarly debate on the Trump administration’s grand strategy, there is one factor that deserves far more attention than it has received: Donald Trump’s rejection of American exceptionalism.[3] Trump breaks with all U.S. presidents since 1945 not just because he challenges the postwar “liberal international order,” as many scholars have argued,[4] but because he rejects its underlying master narrative. A master narrative is the enduring narrative of a nation, which, according to Ronald Krebs, constitutes the discursive playing field upon which voters and policymakers debate more discrete national security narratives.[5] Whether it was to promote “the four freedoms,” to be “a shining city on a hill,” or to be an “indispensable nation,” presidents of both parties have based their arguments for U.S. leadership on a belief in American exceptionalism.[6] Significantly, this master narrative has influenced not only presidential statements and rhetoric, but also actual foreign policy. Constructivist and liberal scholars of U.S. foreign policy argue that there exists a powerful national agreement on what role the United States is supposed to play in world history because of what kind of nation the United States is believed to be.[7] This is not to say there has not been disagreement over U.S. foreign policy since 1945 — take, for example, the profound disagreement over the Vietnam War. But there has been a fundamental agreement that the United States should have a leading role in the international institutions it set up in the 1940s. One important reason for this was the powerful meta-narrative of American exceptionalism. Ironically, realist scholars have repeatedly confirmed the importance of exceptionalism by lamenting its effect on American politics.[8] Unlike the disagreement over how ideas of American exceptionalism influenced earlier U.S. foreign policy, then, scholars actually agree that, since World War II, the makers of U.S. foreign policy have operated under the assumption that the world needs U.S. leadership not just because of American military might or the dollar, but because the United States is exceptional.[9] This elite agreement deepened, rather than weakened, after the end of the Cold War. In fact, Barack Obama invoked American exceptionalism in 31 percent more speeches than the average of all other presidents combined since 1945.[10] The contrast with Obama’s successor is stark. While Trump’s attack on the “liberal world order” has received ample attention from scholars of U.S. foreign policy,[11] the analysis of Trump’s puzzling rejection of American exceptionalism has only just begun.[12] Perhaps this is because Trump is often incoherent and self-contradictory and frequently tells lies and falsehoods,[13] making an analysis of his statements and policies challenging.[14] Yet, as Charlie Laderman and Brandon Simms show, there are important consistencies in Trump’s worldview, such as his critiques of NATO and China, as well as the general critique of U.S. leaders as fools taken advantage of by “wily foreigners.”[15] Another such consistency is the glaring absence of the narrative of American exceptionalism from his worldview. Indeed, Trump’s rate of invoking American exceptionalism in his first year as president was less than half of the overall average across all presidents since World War II.[16] Of course, in arguing that putting “America First” would make America “great again,” one might think that Trump, in fact, is promoting American exceptionalism. The idea of American exceptionalism is certainly connected to “greatness.” Republican voters might think Trump is embracing exceptionalism — understood as American superiority and even a sense of national mission — because the “America First” agenda is, to some degree, reminiscent of the Republican Party’s foreign policy agenda.[17] This article argues against this view. Trump’s grand strategy is different in kind, and not just in degree, from U.S. postwar foreign policy because it rejects the underlying master narrative of American exceptionalism.[18] The competing narrative Trump has adopted underscores this: The United States is not morally or ideationally superior to other countries — it is not an “exemplar.”[19] In fact, according to Trump’s worldview, it is remarkably similar to countries that define themselves by materialist national interests and an ethnic national identity. Specifically, Trump’s embrace of an “America First” foreign policy entails a rejection of the moral mission that has been central to modern U.S. foreign policy: promoting (in theory, anyway) liberal internationalism through democratization, free-market economics, and human rights.[20] Trump’s master narrative views the world somewhat similarly to realists: as a competitive, anarchic place where it is every state for itself, where alliances are temporary, and only the fittest survive.[21] In this worldview, making America “great” means making America economically wealthy, militarily powerful, and safeguarding the white, Christian cultural heritage of the United States. In other words, Trump’s America First foreign policy platform is grounded in a master narrative perhaps best thought of as what Walter Russell Mead calls “Jacksonian” nationalism.[22] [quote id="1"] At the heart of Trump’s rejection of the U.S. post-World War II grand strategy of international leadership, therefore, is a confrontation between two master narratives: that of American exceptionalism and Jacksonian nationalism. American exceptionalism is an ideational master narrative. It is a story about an ethnically and religiously diverse nation united in adherence to liberal ideas and institutions both at home and abroad. In contrast, the Trump administration’s story of America is ascriptive: It is the story of a white, Christian race with materialist interests to pursue abroad.[23] To be clear: In labeling the two narratives ideational and ascriptive (or even materialist), I am not making an ontological distinction between the world of ideas and the world of matter. Rather, I am analyzing two different narratives that stress different ideas. It is, as such, an analysis based in constructivist theory. Furthermore, I am not arguing that the exceptionalist narrative has only led to good foreign policy outcomes and that America therefore ought to return to the pre-Trump era. In fact, the sense of moral superiority inherent in the exceptionalist narrative has demonstrably led the United States astray numerous times.[24] Rather than endorse one narrative over the other, this article analyzes the current foreign policy debate as a conflict between two master narratives, and contributes to a better understanding of what is at stake at this pivotal moment in American history: the meaning of “America” in the world.[25] This article is structured as follows: In section two, I define American exceptionalism and discuss its influence throughout U.S. history. In section three, I examine the political history of America First and Jacksonian nationalism, and compare each to Trump’s own version of America First. I argue that Trump’s America First platform is closely related to its historical predecessors in the 1940s and the 1990s, especially its focus on economic and cultural protectionism. However, Trump’s America First breaks with the historic focus on non-interventionism as Trump’s version is more militaristic and interventionist. In the final section, I conclude by posing two questions: Can the United States simply “snap back” after Trump, and, if not, have we finally arrived at the “end of American exceptionalism”?

II. American Exceptionalism and U.S. Foreign Policy: Superiority, Mission, and Resisting the Laws of History

American exceptionalism is a set of ideas, not a set of observable facts.[26] As Richard Hofstadter famously observed, the United States does not have an ideology, rather, it is one.[27] These ideas define the United States as “an extraordinary nation with a special role to play in human history; not only unique but also superior among nations.”[28] The belief in American exceptionalism is an “enduring identity narrative” in the United States,[29] and sets the parameters for how political leaders can and will narrate the story of “America” and its place in the world.[30] It is a narrative with a long pedigree. In the colonial era, British ideas of exceptionalism, which included a religious as well as a racial component, contributed to what would later become American exceptionalism, with specific claims to political exceptionalism made during the founding era.[31] Today, this narrative defines the United States not as a country like many others, built on a blood-and-soil identity, but rather as an exceptional Enlightenment invention built on liberal ideas and ideals.[32] It is a narrative so strong and so pervasive it would be fitting to argue, as Anatol Lieven does, that “‘American exceptionalism’ is just another way of saying American civic nationalism without using the word nationalism.”[33] Significantly, historians as well as constructivist and liberal scholars of international relations see this narrative as not only influencing rhetoric, but also having played an important role in influencing U.S. foreign policy throughout U.S. history.[34] American exceptionalism, however, is a malleable concept and has been taken to mean different things throughout its history.[35] This is especially clear when considering the role race has played in the definitional struggle over the meaning of “America.” There are three ideas that contribute to the master narrative of American exceptionalism.[36] The first is that the United States is superior to the rest of the world. The second is that, because of this superiority, the United States has a special role to play in world history — it has a moral mission to pursue abroad. The third is that where other great nations and indeed empires have risen to power only to fall, the United States will not — it will resist this law of history. American Exceptionalism: Superiority and Mission Below, I discuss how superiority and mission have manifested themselves throughout U.S. history. I will show, among other things, that American exceptionalism has been a rather malleable concept, used to advocate for almost opposite foreign policy approaches. Superiority “America” has a long tradition of being seen as “superior” by its own people. This idea does not connote mere difference or uniqueness. Rather, the distinction is hierarchical: It classifies the United States as superior in both ideas and institutions and therefore it promotes an idea that America has a mission to fulfill.[37] This is different from patriotism,[38] as it implies more than just love of country. The belief that America is superior has had a first-order effect on how the United States views itself and its role in the world: Because it is superior, it has a mission to pursue, and in this mission, it shall not fail because its superiority enables the circumventing of the laws of history. The idea of superiority has also influenced the framing of American foreign policy. U.S. presidents often use exceptionalist rhetoric in their speeches both at home and abroad, setting the country apart from or above its international counterparts.[39] This indicates a broad and deep acceptance of the idea of American exceptionalism among the American public.[40] A typical expression of this broad acceptance can be found in an article by commentators Richard Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru, who write that the United States “is freer, more individualistic, more democratic, and more open and dynamic than any other nation on earth.” This they attribute to “our Founding and our cultural heritage.”[41] This is, of course, not something that one can ascertain objectively. If one tried to measure levels of freedom and dynamism, one might find that the United States did not, in fact, top these rankings.[42] This is immaterial, however. What matters are not the rankings, but rather the belief Lowry and Ponnuru (and most Americans with them) hold. American exceptionalism is the master narrative of the United States, not a fact to be measured. The belief that the United States is superior to the rest of the world because of its ideals and institutions has been powerful, persistent, and pervasive throughout U.S. history. In fact, this self-perception is so well established in U.S. political discourse that American polling firms such as Gallup and the Pew Research Center actually poll Americans on their belief in American exceptionalism. Defined in various manners in such polls, American exceptionalism can be operationalized as a belief that the United States is the “greatest country in the world because of its history and Constitution” or that “American culture is superior to others.” In 2010, Gallup reported that a huge majority of Americans (80 percent) agreed with the statement, “The United States has a unique character because of its history and Constitution that sets it apart from other nations as the greatest in the world.” The fact that U.S. polling bureaus regularly ask Americans such questions speaks volumes about the pervasive belief in American exceptionalism (and, relatedly, the persistent fear that it is dwindling).[43] While the poll numbers vary, the exceptionalist master narrative has held for over two centuries.[44] If one questions American exceptionalism, and the idea that it connotes superiority rather than simply difference, one’s Americanness may itself be questioned. It means one does not sufficiently believe in the idea of “America,” which is inherently suspicious. This became clear amid the harsh criticism of Obama’s answer to a question posed to him in Strasbourg, France in 2009 on whether he believed in American exceptionalism or not. Obama’s answer seemed to convey an understanding of American exceptionalism as a relative phenomenon — a narrative, if you will. Contrasting American exceptionalism with narratives found in other nations such as Britain and Greece, Obama’s answer — “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism” — was seen as rejecting the idea that American exceptionalism implies moral superiority. It set off a heated debate in the American media,[45] possibly because reports ignored the rest of Obama’s answer. Obama, in the tradition of previous presidents, went on to say that he was enormously proud of his country “and its role and history in the world.”[46] [quote id="2"] Research on social and national identity indicates why Obama’s initial qualifier would upset many Americans. As Jason Gilmore and Charles M. Rowling argue, messages that enhance the “standing of one’s own national group” feed citizens’ self-esteem and pride “because their own personal identity is tied to the image of that national group.”[47] Messages that counter this source of self-esteem naturally meet with resistance, as Obama’s comments did.[48] Constantly invoking American exceptionalism is therefore not only a proven way that American presidents can bolster their community’s feelings of self-esteem, but in fact is a vital part of nation-building in a country made up of many different ethnicities and religions. Of course, the idea that America is exceptional because of its superior civic ideals rather than its ascriptive characteristics is not something there has been agreement about in American history. If seen as a battle between civic and ethnic nationalism, American exceptionalism has represented both at various times, again testifying to the malleability of the concept itself.[49] Originally, American exceptionalism stemmed from British exceptionalism, which entailed the promotion of a white, Protestant civilizational mission against the Catholic colonialism of the Spanish empire, as they competed over territory and influence in the “New World.”[50] Up until the American Civil War and the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, it was not clear whether a racialized definition of American exceptionalism or a civic kind of nationalism would prevail. While the civic nationalism of the “last, best hope on earth” won the Civil War, what civic nationalism actually meant was still under development. Theodore Roosevelt, for instance, allowed for a kind of melting-pot definition of the nation, but one that only included “races” from Europe, entirely excluding black Americans.[51] Liberal ideals have been an important — yet contested — part of modern, post-Civil War, U.S. nation-building, but they have not been the only ones.[52] Rogers Smith divides American identity into three equal strands: a “liberal” strand composed of classical liberal rights and liberties; a “democratic republican” strand composed of civic-minded participation by citizens who are motivated by a defense of the common good; and an “ascriptive inegalitarian” strand composed of nativist, xenophobic, and racial hierarchies. The contestation between ascriptive and civic definitions of “America” is why the narrative of American exceptionalism has been useful in the ongoing effort to create a nation out of an ethnically and religiously diverse population.[53] The Mission In addition to being viewed as a “superior” republic, the United States is also on a world historic “mission” according to the narrative of American exceptionalism. What this mission consists of has been the source of constant and fierce debate throughout U.S. history, and has evolved over time.[54] What is clear is that this belief in a mission has influenced not just the framing, but also the content of U.S. foreign policy. Throughout American history, prominent groups have used exceptionalism to argue for both an interventionist foreign policy (i.e., a “missionary” version of exceptionalism) and a non-interventionist foreign policy (i.e., an “exemplarist” version of exceptionalism), attesting to how ideas of exceptionalism can be used for different — indeed contravening — political purposes.[55] Proponents of an exemplarist worldview have often defined the United States’ role as “standing apart from the world and serving merely as a model of social and political possibility.”[56] Creating a “more perfect union” is the meaning of the United States, which is why “meddling in the affairs of other states could cause irreparable harm to the U.S. body politic.”[57] Summarizing the exemplarist sentiment, H. W. Brands warned, “in attempting to save the world, and probably failing, America could risk losing its democratic soul.”[58] For a long time, most historians of U.S. foreign policy argued that as American exceptionalism cycled between exemplarism and missionary expressions, U.S. foreign policy was concomitantly isolationist or internationalist.[59] But this view was highly problematic, as it required categorizing U.S. foreign policy before World War II — or at least up until 1898 — as isolationist.[60] Viewing early U.S. foreign policy up through the 1800s as an expression of exemplarism required categorizing “manifest destiny” as a form of domestic politics. The manifest destiny of the United States, as journalist John O’Sullivan wrote in 1845, was “to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.”[61] Testifying to the strength of the American self-conception as superior to the Old World, historians did not begin to compare “westward expansion” to European colonialism until the early 20th century.[62] And yet, much like European great powers, U.S. foreign policy in the 19th century often consisted of wars of aggression and “civilizing” “inferior” races. Indeed, a constant feature of the U.S. debate over expansion and territorial conquest — whether on the continent or across the seas — was marked by the problem of race: who could be part of “America” and whether non-whites could truly become Americans.[63] For example, Thomas Jefferson associated Native Americans with the “earliest stages of civilization” and expected them to civilize or perish. This was certainly a “self-serving logic” that “provided the ideological rationale for an expansive republican empire,” as Peter Onuf writes.[64] Later, Andrew Jackson engineered the forcible removal of Native Americans from their lands southeast of the Mississippi River in order to make way for white settlers. While the tensions leading up to the Civil War slowed down U.S. settlement of the western part of the continent,[65] its potential as a civilizing power was finally reached when the United States entered the Spanish-American War in order to, in the words of President William McKinley, “uplift and civilize” the savages languishing in the Spanish empire in Cuba and the Philippines.”[66] William Jennings Bryan and Theodore Roosevelt made similar arguments for the superiority of the nation, encouraging it to take upon itself the “white man’s burden” of civilizing “backwards” peoples.[67] The mission in U.S. foreign policy — whether directed at Mexicans, Native Americans, the Spanish Empire, or Prussian militarism — historically mixed elements of ethno-nationalism with Enlightenment ideals of democracy and capitalism, executed with religious zeal. Various presidents as different as Jefferson, Jackson, James Polk, McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson have endeavored to teach the world what to do and how to do it — to execute the “white man’s burden.”[68] [quote id="3"] While it is correct to divide the narrative of American exceptionalism into two foreign policy articulations — one missionary and one exemplarist — it is wholly inaccurate to argue these two articulations have been reflected in actual U.S. foreign policy history. In fact, while the missionary foreign policy — which is active, international, and sometimes aggressive — appears throughout U.S. history, there is very little evidence of an exemplarist foreign policy being employed. This is a common misconception, and, one might add, a consequence of having bought into the manifest destiny narrative of U.S. expansion in the 19th century, which argues that the United States was simply taking control of territory God always meant for them.[69] Arguing that the United States was exemplarist during its first century because it was “geographically isolated,”[70] when it competed with European imperial powers for territory, ethnically cleansed Native Americans, and indeed fought a war of aggression against Mexico, renders the term “isolationist” meaningless.[71] In fact, as revisionist historians of the Wisconsin School, led by William Appleman Williams, began arguing in the mid-20th century, rather than a cyclical U.S. foreign policy (where U.S. foreign policy was seen as “cycling” between internationalism and isolationism), the United States has always been interventionist.[72] The territories not already owned by the United States in 1783 were not some mythical region waiting to be “civilized” by the United States. Rather, “westward expansion” was itself a settler colonial project.[73] Indeed, how could a supposedly isolationist country go from 13 colonies to controlling an entire continent without an interventionist foreign policy? Unfortunately, the isolationist thesis is still argued today.[74] As the United States grew in size and diversity, its impending great power status led to fierce debates over the white, Christian emphasis of its foreign policy mission. The racial aspect of “America” was toned down. Following World War II, U.S. presidents focused on the liberal ideas of exceptionalism, rather than the civilizational aspect of the “white man’s burden,” as the source of America’s uniqueness and the reason for its mission in the world. Thus, American exceptionalism separated out its earlier racial components. Obama’s understanding of American exceptionalism can be seen as the culmination of this evolving civic version of the concept: “Obama offered an inclusive vision of patriotism,” writes Greg Gardin, “using his own success to celebrate the country’s meritocracy and as proof that racial division could be overcome through the gradual extension of liberal political equality.”[75] As Obama said in 2007 as a presidential candidate, “Our exceptionalism must be based on our Constitution, our principles, our values, and our ideals.”[76] It is with this modern, post-World War II master narrative that Trump has broken. Resisting the Laws of History: Exceptionalism and Modern Foreign Policy from 1945 to 2015 With each historical era, the United States has proven itself resistant to the laws of history. Rather than rise and fall, it has only risen — vanquishing powerful enemies along the way.[77] After conquering an entire continent, the United States went about conquering the seas, and ultimately defeated two iterations of the worst the Old World had to offer: German militarism and fascism. Significantly, upon defining itself in contravention to Soviet Communism, the promotion of American exceptionalism became an important tool for U.S. presidents, especially in the era of what Jeffrey Tulis has labeled the “rhetorical presidency.”[78] Against these ideologies American exceptionalism, understood as the adherence to liberal ideals, flourished. In foreign policy, the narrative of American exceptionalism has been used by presidents to communicate the purpose of U.S. foreign policy and therein garner support for their preferred policies, because what “America” means conditions what it can and should do in the world. In fact, argue Gilmore and Rowling, “The concept of American exceptionalism has become one of the most common features in U.S. political discourse.”[79] The assumption that the United States has a “uniquely moral national mission has shaped debates over foreign affairs since the nation’s founding.”[80] The narratives American presidents communicate about foreign policy exist on different levels: Any discrete national security narrative — such as that of “primacy” in the 1990s or the “Global War on Terror” in the 2000s — must operate within and adhere to the discursive landscape of the master narrative of exceptionalism.[81] Over the years, presidents and political parties have disagreed on discrete national security narratives but not on the exceptionalist master narrative that has underpinned U.S. foreign policy since 1945, and which builds on a story about an exceptional America that dates to before the founding. Until Trump became president, this story constrained not only how U.S. presidential candidates and presidents framed the discourse on the United States and its role in the world, but policies themselves. All U.S. presidents since Franklin D. Roosevelt have taken pains to narrate foreign policy as a moral mission based in American exceptionalism, understood as an adherence to “superior” liberal ideals.[82] Since then, the United States has presented itself as a beacon to the world, standing for “a vibrant, forward-looking Americanism that presented itself as the highest expression of liberal universalism.”[83] Many studies show how and why the idea of American exceptionalism has come to be so prominent in American politics, whether from the field of communications,[84] presidential studies,[85] or, more recently, international relations.[86] By promoting the idea of American exceptionalism, U.S. presidents have justified why the United States should play such an active role in international politics: because the world needs this exceptional nation and its benevolent influence. From this perspective, it was quite natural to conclude that what was right for America was right for the world. An eloquent example of how presidents have framed U.S. foreign policy as a moral mission comes from John F. Kennedy, whose rhetoric frequently played on American exceptionalism. Indeed, as president-elect he gave a speech simply referred to as the “city upon a hill” speech:
I have been guided by the standard John Winthrop set before his shipmates on the flagship Arbella three hundred and thirty-one years ago, as they, too, faced the task of building a new government on a perilous frontier. “We must always consider,” he said, “that we shall be as a city upon a hill — the eyes of all people are upon us.” Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us — and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a city upon a hill — constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities.[87]
Using American exceptionalism to frame U.S. grand strategy has not been a partisan phenomenon, even though the Republican Party associates itself more with overt statements of patriotic sentiment.[88] In fact, Gilmore and Rowling find that Democratic presidents have been more fervent in their invocation of American exceptionalism in global contexts (44 percent of speeches given by Democrats versus 17 percent given by Republicans).[89] This is not to say that presidents have agreed on how the United States should best advance its moral mission, but there has been a post-World War II consensus on whether the United States is so obligated. There has also been bipartisan agreement on the reason why — namely that the United States has a special role to play in world history.[90] As scholars have shown, U.S. presidents since 1945 have repeatedly turned to the reliable rhetorical strategy of emphasizing American exceptionalism to “reinforce mythic notions of America as the unquestioned leader of a stable world order.”[91] Indeed, the superiority of the United States and the special role it is supposed to play as a leader of other nations has been ubiquitous in modern presidential rhetoric. A quantitative content analysis of State of the Union addresses from 1934 to 2008 found only three mentions of other countries as worthy of serving as examples for the United States to follow.[92] The United States has always been the shining city on the hill, as no other country can be. Post-Cold War Triumphalism The influence of American exceptionalism on the framing and content of U.S. foreign policy took on a new force after the Cold War ended.[93] Indeed, Americans interpreted the Cold War’s end as a reaffirmation of American exceptionalism: “By the grace of God,” President George H. W. Bush said in his State of the Union speech in 1992, “we have won the Cold War.”[94] Whatever the questions had been — what were the best political systems, economic theories, or civic ideals? — the only answer left in international politics was the United States and its example to the world. The end of ideological history was here, comfortably parked in an oversized American driveway.[95] This exceptionalist interpretation of why the Cold War had ended set the stage for a triumphalist decade, or a “holiday from history,” as George Will called it.[96] In arguing for why the United States should continue its deep involvement in world affairs even without a clear enemy, President Bill Clinton and his secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, looked inward to the peculiar genius of the American body politic for the answer. The United States was “the indispensable nation,” Clinton stated in 1996 while defending the U.S. intervention in Bosnia.[97] That became the Clinton administration’s go-to phrase for conveying American exceptionalism in an age of primacy. In making the case for a possible strike against Saddam Hussein in 1998 on “The Today Show” Albright said,
[I]f we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future, and we see the danger here to all of us. I know that the American men and women in uniform are always prepared to sacrifice for freedom, democracy and the American way of life.[98]
And yet, Republicans viewed Clinton’s vision as too timid. In 2000, future George W. Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen wrote in the Weekly Standard that there were two competing visions of internationalism in the 21st century: the “‘global multilateralism’ of the Clinton-Gore Democrats” versus the “‘American exceptionalism’ of the Reagan-Bush Republicans.”[99] Nevertheless, this disagreement belied a fundamental foreign policy agreement: All post-Cold War presidents have promoted a strategy of primacy, which essentially argued that the United States should seek world hegemony because of its exceptional mission.[100] Although they all used the rhetoric of American exceptionalism, this was not merely a discursive tactic. There was strong bipartisan belief in American exceptionalism and America’s mission: to convince the rest of the world to join in the “end of history” with the one nation that had already reached history’s destination. The Republican and Democratic views on the international order in the 1990s — and America’s role in it — were more similar than perhaps many recognized at the time. Indeed, Hans Morgenthau’s description of Wilsonian liberals at the beginning of the 20th century applies equally to neoconservatives and liberal internationalists at its end — they all believed that a new world order of peace would eventually “end” history once all countries adopted liberal democracy.[101] [quote id="4"] After 9/11, President George W. Bush’s communication of a clear, black-and-white story of good versus evil was a natural extension of the triumphalism of the 1990s and fit perfectly within the master narrative of American exceptionalism. This became what Krebs calls “the national security narrative” of the post-9/11 era — the “Global War on Terror.”[102] This narrative organized how the administration promoted its policies, how the media framed these policies, and how the American public thought about the new “war” they were now in.[103] As Krebs writes, “The War on Terror was more than a slogan: it was shorthand for a post-9/11 narrative that not only placed that day’s horrific events in a meaningful context, but also set the terms of national security debate in the United States for the next decade.”[104] This narrative would not have resonated or received such widespread bipartisan acceptance from the American public had it not overlapped with the master narrative of U.S. foreign policy: that the United States is an exceptional nation with moral intentions, bound to make the world a better place. The Bush administration’s story of what had happened and why cast the United States as the innocent victim, attacked out of the blue not for its policies in the Middle East, but for its very exceptional nature: “Why do they hate us? They hate us because of what they see in this very Chamber,” Bush told Congress on Sept. 20, 2001. “They hate our freedoms, our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.”[105] In his second inaugural, Bush essentially argued that fighting the “war on terror” was a continuation of the eternal American mission:
From the day of our Founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and earth. Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government, because no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave. Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our Nation.[106]
Returning to the question of whether Obama rejected American exceptionalism, as his critics charged, this article builds on the theoretical assumption that there is a meaningful and important distinction between a nation’s master narrative and its various foreign policies. One can have a variety of grand strategies all based in the exceptionalist master narrative, but one must distinguish, as Krebs does, between master narratives and discrete national security narratives. One could argue about whether Obama’s counter-terrorism policies diverged more in rhetoric than in practice from his predecessor, or about whether Obama actually moved in a non-interventionist direction. However, his discrete national security narrative of modest retrenchment did not reject the master narrative of American exceptionalism. Indeed, at Strasbourg, Obama said,
If you think about the site of this summit [Strasbourg] and what it means, I don’t think America should be embarrassed to see evidence of the sacrifices of our troops, the enormous amount of resources that were put into Europe postwar, and our leadership in crafting an alliance that ultimately led to the unification of Europe. We should take great pride in that… . And I think that we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality that, though imperfect, are exceptional.[107]
Lest one think this was pandering to the press, this was a belief Obama had long held. As he said in his speech to the Democratic national convention in 2004,
I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that, in no other country on earth, is my story even possible.[108]

III. Donald Trump, American Exceptionalism, and America First

Prior to Trump winning the Republican presidential nomination, the Republican Party promoted a grand strategy of leading the liberal international order, grounded in the master narrative of American exceptionalism. This had been the case since Dwight D. Eisenhower won the foreign policy battle inside the Republican Party in 1952, defeating non-interventionist proponent Robert Taft. With Eisenhower, the GOP embraced the view “that America had a moral obligation as well as a national interest in transforming the victory of World War II into a lasting global peace by building strong alliances and expanding military readiness around the world to counter the Communist threat.”[109] It was, in David Farber’s words, the “Willkie-Dewey-Eisenhower — and then Goldwater-Reagan-Bush-Bush — wing of the Republican Party” that won out in the GOP in the post-World War II era.[110] The American exceptionalist narrative constituted the foundation of U.S. foreign policy debate in both political parties, influencing their views on foreign policy and constraining presidential candidates’ rhetorical choices.[111] The 2012 presidential campaign of Mitt Romney arguably built its foreign policy platform on this very idea.[112] That same year, the Republican Party included the concept in its party platform, stating that American exceptionalism is “the conviction that our country holds a unique place in human history.”[113] In 2016, all Republican presidential candidates save one took pains to use exceptionalist rhetoric.[114] In April 2015, two months before he announced his candidacy for president, Trump broke with the Republican Party and stated that he did “not like” the term American exceptionalism.[115] He ironically said this at an event called “Celebrating the American Dream,” hosted in Houston by the Texas Patriots PAC. At the event, Trump was asked to define American exceptionalism, whether it still existed, and what should be done to help grow it. Trump answered,
Look, if I’m a Russian, or I’m a German, or I’m a person we do business with, why, you know, I don’t think it’s a very nice term. We’re exceptional; you’re not. First of all, Germany is eating our lunch. So they say, ‘Why are you exceptional. We’re doing a lot better than you.’[116]
Trump stated that those who refer to American exceptionalism were “insulting the world” and offending people in other countries, such as Russia, China, Germany, and Japan.  Contravening common talking points for any presidential candidate regardless of party, Trump said, rather, that it is “not a nice term,” showing unusual foreign policy flair. He did suggest that were he to become president, he would make the United States exceptional, but even then Trump said he would not use the term because he would not want to “rub it in.”[117] But Trump has not only rejected American exceptionalism in his rhetoric — that is, when he talks about it at all — he has also rejected it in his policies.[118] His America First platform shows that he rejects American exceptionalism on two fronts: He does not view the United States as morally superior to other countries and, therefore, he does not view the United States as having a mission to pursue abroad. Trump’s definition of American “greatness” is ascriptive and material, rather than ideational and aspirational. In this section, I examine Trump’s views on American exceptionalism along with his grand strategy in order to show how Trump rejects both the American exceptionalism master narrative and its policy implications. In so doing, I argue that Trump relies on a competing master narrative, Jacksonian nationalism. Trump’s grounding in Jacksonian nationalism leads him to embrace parts of the traditional America First platform, which in its two previous iterations has promoted ethnic nationalism and economic protectionism. However, Trump rejects non-interventionism, opting instead for unilateral militarism abroad. Here, Trump is more in line with original Jacksonianism than with America First. America First in U.S. History What does “America First” mean? Is it a concept, a slogan, or a foreign policy agenda? Or perhaps just a refreshingly honest brand of realism?[119] “America First” is in fact several things. It was most famously the name of an organization founded in 1940 in order to lobby against U.S. intervention in World War II. As historian Melvyn P. Leffler writes, “For me, America First was associated with the insularity, isolationism, unilateralism, nativism, anti-Semitism, and appeasement policies that President Franklin D. Roosevelt struggled to overcome in 1940 and 1941.”[120] It was also a slogan used by Pat Buchanan in the 1990s to argue against free trade, immigration, military alliances, and interventions.[121] Today, it is the shorthand for Trump’s foreign policy platform. Let us examine each in turn, their connections, and the master narrative on which they all rely. America First Before World War II The phrase “America First” is most strongly associated with its use during World War II. According to Susan Dunn, America First was the name of the “isolationist, defeatist, anti-Semitic national organization that urged the United States to appease Adolf Hitler.”[122] This summary is somewhat unfair to the organization’s varied membership. The interwar America First was composed of all kinds of people who were skeptical of America entering into another European war. They included future president Gerald Ford, future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stewart Potter, and Sargent Shriver, who would go on to lead the U.S. Peace Corps. Ford and Potter, students at Yale at the time, founded the “Committee to Defend America First.” Its establishment in 1940 was “in direct opposition to progressive journalist William Allen White’s Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies.”[123] It grew quickly from a group started by anti-war students to a large movement with hundreds of chapters and almost a million members. Some notable members were Walt Disney, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Gore Vidal. The committee would come to be associated with fascists and anti-Semites, and most famously, Charles Lindbergh. Lindbergh argued in 1940, during the blitzkrieg in Europe, that the United States should not interfere because “the white race” was not under threat.[124] Lindbergh joined America First in April 1941, drawing big crowds at its rallies. Despite the varied membership and commendable aim of avoiding yet another war, the committee’s main historical legacy has been that of a disgraced organization that was on the wrong side of history both in terms of advocating against intervention in World War II and in terms of anti-Semitism. [quote id="5"] The phrase “America First” predates 1940, however. It was a Republican campaign slogan in the 1880s.[125] As Christopher McKnight Nichols writes, “the cry of America First emerged in the nineteenth century’s era of rapid industrialization, modernization, and urbanization,” and its foreign policy agenda was “non-entanglement, nonintervention, neutrality, and unilateralism.”[126] It was the latest discussion in a historic debate on why, how much, and in what ways the United States should be involved outside its borders.[127] The slogan did not quite catch on until Wilson popularized it in a speech in 1915, however, declaring, “Our whole duty for the present, at any rate, is summed up in the motto: America First.”[128] Although he was arguing for U.S. neutrality in the Great War, not isolationism, the phrase nonetheless became the motto of those who wanted the United States to stay out of European politics and indeed stay isolated from it. Wilson’s goal was to keep a diverse nation with people whose heritage stemmed from all over the world firmly pro-American. This topic would become tense as the patriotism of “hyphenated” Americans of Irish, German, and Italian descent became increasingly questioned. Indeed, at this time, the U.S. Bureau of Education was mounting an America First campaign in order to promote the assimilation of immigrants. The purpose was to encourage immigrants to put America first, before their old countries, all the while signaling that immigrants did not need to reject their culture, language, or history of origin.[129] After Wilson, the motto caught on. As presidential candidates in 1916, both Wilson and Charles Evans Hughes used America First as part of their election slogans.[130] After the debate over the League of Nations and the future role of the United States in the world, Warren G. Harding, the Republican presidential nominee of 1920, similarly thought it useful to employ America First as part of his campaign:
Call it the selfishness of nationality if you will, I think it an inspiration to patriotic devotion — To safeguard America first, to stabilize America first, to prosper America first, to think of America first, to exalt America first, to live for and revere America first.[131]
The second iteration of the Ku Klux Klan, which reasserted itself in the early 20th century, taking aim at Catholics and Jews in addition to African-Americans, also used “America First” as a motto.[132] In evidence submitted to Congress, at a hearing on the activities on the Klan in 1921, the Klan’s “Imperial Proclamation” was entered into the record. Here, it said: “[The Klan] stands for America first – first in thought, first in affections, and first in the galaxy of nations.”[133] With the attack on Pearl Harbor and eventual Allied victory in World War II, “America First” became synonymous with having been on the wrong side of history. The disbandment of the Committee to Defend America First four days after Pearl Harbor conceded the point. The 1990s: Pat Buchanan’s Revival of “America First” When Pat Buchanan resurrected the motto “America First” in the 1990s, the New York Times labeled his agenda “fearful isolationism, nativism and protectionism.”[134] His version of America First was focused on the economy and culture. In the post-Cold War era, this meant making “America first again in manufacturing,” including proposing deep tax cuts in order to prevent U.S. industries from moving abroad.[135] Buchanan’s economic platform was nationalist and protectionist, as was his cultural platform: He wanted to keep the United States a white, Christian country. Arguing against the effects of globalization, Buchanan said that “our Western heritage is going to be handed down to future generations, not dumped onto some landfill called multiculturalism.” He argued for “a new patriotism, where Americans begin to put the needs of Americans first.”[136] This was “a new nationalism” meant to divide and conquer.[137] Campaigning in Georgia in 1992, Buchanan argued that the Voting Rights Act was “an act of regional discrimination against the South,” and told unemployed (presumably white) Georgians that, “anti-discrimination laws caused their jobs to be given to blacks.”[138] In his famous “culture war” speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention, Buchanan said, “There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.” He labeled Bill Clinton’s agenda “radical feminism,” and accused the Democratic Party of not respecting the “Judeo-Christian values” the country was founded upon.[139] His speech ended by recounting his visit to the Army compound in south Los Angeles, from which law enforcement had been dispatched to quell the riots. “And as they took back the streets of LA, block by block, so we must take back our cities, and take back our culture, and take back our country.”[140] Buchanan ran for the Republican nomination again in 1996, this time against Bob Dole, then for the Reform Party nomination in 2000. In 2000, he revived “America First” as a campaign slogan. Interestingly, Trump, who was also seeking the Reform Party nomination at the time, called Buchanan “a Hitler lover,” alluding to the controversy about Buchanan’s view that Adolf Hitler had initially presented no serious threat to the United States, a view that was consistent with the original America First Committee’s stance in 1940.[141] Jacksonian Nationalism “America First” is a slogan that would resonate with what Walter Russell Mead calls the “Jacksonian tradition” in U.S. foreign policy. This populist tradition is one of four traditions found in U.S. history, according to Mead: the “American realist” or Hamiltonian tradition; the exemplary Jeffersonian tradition; and missionary Wilsonianism.[142] Named after President Andrew Jackson (1829–1837) the Jacksonian tradition refers to a populist foreign policy outlook originating in the era of white, male mass politics that Jackson brought forth. Prior to the era of Jackson, politics — whether foreign or domestic — belonged to “silk stocking”-wearing statesmen like Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.[143] Jackson, however, was a Revolutionary War veteran and the heroic victor of the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812.[144] When the “elite establishment” — in the form of John Quincy Adams, son of second president John Adams — entered into a “corrupt bargain” and stole the election from Jackson in 1824, Jackson’s persona as a man of the people standing up to the entitled elite was cemented.[145] His revanche over Adams in the 1828 presidential election inaugurated the era of “the people’s president” where Jackson “spoke in plain and powerful language to the people at large.”[146] Jacksonian political philosophy is an instinct, rather than an ideology.[147] Because it is “less an intellectual movement than it is an expression of the social, cultural, and religious values of a large portion of the American public,” Mead argues Jacksonianism is “obscure” to academics and the media.[148] In other words: In true populist fashion, Jacksonians and the elite have mutual disregard for one another.[149] Jacksonians are suspicious of what the elites might do with their tax money both at home and abroad. They worry about “untrammeled federal power” and are “skeptical about the prospects of domestic and foreign do-gooding.”[150] When it comes to the military, though, Jacksonians are looser with the purse strings and are more trusting of the military establishment. “For Jacksonians, spending money on the military is one of the best things government can do,” Mead argues.[151] So far, Jacksonians and America Firsters can agree — elites should not be trusted with one’s tax dollars, but military preparedness is important and is worth paying for. Were Jacksonians an early expression of the non-interventionism of America First, then? Not at all, according to Mead. Indeed, Jacksonians were consistently the most hawkish during the Cold War. Mead argues the Jacksonian tradition does not embrace isolationism. Rather, it is an interest-based foreign policy.[152] Jacksonians are not eager to sit at home if there is a worthy fight to be fought. But for what cause are Jacksonians willing to go abroad and fight? According to Mead, Jacksonians are not that concerned with defending American values across the globe, but rather are focused on “national honor” on behalf of their community:
Jacksonians see American exceptionalism not as a function of the universal appeal of American ideas, or even as a function of a unique American vocation to transform the world, but rather as rooted in the country’s singular commitment to the equality and dignity of individual American citizens.[153]
How does the Jacksonian tradition define the American community, on whose behalf it conducts foreign policy? Is it defined by adherence to liberal ideals, or by ethno-cultural boundaries? In fact, the answer to the question, “who counts as American citizens” in the quote above unites Jacksonians, traditional America Firsters, and Trump. Jacksonians are historically associated with “white Protestant males of the lower and middle classes”[154] whom Mead refers to as making up a “folk community.” This is a “folk” that is “Christian in religious background, if not always in practice. They are European in origin — but largely without strong ties to a specific country other than the United States — and self-identify with American society from the colonial era until today.”[155] Mead contrasts this group with “believers in a multicultural United States” who define the United States as a “nation based on ideology rather than ethnicity.”[156] These are two very different things: Jacksonianism is based on the community values and sense of identity that stem from the British colonizers, specifically a subgroup whom historian David Hacket Fischer defined as the Scotch-Irish settlers.[157] The Scotch-Irish Americans were “formed by centuries of bitter warfare before they came to the United States,” an experience that informed their warrior ethos and non-isolationist attitudes in foreign policy.[158] This ethno-cultural definition of the American nation is distinctly different from the other three foreign policy traditions Mead identifies — Hamiltonian, Jeffersonian, and Wilsonian — as they all identify the United States as built on an idea, not a people.[159] Thus, ethnic nationalism is where Jacksonianism diverges fundamentally from the other three foreign policy traditions. [quote id="6"] Jackson was the first populist president, commencing a tradition carried on by presidential candidates in both political parties such as William Jennings Bryan and Theodore Roosevelt.[160] Mead identifies Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan as modern presidents who managed to connect with Jacksonian voters. He also lists George Wallace, Ross Perot, Jesse Ventura, Pat Buchanan, and John McCain as political figures that have successfully tapped into this populist energy.[161] Of course, these politicians advocated quite different grand strategies, with Buchanan overtly promoting non-interventionism. Further complicating the picture, the Jacksonian “folk community” is no longer ethnically homogeneous. Rather, Jacksonianism is a tradition with a long, bipartisan pedigree in U.S. history that attracts those Americans who feel unrepresented by the “elites.” Because Jacksonianism is more of an “instinct” than a political ideology, and no longer exclusively represents a specific ethno-cultural group in U.S. society, general arguments and comparisons — such as the one I am making in this article — are inherently imperfect.[162] The point is not to argue that Trump is a perfect replica of Andrew Jackson the president, but rather that there are important similarities between the Jacksonian tradition and Trump’s worldview. Donald Trump’s America First Economic Protectionism In Trump’s first inaugural speech, he accused the world of having swindled the United States: “We’ve made other countries rich while the wealth, strength and confidence of our country has dissipated over the horizon.”[164] Trump added, “We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.”[165] The speech was, as Jim Goldgeier has noted, “a far cry from Morgenthau’s articulation of the purpose of Bretton Woods.”[166] Upon entering office, Trump pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement that had taken seven years to negotiate, in favor of bilateral deals that he argued would “promote American industry, protect American workers, and raise American wages.”[167] He also renegotiated the North America Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada, an agreement he had repeatedly criticized on the campaign trail.[168] The hallmark of Trump’s protectionist agenda, however, has been commencing a trade war with China. Many economic experts share his complaints — that China engages in unfair trade practices and theft of intellectual property.[169] Trump’s remedy is highly controversial, however: Trump has increased tariffs on Chinese exports to the United States in several rounds since 2018.[170] Former Bank of England governor Mervyn King has argued that the trade war with China threatens to undermine global economic growth, causing a “great stagnation.”[171] In wanting to “protect” American consumers, Trump is echoing one of the most familiar aspects of the nationalism of the 1920s and 1930s (on which America First relied)  — economic protectionism.[172] This motto resonated with the protectionist Republicans in Congress after the Great War, who in the 1920s passed “two of the most protectionist tariff bills in history,” the Fordney-McCumber Tariff of 1922 and the Smoot-Hawley Tariff in 1930. Although, as Thomas W. Zeiler writes, the United States should have learned from the “Smoot-Hawley debacle” in the 1930s what “America First demagoguery” can lead to,[173] Trump has revived economic protectionism. During the presidential campaign of 2016, he presented trade as a zero-sum game. Trump, argues Zeiler, “went Hoover.”[174] Here, Trump is in line with the original America First Committee, which also questioned whether foreign trade was all that important to the United States.[175] Since World War II, both the Republican and Democratic parties have argued that being a responsible leader of the liberal world order involves not only enforcing the rules of an open international economy but also participating fully in it.[176] Trump essentially rejects the economic pillar of the “liberal world order” and has repeatedly argued for a much more conditional role for America, insisting that the United States is being taken advantage of by other countries.[177] This assumes that being the leader of the liberal international order is not currently economically beneficial to the United States, and leaves out entirely the ideational aspect. Returning to Trump’s discussion of what makes America exceptional, the United States is not exceptional as long as it is losing money to trading competitors such as China and Germany. It can only regain its exceptional status by renegotiating its trade deals to give the United States a higher return.[178] In other words, there is nothing about the United States that is inherently exceptional, rather, exceptionalism is a function of being the richest country in the world. In 2015, according to Trump, the United States was less exceptional than other countries because other countries were “eating” its “lunch.”[179] To be sure, past presidents have communicated the idea of American exceptionalism in different ways, sometimes taking pains to be sensitive to the interests and identities of foreign actors. Indeed, American presidents face a dilemma when speaking to foreign audiences. According to Gilmore and Rowling, “[T]hey must be ever mindful of a domestic audience that expects its leaders to champion American exceptionalism on the world stage but also sensitive to the interests and identities of other global actors.”[180] As a result, some presidents have framed American exceptionalism in a more diplomatic manner when speaking in different foreign contexts. Perhaps this is what Obama was attempting to do in Strasbourg in 2009, and what Trump has been doing — taking pains not to insult foreign leaders, as he hinted at in his 2015 interview. However, Trump’s comments were not made on foreign soil or directed at a foreign audience. Rather, they were made in a domestic, even local, context. The absence of a values-based definition of American exceptionalism in Trump’s rhetoric is as striking as it is unprecedented.[181] To be clear, Trump does believe in some kind of American superiority — that is what his slogan “Make America Great Again” seems to be all about. However, he does not define greatness in terms of exceptional ideals and values, but in terms of economic wealth, military strength, and cultural identity. Echoing Buchanan, who started his 2000 presidential run for the Reform Party by championing West Virginia steel workers, Trump’s economic definition of what would make America great entails a revival of the U.S. industrial economy: “buy American; hire American.”[182] Ethnic Nationalism The second important component of Trump’s America First platform is ethnic nationalism. This worldview builds on the tradition Smith and Gerstle have documented extensively in their work.[183] This kind of ethnic nationalism represents a commonality between the Jacksonian tradition and the America First Committee, as well as Buchanan’s revival of the America First political brand. Ethnic nationalism is foundational to Trump’s worldview, and that of his administration. Trump has called for fewer immigrants from “shithole countries”[184] and a ban on Muslims entering the United States[185] in order to preserve its white, Christian culture. From promoting the “birther” conspiracy theory (which accused the first black president of not being American partly because he was accused of not being Christian),[186] to launching his presidential campaign by accusing Mexican immigrants of being rapists and drug-dealers,[187] to telling members of the House of Representatives to “go back” to their supposed homelands,[188] the list of exclusionary rhetoric based on race, ethnicity, and religion is long. [quote id="7"] Implicitly endorsing the thesis that Trump’s campaign was built on ethnic nationalism, some observers argued in 2016 that his appeal to non-white voters would be historically low, thereby dooming his chances at the ballot box.[189] When Trump did win, some assumed his presidency would pivot to more inclusive rhetoric (and perhaps even policies) in order to bring on board more voters.[190] Rather than broaden his appeal in an increasingly diverse country, Trump has continued to promote his ascriptive vision of the United States.[191] The first prominent policy example of this was the “travel ban” (called the “Muslim Ban” by political opponents), the third iteration of which was found legal by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018.[192] It excludes immigrants from seven countries, five of them Muslim-majority countries.[193] The second notable signal was when the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the federal agency responsible for issuing visas and green cards and for naturalizing immigrants as U.S. citizens, released its new mission statement. As of February 2018 that statement no longer contains references to immigrants themselves — including taking out a line that called the United States a “nation of immigrants.”[194] In fact, the Trump administration has racialized the issue of immigration.[195] Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, the acting director of USCIS, has argued that the famous Emma Lazarus poem “The New Colossus,” which appears on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, refers to “people coming from Europe,”[196] while Trump himself has expressed hope of more immigrants from countries like Norway.[197] Trump’s comment, which included the “shithole” remark, prompted U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights, Rupert Colville, to call Trump’s remarks “racist.”[198] Most prominently, however, might be the symbolism — presumably intended — of wanting to build a physical wall along the southern border of the United States, but not along its northern border.[199] The public announcement by Trump in the fall of 2018 — just before the midterm elections — that he would seek to end birthright citizenship (as defined in the 14th amendment) showed that rather than pivot toward inclusion, Trump would embrace ethnic nationalism, which was indeed an important part of his political platform. This is why it is not quite right when Abram van Engen writes,
Trump never talks about Americans as descendants from those who came here long ago. He offers no story. There is no rise from immigration, no fleeing from oppression in the American past, no historical movement from one land to another. There is only the present day, only sovereignty and self-interest here and now.[200]
On the contrary, Trump does offer a narrative of the United States, but it is not the familiar story of a “nation of immigrants.” Rather, it is that of white, Christian America, a narrative compatible with Gerstle’s “racial nationalism,” Smith’s ascriptive tradition, and Mead’s Jacksonian nationalism.[201] It explicitly rejects the inclusive narrative of a diverse nation unified by civic ideals. It builds, as this article has shown, on an important competing strand in American political history in which Americans have identified membership in their political community not with adherence to a set of classically liberal ideas and ideals, but rather with ethno-cultural origins and customs “strongly linked to North European ancestry, Protestantism, belief in the superiority of the ‘white race,’ and patriarchal familial leadership.”[202] Mead, writing in 2002, acknowledged the “deeply regrettable Jacksonian record of racism,” but argued that Jacksonian America was evolving rapidly.[203] Here, Mead might have been mistaken. In November 2019, the Southern Poverty Law Center published leaked emails from Stephen Miller, one of Trump’s most important advisers on immigration, showing his support for and utilization of white nationalist literature and websites.[204] Non-Intervention Abroad? Does Trump’s “America First” imply a resurrection of an older U.S. foreign policy tradition labeled non-interventionism, exemplarism, or even “isolationism”? Or, is he simply a more extreme version of previous Republican presidents, many of whom were strong critics of the constraints emanating from international alliances, institutions, and traditions? I argue that when it comes to military intervention abroad, Trump differs from both historic America First positions as well as Republican presidents since World War II. Previous America Firsters argued for non-intervention on exceptionalist grounds. Trump, however, rejects the non-interventionist view that the United States is too special to get involved in the “corrupt old world.” Rather, Trump’s grand strategy is more similar to the classical realist tradition in international relations, in sharp contrast to the ideational tradition of exceptionalism.[205] Indeed, in the 2017 National Security Strategy, the administration labels its strategy one “of principled realism that is guided by outcomes, not ideology.”[206] Trump’s version of America First strips out all the focus on ideals and norms, something realists often argue U.S. foreign policy focuses too much on. Nor is Trump simply a more extreme version of existing Republican foreign policy. Previous Republican presidents such as Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush argued that the United States was too exceptional to be constrained by the rules of the liberal world order.[207] Rather than principled exemplarism (America First) or exceptional unilateralism (Reagan and George W. Bush), then, Trump’s grand strategy is a “contradictory combination of hawkish militarism and strategic retrenchment,”[208] relying on unilateralism, militarism, aggressive threats, and the strategic support from authoritarian leaders abroad. Trump’s record is evidence that he is an interventionist.[209] After promising to end the war in Afghanistan on the campaign trail, Trump increased the number of U.S. troops on the ground as president.[210] President Trump dramatically increased the number of lethal drone strikes compared to the number launched during the Obama administration.[211] He also sanctioned cruise missile strikes against targets controlled by President Bashar al-Assad in Syria in April 2017 as a response to a chemical weapons attack against the inhabitants of Idlib province earlier that month.[212] Similarly, in April 2017, Trump declared he had ordered an aircraft carrier into the Sea of Japan to serve as a deterrent to North Korean aggression. “We’re sending an armada,” Trump told Fox News.[213] A year later, the United States, in cooperation with Great Britain and France, again carried out strikes against Syrian government targets in response to a chemical weapons attack in Douma.[214] Former Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, Brett McGurk, sees Trump’s national security policy as not one of retrenchment, but rather as “revisionist and interventionist” because it seeks regime change in Syria, Iran, and Venezuela.[215] Scholars such as Charles A. Kupchan and Graham Allison therefore gravely misunderstand not just the history of U.S. foreign relations but Trump’s foreign policy when they assert that Trump’s America First is a revival of isolationism. Prior to World War II, Kupchan argues,
American exceptionalism meant insulating the American experiment from foreign threats, shunning international entanglements, spreading democracy through example rather than intrusion, embracing protectionism and fair (not free) trade, and preserving a relatively homogeneous citizenry through racist and anti-immigrant policies. In short, it was about America first.[216]
Not only is Kupchan wrong that Trump is embracing isolationism, he is also mistaken in thinking that America has a history of isolationism to revive.[217] As this article has shown, isolationism as a 19th century U.S. foreign policy tradition is a myth.[218] It certainly does not have anything in common with Mead’s Jacksonianism, as seen earlier. [quote id="8"] Historical accuracy aside, Kupchan’s argument also gets Trump’s contemporary policies wrong when he argues that, “Trump has cloaked himself in isolationist garb, repeatedly questioning the value of core U.S. alliances in Europe and Asia.”[219] Trump did seemingly promise retrenchment — if not isolationism — on the campaign trail.[220] Rather than retrench however, President Trump has increased troop deployments in Afghanistan, threatened war with North Korea, supported the Saudi-led war in Yemen, threatened war with Iran, and consistently promoted a military power build-up including the modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and the launching of a “Space Force.”[221] While Trump’s strategy for the use of U.S. military power is unilateral — e.g., his strike against Syria in 2017 and his general approach to North Korea and Iran — it is not isolationist nor a strategy of retrenchment.[222] What separates Trump from those in U.S. history who are often labeled isolationists is the same thing that separates him from the foreign policy establishment in general: his material, as opposed to ideational, definition of “American exceptionalism.”[223] As Trump put it on Twitter, “I will make our Military so big, powerful & strong that no one will mess with us.”[224] Trump’s foreign policy represents the Jacksonian skepticism “about the United States’ policy of global engagement and liberal order building,” a skepticism that comes “more from a lack of trust in the people shaping foreign policy than from a desire for a specific alternative vision.”[225] It is not principled non-interventionism, rather it is a rejection of the liberal part of the world order. It is a materialist, militarist, unilateral kind of internationalism, not isolationism.

IV. Conclusion: “The End of American Exceptionalism”?

Trump’s foreign policy approach raises important questions about the future of American exceptionalism as a national narrative and its role in U.S. foreign policy. First, regarding foreign policy: Does the Trump era really matter all that much, if the next president can simply reverse course? In other words, is it possible for the next U.S. administration to snap back to a pre-Trump era when there was bipartisan consensus that the United States should play a leadership role in the liberal international order, even if there were disagreements about what that leadership style should look like? Second, regarding the American national narrative: If a snap-back is not possible, does that mean we have finally arrived at the “end of American exceptionalism”?[226] I argue that a snap-back is unlikely because it is increasingly unwanted by important voices in both parties. Ultimately, the future of U.S. foreign policy depends on how thoughtfully American politicians approach this fork in the road. Rethinking U.S. grand strategy in the post-Trump era will require a more nuanced reflection about what American exceptionalism means than has been the norm in American political history up until this point. Trump and the Liberal International Order: Can the United States Snap Back? Is it possible for the first post-Trump president to “‘snap back’ to the status quo ante” and pretend that the Trump presidency never happened?[227] Given all of the benefits the United States has accrued from its hegemonic position in the world, it would be natural to assume American elites in both parties will try. In terms of the Republican Party, I argue that Trump’s wholesale rejection of the master narrative underlying the U.S. commitment to the liberal international order makes this a difficult task. Having embraced America First — despite some important policy disagreements on issues such as Syria[228] — any attempt at a snap back from the Trump presidency by the GOP faces the risk of being seen as non-credible by both domestic and foreign audiences.[229] Furthermore, because of the growing dissatisfaction in both parties with the prior foreign policy consensus,[230] it is entirely possible that another populist nationalist — perhaps next time from the left — will win an election in the future and further remove the United States from its leadership role abroad. For allies, therefore, the United States is a less reliable partner, and will continue to be so unless it produces a new and credible internationalist foreign policy alternative to Trumpism that appeals to important actors in both parties.[231] This alternative must be rooted in a credible and unifying national narrative. Trump vs. American Exceptionalism: A Republican Walk-Over? According to Leffler, America First means
minimizing obligations to allies, treating everyone as a competitor, freeing the United States from the restrictions imposed by multilateral institutions, seeking trade advantages through bilateral negotiations, building up military power, befriending dictators if they support him, and acting unilaterally in a zero-sum framework of international politics.[232]
The goal is to get ahead, and getting ahead means leaving others behind. This means America First is, in important respects, a significant departure from neoconservatism, the heretofore paradigmatic Republican ideals-based foreign policy as defined in the post-Cold War years, particularly those of George W. Bush. More than anything else, the America First agenda and its rejection of American exceptionalism was why neoconservatives rebelled against the Trump candidacy and formed the NeverTrump movement.[233] Given what we know of Bush’s faith and his strong belief in American exceptionalism, his view of the missionary role the United States could and should play in world history arguably influenced how he viewed Iraq and the “Global War on Terror.”[234] As the invasion of Iraq was underway, in a televised address, Bush said, “To all the men and women of the United States armed forces now in the Middle East, the peace of a troubled world and the hopes of an oppressed people now depend on you.”[235] That is not to say that material factors such as oil have not been an important goal of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East since before World War II, or that such concerns have not eclipsed liberal democratic goals on many occasions. But, allowing for a complex interplay of material interests and liberal ideals guiding U.S. foreign policy, there is still quite a distance between the rhetoric and policy of Bush, and Trump’s statement that “we want to keep the oil” in Iraq “to reimburse ourselves.”[236] Rex Tillerson made explicit the divorcing of ideals from interests in his second speech as secretary of state: “I think it is really important that all of us understand the difference between policy and values… . Our values around freedom, human dignity, the way people are treated — those are our values. Those are not our policies.”[237] The late Sen. John McCain immediately criticized the speech in an op-ed, defending the traditional bipartisan consensus on U.S. foreign policy: “Our values are our strength and greatest treasure. We are distinguished from other countries because we are not made from a land or tribe or particular race or creed, but from an ideal that liberty is the inalienable right of mankind and in accord with nature and nature’s Creator.”[238] Allies appreciated McCain’s efforts.[239] Indeed, McCain seemed at times to serve as “shadow secretary of state” when he disagreed with the president’s foreign policies.[240] Yet although there are Republican Party members who disagree with Trump’s foreign policy,[241] McCain’s vocal opposition to Trump was rather unique in his party. Those Republican lawmakers who disagree with Trumpism either stay quiet and vote with the party, or find themselves retiring — whether willingly or not.[242] Thus, despite a few internationalist voices, allies are having a hard time recognizing the Republican Party they thought they knew.[243] The explanation for all this might be that the Republican Party itself has changed. Indeed, despite many Republicans disagreeing with Trump, he has still managed to successfully take over the party: First, by attaining its nomination, and second by winning over many important conservatives who initially were skeptical.[244] The Republican journey from condemning Buchanan’s radical rhetoric in the 1990s to first, tacitly accepting and then, mainstreaming Trump is an important part of this development. “Over the last two and a half decades,” write Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, “the GOP has mutated from a traditional conservative party into an insurgent force that threatens the norms and institutions of American democracy.”[245] Trump did not cause this populist, nationalist moment as much as reap the benefits of the long-term trajectory of the GOP and its narrowing voter base. As Lilliana Mason shows, the Republican Party has increasingly come to represent “the white, Christian, male and rural elements of the U.S. electorate.”[246] Trump’s version of “America First” is devoid of historic mission or religious election, but it is not “primacy without a purpose,” as Barry Posen has labeled it.[247] Rather, it has a nationalist, protectionist, and populist purpose, rooted in an ascriptive master narrative. Future paeans to American exceptionalism of the sort that Marco Rubio made in the 2016 campaign would ironically be a rebuke of Trump’s presidency.[248] At best, the current Republican Party is unsure of what “America” should mean at home and abroad. At worst, it has changed its mind entirely. In short, while the GOP may try to return to the status quo ante in a post-Trump future, they still have to fill a significant credibility gap in order to do so successfully. Bipartisan Re-evaluation of “The Blob” Significantly, both political parties are rethinking what the United States’ role in the world should be, which is why it is unlikely that there will be a wholesale return to the previous bipartisan consensus regarding U.S. primacy and leadership in the international order, no matter who wins the next presidential election.[249] Trump is not the only person who is severely dissatisfied with America’s post-Cold War foreign policy.[250] Nor is he the only one who thinks “exceptionalism is not a nice term.”[251] Obama’s answer to the Strasbourg question in 2009 was a clear rebuke of his predecessor’s moralistic exceptionalism. Trump’s less eloquent response in April 2015 was, in a way, communicating the same idea as Obama: It is offensive to say to the world, “we are superior to you.” [quote id="9"] Obama’s struggle with American power and ideals was an early sign of the re-evaluation and recalibration of U.S. grand strategy that was underway. Obama consciously distanced himself from the D.C. foreign-policy elites his adviser Ben Rhodes derisively nicknamed “the Blob.”[252] In the end, many liberals were disappointed in the limited amount of “change,” but the Obama era was a sign of a dissolving foreign policy consensus.[253] This was especially evident in the complex and tragic case of Syria, where reasonable people could disagree on whether and how much the United States should have intervened. After Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons on the people of Ghouta in August 2013, Obama stated,
America is not the world’s policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong, but when with modest effort and risk we can stop children from being gassed to death and thereby make our own children safer in the long run, I believe we should act. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional.[254]
To many European allies, this was refreshingly different from the perceived moralism and arrogance of the George W. Bush administration. Obama’s more constrained view of what the United States should represent in the world signaled a growing internal debate in the Democratic Party that somewhat mirrors the one found in the Republican Party:[255] Does American exceptionalism entail endless U.S. military engagement around the world? Americans — and many others — are understandably skeptical about such a proposition. According to a national survey by the Eurasia Group Foundation,
A plurality of Republicans and Independents believe America’s focus should be on building a healthy democracy at home and avoiding foreign conflicts. Democrats believe peace is best achieved through economic integration and free trade. “Peace through military strength,” associated with neoconservative hawks, and the “democracy promotion” approach associated with liberal interventionism received significantly less support.[256]
There is an important generational profile to this debate. In the 2017 Chicago Council Survey on generational attitudes toward U.S. foreign policy, Millennials were less inclined than Generation X-ers, Boomers, and the Silent Generation to embrace the idea that the United States is “the greatest country in the world.” Only one-quarter of Millenials saw the need for the United States to be “the dominant world leader.”[257] In other words, no matter who wins the presidency in 2020, an attempt at a snap-back might be unwanted by significant groups of voters in both parties. Does This Mean the End of American Exceptionalism? When Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell argued for the “end” of American exceptionalism after the Watergate scandal and Vietnam War in 1975, he did so because he found that the “belief in American exceptionalism has vanished with the end of empire, the weakening of power, the loss of faith in the nation’s future.”[258] As it happens, this sentiment is strikingly similar to the disillusionment Peter Beinart finds when reviewing the memoirs of three Obama-era foreign policy officials. Indeed, writes Beinart, “it’s possible to read their books not only as tales of tempered idealism but also as chronicles of America’s declining exceptionalism.”[259] Could it be that after several exaggerated reports of its death, the end of American exceptionalism is here? Let us look at what happened last time: Bell failed to predict the rise of Reagan and the strong comeback of American exceptionalism. If history is any guide, perhaps the next president will restore America’s sense of exceptionalism and purpose in the world like Reagan did in the 1980s. The counterpoint is that this time it might actually be different — and that it should be different. Jimmy Carter — the president Reagan was reacting to — never negated American exceptionalism. He instead rebuked previous American foreign policy from the viewpoint of exceptionalism itself: “we can be better, if we try.” It was a familiar American rhetorical tradition — the lament of having fallen short of American exceptional ideals. No president or presidential candidate between 1945 and 2012 argued that the United States is unexceptional and has no role to play in the fight for liberal values around the globe. That powerful national agreement on what role the United States is supposed to play in world history because of what kind of nation the United States is believed to be held, in the end, for a rather short American century. The United States has thus arrived at a fork in the road. There is still strong support for continued international engagement among Americans,[260] but there is also an undeniable weakening of the U.S. foreign policy consensus. This dissolving consensus “reflects a failure to adjust effectively to changes at home and abroad, with resulting confusion and dismay about the nation’s direction and role.”[261] At the heart of this moment of confusion and dismay is the confrontation between two master narratives: that of American exceptionalism and Jacksonian nationalism. American exceptionalism is an ideational master narrative. It is a story about an ethnically and religiously diverse nation united in adherence to liberal ideas and institutions both at home and abroad. In contrast, the Trump administration’s story of America is ascriptive: It is the story of a white, Christian folk community with materialist interests to pursue abroad. Yet, Trump did not create this moment. Before Trump’s presidential campaign, in 2014, the American National Election Study found that only 45 percent of Millennials “consider their American identity as extremely important.”[262] The narrative contestation currently underway must be addressed properly because the United States — and its foreign policy — needs a master narrative. Americans need a story about who they are, where they come from, and where they are going. American exceptionalism has proven to be a very useful civic narrative for a nation that cannot unite around shared ethnicity or religion. Indeed, it might be the only possible narrative going forward for a country whose ethnic and cultural identities are increasingly diverse, yet increasingly divided along party lines.[263] Leadership based on liberal ideals and institutions — rather than ascriptive characteristics — is also still the most attractive vision any great power in history has had to offer. According to Bell, American exceptionalism in foreign policy was supposed to be about the belief that the United States would be different from previous world empires in the exercise of power because it was democratic.[264] Given the imperfect execution of the liberal part of the order in the past,[265] however, if the United States wants to reclaim the leadership position Trump is currently forfeiting, it will need more than formulaic invocations of America as a “city on a Hill” or nostalgic paeans to a liberal world order that never quite was.[266] It will need an updated story of “America” in the world, a story that acknowledges the problems with the “liberal world order” to address the concerns of the next generation of Americans, allies, and adversaries.[267] A fresh discussion of what the United States can contribute to the world would entail leaving behind exceptionalist ideas of U.S. superiority and rather focus on securing a future that global advocates of liberal democracy can work together to achieve.[268] After Trump comes a moment of opportunity: not to simply put the U.S. ship in reverse, but rather, to plot out a new course.   Hilde Eliassen Restad is associate professor of international studies at Bjørknes University College in Oslo, Norway. A Fulbright alumna, she has a Ph.D. in foreign affairs from the University of Virginia and is the author of American Exceptionalism: An Idea that Made a Nation and Remade the World (Routledge, 2015).   Acknowledgements: I would like to thank the following colleagues for their valuable feedback on the various stages of this manuscript: Melvyn P. Leffler, Nadim Khoury, Stephen Pampinella, panelists at the 2018 ISSS-IS conference, panelists at the 2018 BISA U.S. Foreign Policy Working Group Conference, Chris White and my colleagues at Bjørknes University College. A sincere thank you to the thorough and highly efficient editors Galen Jackson, Doyle Hodges, and Megan Oprea at TNSR as well as to the anonymous reviewers.   Image: Patrick Kelley [post_title] => Whither the “City Upon a Hill”? Donald Trump, America First, and American Exceptionalism [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => whither-the-city-upon-a-hill-donald-trump-america-first-and-american-exceptionalism [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2019-12-18 13:09:46 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-12-18 18:09:46 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw [lead] => In order to understand Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda, we must examine the master narrative that underpins it. Trump breaks with all modern presidents not just because he challenges the postwar “liberal international order,” but because he rejects its underlying master narrative — American exceptionalism. America First relies instead on the narrative of Jacksonian nationalism. What makes America great, according to this narrative, is not a diverse nation unified in its adherence to certain liberal ideals, but rather ethnocultural homogeneity, material wealth, and military prowess. In this view, the United States is unexceptional, and therefore has no mission to pursue abroad. By shedding light on this alternative master narrative, we can better understand Trump’s presidency, his grand strategy, and why a return to the status quo ante after Trump is unlikely. [pubinfo] => [issue] => Vol 3, Iss 1 [quotes] => Array ( [0] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => Trump’s grand strategy is different in kind, and not just in degree, from U.S. postwar foreign policy because it rejects the underlying master narrative of American exceptionalism. ) [1] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => If one questions American exceptionalism, and the idea that it connotes superiority rather than simply difference, one’s Americanness may itself be questioned.  ) [2] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => In addition to being viewed as a “superior” republic, the United States is also on a world historic “mission” according to the narrative of American exceptionalism. ) [3] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => The influence of American exceptionalism on the framing and content of U.S. foreign policy took on a new force after the Cold War ended. Indeed, Americans interpreted the Cold War’s end as a reaffirmation of American exceptionalism. ) [4] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => With the attack on Pearl Harbor and eventual Allied victory in World War II, “America First” became synonymous with having been on the wrong side of history. ) [5] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => When it comes to the military, though, Jacksonians are looser with the purse strings and are more trusting of the military establishment. ) [6] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => This kind of ethnic nationalism represents a commonality between the Jacksonian tradition and the America First Committee, as well as Buchanan’s revival of the America First political brand. ) [7] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => While Trump’s strategy for the use of U.S. military power is unilateral — e.g., his strike against Syria in 2017 and his general approach to North Korea and Iran — it is not isolationist nor a strategy of retrenchment. ) [8] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => In short, while the GOP may try to return to the status quo ante in a post-Trump future, they still have to fill a significant credibility gap in order to do so successfully. ) ) [style] => scholarly [type] => Scholarly [style_label] => The Scholar [download] => Array ( [title] => PDF Download [file] => ) [authors] => Array ( [0] => 341 ) [endnotes] => Array ( [title] => Endnotes [endnotes] => [1] “President Harry S. Truman’s Address before a Joint Session of Congress, March 12, 1947,” The Avalon Project, Yale Law School,; also known as the “Truman Doctrine.” [2] Donald J. Trump “The Inaugural Address,” The White House, Jan. 20, 2017, [3] Peter Feaver, “What Is Grand Strategy and Why Do We Need It?” Foreign Policy, April 8, 2009, [4] See, e.g., the special issue on the liberal order by Foreign Affairs: “Out of Order? The Future of the International System,” Foreign Affairs 96, no. 1 (January/February 2017),; Doug Stokes, “Trump, American Hegemony, and the Future of the Liberal International Order,” International Affairs 94, no. 1 (January 2018): 133–50,; and Robert L. Jervis, Francis Gavin, Joshua Rovner, and Diane Labrosse, eds., Chaos in the Liberal Order: The Trump Presidency and International Politics in the Twenty-First Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018). [5] See, Ronald R. Krebs, Narrative and the Making of US National Security (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 13–15. [6] Jason A. Edwards and David Weiss, eds., The Rhetoric of American Exceptionalism (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, 2011). [7] See, e.g., John Gerard Ruggie, “The Past as Prologue? Interests, Identity, and American Foreign Policy,” International Security 21, no. 4 (Spring 1997): 89–125,; G. John Ikenberry, After Victory: Institutions, Strategic Restraint, and the Rebuilding of Order After Major Wars (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001); Henry R. Nau, At Home Abroad: Identity and Power in American Foreign Policy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002); Jeffrey W. Legro, Rethinking the World: Great Power Strategies and International Order (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005); Karl K. Schonberg, Constructing 21st Century U.S. Foreign Policy: Identity, Ideology, and America's World Role in a New Era (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009); Michael C. Desch, “America’s Liberal Illiberalism: The Ideological Origins of Overreaction in U.S. Foreign Policy,” International Security 32 no. 3 (Winter 2007/08): 7–43,; Krebs, Narratives and the Making of US National Security; and Hilde Eliassen Restad, American Exceptionalism: An Idea that Made a Nation and Remade the World (Oxon, UK: Routledge, 2015). [8] See, for instance, Robert Osgood, Ideals and Self-Interest in America’s Foreign Relations (Chicago: Phoenix Books, 1953/1964); Stephen M. Walt, The Hell of Good Intentions: America's Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2018); John J. Mearsheimer, The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018). [9] For the ongoing debate over the scope and nature of the “liberal international order,” see, for example, James Goldgeier, “The Misunderstood Roots of International Order — and Why They Matter Again,” Washington Quarterly 41, no. 3 (2018): 7–20,; Daniel Deudney and G. John Ikenberry, “Liberal World: The Resilient Order,” Foreign Affairs 97, no. 4 (July/August 2018),; Patrick Porter, “A World Imagined: Nostalgia and Liberal Order,” CATO Institute, Policy Analysis No. 843, June 5, 2018, [10] Jason Gilmore, Penelope Sheets, and Charles Rowling, “Make No Exception, Save One: American Exceptionalism, the American Presidency, and the Age of Obama,” Communication Monographs 83, no. 4 (2016): 10, [11] Walter Russell Mead, “The Jacksonian Revolt: American Populism and the Liberal Order,” Foreign Affairs 96, no. 2 (March/April 2017), For a counterargument, see, Elliot Abrams, “Trump the Traditionalist: A Surprisingly Standard Foreign Policy,” Foreign Affairs 96, no. 4 (July/August 2017), [12] Media attention has so far been more attuned to this than scholars have. Some journalists laud this development, such as Janan Ganesh, who argues Trump has merely dropped the “pretense” in favor of “interest-driven statecraft.” See, “Donald Trump Drops the Pretense on American Exceptionalism,” Financial Times, Nov. 28, 2018, Daniel Sargent, on the other hand, laments that Trump has ended American exceptionalism by suggesting it is no better than Russia. See, “RIP American Exceptionalism, 1776-2018,” Foreign Policy, July 23, 2018, Scholarship on how American exceptionalism, understood as a narrative, influences Trump’s foreign policy approach has so far been scarce, but see, Stephen Wertheim, “Trump and American Exceptionalism: Why a Crippled America Is Something New,” Foreign Affairs, Jan. 3, 2017,; Stephen Wertheim “Policy Series: Donald Trump Versus American Exceptionalism: Toward the Sources of Trumpian Conduct,” H-Diplo | ISSF POLICY Series America and the World – 2017 and Beyond, Feb. 1, 2017, For an early article, published before the presidential election, see, Anatol Lieven, “Clinton and Trump: Two Faces of American Nationalism,” Survival 58, no. 5 (2016): 7­–22, For scholarly work examining Trump’s rhetoric on American exceptionalism, see, Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Doron Taussig, “Disruption, Demonization, Deliverance, and Norm Destruction: The Rhetorical Signature of Donald J. Trump,” Political Science Quarterly 132, no. 4 (Winter 2017-2018): 619–50; Jason A. Edwards, “Make America Great Again: Donald Trump and Redefining the U.S. Role in the World,” Communication Quarterly 66, no. 2 (2018): 176–95, [13] Pete Vernon, “Lie? Falsehood? What to Call the President’s Words,” Columbia Journalism Review May 29, 2018, [14]  Glenn Kessler, Salvador Rizzo, and Meg Kelly, “President Trump Has Made 10, 796 False or Misleading Claims Over 869 Days,” Washington Post, June 10, 2019, [15] Charlie Laderman and Brendan Simms, Donald Trump: The Making of a World View, rev. ed. (London: I.B. Tauris, 2017), 98–99. See also, Colin Kahl and Hal Brands, “Trump’s Grand Strategic Train Wreck,” Foreign Policy, Jan. 31, 2017, [16] See, Jason Gilmore and Charles M. Rowling, “Partisan Patriotism in the American Presidency: American Exceptionalism, Issue Ownership, and the Age of Trump,” Mass Communication and Society 22, no. 3 (2019): 389–416, [17] I thank Reviewer 1 for pointing this out. General skepticism of international institutions and multilateralism is as American as apple pie in both parties, but has been more pronounced in the Republican party since Woodrow Wilson. However, economic protectionism has never before in the post-World War II era been promoted by a Republican president to the extent seen with Trump. See also Part III of this article. [18] David Corn, “Donald Trump Says He Doesn’t Believe in ‘American Exceptionalism,’” Mother Jones, June 7, 2016, For a different view, see, Edwards, “Make America Great Again,” 177. [19] See Part II for a discussion of what “exemplar” means in regard to U.S. foreign policy and American exceptionalism. [20] Donald Trump, “The Inaugural Address.” [21] I am indebted to Melvyn P. Leffler for discussing this with me. [22] See Mead, “The Jacksonian Revolt.” See also, Taesuh Cha, “The Return of Jacksonianism: The International Implications of the Trump Phenomenon,” Washington Quarterly 39, no. 4 (2016): 83–97, [23] For a discussion of the ascriptive tradition, see, Rogers M. Smith, Civic Ideals: Conflicting Visions of Citizenship in U.S. History (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999); and see also, Gary Gerstle, American Crucible: Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century, rev. ed. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2017). [24] Restad, American Exceptionalism. [25] A note on terminology: Any study of national identity in the United States has to deal with the issue of what to call the United States of America. Americans themselves often refer to their country as “America.” This terminology is problematic, however, especially to inhabitants of other countries located in the Americas. When writing on American exceptionalism, however, the term “America” has specific meaning. It is an expression of the national tendency to elevate the United States above others (such as those neighboring countries in the Americas). I thank Trevor McCrisken for these insights. [26] See, Hilde Eliassen Restad, “American Exceptionalism,” in, The SAGE Encyclopedia of Political Behavior, ed. Fathali M. Moghaddam (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2017), 24–27. For a contrary view, see, Seymour Martin Lipset, American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword (New York: W. W. Norton, 1996). [27] Quoted in, Hans Kohn, American Nationalism: An Interpretative Essay (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1957), 13. [28] Trevor McCrisken, American Exceptionalism and the Legacy of Vietnam: U.S. Foreign Policy Since 1974 (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003), 1. [29] See, Krebs, Narratives and the Making of US National Security, 13–15. [30] Krebs, Narratives and the Making of US National Security. See also, Michael H. Hunt, Ideology and U.S. Foreign Policy (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987); Deborah Madsen, American Exceptionalism (Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh, 1998); and Nadim Khoury, “Plotting Stories After War: Toward a Methodology for Negotiating Identity,” European Journal of International Relations 24, no. 2 (2018), 367–90, [31] See, for instance, Jack P. Greene, The Intellectual Construction of America: Exceptionalism and Identity from 1492 to 1800 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993). [32] Louis Hartz, The Liberal Tradition in America (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1955). [33] Lieven, “Clinton and Trump,” 11. [34] Hunt, Ideology and U.S. Foreign Policy; Madsen, American Exceptionalism; McCrisken, American Exceptionalism and the Legacy of Vietnam; Walter A. McDougall, Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World Since 1776 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997); Anders Stephanson, Manifest Destiny: American Expansion and the Empire of Right (New York: Hill & Wang, 1995); Walter Russell Mead, Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How it Changed the World (New York: Routledge, 2002); Restad, American Exceptionalism. [35] The Puritans are often credited with an early version of an exceptionalist narrative. See, for instance, Stephanson, Manifest Destiny; and Sacvan Bercovitch, “The Typology of America’s Mission, American Quarterly 30, no. 2 (Summer 1978): 135–55, That is not to say they created a kind of homogeneous, constant national identity seamlessly kept through history. See, Richard M. Gamble, In Search for the City on a Hill: The Making and Unmaking of an American Myth (New York: Continuum Books, 2012). The exceptionalist narrative was, however, present throughout the 1800s. When Alexis de Tocqueville observed that, “[t]he position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one,” he pointed back to their “strictly Puritanical origin,” as the first factor explaining this exceptionalism. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, volume II, chapter IX, “The Example of the Americans Does Not Prove That A Democratic People Can Have No Aptitude and No Taste for Science, Literature, Or Art.” Access at, See also, Rahul Sharma, American Civil Religion and the Puritan Antecedents of American Foreign Policy, PhD Thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science (2019). [36] This definition builds on McCrisken, “Exceptionalism,” in, Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy Vol. 2, 2nd ed., ed. Alexander DeConde et al. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2002), 64–65. I develop this more in detail in, Restad, American Exceptionalism. [37] McCrisken, American Exceptionalism and the Legacy of Vietnam; Daniel T. Rodgers, “American Exceptionalism Revisited,” Raritan Review 24, no. 2 (Fall 2004): 21–47; Restad, American Exceptionalism. [38] See, Tom W. Smith and Seokho Kim, “National Pride in Comparative Perspective: 1995/96 and 2003/04,” International Journal of Public Opinion Research 18, no. 1 (Spring 2006): 127–36, [39] Jason A. Edwards, Navigating the Post-Cold War World: President Clinton’s Foreign Policy Rhetoric (Washington, DC: Lexington Books, 2008); Gilmore and Rowling, “Lighting the Beacon”; Rico Neumann and Kevin Coe, “The Rhetoric in Modern Presidency: A Quantitative Assessment,” 11–31, in, The Rhetoric of American Exceptionalism. [40] Jason Gilmore, “American Exceptionalism in the American Mind: Presidential Discourse, National Identity, and U.S. Public Opinion,” Communication Studies 66, no. 3 (2015): 301–20, [41] Ramesh Ponnuru and Rich Lowry, “An Exceptional Debate: The Obama Administration’s Assault on American identity,” National Review, March 8, 2010, [42] See, for example, Ian Vásquez and Tania Porčnik, “The Human Freedom Index 2017: A Global Measurement of Personal, Civil, and Economic Freedom,” Cato Institute, the Fraser Institute, and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, [43] See Restad, “Conclusion,” in, American Exceptionalism. [44] Greene, The Intellectual Construction of America. [45] Monica Crowley, “American Exceptionalism…” Washington Times, July 1, 2009, [46] Robert Schlesinger, “Obama Has Mentioned ‘American Exceptionalism’ More than Bush,” U.S. News and World Report, Jan. 31, 2011, [47] From, Gilmore and Rowling, “Lighting the Beacon,” 275. Also see, Henri Tajfel, Social Identity and Intergroup Relations (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1982). [48] Crowley, “American Exceptionalism”; Restad, American Exceptionalism, chap. 1. [49] The seminal work here is Gerstle’s American Crucible. [50] Robert Kagan, Dangerous Nation: America’s Foreign Policy from Its Earliest Days to the Dawn of the 20th Century (New York: Knopf, 2006), 12. [51] Because of Roosevelt’s understanding of European nations as themselves mixed, and of (white) Americans as a result of this mix, Gerstle did not label Roosevelt’s view “ethnic nationalism,” because Gerstle defined this as a European-style ethnic nationalism viewing a Volk as “pure biological entities” as with the Ku Klux Klan. Gerstle, American Crucible, 14–43; 44–45. [52] See, Rogers Brubaker, “The Manichean Myth: Rethinking the Distinction Between ‘Civic’ and ‘Ethnic’ Nationalism,” in, Nation and National Identity: The European Experience in Perspective, ed. Hanspeter Kriesl et al. (Zurich: Ruegger, 1999), 55–73. [53] Smith, Civic Ideals; Gerstle, American Crucible, 59. [54] For a detailed discussion of this debate in various eras in U.S. history, see, Restad, American Exceptionalism. For an overview of the debates at the turn of the century, when the United States is widely seen as becoming a world power, see, Christopher McKnight Nichols, Promise and Peril: America at the Dawn of a Global Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011). [55] Restad, American Exceptionalism, chap. 3. [56] Paul T. McCartney, “Power and Progress: American National Identity, the War of 1898, and the Rise of American Imperialism” Communication Quarterly, no. 191 (2006): 401, quoted in, Jason A. Edwards, “Make America Great Again: Donald Trump and Redefining the U.S. Role in the World,” Communication Quarterly 66, no. 2, (2018): 178, [57] Edwards, “Make America Great Again,” 178. [58] H. W. Brands, What America Owes the World: The Struggle for the Soul of American Foreign Policy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), viii, quoted in, Edwards, “Make America Great Again,” 178. [59] See, Dexter Perkins, The American Approach to Foreign Policy rev. ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962); Stanley Hoffmann, Gulliver’s Troubles, Or the Setting of American Foreign Policy (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1968); Frank L. Klingberg, Cyclical Trends in American Foreign Policy Moods (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1983); Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994); Ruggie, “The Past as Prologue?” [60] Some scholars might ask why use the term at all in this article. I agree that it is an unfortunate term that serves to confuse rather than enlighten debates over U.S. foreign policy. Because it is still — despite much scholarly effort — ubiquitous in popular and scholarly works on U.S. foreign policy, and has been used specifically about Trump, however, I use it in this article. Substituting it for other terms like “nationalism” does not quite work, since nationalism is an ideology and isolationism is a (mythical) foreign policy tradition. I thank Reviewer 1 for asking me to address this. Michael Hunt, “Isolationism: Behind the myth, a usable past,” UNC Press Blog, June 29, 2011, But see also, Nichols, Promise and Peril. [61] Albert Katz Weinberg, Manifest Destiny. A Study in Nationalist Expansionism in American History, 6th ed. (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1935), 122. [62] William Appleman Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (Cleveland, Ohio: World Pub. Co., 1959); Alexander DeConde, Entangling Alliance: Politics and Diplomacy Under George Washington (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1958). For more recent works, see, Peter Onuf and Nicholas G. Onuf, Federal Union, Modern World: The Law of Nations in an Age of Revolutions, 1776-1814 (Indianapolis, IN: Madison House: 1993); McDougall, Promised land, Crusader State; Manfred Jonas, “Isolationism,” in, Alexander DeConde et al., eds., Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy, Vol. II, 2nd ed. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2002). [63] See, for example, Reginald Horsman, Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981); and, Matthew Karp, This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016). [64] Peter S. Onuf, Jefferson’s Empire: The Language of American Nationhood (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 2000), 13–14; also chap. 1. [65] Thomas R. Hietala, Manifest Design: American Exceptionalism and Empire (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003); Ernest N. Paolino, The Foundations of the American Empire: William Henry Seward and U.S. Foreign Policy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1973); William Earl Weeks, John Quincy Adams and American Global Empire (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1992); and William Earl Weeks, Building the Continental Empire: American Expansion from the Revolution to the Civil War (Chicago, Ill.: Ivan R. Dee, 1996). [66] Thomas A. Bailey, A Diplomatic History of the American People (New York: F. S. Crofts and Co., 1950), 520, cited in, Edward McNall Burns, America’s Idea of Mission: Concepts of National Purpose and Destiny (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1957), 8. [67] “The White Man’s Burden” was a poem written by Rudyard Kipling originally published in the popular magazine McClure’s in 1899, with the subtitle “The United States and the Philippine Islands.[68] See, Weinberg, Manifest Destiny, esp. chaps. 1, 2, and 4. [69] Stephanson, Manifest Destiny. [70] Charles A. Kupchan, “The Clash of Exceptionalisms: A New Fight Over an Old Idea,” Foreign Affairs 97, no. 2 (March/April 2018), [71] Bear F. Braumoeller, “The Myth of American Isolationism,” Foreign Policy Analysis 6, no. 4 (October 2010): 349–71,; Restad, American Exceptionalism, chap. 3. [72] Williams, The Tragedy of American Foreign Policy; DeConde, Entangling Alliance. [73] In addition to the classic revisionist historians, see also, Richard W. Van Alstyne, The Rising American Empire (Chicago, Ill: Quadrangle Books, 1965); Paolino, The Foundations of the American Empire; Hietala, Manifest Design. [74] See, for example, Charles Kupchan, who argues that the only exception to the isolationism of the 1800s was 1898, when the United States “did experiment” with “broader imperialism,” which then supposedly caused an isolationist backlash. Kupchan, “The Clash of Exceptionalisms.” [75] Greg Grandin, “The Strange Career of American Exceptionalism,” The Nation, Dec. 6, 2016, [76] Roger Cohen, “Obama’s American Idea,” New York Times, Dec. 10, 2007, [77] Restad, American Exceptionalism, 6. [78] Jeffrey K. Tulis, The Rhetorical Presidency (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987); Rob P. Saldin, “William McKinley and the Rhetorical Presidency,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 41, no. 1 (March 2011): 119–34, [79] Gilmore and Rowling, “Lighting the Beacon,” 273. [80] Krebs, Narratives and the Making of US National Security, 14. [81] Krebs, Narratives and the Making of US National Security. [82] Neumann and Coe, “The Rhetoric in Modern Presidency,” 18. [83] Gardin, “The Strange Career of American Exceptionalism.” [84] Edwards, Navigating the Post-Cold War World; Edwards and Weiss, The Rhetoric of American Exceptionalism; Pease, The New American Exceptionalism; Megan D. McFarlane, “Visualizing the Rhetorical Presidency: Barack Obama in the Situation Room,” Visual Communication Quarterly 23, no. 1 (2016): 3–13,; Gilmore and Rowling, “Lighting the Beacon.” [85] James W. Ceaser, Glen E. Thuerow, Jeffrey K. Tulis, and Joseph M. Bessette, “The Rise of the Rhetorical Presidency,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 11, no. 2 (Spring 1981): 158–71; Tulis, The Rhetorical Presidency; Saldin, “William McKinley and the Rhetorical Presidency.” [86] McCrisken, American Exceptionalism; Nau, At Home Abroad; Legro, Rethinking the World; Krebs, Narrative and the Making of US National Security; Restad, American Exceptionalism. [87] “The City Upon a Hill Speech,” Address of President-Elect John F. Kennedy Delivered to a Joint Convention of the General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, The State House, Boston, Jan. 9, 1961, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, [88] Neumann and Coe, “The Rhetoric in Modern Presidency,” 18. [89] Gilmore and Rowling, “Lighting the Beacon,” 288. [90] Krebs, Narrative and the Making of US National Security, 14. [91] Neumann and Coe, “The Rhetoric in Modern Presidency,” 26. [92] Neumann and Coe, “The Rhetoric in Modern Presidency,” 23. [93] See, for example, Heather Hulbert, “More Diplomacy, Less Intervention, But for What? Making Sense of the Grand Strategy Debate,” Lawfare, June 7, 2019, [94] George Bush, “Address Before a Joint Session of the Congress on the State of the Union,” Jan. 28, 1992, The American Presidency Project,, emphasis mine. [95] Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?” National Interest, no. 16 (Summer 1989): 3–18, [96] George F. Will, “The End of Our Holiday from History,” Washington Post, Sept. 12, 2001, [97] Uri Friedman, “Democratic Platform Swaps ‘American Exceptionalism’ for ‘Indispensable Nation,’” Sept. 4, 2012, [98] Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, “Interview on NBC-TV ‘The Today Show’ with Matt Lauer, Columbus, Ohio,” U.S. Department of State, Feb. 19, 1998, [99] Quoted in, Uri Friedman, “‘American Exceptionalism’: A Short History,” Foreign Policy, June 18, 2012, [100] Hal Brands, “Choosing Primacy: U.S. Strategy and Global Order at the Dawn of the Post-Cold War Era,” Texas National Security Review 1, no. 2 (February 2018): 8–33,; Restad, American Exceptionalism, chap. 7. [101] Hans J. Morgenthau, Scientific Man vs. Power Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1946), cited in, Lloyd E. Ambrosius, Wilsonianism: Woodrow Wilson and His Legacy in American Foreign Relations (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), 16. [102] Krebs, Narrative and the Making of US National Security, 13. [103] Goddard and Krebs, “Rhetoric, Legitimation, and Grand Strategy.” [104] Krebs, Narrative and the Making of US National Security, 3. [105] “President George W. Bush Addressed a Joint Session of Congress on the Subject of the War on Terrorism,” Sept. 20, 2001, [106] “President George W. Bush’s Second Inaugural Address,” Jan. 20, 2005, emphasis added, quoted in, Daniel W. Drezner, “The Realist Tradition in American Public Opinion,” Perspectives on Politics 6, no. 1 (March 2008): 53, [107] Quoted in, Schlesinger, “Obama Has Mentioned ‘American Exceptionalism’ More than Bush.” See, for example, Trevor McCrisken, “Obama’s Drone War,” Survival 55, no. 2 (2013): 97–122, [108] “Barack Obama's Remarks to the Democratic National Convention,” New York Times, July 27, 2004,, emphasis mine. [109] William I. Hitchcock, “How the GOP Embraced the World — and then Turned Away,” Politico Magazine, July 13, 2018,; David Farber, “America First and International Trade Policy in the Cold War Era,” in, “America First: The Past and Future of an Idea,” ed. Melvyn P. Leffler and William Hitchcock, Passport (September 2018): 39–41, [110] Farber, “America First and International Trade Policy in the Cold War Era,” 40. [111] I would like to thank Reviewer 1 for pointing this out. [112] See, Mitt Romney, No Apology: The Case for American Greatness (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2010); Ashley Parker, “Romney Makes His Pitch to Social Conservatives and Attacks Obama,” New York Times, March 31, 2012, [113] “2012 Republican Party Platform,” Aug. 27, 2012, The American Presidency Project, [114] For more on this, and how Trump diverges, see, Gilmore and Rowling, “Partisan Patriotism in the American Presidency.” [115] Corn, “Donald Trump Says He Doesn’t Believe in ‘American Exceptionalism.’” [116] Corn, “Donald Trump Says He Doesn’t Believe in ‘American Exceptionalism.’” [117] Corn, “Donald Trump Says He Doesn’t Believe in ‘American Exceptionalism.’” [118] According to Stewart M. Patrick, Trump “has undermined Western solidarity with repeated assaults on NATO and the G-7 and repudiation of the international agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear weapons program. He has threatened to leave the World Trade Organization and blocked judicial appointments to its appellate body. He has repudiated the Trans-Pacific Partnership, forced the renegotiation of NAFTA into a more closed deal, slapped aluminum and steel tariffs on U.S. allies on dubious national security grounds, and launched an all-out trade war with China… . Most disconcerting, the president himself has embraced a rogues’ gallery of authoritarian thugs, from Kim Jong Un to Xi Jinping, Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Rodrigo Duterte.” In other words, by going much further than previous presidents in his critiques of NATO (not simply stating that allies must raise their defense budgets, but embracing NATO’s main adversary — Putin’s Russia — while aggressively attacking NATO allies such as Germany) and by embracing authoritarian leaders instead of liberal democratic allies, Trump has rejected the values underpinning the liberal world order. See, Patrick, “The Liberal World Order Is Dying. What Comes Next?” World Politics Review, Jan. 15, 2019, [119] Thanks to my colleague Chris White for this phrase. [120] Leffler, “America First: Introduction,” in, “America First: The Past and Future of an Idea,” ed. Leffler and Hitchcock, 33. [121] See, Nicole Hemmer, “America First, a Second Time,” in, “America First: The Past and Future of an Idea,” ed. Leffler and Hitchcock, 47. [122] Susan Dunn, “Trump’s ‘America First’ Has Ugly Echoes from American History,” CNN, April 28, 2016, [123] Christopher Nichols, “America First, American Isolationism, and the Coming of World War II,” in, “America First: The Past and Future of an Idea,” ed. Leffler and Hitchcock, 35. [124] Sarah Churchwell, Behold, America: A History of America First and the American Dream (London: Bloomsbury, 2018), 258. [125] Sean Illing, “How ‘America First’ Ruined the ‘American Dream,’” Vox, Oct. 22, 2018, [126] Nichols, “America First, American Isolationism, and the Coming of World War II,” 35. [127] Nichols, Promise and Peril, chap. 1. See also, Restad, American Exceptionalism, chap. 3. [128] Churchwell, Behold, America, 43. [129] Churchwell, Behold, America, 45. [130] Churchwell, Behold, America, 48. [131] Quoted in, Churchwell, Behold, America, 84. See also, Laderman and Simms, Donald Trump: The Making of a World View, 10–11. [132] Churchwell, Behold, America, 91. [133] “The Ku-Klux Klan,” Committee on Rules, House of Representatives, Oct. 11, 1921, 120, See also, Churchwell, Behold, America, 288–89. [134] “Bush, Buchanan, and No One at All,” New York Times, March 4, 1992, [135] “Pat Buchanan in 1992: Make America First Again,” Face the Nation (1992), available on YouTube, The appearance on Face the Nation was prior to the New Hampshire primary. [136] Jeff Greenfield, “Trump Is Pat Buchanan with Better Timing,” Politico Magazine (September/October 2016), [137] Greenfield, “Trump Is Pat Buchanan with Better Timing.” [138] Greenfield, “Trump Is Pat Buchanan with Better Timing.” [139] Patrick J. Buchanan, “1992 Republican National Convention Speech,” Patrick J. Buchanan Official Website, Aug. 17, 1992, [140] Buchanan, “1992 Republican National Convention Speech.” [141] Krishnadev Calamur, “A Short History of ‘America First,’” The Atlantic, Jan. 21, 2017, [142] Mead, Special Providence. [143] Mead, Special Providence, 223. [144] The battle of New Orleans took place after the war was formally over, but the participants in New Orleans were unaware. The battle nevertheless cemented the image of Jackson as a heroic warrior. From the Jackson presidential library: “Jackson’s string of military success, despite the obstacles he faced, the poor results of other military leaders during the War of 1812 and his stunning victory at New Orleans made him a celebrated national hero, revered above all others except George Washington.” See, “War Hero,” Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage, [145] Daniel Fellner, “Andrew Jackson: Campaigns and Elections,” Miller Center, [146] Daniel Fellner, “Andrew Jackson: Impact and Legacy,” Miller Center, [147] Mead, Special Providence, 244. [148] Mead, Special Providence, 226. [149] Rogers Brubaker, “Populism and Nationalism,” Nations and Nationalism, April 29, 2019, [150] Brubaker, “Populism and Nationalism,” 224. [151] Mead, Special Providence, 240. [152] Mead, Special Providence, 246. [153] Mead, “The Jacksonian Revolt.” [154] Mead, Special Providence, 244. [155] Mead, Special Providence, 226. [156] Mead, Special Providence, 227. [157] Mead, Special Providence, 227. See, David Hackett Fischer, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991). [158] Michael Clarke and Anthony Ricketts, “Donald Trump and American Foreign Policy: The Return of the Jacksonian Tradition,” Comparative Strategy, 36, no. 4 (2017): 368, [159] Mead, Special Providence, 226–27. [160] Terri Bimes and Quinn Mulroy, “The Rise and Decline of Presidential Populism,” Studies in American Political Development, 18, no. 2 (October 2004): 136–59, [161] Mead, Special Providence, 230. [162] Mark R. Cheathem, “Donald Trump Is Not a Twenty-First Century Andrew Jackson,” The American Historian (2017), [163] John Torpey, “The End of the World as We Know It? American Exceptionalism in an Age of Disruption,” Sociological Forum 32, no. 4 (December 2017): 25, [164] Trump, “Inaugural Address.” [165] Trump, “Inaugural Address.” [166] Goldgeier, “The Misunderstood Roots of International Order,” 11. [167] Hasan Dudar and Deirdre Shesgreen, “Trump’s Long List of Global Trade Deals, Agreements Exited or Renegotiated,” USA Today, Nov. 21, 2018, [168] Patrick Gillespie, “Trump Hammers ‘America’s Worst Trade Deal,’” CNN Money, Sept. 27, 2016, [169] Ryan Hass, “Trump’s Focus on China Trade: Right Target, Wrong Approach,” Order from Chaos Blog, June 14, 2018, [170] Martha C. White, “Top Economists Blame Trump’s Protectionist Policies for Global ‘Stagnation,’” NBC News, Oct. 22, 2019, [171] White, “Top Economists Blame Trump’s Protectionist Policies.” [172] Indeed, as Frank Ninkovich points out, it is similar to President William McKinley’s 1896 campaign slogan, “Patriotism, protection, and prosperity.” Ninkovich, “Trumpism, History, and the Future of US Foreign Relations,” in, Chaos in the Liberal Order, ed. Jervis et al., 396. [173] Zeiler, “This Is What Nationalism Looks Like,” in, Chaos in the Liberal Order, ed. Jervis et al., 143. [174] Zeiler, “This Is What Nationalism Looks Like,” 143. [175] Zeiler, “This Is What Nationalism Looks Like,” 146. [176] Robert C. Hilderbrand, Dumbarton Oaks: The Origins of the United Nations and the Search for Postwar Security (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1990). [177] Indeed, his protectionism has been one of his most consistently held policy positions. See, Laderman and Simms, Donald Trump: The Making of a World View. [178] In a campaign speech on trade in Pennsylvania on June 28, 2016, Trump said, “Today, we import nearly $800 billion more in goods than we export. We can’t continue to do that. This is not some natural disaster, it’s a political and politician-made disaster. … It is the consequence of a leadership class that worships globalism over Americanism. This is a direct affront to our founding fathers, who — America wanted to be strong. They wanted this country to be strong. They wanted to be independent and they wanted it to be free.” “Read Donald Trump’s Speech on Trade,” Time, June 28, 2016, See also, Dudar and Shesgreen, “Trump’s Long List of Global Trade Deals.” [179] Corn, “Donald Trump Says He Doesn’t Believe in ‘American Exceptionalism.” [180] Gilmore and Rowling, “Lighting the Beacon,” 272. [181] Barry R. Posen, “The Rise of Illiberal Hegemony: Trump’s Surprising Grand Strategy,” Foreign Affairs 97, no. 2 (March/April, 2018), [182] I thank Melvyn P. Leffler for pointing this out. [183] See Smith, Civic Ideals; and Gerstle, American Crucible. [184] Josh Dawsey, “Trump Derides Protections for Immigrants from ‘Shithole Countries,’” Washington Post, Jan. 12, 2018, [185] In December 2015, Trump issued a statement saying, “Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” Jenna Johnson and Abigail Hauslohner, “’I Think Islam Hates Us’: A Timeline of Trump’s Comments About Islam and Muslims,” Washington Post, May 20, 2017, [186] Chris Moody and Kristen Holmes, “Donald Trump's History of Suggesting Obama Is a Muslim,” CNN, Sept. 19, 2015, [187] “Donald Trump Presidential Announcement,” C-Span, June 16, 2015, [188] Donald Trump (@realdonaldtrump), “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” Twitter, June 14, 2019, [189] Stuart Rothenberg, “Will There Be Enough White Voters to Elect Donald Trump?” Washington Post, July 7, 2016, [190] Mike Allen, “Trump’s Next Move: Stick It to Immigration Hardliners,” Axios, Sept. 8, 2017, [191] Despite a few exceptions, such as his first inaugural address containing the phrase, “whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots,” Trump has largely continued his exclusionary rhetoric while in office. See, Trump, “Inaugural Address,” (2017). [192] Tucker Higgins, “Supreme Court Rules that Trump’s Travel Ban Is Constitutional,” CNBC, June 26, 2018, [193] The countries are Iran, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia, along with North Korea and Venezuela. Vahid Niayesh, “Trump’s Travel Ban Really Was a Muslim Ban, Data Suggests,” Washington Post, Sept. 26, 2019, [194] Dara Lind, “America’s Immigration Agency Removes ‘Nation of Immigrants’ from Its Mission Statement,” Vox, Feb. 22, 2018, [195] Jayashri Srikantiah and Shirin Sinnar, “White Nationalism as Immigration Policy,” Stanford Law Review, no. 71 (March 2019), [196] Michael Luo, “America’s Exclusionary Past and Present and the Judgment of History,” New Yorker, Aug. 17, 2019, [197] Norway is generally viewed as a white, Christian country. This is largely correct, although the demographics are changing. As of 2018, Norway consisted of 85.9 percent native Norwegians (this includes a small Sami population as well as 3.2 percent born to non-native parents). The largest immigrant community in Norway is Polish. See, “Fjorten present av befolkningen er innvandrere,” Statistics Norway (SSB), March 5, 2018, [198] Robin Wright, “The ‘Shithole Countries’ — and the Rest of the World — Respond to President Trump,” New Yorker, Jan. 12, 2018, [199] Susannah Crockford, “Why Building a Wall on the US-Mexico Border Is a Symbolic Monument, not Sensible Immigration Policy,” London School of Economics UC Centre Blog, Feb. 21, 2017, [200] Abram Van Engen, “American Exceptionalism and America First,” Religion and Politics, Jan. 9, 2018, [201] See, Gerstle, American Crucible, 418–26. [202] Clarke and Ricketts, “Donald Trump and American Foreign Policy,” 368. [203] Mead, Special Providence, 260–61. [204] Michael Edison Hayden, “Stephen Miller’s Affinity for White Nationalism Revealed in Leaked Emails,” Southern Poverty Law Center, Nov. 12, 2019, [205] Robert Kagan argues that Trump’s grand strategy is classically realist. Personal conversation, April 26, 2018. Robert Jervis argues Trump’s foreign policy does not quite square with realism, whereas Randall Schweller argues that it does. See, Jervis, “President Trump and International Relations Theory,” in, Chaos in the Liberal Order, ed. Jervis et al., 5; Schweller, “Why Trump Now,” in, Chaos in the Liberal Order, ed. Jervis et al., 23, 35. [206] National Security Strategy of the United States of America, The White House (December, 2017), 1, To be sure, it is not clear that the National Security Strategy reflects Trump’s personal foreign policy vision. Mostly, it reads like the national security strategy of any Republican administration, or, as Barry R. Posen calls it, “a word salad of a document.” One might even question whether Trump has read it. This is why this article mostly focuses on Trump’s own statements and foreign policy actions. See, Posen, “The Rise of Illiberal Hegemony.” [207] See, Restad, American Exceptionalism, chaps. 7 and 8. [208] Micah Zenko, “Trump Is America’s First Contradiction-in-Chief,” Foreign Policy, Feb. 12, 2019, [209] Paul K. MacDonald and Joseph M. Parent, “Trump Didn’t Shrink U.S. Military Commitments Abroad—He Expanded Them,” Foreign Affairs, Dec. 3, 2019, [210] Daniel Byman and Steve Simon, “Trump’s Surge in Afghanistan: Why We Can’t Seem to End the War,” Foreign Affairs, Sept. 18, 2017, [211] Micah Zenko, “The (Not-So) Peaceful Transition of Power: Trump’s Drone Strikes Outpace Obama,” Council on Foreign Relations, March 2, 2017, [212] Michael R. Gordon, Helene Cooper, and Michael D. Shear, “Dozens of U.S. Missiles Hit Air Base in Syria,” New York Times, April 6, 2017, [213] This later turned out to be incorrect, as the aircraft carrier was sailing in the opposite direction to take part in joint exercises with the Australian navy. Of course, the original diplomatic signal sent by this statement by the U.S. president was still significant. Mark Landler and Eric Schmitt, “Aircraft Carrier Wasn’t Sailing to Deter North Korea, as U.S. Suggested,” New York Times, April 18, 2017, [214] W. J. Hennigan, “Trump Orders Strikes on Syria Over Chemical Weapons,” Time Magazine, April 13, 2018, [215] Brett McGurk, “American Foreign Policy Adrift,” Foreign Affairs, June 5, 2019, [216] Kupchan, “The Clash of Exceptionalisms.” [217] Diplomatic historians realized this was an outdated paradigm long before political scientists. See, Emily S. Rosenberg, “A Call to Revolution: A Roundtable on Early U.S. Foreign Relations,” Diplomatic History 22, no. 1 (January 1998): 63–70, [218] Braumoeller, “The Myth of American Isolationism”; Restad, American Exceptionalism, chap. 3. [219] Kupchan, “The Clash of Exceptionalisms.” [220] Yochi Dreazen, “Candidate Trump Promised to Stay Out of Foreign Wars. President Trump Is Escalating Them,” Vox, Aug. 25, 2017, [221] MacDonald and Parent, “Trump Didn’t Shrink U.S. Military Commitments Abroad”; Scot Paltrow, “Special Report: In Modernizing Nuclear Arsenal, U.S. Stokes New Arms Race,” Reuters, Nov. 21, 2017,; Lara Seligman, “One Small Step for Trump’s Space Force,” Foreign Policy, Aug. 29, 2019, [222] On this, see, Braumoeller, “The Myth of American Isolationism;” Restad, American Exceptionalism, chap. 3. John A. Thompson, “The Appeal of ‘America First,’” in, Chaos in the Liberal Order, ed. Jervis et al., 153. Frank Ninkovich disagrees, labeling it isolationist. See, Ninkovich, “Trumpism, History, and the Future of US Foreign Relations,” in, Chaos in the Liberal Order, ed. Jervis et al., 396. [223] On Trump’s non-isolationism, see also, Wertheim, “Donald Trump Versus American Exceptionalism.” [224] Quoted in, Posen, “The Rise of Illiberal Hegemony.” [225] Mead, “The Jacksonian Revolt.” [226] Daniel Bell, “The End of American Exceptionalism,” National Affairs, 41 (Fall 1975): 197, [227] Doug Stokes, “Trump, American Hegemony and the Future of the Liberal International Order,” International Affairs 94, no. 1 (January 2018): 134, [228] Patricia Zengerle and Makini Brice, “Breaking with Trump, U.S. Republicans Press for Response to Turkey Over Syria,” Reuters, Oct. 9, 2019, [229] Not to say there have not been internal disagreements, for instance, over Trump’s policy toward Kurdish allies in Syria. See, Catie Edmondson, “In Bipartisan Rebuke, House Majority Condemns Trump for Syria Withdrawal,” New York Times, Oct. 16, 2019, [230] Van Jackson, Heather HurlburtAdam MountLoren DeJonge Schulman, and Thomas Wright, “Policy Roundtable: The Future of Progressive Foreign Policy,” Texas National Security Review, Dec. 4, 2018, [231] Megan Trimble, “America Perceived Less Trustworthy in Trump Era,” U.S. News and World Report, Jan. 23, 2019, [232] Melvyn P. Leffler, “The Strategic Thinking that Made America Great,” Foreign Affairs, Aug. 10, 2018, [233] Which is, admittedly, not a movement so much as a few political advisers and writers (a group that has dwindled in numbers since Trump’s election). Contrast the special edition of the National Review — “Conservatives Against Trump,” National Review, January 22, 2016, — with where its contributors are today on the president. See, Jeremy W. Peters, “The ‘Never Trump’ Coalition that Decided Eh, Never Mind, He’s Fine, New York Times, Oct. 5, 2019, [234] I am not arguing that Bush’s highly ideological approach to counter-terrorism was an example to follow. I am merely pointing out the radical differences between neoconservatism and Trump’s America First. [235] George W. Bush, “President Bush Addresses the Nation,” The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, March 19, 2003, [236] James G. Stewart, “Trump Keeps Talking About ‘Keeping’ Middle East Oil. That Would Be Illegal,” Washington Post, Nov. 5, 2019, [237] Julian Borger, “Rex Tillerson: ‘America First’ Means Divorcing Our Policies from Our Values,” The Guardian (May 3, 2017), [238] John McCain, “John McCain: Why We Must Support Human Rights,” New York Times May 8, 2017, For more on this, see also the leaked memo Tillerson’s adviser Brian Hook wrote on Trump’s “realist” foreign policy: “Balancing Interests and Values,” Politico, May 17, 2017, [239] Indeed, after McCain’s passing, NATO reportedly considered naming its new headquarters after him. Amanda Macias, “NATO Is Considering Naming Its Headquarters After Sen. John McCain,” CNBC, Aug. 29, 2018, [240] Tina Nguyen, “John McCain Takes Over as Shadow Secretary of State,” Vanity Fair, Feb. 2, 2017, [241] Peter Baker, “A Growing Chorus of Republican Critics for Trump’s Foreign Policy,” New York Times, Jan. 29, 2019, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) has stated that Trump’s requests to Ukraine and China to investigate Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. are “wrong and appalling.” This issue could be seen as both a domestic and a foreign policy issue. See, Carl Hulse, “For Once, Republicans Break with Trump, but Not on Impeachment,” New York Times, Oct. 8, 2019, [242] Rachael Bade, “Trump’s Takeover of GOP Forces Many House Republicans to Head for the Exits,” Washington Post, Sept. 22, 2019, [243] Henry Farrell, “Thanks to Trump, Germany Says It Can’t Rely on the United States. What Does that Mean?” Washington Post, May 28, 2017,; Steven Erlanger, “Macron Says NATO Is Experiencing ‘Brain Death’ Because of Trump,” New York Times, Nov. 7, 2019, [244] Rich Lowry, “The Fantasy of Republicans Ditching Trump,” Politico Magazine, Oct. 24, 2019, [245] Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, “The Republican Devolution: Partisanship and the Decline of American Governance,” Foreign Affairs 98, no. 4 (July/August 2019), [246] “Both the Democrats and Republicans Were Once White Majority Parties. Now, Race Divides Them,” Washington Post, Dec. 2, 2019, [247] Posen, “The Rise of Illiberal Hegemony.” [248] Benjamin Hardy, “In Little Rock, Marco Rubio Sells American Exceptionalism,” Arkansas Times, Feb. 22, 2016, For an analysis of what Republican rhetoric on American exceptionalism looked like right before Trump, see, Jason A. Edwards, “Contemporary Conservative Constructions of American Exceptionalism,” Journal of Contemporary Rhetoric 1, no. 2 (2011): 40–54, [249] Chris Murphy, “How to Make a Progressive Foreign Policy Actually Work,” The Atlantic, Oct. 7, 2019, [250] A rather remarkable sign of the times is that the conservative Charles Koch Foundation has teamed up with the liberal Open Society Foundation in order to fund a bipartisan foreign policy think tank aiming to end the “forever wars” called the Quincy Institute. See, Bryan Bender, “George Soros and Charles Koch Take On the ‘Endless Wars,’” Politico, Dec. 2, 2019, [251] Corn, “Donald Trump Says He Doesn’t Believe in ‘American Exceptionalism.’” [252] David Samuels, “The Aspiring Novelist Who Became Obama’s Foreign Policy Guru,” New York Times, May 5, 2016,; Trevor McCrisken, “Ten Years On: Obama’s War on Terrorism in Rhetoric and Practice,” International Affairs 87, no. 4 (July 2011): 781–801, [253] Nicholas Kitchen, “Ending ‘Permanent War’: Security and Economy Under Obama,” in, The Obama Doctrine: A Legacy of Continuity in US Foreign Policy? ed. Michelle Bentley and Jack Holland (Oxon: Routledge 2016), 9–25. [254] “Remarks by the President in Address to the Nation on Syria,” White House, Office of the Press Secretary, Sept. 10, 2013, [255] For the current debate in the Democratic party, see, for example, Thomas Wright, “The Problem at the Core of Progressive Foreign Policy,” The Atlantic, Sept. 12, 2019, [256] Mark Hannah and Caroline Gray, “Indispensable No More? How the American Public Sees U.S. Foreign Policy,” Eurasia Group Foundation (November 2019), [257] Bruce Jentleson, “Millennials Are So Over U.S. Domination of World Affairs,” The Conversation, July 26, 2018, [258] Daniel Bell, “The End of American Exceptionalism,” 197. [259] Peter Beinart, “Obama’s Idealists: American Power in Theory and Practice,” Foreign Affairs 98, no. 6 (November/December 2019), [260] Dina Smeltz, et al., “Rejecting Retreat,” The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Sept. 6, 2019, [261] Kathleen Hicks, “Now What? The American Citizen, World Order, and Building a New Foreign Policy Consensus,” Texas National Security Review 1, no. 1 (November 2017): 109, [262] See Jentleson, “Millennials Are So Over U.S. Domination of World Affairs.” [263] Michael Tesler, Post-Racial or Most-Racial? Race and Politics in the Obama Era (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 2016); Lilliana Mason, Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 2018). [264] Bell, “The End of American Exceptionalism.” [265] Paul Staniland, “Misreading the ‘Liberal Order’: Why We Need New Thinking in American Foreign Policy,” Lawfare, July 29, 2018, [266] Porter, “A World Imagined. Nostalgia and the Liberal Order.” [267] Jentleson, “Millennials Are So Over U.S. Domination of World Affairs.” [268] Rebecca Lissner and Mira Rapp-Hooper, “The Day After Trump: American Strategy for a New International Order,”  Washington Quarterly 41, no. 1 (2018): 7–25, ) [contents] => Array ( [title] => [contents] => ) ) [1] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 2046 [post_author] => 321 [post_date] => 2019-11-06 12:31:01 [post_date_gmt] => 2019-11-06 17:31:01 [post_content] => On Aug. 19, 1953, the streets of Tehran exploded into violence. Clashes broke out between rival crowds at the city’s major radio station and central squares, while an armored column surrounded the home of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, peppering it with machine gun fire. Shouts of “Zendebad shah!” — “Long live the shah” — filled the air as Mossadegh’s National Front government fell from power. From the ashes rose a new government, led by former Gen. Fazlallah Zahidi and the young shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who returned from a brief exile on August 20. The shah spent the subsequent years consolidating his rule inside Iran, maintaining a close relationship with the United States until his fall from power amidst the Islamic Revolution of 1978–79. Though various Iranian factions and figures took part in the downfall of Mossadegh, the coup would not have been possible without the participation of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the British secret intelligence services. A pivotal moment in the history of U.S.-Iranian relations, modern Iranian history, and the history of covert operations, the coup of 1953 — the Mordad Coup, or Operation TPAJAX, as it is sometimes known — has received considerable scholarly attention. No fewer than four monographs, dozens of articles, two edited volumes, and countless chapters have been published that illustrate, in vivid detail, both the coup itself and the preceding oil nationalization crisis that consumed Iran, Great Britain, and the United States.[1] Among this mass of scholarship, there is a broad consensus on how the coup took place.[2] In 2000, the New York Times published an internal CIA history of the coup written in 1954 that revealed major operational details.[3] Other official histories have been declassified, though some pages remain redacted.[4] While the original volume in the State Department’s venerable Foreign Relations of the United States series focusing on Iran from 1951 to 1954 contained no information on the coup operation, in 2017 the Office of the Historian released a retrospective Foreign Relations of the United States volume.[5] Documents in the new volume confirm major details from existing sources, but they also reveal much that had hitherto remained obscure. In particular, the 300 documents included in this volume shed considerable light on the perspectives of various U.S. policymakers at the time, including their thoughts and feelings toward Iran, Mossadegh, oil nationalization, and the course of action needed to resolve the crisis.[6] Nevertheless, some gaps remain: Britain’s involvement in the coup, code-named “Operation Boot” by the intelligence services, is still relatively unknown, due to the lack of declassified documents.[7] The insights provided by this new volume of Foreign Relations of the United States are crucial to understanding Operation TPAJAX. While much is known about how the coup took place, there remains some disagreement as to why the United States decided on covert action or why this decision was made in early 1953. Mark J. Gasiorowski argues that U.S. actions in Iran were largely motivated “by fears of a communist takeover.” Viewed within the broader context, the decision to remove Mossadegh emerges “as one more step in the global effort of the Eisenhower Administration to block Soviet expansionism.”[8] Iran was a strategically important country due to its position athwart both the Soviet Union and the Middle East oil fields, which held roughly 50 percent of the world’s oil reserves. Mossadegh had chosen to nationalize Iran’s oil industry, setting off an international crisis that exacerbated Iran’s internal politics. There were also worrying signs that he would soon ally himself with Iran’s communist organization, the Tudeh Party. As historian Mary Ann Heiss argues, for U.S. policymakers in early 1953, a coup appeared necessary “to save Iran from communist domination.”[9] Other scholars like Steve Marsh and James F. Goode have offered similar interpretations of the coup decision, while Francis J. Gavin argues that a shift in the Cold War balance of power proved critical in motivating the Eisenhower administration to act against Mossadegh.[10] Another explanation for the coup centers on oil. According to historian Ervand Abrahamian, Mossadegh’s nationalization of the oil industry posed a grave risk to Western domination of global oil supplies, particularly the oil concessions held by major Western oil companies in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Venezuela, and elsewhere. The coup was therefore necessary to restore Western control over Iranian oil and reduce the threat of nationalization in other oil-producing regions.[11] This view is a popular one, particularly in light of what occurred after the coup: The shah’s government signed an agreement with oil companies that effectively reversed nationalization, awarding American firms 40 percent of a consortium that would control the flow of Iranian oil for the next 20 years.[12] Viewed from this perspective, the coup was part of an effort to control oil resources in developing countries, which formed the foundation for the global economy constructed and supervised by the United States.[13] This take emphasizes an aspect of covert action that Abdel Razzaq Takriti has noted in multiple coup operations: The hegemon’s intervention is motivated by “global contestations over political and economic sovereignty,” and chiefly revolves around the control of natural resources and the restriction of popular political will.[14] Both arguments have their shortcomings. Nationalization resulted in Iran’s isolation from the global oil economy — by 1953, none of the major oil companies needed Iranian oil and the success of a British-led embargo had reduced Iran’s oil exports to zero.[15] While Great Britain hoped to remove Mossadegh in order to reverse nationalization and restore British control over Iran’s oil industry — where a British oil company had been dominant since the early 20th century — the U.S. position was much more complex. Continuous negotiation efforts from 1951 to early 1953 were aimed at restarting the flow of oil. A final offer was made to Mossadegh that would have left Iran “master of its industry,” though there were conditions attached that ultimately made the offer unacceptable to Mossadegh.[16] Thus, oil played a role in the coup decision, as will become clear, but regaining control of Iranian oil, overturning nationalization, or serving the commercial interests of the companies were not the paramount concerns.[17] Furthermore, Iran’s communist Tudeh Party, while well organized and increasingly active in street demonstrations, lacked “the intention or the ability to gain control of the government.”[18] The new Foreign Relations of the United States volume has illustrated, according to Gasiorowski’s recent study, that the Tudeh threat was small in 1953 and that the U.S. decision to oust Mossadegh “was not made on the basis of strong evidence that a Communist takeover might otherwise soon occur.”[19] New documentary evidence indicates British officials approached the United States in late 1952 “disposed to bring about a coup d’etat in Iran,” but were rebuffed by Truman administration officials who thought it too risky.[20] Why, then, did policymakers reverse this decision, and organize a coup in Iran with British help a few months later? This article addresses that question by re-examining the coup of August 1953 from the point of view of U.S. policymakers in Washington and Tehran. It utilizes the archives of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, as well as records from Britain’s National Archives and the archival collections of major oil companies.[21] In particular, this article seeks to use revelations from the 2017 Foreign Relations of the United States volume to re-evaluate the 1953 coup decision. It draws on similar studies of formal decision-making by Philip Zelikow as well as Alexandra T. Evans and A. Bradley Potter, to isolate the factors involved and lay out a hierarchy of motives influencing a key foreign policy decision, one that would have momentous consequences, both for the United States and Iran.[22] [quote id="1"] Specifically, this article examines the formation of a “collapse narrative” that emerged based on intelligence assessments of the internal conditions in Iran in the years leading up to the coup. This narrative shaped policy in a way that made covert action in Iran more likely. The collapse narrative incorporated concerns over oil with the well-articulated fears of Iran “falling behind the Iron Curtain.”[23] Faced with an embargo on oil exports, Mossadegh launched a series of policies in late 1952 designed to render Iran “oil-less.” While his policies may have worked in time to detach Iran from the influence of oil, the notion of an oil-less Iran filled the United States with dread. The collapse narrative, a predictive analytical framework for viewing developments within Mossadegh’s Iran that soon permeated policymaking discourse in both Tehran and Washington D.C., rested upon two foundations: that oil-less economics was not sustainable for Iran in the long term, and that, without an oil agreement, the National Front government was not capable of managing Iran’s affairs without leaning on communist support. Preventing collapse by stabilizing Iran’s political system and resuming the flow of oil, thereby solving the government’s financial problems and ensuring a stable source of revenue for Iran’s economic development, was the primary motivation for Operation TPAJAX. The coup was not about countering an imminent communist threat — rather, it rested on fears of an uncertain future, concern over an ill-defined collapse of Iran’s internal stability through economic and political disintegration, and a deeply engrained skepticism of Iran’s ability to avoid catastrophe without foreign intervention. Scholars such as Douglas Little and Matthew Jacobs have noted the tendency of American policymakers to “Orientalize” governments and individuals in the Middle East, assembling a “hierarchy of race and culture” built on assumptions of Arab and Iranian inferiority and the struggle of Middle Eastern cultures to adapt to Western concepts of modernity.[24] Persistent notions of Iranian incapacity, born out of prior experiences and bolstered by broader views of the Middle East, affected U.S. thinking and fed into the collapse narrative. Officials viewed Iran as backward, feudal, and vulnerable to social revolution. American thinking emphasized economic development driven by central state growth as a cure for these apparent ills — a view that prioritized security over democracy and thus favored authoritarian modernizing regimes over popular democratic coalitions.[25] Establishing such a regime in Iran, backed with U.S. support and funded through oil revenues, seemed the only way to prevent an Iranian collapse — an outcome that would have had disastrous strategic ramifications for the United States and would have impaired future access to Middle Eastern oil. While certain policymakers, particularly CIA Director Allen Dulles, exaggerated the threat of collapse, the decision to remove Mossadegh should not be thought of as an intelligence failure. Rather, it constitutes a moment when policymakers, surrounded by uncertainty and driven by a fear that the worst-case scenario was just around the corner, chose to undertake a radical action in the belief that it was the last remaining viable option. In the American hierarchy of motives — which included forestalling the spread of communist influence, ending the oil crisis, and promoting a pro-Western regime in Iran — preventing collapse emerged as a broadly felt justification for covert action. In that sense, the operation was a success — Iran did not collapse, its government remained pro-Western, and the oil crisis was resolved in a way that satisfied Iran’s need for revenue and the oil companies’ desire for control. Yet, the coup decision had significant implications for the future of Iran and its relations with the United States, narrowing subsequent U.S. policy and staining the shah’s post-coup government with a mark of illegitimacy. The first section of this article details the historical background, including American views of Iran before 1951, the rise of Mossadegh, and the oil nationalization crisis. The second section analyzes the collapse narrative put forward by various U.S. officials at the time based on assessments of Iran’s oil-less economy and Mossadegh’s capacity to manage it effectively. The third section considers the coup decision itself, the option of taking covert action, and the circumstances surrounding the Eisenhower administration’s deliberations in early 1953. The fourth and final section lays out the hierarchy of motives that went into the coup decision and explores the coup’s aftermath. I argue that Operation TPAJAX was meant to prevent a collapse in Iran — a vaguely defined though omnipresent fear in the minds of American policymakers — and restore the flow of Iranian oil, not for the sake of American oil companies, but as a way to “save” Iran from a future without oil and put it back on the path toward progress.

Chaotic and Corrupt Conditions

In the aftermath of World War II, Iran emerged as a particular point of concern for U.S. policymakers. While nominally pro-Western, the country appeared vulnerable to destabilization by the Soviet Union, with which it shared a long border. Iran’s ruling elite, land-owning aristocrats who dominated the parliament, or Majlis, were led by the shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, a young and fairly inexperienced figure at the time. To American observers, Iran’s greatest weakness was its “backwards” economy, as well as the paucity of managerial expertise among the country’s elite. Foreigners tended to emphasize Iran’s “feudal” state, where, according to one author, “95% of the people are impoverished, ignorant and inarticulate.”[26] Iran was a country, wrote Ambassador John C. Wiley in 1950, “of archaic feudalism,” where economic conditions “involving hunger and despair…are an obvious invitation to subversive activities.”[27] State Department officials observing Iran’s attempts at economic development after World War II advocated for “a complete revolution of the present system of management,” which could only be accomplished “under the temporary control of foreigners.”[28] Wiley suggested an aggressive policy of economic and military assistance: Aid disbursements, “properly controlled,” would give the United States the ability “to shape [the] course of events; though of course our control should remain imperceptible.”[29] Max Weston Thornburg, a former oil executive who served as economic adviser to the shah’s government from 1948 to 1951, summed up the problem in a dispatch to Wiley: “The practical difficulty of turning money, ideas and good intentions into real works, however simple, by people who don’t know how to do it.”[30] Iran’s access to oil revenues seemed to offer the nation a way toward lasting stability. Oil was discovered in 1908 in Iran’s southwestern province of Khuzestan, and, by 1950, Iran was the fourth-largest oil producer in the world. The oil industry in Iran, as in other Middle Eastern states, was owned and operated by a foreign company: in this case, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (later renamed British Petroleum, or BP). The company was deeply unpopular in Iran. Royalty payments, which had lagged behind company profits and tax payments to the British government, were considered unfairly low. Great Britain had historically interfered in Iran’s internal affairs and thus the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company was widely seen by most Iranians, particularly an emerging class of nationalist politicians, as a front for British power.[31] With the United States standing aloof, tensions within Iran increased, much of them focused on the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. This was exasperated by frustration with the country’s corrupt political system and socio-economic inequality. In March 1951, a supporter of nationalizing Iran’s oil industry assassinated the shah’s prime minister, Ali Razmara. In the chaos that followed, nationalists in the Majlis nominated their leader, Mohammed Mossadegh, as the new prime minister. Mossadegh called for nationalization as well as the expulsion of foreign influence from the country. The shah, fearing the new government’s massive popular support, signed Mossadegh’s nationalization bill into law on May 1, 1951.[32] The rise of Mossadegh, a 69-year-old Iranian aristocrat and prominent nationalist icon, revolutionized Iranian politics. Oil nationalization was the most popular political program in modern Iranian history. Support for Mossadegh and his governing coalition, the National Front, was particularly strong in urban areas among the working class and middle-class intelligentsia. Mossadegh was one of the first postcolonial nationalist politicians to emerge in the Middle East, and his program of nationalization provided a blueprint for other leaders, including Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, who would nationalize the Suez Canal in 1956. Rather than take sides in the Cold War, Mossadegh sought to maintain a middle path. His outlook, while largely pro-Western, was neutral and emphasized Iran’s independence. Mossadegh was also not a communist — in fact, when he first came to power, Soviet propaganda vilified him as an “American puppet.”[33] Even so, Mossadegh was a challenge that the United States and Great Britain were ill equipped to face. [quote id="2"] The British, for whom the Iranian oil industry represented a major economic and political asset, were fairly straightforward in their policy: remove Mossadegh and reverse nationalization. The British, as well as the major oil companies, hoped to prevent Iran’s nationalization from spreading to other oil-producing nations, like Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait, Venezuela, or Indonesia. Working in tandem, the United Kingdom and these companies placed an embargo on the nationalized Iranian oil. The embargo was very effective: The companies controlled the global tanker supply and were able to increase oil production elsewhere to make up for the Iranian oil shutdown. By September 1951, Iran’s oil exports had been reduced to zero. The British hope was that economic pressure would force Mossadegh from power, thus leading to a new, more “reasonable” government amenable to an oil agreement that suited British interests, and they were prepared to be patient in executing this goal. The major oil companies were able to maintain their control of the global oil supply fairly easily and, by early 1952, oil markets had recovered from the shock of the Iranian shutdown.[34] American thinking was more conflicted. While there was little support for Mossadegh, policymakers recognized Iranian nationalism as a powerful political force. Failure to satisfy this sentiment at a time of intense internal instability in Iran could potentially lead to a worse outcome. At the same time, officials in the Truman administration were unwilling to abandon the British, an important Cold War ally, and were conscious of protecting American oil companies from further nationalizations. Any resolution to the crisis in Iran had to contain the “contagion” of nationalization, preventing it from spreading elsewhere. Thus, between May 1951 and March 1953, the United States focused on facilitating an oil agreement between Mossadegh and the United Kingdom. While Iranian nationalism would have to be satisfied, in the interests of global oil and out of respect to the British the American proposals focused on ways to accept the principle of nationalization while keeping control of Iranian oil in British hands. Naturally, Mossadegh found such proposals unacceptable.[35] In July 1952, a political crisis resulted in Mossadegh temporarily stepping down as prime minister. The United States, according to declassified documents in the 2017 Foreign Relations of the United States volume, moved quickly to support a new government led by conservative politician Ahmed Qavam, who immediately expressed his willingness to negotiate an acceptable oil settlement “as soon as possible.”[36] But before any progress could be made, massive demonstrations broke out in Tehran. Nationalists, as well as members of the communist Tudeh Party, took to the streets to protest. Qavam lost his nerve and resigned. The shah bowed to public pressure and reinstated Mossadegh. Once back in power, Mossadegh undertook a series of measures designed to transform Iran into an oil-less economy. Imports plummeted while non-oil exports increased. To make up the budget deficit left by the absence of oil revenues, Mossadegh turned to deficit financing. Two billion rials, Iran’s currency, were released between July 1952 and January 1953, increasing the total quantity of rials in circulation by 20 percent.[37] Mossadegh’s embrace of Keynesian economics provided a temporary boost to the marketplace. Iran’s agricultural sector, which accounted for 80 percent of its gross national product, thrived in the midst of the oil shutdown. Good harvests in 1951–52 and 1952–53 improved rural employment and cut back on the need for imports. It is possible an Iranian economy without oil would have succeeded, provided Mossadegh had been able to maintain political stability.[38] But that’s not how U.S. policymakers saw things. Rather, they perceived an oil-less Iran under Mossadegh’s leadership to be a recipe for disaster. While the Truman administration rejected the idea of covert action in November 1952, the Eisenhower administration reversed course, gave up on further negotiations with Mossadegh, and approved funding for a coup in April 1953. The administration made the decision for a host of different reasons, but crucial among them was an emerging narrative emphasizing Iran’s inevitable collapse. Included in this narrative were perceptions of Iran’s vulnerability, the weakness of the Mossadegh government, and the importance of restarting the flow of oil revenues.

Judging Collapse: Measuring Oil’s Importance to Iran

Did Iran need oil? Was it possible for Iran to survive as an oil-less state? For U.S. policymakers, such questions were difficult to answer. When nationalization first occurred, U.S. officials worried that a showdown between Iran and the British would bring internal chaos to Iran, making a collapse into communist rule “a distinct possibility.”[39] The Tudeh Party was viewed as the country’s only properly organized political party, one that received considerable moral and material support from the Soviet Union. Even before the United Kingdom and the Western oil companies imposed an embargo against Iran, American officials believed Mossadegh’s crusade against the oil companies would end in disaster, particularly if the British pushed him too far: “Any test of will … in the light of the highly irrational and emotional view of the Iranians, [would] not be successful,” according to Assistant Secretary of State George C. McGhee. It was crucial that the “uninterrupted flow of oil” be maintained.[40] The CIA thought an oil shutdown would promptly lead to “bankruptcy, internal unrest, and at worst Communist control of the state.”[41] With negotiations stalled and the United Kingdom turning to pressure tactics, policymakers in Washington grew increasingly worried about Iran’s ability to resist communist pressure. While estimates varied, it appeared that five to ten thousand members of the Tudeh Party came from Iran’s industrial working class and the intelligentsia. Communist domination as a result of an internal coup led by the Tudeh Party, with external Soviet support à la Czechoslovakia in February 1948, seemed likely if a solution to the oil crisis was not found.[42] Heiss argues that U.S. officials exaggerated the effects of the embargo, misjudged the importance of oil, and treated Iran as an industrial society rather than an agricultural one.[43] Indeed, 80 percent of Iran’s economy was agricultural. While the oil industry employed around 50,000 skilled and nonskilled workers, it existed as an enclave and had few linkages to the rest of the economy, a phenomenon that was (and still is) quite common in oil-producing countries.[44] Information on Iran’s economy was hard to come by in the early 1950s: The chief source of intelligence was the U.S. Embassy in Iran, particularly reports written by the embassy’s economic counselor Robert M. Carr. According to Carr, for the Iranian year 1330 (March 1951–March 1952), had nationalization not occurred, the Iranian government would have earned £10 million worth of rials from the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company’s operating expenses, another £12.2 million from sales of sterling at differing exchange rates, and £28 million in royalties. Under these conditions, the oil company would contribute 4.5 billion rials in state revenue, more than one-third of its entire budget, including projected development expenses.[45] This was an estimate of a single year: A conservative estimate was that the British-controlled company contributed roughly half of Iran’s state expenditures. Carr and U.S. Ambassador Loy Henderson chose to express it as “forty percent of the total budget.”[46] In addition, oil royalties and the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company’s internal purchases constituted around 60 percent of Iran’s foreign exchange balance. Nationalization and the British embargo removed these lucrative sources of revenue and foreign exchange. By September 1951, with exports at zero and royalty payments from the oil company suspended, Iran faced a trade crisis, a state budget crisis, a balance-of-payments crisis, and a defunct development plan.[47]

[table id=19 /]

Table 1: Anglo-Iranian Oil Company Contribution to Iran’s State Budget, 1951-1952 (Estimated)[48]


[table id=18 /]

Table 2: Anglo-Iranian Oil Company Foreign Exchange Contributions, Millions of Rials[49]

  In 1951, these figures produced considerable alarm. Senior officials like Secretary of State Dean Acheson, Policy Planning Director Paul Nitze, and McGhee scrambled to implement an oil settlement and “keep Iranian oil moving.” “[O]nly in this way can we hope to prevent the Iranian economy from collapsing.”[50] As Acheson explained to British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden in November of that year, failure to reach an oil settlement — thus producing a prolonged oil embargo — would lead to the weakening of Iran’s armed forces, political assassinations and social unrest, “and the rapid movement toward the Tudeh Party’s taking over.”[51] But Carr initially downplayed the risk of an imminent collapse. According to him, Iran’s agricultural economy would show “considerable resistance” to the oil shutdown, while Mossadegh could draw on gold and foreign exchange reserves to fill the budget and trade gap. Mismanagement was to blame for Iran’s existing financial woes, and the country possessed the resources to survive for some time, “if the burden was properly distributed.”[52] The State Department agreed, arguing that Iran’s government could pay its bills for up to a year, “without any benefits whatsoever from oil resources.”[53] Eventually, fears of collapse subsided, with Nitze admitting in February 1952 that Iran’s economic conditions — its gold reserves, internal credit facilities, and prospects for a strong harvest — meant a general disintegration was unlikely, though the country’s politics remained unstable.[54] But fears of a collapse began to mount again, particularly after July 1952, when Mossadegh returned to office and began to implement his oil-less economic policies. Carr and his staff at the embassy viewed such policies with deep skepticism. Minor reforms designed to boost imports and save foreign exchange would provide “superficial” improvements, masking symptoms of an “economic and financial deterioration.”[55] To fund the government, Mossadegh turned to deficit financing, which the embassy believed would produce disastrous inflation: “The printing press has become a source of government revenue.”[56] It was feasible that a government possessed of greater will, “sufficiently able, demagogic and dictatorial,” could balance the budget and survive without oil revenues, perhaps indefinitely. But Carr, as well as others at the U.S. Embassy, doubted Mossadegh’s competence or the abilities of his government to guide the country. Mossadegh’s reforms were evidence of growing state involvement in the economy, characterized by interventions from the “already overgrown and none-too-competent bureaucracy.” The increased involvement of the state, necessitated by the extreme conditions produced by the oil crisis, presaged a slow slide down a familiar slope: “[T]he reformers are the apostles of the typical ‘bureaucratic revolution,’ complete with the statism, controls and neo-Keynesian economics which have become increasingly questioned elsewhere.”[57] To make an oil-less economy work, Mossadegh would either need to take full control over Iran’s state and economy or lean on outside support. Without U.S. assistance, his only option would be to turn to the Soviet Union. Carr’s concerns were shared by his boss, Henderson. A career foreign service officer, Henderson had been among the State Department’s most aggressively anti-communist voices, “a hard-line anti-Soviet diplomat,” according to his biographer.[58] While Carr’s reports rarely made it all the way to Washington, his views were regularly synthesized by Henderson, whose impact on U.S. policy was far more significant. “Iran is [a] sick country,” he wrote, “and [Mossadegh] is one of its most sick leaders.”[59] An oil agreement would halt a “financial collapse towards which [Iran] was heading so rapidly.”[60] Without access to oil revenues, no government could improve “the miserable social and economic conditions” pervasive throughout the country. In the absence of meaningful reforms and improvements, “[the] discontent of [the] people is bound to attract them towards [the] extreme of Communism.”[61] Like Carr, Henderson did not think collapse was imminent, but he pointed to “insidious disintegration” stemming from the financial situation.[62] Mossadegh lacked the capacity to lead Iran effectively. An oil-less economy would need “skillful, strong and ruthless dictatorship,” the kind only the Tudeh Party “was capable of furnishing.”[63] Since the National Front took power, “there has been a marked deterioration of forces making for steady administration and for [the] stability [of the] country.” Communist influence within the government, while apparently quite small, could grow quickly under the right circumstances: Henderson believed that Mossadegh received “Tudeh-slanted advice," that a number of cabinet ministers were, in fact, “Tudeh tools,” and that “infiltration of this kind might result in communists creeping almost imperceptibly into power.”[64] In steering Iran toward oil independence, Mossadegh would either fail or be forced to lean on Tudeh support. Either way, the outcome would be the same. [quote id="3"] By late 1952 and into early 1953, these views were becoming well represented elsewhere in the Truman administration, State Department, and CIA. According to Carr’s figures, Mossadegh still retained some flexibility: Iran’s hard currency and gold reserves, as well as Iran’s agricultural economy, meant he could probably stave off spiraling inflation, “unless there is a serious crop failure or an unfavorable export market.” But this did not allay fears of a collapse. Without a return of oil revenues, “further currency expansion” was inevitable.[65] The National Security Council policy document completed in November 1952 concluded that Mossadegh’s government had stoked “popular desire for promised economic and social betterment,” increasing the social unrest already evident prior to 1951. Furthermore, “nationalist failure to restore the oil industry has led to … deficit financing to meet current expense, and is likely to produce a progressive deterioration of the economy at large.”[66] Deputy CIA Director Robert Amory concluded that, without oil, Iran would succumb to “economic and political disintegration.”[67] Secretary of Defense Robert A. Lovett felt urgent action was needed “to prevent the strategic collapse of Iran’s loss to communism,” and suggested a course of economic and military aid.[68] But others in the government worried that aid for Mossadegh would just encourage further intransigence during oil negotiations, preventing an agreement and continuing the oil-less economy. Following his victory in the 1952 presidential election, Dwight D. Eisenhower was briefed by President Harry Truman and Acheson. The situation in Iran, they said, had developed to a “critical point.” Mossadegh’s approach to the crisis was irrational: The Iranians were more interested in defying the British “than they were in the economic benefits which might come to them from the oil industry.” The stalemate at the negotiating table and the ongoing British oil embargo “had led to very grave disintegration” within both the government and the “social structure” of Iran. Hard evidence would suggest that the National Front could survive for a year if it acted “reasonably,” but Acheson and Truman no longer thought that likely. “They would act emotionally,” perhaps breaking relations with the United States and cutting the number of public employees or reducing wages for the army, which would increase internal unrest. “[I]n a very short time [they] might have the country in a state of chaos.”[69] By late 1952, there was a growing feeling throughout the Truman administration that an oil-less Iran under Mossadegh’s rule would lead to disaster. However, there were few outward signs that economic collapse was imminent — inflation inside Iran had not yet reached crisis levels, the cost of living indices were relatively stable, and imports had fallen while non-oil exports had risen. One estimate from October 1952 noted how the loss of oil revenues had not “seriously damaged” Iran’s economy, thanks in part to an “excellent harvest.”[70] Nevertheless, the emerging consensus in Washington was pessimistic. According to Acheson’s recollection, “[the] situation was deteriorating … various people put it at four, six, seven or eight months,” but sooner or later, “we would reach … the point of no return.”[71] Fear of the future, skepticism of Iranian capacity for self-government, and an overriding sense that the Tudeh Party would profit from continued uncertainty formed an omnipresent fear of collapse that gripped the Truman administration in its last months in office, despite signs that Iran’s economy was actually managing the oil shutdown fairly well. No one could claim with any confidence when this collapse would take place, or even what it would look like. “If present trends continue unchecked,” however, there was thought to be a growing chance that Iran would drift away from the West “in advance of an actual communist takeover.”[72] The question galling Acheson, Truman, Nitze, and others was how to prevent this collapse from occurring.

The Coup Decision

Allen Dulles, deputy director of the CIA beginning in August 1951 and director after February 1953, was a noted skeptic of the Mossadegh government. In May 1951, just after nationalization of the oil supply, the forceful and gregarious Dulles suggested the United States cooperate with the British and intervene directly: “[T]hrow out Mossadegh, close the Majlis … at a later date a premier could be installed with our help.”[73] In late 1952, as his superiors deliberated, Dulles turned to Thornburg for advice. The former oilman-turned-international consultant who had acted as economic adviser to the shah’s government before 1951 was one of the few self-described “Iran experts” known in Washington. Thornburg enjoyed “unusual access” to both Dulles and the Department of State and he offered policy advice in meetings, memos, and messages sent from his personal island in the Persian Gulf.[74] Thornburg scoffed at Iran’s nationalist government. Supporters of Mossadegh “are not the kind of men who can carry out any practical program.” Rather, the men governing Iran were “political flaneurs” interested only in advancing their own careers. According to him, establishing a “democratic government” was not necessary. “What is necessary is that each of these countries have a stable government dedicated to the welfare of its people.”[75] Otherwise, the risk was instability and, eventually, collapse leading to communist rule. Thornburg felt that this could best be prevented by backing a right-wing strongman. A “responsible” regime led by the shah — a figure most American officials viewed as indecisive and weak-willed — could impose martial law, rule by decree, and reach a suitable oil settlement, thereby freeing up funds for a new development scheme. The key for Thornburg was changing the political balance in Iran. The goal should not be “how to make an oil agreement that will bolster up the government in Persia, but how to bolster up the government in Persia so it can make an oil agreement.”[76] The necessary consequence of that conclusion was removing Mossadegh from power. Documents in the 2017 Foreign Relations of the United States volume indicate that U.S. officials considered removing Mossadegh at various times throughout 1951 and 1952. After Mossadegh’s consolidation of power in July 1952, Assistant Secretary of State Henry F. Byroade had plans drawn up “as to possible alternatives to Mossadeq, method of bringing such a government into power, and the type of encouragement and support that would be necessary in such circumstances.”[77] The policy paper that the National Security Council adopted in November 1952 was much more alarmist than similar papers published a year before.[78] The policy mentioned the threat of an “attempted or actual communist seizure of power,” and included provisions for “special political operations in Iran” to support noncommunist forces.[79] The CIA had been active in Iran since 1948, combatting the Tudeh Party through an operation code-named TPBEDAMN and setting up a “stay-behind” mission in case Iran’s government were to fall under communist influence.[80] The United Kingdom, which had long sought Mossadegh’s removal from office, was expelled from Iran in October 1952, after which British officials reached out to the United States for help.[81] The British, conscious of U.S. concerns and anxious to elicit assistance, emphasized the threat of an internal coup through Tudeh Party subversion. The risk did not arise “from the country’s bad financial situation,” but rather from Mossadegh’s unwillingness “to check the growth of communist strength.” To that end, they were “disposed to bring about a coup d’etat in Iran,” and hoped for U.S. help in replacing Mossadegh with a more “reliable” prime minister. It was, in their opinion, “our best chance to save Iran.”[82] According to one agent’s recollection, the offer was favorably received by Dulles and Frank Wisner of the CIA.[83] [quote id="4"] But senior U.S. officials, including CIA Director Walter Bedell Smith and Acheson, could not see a viable alternative to Mossadegh among Iran’s conservative politicians. Mossadegh had placed his own supporters in key army posts: He could not be easily deposed through a military coup. Moreover, no conservative political figure possessed the prestige to challenge the National Front, while the young shah seemed paralyzed. Arguably the second-most powerful man in Iran was the populist demagogue Ayatollah Sayyed Abu al-Qasim Kashani. While a member of Iran’s Shia clerical leadership, Kashani was more notable for his hardline position on oil negotiations. He was opposed to any deal with the oil companies and had condemned oil revenues as a “curse rather than a blessing.” Should Mossadegh retire or die in office, a new nationalist government would probably coalesce around Kashani. From a U.S. point of view, it was better to have Mossadegh remain in power than to have such an unpredictable figure assume a position of authority.[84] For these reasons, the British offer was rebuffed. “You may be able to throw out Mossadegh,” remarked Smith, “but you will never get your own man to stick in his place.”[85] While Dulles felt that an operation could be carried out “in such a way that British and American connection with it could never be proven,” officials in the State Department, like Byroade and Freeman Matthews, were skeptical.[86] By late 1952, Carr’s reports and Henderson’s analysis convinced policymakers in Washington that an Iranian economy without oil was not sustainable, and that, without an oil settlement, Mossadegh would lead the country into disaster. But a coup to remove him did not seem viable. Nitze informed the United Kingdom that the United States would not dismiss the idea, but would, for the time being, proceed with a new round of negotiations: “We would keep the suggestion in mind.”[87] Instead of a coup, the focus turned to the question of propping up Mossadegh and staving off collapse. Byroade suggested an oil settlement or “substantial financial assistance and a program of economic development” as the two best options.[88] Lovett insisted that the United States “must get the oil flowing” in order to prevent the situation from deteriorating to the point where a military intervention became necessary.[89] According to Nitze, Iran needed to be pushed into a deal that would provide “sufficient revenues to meet its economic problems.”[90] Talk of financial aid to Mossadegh continued after Eisenhower took office in January 1953. The president, despite taking a more flexible position than his predecessor, seemed preoccupied with the problem of how to aid Mossadegh. “If…I had $500,000,000 of money to spend in secret,” he said during a meeting of his National Security Council on March 4, “I would give $100,000,000 of it to Iran right now.”[91] While the United Kingdom felt the new administration would be “more robust,” initially there was continuity in policy. Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles focused on continuing negotiations with Mossadegh, though it was clear that a settlement was unlikely, given the disagreements between Mossadegh and the British over terms to settle the 1951 nationalization.[92] An important turning point in the crisis came in late February 1953. Mossadegh’s position in Iran had grown unstable. Aware that conservative forces were maneuvering against him, in February 1953 Mossadegh demanded the shah abandon his few remaining prerogatives and subordinate himself to the government. Henderson, exhausted after months of negotiating and frustrated with the prime minister’s “one track mind,” “hyper-sensitive attitude,” and “suspicious character,” had come to think further negotiations were pointless.[93] Moreover, he regarded the shah as “a potentially powerful anti-commie element.” Mossadegh’s assault on the monarch prompted Henderson to take action, despite conventions prohibiting U.S. diplomats from intervening in local politics.[94] “I dislike remaining inactive,” he wrote defiantly, “when [the] monarchical institution…is in grave danger.” Henderson went to the shah and implored him to remain in the country. He then met with Mossadegh, making it clear that the shah’s departure would “weaken [the] security [of the] country,” an open show of support for the monarchy. Shortly after their meeting, crowds organized by the prime minister’s opponents, including Ayatollah Kashani and several pro-shah organizations, assaulted Mossadegh’s house, forcing him to climb over a 10-foot fence to take refuge in the house next door.[95] Events in January and February 1953 indicated increasing political instability in Iran, which prompted a more alarmist assessment in Washington. Allen Dulles, together with others inside the CIA, had the intelligence estimate for Iran altered in January. If current trends were allowed to continue “beyond the end of 1953,” internal tensions and the “continued deterioration of the economy” would lead to a “breakdown of governmental authority” and the “gradual assumption of control by the Tudeh.”[96] In his report for Eisenhower, Allen Dulles, by then director of the CIA, contended that conditions in Iran had been steadily deteriorating since 1951, “building up…a situation where a Communist takeover is becoming more and more of a possibility.” He then noted that CIA agents had resources inside Iran, “a considerable supply of small arms…[and] a considerable amount of cash,” which could be quickly supplemented.[97] During a meeting of the National Security Council on March 4, the CIA director laid out the situation in Iran in the bleakest possible terms: Mossadegh’s actions in February indicated his desire to rule as dictator, but if he were to die or resign, “a political vacuum would occur … and the Communists might easily take over.”[98] While John Foster Dulles and Eisenhower were focused on negotiating with Mossadegh during the March 4 National Security Council meeting, they were noticeably more skeptical of Mossadegh at a second meeting on March 11. They felt there was little hope of Mossadegh agreeing to new oil terms, while financial aid would only delay the inevitable and irritate the British. The risks of doing nothing were high: Should Iran be lost, the entirety of the Middle East’s oil resources would be lost with it.[99] Dulles instructed Henderson that there would be no new offers to Mossadegh and that all his requests for economic assistance were to be rebuffed.[100] Discussion in Washington turned toward “assets which could be rallied to support a replacement [for Mossadegh].” The National Security Council policy adopted in 1953 outlined plans to be undertaken “prior to an identifiable attempted or actual communist seizure of power,” while preparations were made for “special psychological measures” in connection with the “special political operations” authorized in November 1952.[101] Funds for operations were released in early April.[102] Henderson warned that conditions in Iran were becoming critical. “Practically all sections of the Iranian public,” he wrote, were growing increasingly frustrated with the West, “as they note the deteriorating conditions of the country. …Only those sympathetic to the Soviet Union and to international communism have reason to be pleased at what is taking place in Iran.”[103] In May, Henderson met with Secretary of State Dulles in Karachi. The ambassador, drawing on Carr’s analysis, reported that Iran’s economy was in the midst of a slow deterioration. “The need for foreign exchange has become acute. …[L]ocal currency needs have been met in the printing press route. …[T]he inflationary effect of this is only just beginning to be felt.” On the political side, the confrontation in February had increased Mossadegh’s reliance on the Tudeh Party, “the only organization which can give him the kind of support in the streets.” Henderson and the secretary of state discussed four potential courses of action, which included breaking off negotiations, proceeding with emergency aid, or removing Mossadegh through covert action. Doing nothing, however, would quicken Iran’s “drift into chaos.”[104] It is difficult to say with certainty, but it would appear that the decision to remove Mossadegh was made sometime in March or April, with Henderson’s May meeting with Secretary of State Dulles representing a final consultation. By June, Operation TPAJAX was in motion.[105]

The Hierarchy of Motives and the Collapse Narrative

The decision to topple Mossadegh emerged from several factors. Like their predecessors in the Truman administration, officials in the Eisenhower administration hoped to resolve Iran’s oil crisis. While the embargo remained in effect, Secretary of State Dulles worried that Iran would soon start “dumping” oil on the international market at rock-bottom prices or sell oil to the Soviet Union.[106] CIA Director Allen Dulles supplied figures indicating Iran could produce and export as much as 3.7 million tons (74,000 barrels per day).[107] Such actions would negatively impact the global oil economy and do nothing to alleviate the economic conditions in Iran, since the oil would be sold at low prices and in relatively small amounts, yielding little revenue. At the March 4 and March 11 National Security Council meetings, both the Dulles brothers and Eisenhower expressed concern over losing access to Middle Eastern oil. On March 11, Eisenhower noted that an agreement with Mossadegh “might not be worth the paper it was written on,” and might disrupt concessions elsewhere if the terms were “too favorable” to Iran.[108] Such comments have led historians to speculate that the Eisenhower administration, which enjoyed close ties to the American oil industry, sought to remove Mossadegh in order to gain access to Iranian oil and protect Western oil interests elsewhere.[109] Such motivations did influence policy, but were probably not decisive on their own. Both the United Kingdom and the oil companies themselves doubted Iran’s ability to ship large quantities of “unclean” oil when cheaper sources, like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, were available.[110] The Petroleum Administration for Defense, a branch of the Department of the Interior tasked with monitoring the global oil supply, felt there was no market for Iranian oil and that it would take two years for Mossadegh to claw back market share.[111] With only 28 tankers of its own, the Soviet Union could not move large quantities of Iranian oil.[112] Rather than focusing on saving the oil companies, which were never consulted by the Eisenhower administration at any point in early 1953 (something noted by British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden[113]), the United States focused on conditions inside Iran. Fear of collapse stemming from a prolonged oil shutdown and a lack of oil revenues for the Iranian state outweighed worries of a global oil economy without Iran. The precise imagining of this collapse was linked to the threat of the Tudeh Party. Reports at the time indicated that the communist group was not ready to challenge the government.[114] The CIA had infiltrated the organization and had up-to-date information on key decisions.[115] Allen Dulles and Henderson chose to emphasize the “imperceptible” increase in the Tudeh Party’s power, and the “gradual assumption of control” it could engineer.[116] The February crisis was decisive: Mossadegh broke with the shah and his former ally Kashani, and adopted a more lenient attitude toward the communist organization. As one Iranian minister explained to the U.S. embassy in Iran, Mossadegh could not fight both his conservative opposition and the communists, and had opted for a marriage of convenience.[117] Mossadegh may have been acting strategically, but his maneuver seemed to confirm Dulles and Henderson’s warning of a creeping Tudeh influence over the government. But this threat was never characterized at the time as imminent. [quote id="5"] Documents in the 2017 Foreign Relations of the United States volume and other declassified sources indicate that avoiding a Kashani government was as important to U.S. officials as preventing the rise of the Tudeh Party. Worries that Mossadegh would die or resign once again prompted concerns over who would succeed him — something that had preoccupied the Truman administration. With conservative opposition too weak to mount an effective opposition effort, Mossadegh would be succeeded by another member of the National Front. Ayatollah Kashani was the most likely candidate, given his prominence, popular following, and powerful street presence. As prime minister, it was unlikely Kashani would seek an oil agreement. Rather than reach a deal with the British, “[h]e has … urged that Iran forget its oil resources and develop a self-sustaining economy and governmental structure not dependent on them.”[118] When the idea of a coup was first suggested in November 1952, Nitze had queried whether CIA assets could be used against the Tudeh Party and Kashani, whose aggressive form of nationalism was viewed as particularly destabilizing.[119] If matters were left to drift and Mossadegh became suddenly incapacitated, Kashani’s leadership of the National Front was more or less assured. Avoiding this outcome was another reason the United States opted for covert action.[120] In the hierarchy of motives behind Operation TPAJAX, concerns over Iran’s oil nationalization and the communist threat were both important, but they were not, by themselves, crucial to the final decision to back the coup. Instead, both oil and communism factored into the decision through the predictive analytical framework of the collapse narrative represented in the reports and writings of Carr, Henderson, Thornburg, and Allen Dulles: They describe the deterioration of the oil-less economy, the consequent increase in communist or extremist influence, and the final nightmare scenario in which Iran could break away from the West, become a Soviet satellite, and threaten Western access to all Middle East oil. And yet, no one in either the Truman or Eisenhower administration articulated what collapse would look like in completely lucid terms. Hence, its characterization as a narrative: a story of how the future in Iran might unfold, should the United States do nothing. Once the narrative came to dominate policy, a form of groupthink took over. According to the CIA record, Allen Dulles dismissed intelligence provided by the agency’s analytical wing, relying on advice from “experts” like Thornburg, who shared his interventionist proclivities. Anything “incompatible with the planned covert political action … did not dissuade the President, Secretary of State … from executing TPAJAX.”[121] At least one CIA report on the limitations of U.S. resources in Iran was produced but never utilized. Dulles must have either ignored the report or had it suppressed.[122] Preventing collapse by changing the internal political dynamics of Iran — “bolstering up” a government so it could then reach an oil agreement and forestall the fall into chaos and communism, as Thornburg put it — was the goal of TPAJAX.[123] The operation was not meant to prevent a communist coup, but to reverse conditions that might result in a communist government, while producing the conditions necessary to restart the flow of oil. This becomes clear when examining the planning phase of the coup and the operation’s immediate aftermath. In 1952, the State Department’s John Leavitt was considering potential strategies should Mossadegh be removed from power. A new government would be given a sizable loan with further aid “contingent on a satisfactory solution of the oil issue.”[124] The oil issue, however, was to be downplayed during and immediately after the operation. According to John Stutesman, director of the State Department’s Bureau of Greek, Turkish, and Iranian Affairs and formerly Henderson’s political counselor at the embassy in Tehran, the United States “should avoid any statement that the oil question is involved in a change of government in Iran,” and the new regime should be deterred from raising the oil question publicly for at least several months.[125] The United States had been funding agricultural relief operations through the Point Four foreign aid program since 1951. These programs were to continue, even as operations against Mossadegh proceeded, in order to keep Iran’s agrarian economy “afloat.”[126] After the coup, “substantial economic assistance” would be provided to Iran’s new government. Such aid would keep the post-coup government on its feet while also giving the U.S. leverage over its approach to the oil question.[127] Fazlallah Zahidi, a former general, was selected to lead the post-coup government. He possessed the necessary ambition, was “energetic,” and committed to pursuing an oil settlement “on a realistic basis.”[128] An estimate prepared by Donald Wilber for the CIA noted that Zahidi, who had led a number of abortive coup attempts against Mossadegh in 1952 and early 1953, was “anxious to settle the oil issue.” Once in power, he would be “presented with a draft of an oil agreement,” which would be implemented as soon as his government was “firmly established,” with a promise of further U.S. loans and cash grants once the agreement was signed.[129] Zahidi was also outwardly eager to launch a sweeping social and economic reform program tied to the new oil agreement.[130] Planning throughout 1953 was slow, however, due to the shah’s “unwillingness to take any initiative.”[131] It took months to convince the wary monarch to participate. Henderson, who had gone out of his way to aid the monarchy in February 1953, suggested the shah could be replaced if he proved uncooperative.[132] On August 19, military units loyal to the shah and Zahidi overwhelmed Mossadegh’s forces, and after a lengthy battle captured the prime minister at his house. The CIA transferred to Zahidi the funds that were left over from the operation (around $1 million), while Secretary of State Dulles approved an emergency grant of $45 million. As per the U.S. strategy, this aid was applied judiciously: It was used to push Zahidi into quickly confirming an oil agreement. “The most difficult problem confronting us,” argued John Foster Dulles, “was how to develop revenues for Iran out of her oil.”[133] Henderson told the shah in straightforward terms that a new oil arrangement would hand effective control back to the companies, while providing Iran “income in [the] immediate future from its oil.” According to Manuchehr Farmanfarmaʼiyan, an Iranian oilman, the proposal was essentially an ultimatum. If the “principle” of foreign control was not admitted, there would be no deal and no aid.[134] Again, the administration’s goal was to bring about the speedy return of oil revenues to help Iranian finances, in order to bolster Zahidi and the shah. To accomplish this, however, Iran would need to reach a deal with the major oil companies: According to Dulles, this would require the “partial negation of Iranian nationalization,” to facilitate corporate cooperation and the rapid recovery of production.[135] [quote id="6"] Intercorporate documents gleaned from the archive of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (later BP) make it clear that the companies had no need of Iranian oil, as the global market was in a state of over-supply and an Iranian recovery would depress prices. The American oil companies initially argued that it would be better for the British to return to Iran alone, permitting the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company to recover its nationalized assets. But John Foster Dulles and others rejected this as politically impossible. Even with Mossadegh out of power, the Iranian public would react violently to a British return, unless it was suitably camouflaged. The Eisenhower administration directed the five major U.S. firms to take over Iran’s oil industry “in the security interest of the United States … to permit the reactivation of the petroleum industry in Iran and to provide to the friendly government of Iran substantial revenues.”[136] Their participation came “at the request of the United States government, and for the primary purpose of assisting Iran … to improve and stabilize its economy.”[137] The U.S. companies were given a 40-percent stake in the new “Iran Consortium,” with the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company receiving 40 percent of its own and the remaining 20 percent split between Royal Dutch/Shell and the Compagnie Française des Pétroles. The shah’s government was in no position to argue with the companies’ terms and approved the final agreement in October 1954. In legal terms, Iran’s nationalization remained in effect — U.S. officials recognized that to do otherwise would only inflame Iranian nationalism. But the reality of nationalization was effectively reversed, and the Western oil companies would control the flow of Iranian oil for another 20 years.[138] The new oil agreement was very unpopular in Iran. Together with the coup, the agreement identified the shah’s new government with foreign influence, staining it with a mark of illegitimacy that would never truly disappear. For American policymakers, however, these issues were of secondary importance. Without an oil agreement, Iran would lurch “from crisis to crisis,” depending on aid “to meet emergencies” and the shah’s legitimacy would remain shaky following the coup. Such a strategy would do little to create “real stability, permit development or avoid future emergencies.”[139] The new agreement was needed to support the government, which could use oil to fund programs of economic development, “[to] meet popular aspirations,” and forestall the country’s slip toward communism.[140] Once the Consortium Agreement was ratified by the shah’s new Majlis in October 1954, the chief U.S. negotiator, Herbert Hoover Jr., offered his congratulations to Iran’s foreign minister. The news marked a “significant victory” for those “dedicated to the principle that Iran is to move toward social and economic development.”[141] Iran had been saved. The coup was complete.


The collapse narrative formed by Carr, Henderson, Dulles, and Thornburg carried over into the official histories of the coup. According to one internal CIA account, “[Iran] seemed headed for an economic collapse and political anarchy,” a state of affairs that would inevitably lead to its transformation into a “Soviet satellite.”[142] The coup was necessary, “as the alternative to certain economic collapse in Iran … [due to] the dangerous and advanced stage of illegal deficit financing,” concluded CIA adviser and coup chronicler Wilber.[143] The same notion found traction in the shah’s Iran, which charged Mossadegh with “tyrannical” acts, including the printing of new rials. The failure of his economic policies acted as justification for his subsequent imprisonment, despite his sincere arguments that the country “could sustain itself without oil revenues.”[144] Within the Eisenhower administration, it was agreed that the coup had been necessary, while the efficacy of covert action was proven a second time in 1954 when the CIA assisted in the removal of Guatemalan president Juan Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán. “Whatever we have done, good or bad … we can at least have the satisfaction that we saved Iran from communism,” concluded Eisenhower in 1957.[145] The collapse narrative provided the foundation for the decision to remove Mossadegh. The threat posed to the global oil market by Iran’s nationalization remained inchoate and the communist threat to Iran was not imminent. But the threat of collapse, imagined through a predictive analytical framework and articulated in terms either of a progressive economic deterioration or a political crisis brought on by Mossadegh’s death or incapacitation loomed on the horizon if the United States failed to act. Fears of a collapse had percolated throughout the policymaking apparatus for months and were evident in the economic reports of Carr and the political analysis of Henderson. CIA Director Dulles was a crucial supporter of intervention, but while he may have accepted the collapse narrative, he did not form it entirely on his own. Although covert action was initially rejected, by March 1953 other options — aiding Mossadegh, pushing for an oil settlement, or doing nothing — appeared unsuitable. Once the coup decision was made, there was no going back. Among those directly involved in launching Operation TPAJAX, Henderson voiced the strongest reservations. Though he supported the action, he doubted whether TPAJAX would bring about the stability the United States craved in Iran: “I do not believe the problem can be solved merely by attempts to unseat Mossadegh.”[146] His uncertainty was prescient. Iran’s new government came to power marred by illegitimacy and dependent upon coercion and repression. Despite his apparent strength, the shah fell from power amidst the tumult of the Islamic Revolution of 1978–79, his allies in Washington watching in disbelief as another cadre of “irrational” leaders took over the Iranian state. But all that lay in the future. There was an obvious sense of relief among U.S. policymakers in the aftermath of the coup, as oil dollars and U.S. aid flooded into Iran and the shah’s military decimated the ranks of the Tudeh Party and National Front. According to Carr’s successor Spencer Barnes, most aid was wasted and its positive economic effect “sterilized.” Yet, the psychological impact of regime change and the hope for a new oil settlement would offset that waste: “The economy of Iran has considerable resistance and flexibility … [and] political factors are often more important than economic [ones],” while ongoing deficit spending could probably continue for months, “perhaps even a year or so,” before becoming “disastrous.”[147] Nevertheless, the collapse narrative did not go away, although the sense of urgency did. Subsequent administrations continued to doubt Iranian competence: “What they lack is the capacity for sustained, dynamic effort,” wrote Kennedy adviser Robert Komer in October 1962. “They don’t have what it takes to run a country themselves.”[148] The shah’s form of top-down modernization, lubricated by billions in oil revenues, seemed the only viable cure for Iran’s chronic instability. The coup of 1953 returned Iran to a state of “stability” that American policymakers could comprehend. More importantly, TPAJAX ensured that Iran would never again be “oil-less.”   Dr. Gregory Brew is a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University. A historian of U.S.-Iranian relations and the political economy of international oil, his work has appeared in Iranian Studies, International History Review, Mediterranean Quarterly, and The Oxford Research Encyclopedia. He also writes on the geopolitics of energy at The FUSE. Find him @gbrew24.   Acknowledgements: This article is based on a paper presented at the 2019 annual meeting of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. The author would like to thank the panel participants who read and commented on the paper, including Mary Ann Heiss, Mark J. Gasiorowski, Roham Alvandi, Malcolm Byrne, and David S. Painter. The author would also like to acknowledge the excellent editorial assistance of the staff at the Texas National Security Review and both peer-review readers.   [post_title] => The Collapse Narrative: The United States, Mohammed Mossadegh, and the Coup Decision of 1953 [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => the-collapse-narrative-the-united-states-mohammed-mossadegh-and-the-coup-decision-of-1953 [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2020-01-09 11:02:50 [post_modified_gmt] => 2020-01-09 16:02:50 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw [lead] => On Aug. 19, 1953, elements inside Iran organized and funded by the Central Intelligence Agency and British intelligence services carried out a coup d’état that overthrew the government of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. Historians have yet to reach a consensus on why the Eisenhower administration opted to use covert action in Iran, tending to either emphasize America’s fear of communism or its desire to control oil as the most important factor influencing the decision. Using recently declassified material, this article argues that growing fears of a “collapse” in Iran motivated the decision to remove Mossadegh. American policymakers believed that Iran could not survive without an agreement that would restart the flow of oil, something Mossadegh appeared unable to secure. There was widespread skepticism of his government’s ability to manage an “oil-less” economy, as well as fears that such a situation would lead inexorably to communist rule. A collapse narrative emerged to guide U.S. thinking, one that coalesced in early 1953 and convinced policymakers to adopt regime change as the only remaining option. Oil and communism both impacted the coup decision, but so did powerful notions of Iranian incapacity and a belief that only an intervention by the United States would save the country from a looming, though vaguely defined, calamity. [pubinfo] => [issue] => Vol 2, Iss 4 [quotes] => Array ( [0] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => While much is known about how the coup took place, there remains some disagreement as to why the United States decided on covert action or why this decision was made in early 1953. ) [1] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => While there was little support for Mossadegh, policymakers recognized Iranian nationalism as a powerful political force.  ) [2] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => To make an oil-less economy work, Mossadegh would either need to take full control over Iran’s state and economy or lean on outside support. ) [3] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => By late 1952, Carr’s reports and Henderson’s analysis convinced policymakers in Washington that an Iranian economy without oil was not sustainable, and that, without an oil settlement, Mossadegh would lead the country into disaster. But a coup to remove him did not seem viable.  ) [4] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => Fear of collapse stemming from a prolonged oil shutdown and a lack of oil revenues for the Iranian state outweighed worries of a global oil economy without Iran. ) [5] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => Without an oil agreement, Iran would lurch “from crisis to crisis,” depending on aid “to meet emergencies” and the shah’s legitimacy would remain shaky following the coup. ) ) [style] => scholarly [type] => Scholarly [style_label] => The Scholar [download] => Array ( [title] => PDF Download [file] => 2439 ) [authors] => Array ( [0] => 321 ) [endnotes] => Array ( [title] => Endnotes [endnotes] => [1] Accounts of the coup include, Ali Rahnema, Behind the 1953 Coup in Iran: Thugs, Turncoats, Soldiers, and Spooks (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015); Ervand Abrahamian, The Coup: 1953, The CIA, and the Roots of Modern U.S.-Iranian Relations (New York: New Press, 2013); Mark J. Gasiorowski, “The 1953 Coup d’Etat Against Mossadeq,” in, Mohammad Mosaddeq and the 1953 Coup in Iran, ed. Mark J. Gasiorowski and Malcolm Byrne (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2004), 227­–60. A popular, though far less rigorous account, is, Stephen Kinzer, All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, 2004). For general studies of the crisis that precipitated the August 1953 coup, see, James A. Bill and Wm. Roger Louis, eds., Musaddiq, Iranian Nationalism and Oil (London: Tauris, 1988); Mary Ann Heiss, Empire and Nationhood: The United States, Great Britain, and Iranian Oil, 1950-1954 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997); Steve Marsh, Anglo-American Relations and Cold War Oil: Crisis in Iran (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003); James F. Goode, The United States and Iran: In the Shadow of Musaddiq (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997); Mostafa Elm, Oil, Power and Principle: Iran’s Oil Nationalization and Its Aftermath (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1992); and Richard W. Cottam, Iran and the United States: A Cold War Case Study (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1988). A few of the more notable articles published concerning the coup and nationalization crisis include, Steve Marsh, “The United States, Iran and Operation ‘Ajax’: Inverting Interpretative Orthodoxy,” Middle Eastern Studies 39, no. 3 (2003): 1–38,; Francis J. Gavin, “Politics, Power, and US Policy in Iran, 1950-1953,” Journal of Cold War Studies 1, no. 1 (Winter 1999): 56–89,; and Andreas Etges, “All That Glitters Is Not Gold: The 1953 Coup Against Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran,” Intelligence and National Security 26, no. 4 (2011): 495–508, [2] A new revisionist school has attempted a re-evaluation of the coup, arguing that foreign intervention was relatively unimportant. See, Darioush Bayandor, Iran and the CIA: The Fall of Mosaddeq Revisited (Houndsmill: Basingstoke, 2010); Ray Takeyh and Steven Simon, The Pragmatic Superpower: Winning the Cold War in the Middle East (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2016), 53–89; Ray Takeyh, “What Really Happened in Iran: The CIA, the Ouster of Mosaddeq, and the Restoration of the Shah,” Foreign Affairs 93, no. 4 (July/August 2014): 2–14, For a detailed response to this revisionism, see, Fakhreddin Azimi, “The Overthrow of the Government of Mosaddeq Reconsidered,” Iranian Studies 45 no. 5 (2012): 693–712, [3] Donald Wilber, CIA Clandestine Service History: Overthrow of Premier Mossadeq of Iran, November 1952-August 1953, ed. Malcolm Byrne, published online by the National Security Archive, Nov. 29, 2000, 1–3, [4] Scott A. Koch, “Zendebad Shah!”: The Central Intelligence Agency and the Fall of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq, August 1953 (Washington DC: CIA, June 1998); and The Battle for Iran, published online by National Security Archive, June 27, 2014 [5] Carl N. Raether and Charles S. Sampson, eds., Foreign Relations of the United States, 1952-1954, Iran, 1951-1954, Volume X (Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Publishing Office, 1989) [hereafter FRUS X]; James C. Van Hook, ed., Foreign Relations of the United States, 1952-1954, Iran, 1951-1954, Second Edition (Washington DC: U.S. Government Publishing Office, 2018) [hereafter FRUS Retrospective]. [6] In September 2017, the Wilson Center organized a seminar on the new FRUS volume. Included among the participants were Mark J. Gasiorowski, Malcolm Byrne, David S. Painter, Wm. Roger Louis, Bruce Kuniholm, Barbara Slavin, and others. [7] One British operative published a memoir that touched on coup planning in 1953. See, C.M. Woodhouse, Something Ventured (London: Granada, 1982). [8] See Mark J. Gasiorowski, “The 1953 Coup D’etat in Iran,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 19, no. 3 (August 1987): 275, See also, Gasiorowski, “The 1953 Coup d’Etat Against Mossadeq,” 227–60. [9] Heiss, Empire and Nationhood, 172. [10] Rahnema, Behind the 1953 Coup, 60–61; Marsh, Anglo-American Relations, 152–53, Goode, The United States and Iran, 110. Gavin, “Politics, Power, and US Policy in Iran,” 56–89. [11] Abrahamian, The Coup, 5. [12] Elm, Oil, Power and Principle, 276; Joyce and Gabriel Kolko, The Limits of Power: The World and United States Foreign Policy, 1945-1954 (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), 412–20. For the formation of the consortium, see, Mary Ann Heiss, “The United States, Great Britain, and the Creation of the Iranian Oil Consortium, 1953-1954,” International History Review 16, no. 3 (August 1994): 511–35, [13] David S. Painter, Oil and the American Century: The Political Economy of U.S. Foreign Oil Policy, 1941-1954 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), 173–99. [14] Abdel Razzaq Takriti, “Colonial Coups and the War on Popular Sovereignty,” American Historical Review 124, no. 3 (June 2019): 880, [15] Mary Ann Heiss, “The International Boycott of Iranian Oil and the Anti-Mosaddeq Coup of 1953,” in, Mohammad Mosaddeq and the 1953 Coup in Iran, ed. Malcolm Byrne and Mark J. Gasiorowski (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2004), 178–200. [16] Henderson to Acheson No. 2425, December 27, 1952, United States National Archives, College Park, Maryland, [USNA] Record Group [RG] 59, Central Decimal File [CDF], Box 5510, 888.2553/12-2652. [17] For a response to Abrahamian’s “control of oil” argument, see, Mark J. Gasiorowski, “Review of The Coup: 1953, the CIA, and the Roots of Modern U.S.-Iranian Relations, by Ervand Abrahamian,” Middle East Journal 67, no. 2 (Spring 2013): 315–17, [18] Zendebad Shah!, 11. [19] Mark J. Gasiorowski, “U.S. Perceptions of the Communist Threat in Iran During the Mossadegh Era,” Journal of Cold War Studies 21, no. 3 (Summer 2019): 37, [20] Memo, Jernegan to Matthews, October 23, 1952; Byroade to Matthews, November 26,1952; Memo of Conversation, December 3, 1952. Thanks to the National Security Archive for making these documents available: [21] Documents from Record Group 59 and Record Group 84 (RG 59 and RG 84) were viewed in the Main Reading Room, United States National Archives, College Park, Maryland. British Petroleum Archive (BP) at the University of Warwick, Coventry, UK. [22] Philip Zelikow, “Why Did America Cross the Pacific? Reconstructing the U.S. Decision to Take the Philippines, 1898-99,” Texas National Security Review 1 no. 1 (December 2017): 36­–67,; Alexandra T. Evans and A. Bradley Potter, “When Do Leaders Change Course? Theories of Success and the American Withdrawal From Beirut, 1983-1984,” Texas National Security Review 2, no. 2 (February 2019): 10–38, [23] Wilber, CIA Clandestine Service History, 1. [24] Quote from Douglas Little, American Orientalism: The United States and the Middle East Since 1945, 3rd Edition (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2008), 28. See also, Matthew F. Jacobs, Imagining the Middle East: The Building of an American Foreign Policy, 1918-1967 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 12–27. [25] For an example of this trend in thinking, see, Bradley R. Simpson, Economists with Guns: Authoritarian Development and U.S.-Indonesian Relations, 1960-1968 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008). For development ideology in the Cold War, see, Michael E. Latham, The Right Kind of Revolution: Modernization, Development and US Foreign Policy from the Cold War to the Present (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 2011). [26] A.C. Millspaugh, “The Persian-British Oil Dispute,” Foreign Affairs II, no. 3 (April 1933): 521–25, [27] Telegram, Wiley to Acheson, Feb. 27, 1950, FRUS 1950, The Near East, South Asia, and Africa, Vol. V, ed. Herbert A. Fine et al., no. 217, (Washington DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1978), [28] From USNA RG 59 CDF, Box 7243: Memo by Dean Acheson, August 17, 1946, 891.50/8-1746; Memo of Conversation, October 8, 1948, 891.50/10-848; “Need for Improving the Economic Conditions in Iran,” 891.50 SEVEN YEAR PLAN/6-2248; “Memorandum on the Naficy Plan,” March 12, 1948, 891.50 SEVEN YEAR PLAN/6-2248, U.S. Embassy No. 179, June 22, 1948, Enclosure No. 3; Memo of Conversation, February 28, 1946, USNA RG 59 CDF, Box 7244, 891.51/2-2846; Allen to State, no. 575, June 28, 1947, USNA RG 59 CDF, Box 7245891.60/6-2847. [29] Wiley to State, no. 179, February 1, 1950, USNA RG 84 U.S. Legation & Embassy, Tehran, Classified General Records[USLETCGR] 1950–1952, Box 35; Richards to Acheson, No. 673, April 13, 1950, USNA RG 84 USLETCGR 1950–1052, Box 35. [30] Thornburg to US Ambassador, March 5, 1950, recovered from World Bank General Archives, WB IBRD/IDA MNA Folder ID 1805823, [31] James Bamberg, The History of the British Petroleum Company: The Anglo-Iranian Years, 1928–1954, Vol. 2 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1982); and James Bamberg, British Petroleum and Global Oil, 1950-1975: The Challenge of Nationalism, Vol. 3 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000). [32] For the narrative of the nationalization crisis, see Abrahamian, The Coup, 9–80. [33] Maziar Behrooz, “Tudeh Factionalism and the 1953 Coup in Iran,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 33, no. 3 (August 2001): 364, [34] For the British view of the Iran crisis, see, Steven G. Galpern, Money, Oil and Empire in the Middle East: Sterling and Postwar Imperialism, 1945-1971 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 80–141; Wm Roger Louis, The British Empire in the Middle East, 1945-1951: Arab Nationalism, the United States, and Postwar Imperialism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), 632–89; Heiss, “The International Boycott of Iranian Oil,” 178–80. [35] The various phases of negotiation are described in detail in Heiss, Empire and Nationhood. [36] Telegram, Henderson to Acheson, July 18, 1952, FRUS Retrospective, no. 84, See also, Telegram, Henderson to Acheson, July 18, 1952, FRUS Retrospective, no. 85,; Telegram, U.S. State Department to U.S. Embassy London, July 18, 1952, FRUS Retrospective, no. 86,;, Telegram, Henderson to Acheson, July 19, 1952, FRUS Retrospective, no. 88, [37] Iran Economic Papers, no. 8, “Imports and Exports,” January 1953, USNA RG 84 USLETCGR, 1953–1955, Box 60; US Embassy Iran, no. 46, July 18, 1953, USNA RG 84 USLETCGR, 1953–1955, Box 60; Henderson to State, no. 1245 September 23, 1952, USNA RG 84 USLETCGR, 1950–1952, Box 36 501; Middleton to Foreign Office, no. 292 (E), September 22, 1952, United Kingdom National Archives [UKNA] Foreign Office [FO] 371/98625 EP 1112/29. [38] Patrick Clawson and Cyrus Sassanpour, “Adjustment to a Foreign Exchange Shock: Iran, 1951-1953,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 19, no. 1 (February 1987): 10–11, Homa Katouzian, “Oil Boycott and the Political Economy: Mosaddeq and the Strategy of Non-Oil Economics,” in, Musaddiq, Iranian Nationalism and Oil, ed. Bill and Louis (London: IB Tauris, 1988), 212–14. [39] Telegram, Acheson to Gifford, June 22, 1951, FRUS 1952-1954, Vol. X: Iran 1951-1954 [FRUS X], no. 30,;  Statement of Policy Proposed by National Security Council: Iran, June 27, 1951, FRUS 1952-1954, Vol. X: Iran 1951-1954, no. 32, , [40] Memo of Conversation,  July 12, 1951, FRUS X, no. 40,; Memo from McGhee to Acheson, April 20, 1951, RG 59 888.2553/4-2051. [41] Intelligence Memorandum, July 11, 1951, FRUS Retrospective, no. 39, [42] Gasiorowski, “U.S. Perceptions of the Communist Threat,” 13, 17. [43] Heiss, “International Boycott of Iranian Oil,” 198. Heiss bases her conclusion on figures from Jahangir Amuzegar and M. Ali Fekrat, Iran: Economic Development Under Dualistic Conditions (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1971), 21. [44] Hossein Mahdavy, “The Patterns and Problems of Economic Development in Rentier States: The Case of Iran,’’ in, Studies in the Economic History of the Middle East: From the Rise of Islam to the Present Day, ed. M.A. Cook, ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1970), 443–67. [45] US Embassy no. 574, October 31, 1951, USNA RG 84 USLETCGR, 1950–1952, Box 39; Iran Economic Paper no. 2, Government Budget, January 1953, USNA RG 84 USLETCGR, 1953–1955 Box 60; US Embassy no. 712, March 5, 1951, USNA RG 59 CDF, Box 5503, 888.2553/3-551. [46] Henderson to Acheson, November 6, 1951, FRUS X, no. 122, [47] Henderson to State No. 3781, Drafted by Carr, April 4, 1952, USNA RG 84 USLETCGR 1950–1952 Box 36. [48] US Embassy no. 866, Contributions of the AIOC to the Iranian Embassy, April 27, 1951, USNA RG 59 CDF Box 5504, 888.2553/4-2751. [49] Iran Economic Paper no. 9, Balance of Payment, January 1953, USNA RG 84 USLETCGR, 1953–1955, Box 60. [50] Villard to Nitze, Policy Planning Staff, October 9, 1951, USNA RG 59 CDF, Box 5507, 888.2553/10-951. [51] Memo of Conversation, November 4, 1951, FRUS X, no. 120, [52] US Embassy No. 185, October 4, 1951, USNA RG 84 USLETCGR 1950–1952, Box 35; Henderson to State, no. 3781, Drafted by Carr, April 4, 1951, USNA RG 84 USLETCGR 1950–1952, Box 36. [53] “Prospects for Economic Stabilization in Iran After Oil Nationalization,” July 23 1951, USNA RG 59 CDF, Box 5505A, 888.2553/7-2351. [54] Memo of Conversation, February 14, 1952, USNA RG 59 CDF, Box 5506 Nitze-Linder Working Papers. [55] US Embassy Tehran, no. 555, January 17, 1953, USNA RG 84 USLETCGR, 1953­–1955, Box 60. [56] US Embassy Tehran, no. 824, April 8, 1953, USNA RG 84 USLETCGR, 1953–1955, Box 60. [57] US Embassy Tehran, no. 555, January 17, 1953, USNA RG 84 USLETCGR, 1950–1952, Box 36. [58] John J. Harter, “Loy Henderson and the Cold War: An Interview with the Biographer of ‘Mr. Foreign Service,’” Foreign Service Journal (April 1992): 41–45, [59] Telegram, Henderson to State, January 4, 1952, FRUS X, no. 139, [60] Telegram, Henderson to Acheson, January 29, 1952, FRUS X, no. 153, [61] Telegram, Henderson to Acheson, October 22, 1951, FRUS X, no. 116,; Henderson to Acheson, no. 1869, November 20, 1951, USNA RG 59 CDF, Box 5507, 888.2553/11-2051. [62] Telegram, Henderson to Gifford, February 28, 1952, FRUS X, no. 164, [63] Henderson to Acheson No. 1857 November 5, 1952, USNA RG 84 USLETCGR 1950-1952 Box 36. [64] Telegram, Henderson to Acheson,  November 5, 1952, FRUS X, no. 235, [65] Special Estimate-33, Prospects for Survival of Mossadeq Regime in Iran, October 14, 1952, FRUS Retrospective, no. 132,; National Intelligence Estimate (NIE-75), November 13, 1952, FRUS Retrospective, no. 143, [66] Statement of Policy Proposed by the National Security Council, The Present Situation in Iran, November 20, 1952, FRUS Retrospective, No 147, NSC 136/1, [67] Robert Amory Jr., Memo for General Smith, November 28, 1952, CIA CREST On-Line. [68] Lovett for Acheson, November 12, 1952, USNA RG 59 CDF, Box 5510, 888.2553/11-1252. [69] Memo of Conversation, November 18, 1952, FRUS Retrospective, no. 146, [70] Special Estimate: Prospects for Survival of Mossadeq Regime in Iran, October 14, 1952, FRUS Retrospective, no. 132, [71] Dean G. Acheson Papers, Box 81, Princeton Seminar, May 15, 1954, from the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library, Independence, MO. [72] Statement of Policy Proposed by the National Security Council: The Present Situation in Iran, November 20, 1952, FRUS Retrospective, no. 147, [73] Memorandum Prepared in the Office of National Estimates, Central Intelligence Agency, May 1, 1951, FRUS Retrospective, no. 20,; Memo, Langer to Smith, July 6, 1951, FRUS Retrospective, no. 37; Minutes of Meeting with Director of Central Intelligence Smith, May 9, 1951, FRUS Retrospective, no. 25, [74] Zendebad Shah!, 119. The island had been a gift from the ruler of Bahrain, with whom Thornburg forged a relationship while serving as a representative of the Standard Oil Company of California (SOCAL). See, Linda Wills Qaimmaqami, “The Catalyst of Nationalization: Max Thornburg and the Failure of Private Sector Developmentalism in Iran, 1946-1951,” Diplomatic History 19, no. 1 (January 1995): 1–31, [75] Memo of Conversation, August 20, 1952, FRUS Retrospective, no. 116, [76] Memo Prepared by Thornburg, August 22, 1952, FRUS Retrospective, No. 118,; Memo from Dulles to Smith, Attached Letter Thornburg to Dulles, February 19, 1953, FRUS Retrospective, no. 154, [77] Memo, Byroade to Acheson, July 29, 1952, FRUS Retrospective Iran, no. 101, emphasis mine, [78] Gavin, “Politics, Power, and US Policy in Iran,” 78–80. [79] Statement of Policy Proposed by the National Security Council: The Present Situation in Iran, November 20, 1952, FRUS Retrospective, no. 147, [80] Mark J. Gasiorowski, “The CIA’s TPBEDAMN Operation and the 1953 Coup in Iran,” Journal of Cold War Studies 15, no. 4 (Fall 2013): 4–24,; and Gasiorowski, “The US Stay-Behind Operation in Iran, 1948-1953,” Intelligence and National Security 34, no. 2 (February 2019): 170–88, [81] For British interest in removing Mossadegh, see Rahnema, Behind the 1953 Coup, 11–33. [82] Memo Jernegan to Matthews, October 23, 1952; Byroade to Matthews, November 26,1952; Memo of Conversation, December 3, 1952, National Security Archive, Briefing Book no. 601, [83] Woodhouse, Something Ventured, 117–18. [84] Special Estimate: Prospects for Survival of Mossadeq Regime in Iran, October 14, 1952, FRUS Retrospective, no. 132,; Memo Prepared in the Office of Intelligence and Research, Department of State, March 31, 1953, FRUS Retrospective No. 181, [85] Zendebad Shah!, 15. [86] Byroade to Matthews, November 26, 1952, National Security Archive, Briefing Book no. 601, [87] Memo of Conversation, December 3, 1952, National Security Archive, Briefing Book no. 601, [88] Memo from Byroade to Matthews, October 15, 1952, FRUS Retrospective, no. 133, [89] Lovett to Acheson, October 24, 1952, USNA RG 59 CDF, Box 5510, 888.2553/10-2452; Lovett for Acheson, November 12 1952, USNA RG 59 CDF, Box 5510, 888.2553/11-1252. [90] Nitze for Acheson, November 6, 1952, USNA RG 59 CDF, Box 5510, 888.2553/11-652. [91] Memo of Discussion at the 135th Meeting of the National Security Council, March 4, 1953, FRUS Retrospective, No. 171, [92] The best account of these discussions can be found in Heiss, Empire and Nationhood, 135–66. [93] Henderson to Acheson no. 2518, January 3, 1953, USNA RG 59 CDF, Box 5511, 888.2553/1-353. [94] Telegram, Henderson to State, October 22, 1951, FRUS X, no. 116, [95] Rahnema, Behind the 1953 Coup, 49–59; CIA Briefing Note for Dulles, Undated, FRUS Retrospective, no. 159,; Telegram, Henderson to State, February 25, 1953, FRUS Retrospective, no. 161,; Telegram, Henderson to State, February 26, 1953, FRUS Retrospective, no. 162,; Telegram, Henderson to State, February 27, 1953, FRUS Retrospective, no. 165,; Telegram, Henderson to State, February 28, 1953, FRUS Retrospective, no. 166, [96] National Intelligence Estimate, November 13, 1952, FRUS Retrospective, no. 143,; National Intelligence Estimate, January 9, 1953, FRUS Retrospective, no. 152, The quotes indicate passages of the original national intelligence estimate which were altered for the January draft. [97] Memo prepared in the Office of Intelligence and Research, Department of State, March 31, 1953, FRUS Retrospective, no. 181,; Memo, Allen Dulles to Eisenhower, March 1, 1953, FRUS Retrospective, no. 169, [98] Memo of Discussion at the 135th Meeting of the National Security Council, March 4, 1953, FRUS Retrospective, no. 171, [99] Memorandum of Discussion at the 136th Meeting of the National Security Council, March 11, 1953, FRUS Retrospective, no. 176, [100] Foster Dulles to Henderson no. 2387, March 13, 1953, USNA RG 59 CDF, Box 5511A, 888.2553/3-1353. [101] Memo for the Record, March 18, 1953, FRUS Retrospective, no. 179,; Progress Report to the National Security Council, March 20 1953, FRUS Retrospective, no. 180,; Memo from Morgan to Allen Dulles, April 3, 1953, FRUS Retrospective, no. 183, [102] Memo, Roosevelt to Allen Dulles, April 4 1953, FRUS Retrospective, no. 184, [103] Memo, Smith to Eisenhower, May 23, 1953, FRUS Retrospective, no. 211, [104] Memo, Mattison to Henderson, May 19, 1953, FRUS Retrospective, no. 206, [105] A meeting between Henderson and several CIA officials, including Kermit Roosevelt, on June 6 makes it clear that the ambassador was aware of the operation to remove Mossadegh. See, Memo of Conversation, June 6, 1953, FRUS Retrospective, no. 216, Roosevelt’s memoir includes a meeting held on June 25 when high-level approval was given, but no record has been found elsewhere. See Roosevelt, Countercoup, 1–10. Two CIA histories mention authorization for TPAJAX was given by Secretary Dulles and Eisenhower on July 11, but no record has been found to confirm this. See, Editorial Note, FRUS Retrospective, no. 225, [106] Foster Dulles to Holmes, no. 5294, February 10, 1953, USNA RG 59 CDF, Box 5511, 888.2553/2-1053. [107] Allen Dulles, Memo for Secretary of State, February 18, 1953, USNA RG 59 CDF, Box 5511,888.2553/2-1853. [108] Memorandum of Discussion at the 136th Meeting of the National Security Council, March 11, 1953, FRUS Retrospective, no. 176, [109] Collier, Democracy and the Nature of American Influence in Iran, 120–21. [110] Holmes to Foster Dulles no. 4663, February 20, 1953, USNA RG 59 CDF, Box 5511, 888.2553/2-2053. [111] Note to Linder from PAD Deputy Administrator, February 4, 1953, USNA RG 59 CDF, Box 5511, 888.2553/2-453. [112] Holmes to Foster Dulles no. 4663, February 20, 1953, USNA RG 59 CDF, Box 5511, 888.2553/2-2053. [113] Foreign Office to Makins No. 716, February 18, 1953, UKNA FO 371/104612 EP 1531/158. [114] CIA Memo, Undated, FRUS Retrospective, no. 138,; Gasiorowski, “U.S. Perceptions of the Tudeh Threat,” 30–32. [115] Information Report Prepared by the CIA, April 6, 1953, FRUS Retrospective, no. 185, [116] Telegram, Henderson to Acheson, November 5, 1952, FRUS X, no. 235,; National Intelligence Estimate, January 9, 1953, FRUS X, no. 152, [117] Memo, Warne to Henderson, May 20, 1953, FRUS Retrospective, no. 207, [118] Memo Prepared in the Office of Intelligence and Research, Department of State, March 31, 1953, FRUS Retrospective, no. 181, [119] Memo of Conversation, December 3, 1952, National Security Archive, Briefing Book no. 601, [120] Kashani helped organize crowds on August 19 that supported the coup against Mossadegh. There is as yet little evidence to suggest he was paid by the CIA or the British. See, “New Findings on Clerical Involvement in the 1953 Coup in Iran,” National Security Archive, Briefing Book 619, published March 7, 2018, [121] Koch, Zendebad Shah!, Appendix E, 118­–19, 120. This particular appendix detailing the scope of divisions within the CIA was not declassified until 2017. [122] Memo Prepared by the Directorate of Plans, CIA, March 3, 1953, FRUS Retrospective, no. 170, [123] Memo from Allen Dulles to Smith, Attached letter Thornburg to Dulles, February 19, 1953, FRUS Retrospective, no. 154, [124] Leavitt to Roosevelt, September 22, 1952, FRUS Retrospective, no. 122, [125] Memo, Stutesman to Richards, Undated, FRUS Retrospective, no. 256,; Nash to Cutler, Undated,  FRUS Retrospective, no. 299, [126] Memo of Conversation, June 2, 1953, FRUS Retrospective, no. 215, [127] CIA Memo for the Record, August 19, 1953, FRUS Retrospective, no. 282, [128] Memo of Conversation, May 16, 1952, FRUS Retrospective, no. 73,; CIA Memo for the Record, August 19, 1953, FRUS Retrospective, no. 282, [129] Memo from Waller to Roosevelt, April 16, 1953, Attachment no. 1, “Factors Involved in the Overthrow of Mossadeq,” Undated, FRUS Retrospective, no. 192, [130] Dispatch from the Embassy in Iran to the State Department, May 20, 1953, FRUS Retrospective, no. 208, [131] CIA Briefing Note, April 21, 1953, FRUS Retrospective, no. 194, [132] Memo of Conversation, June 6, 1953, FRUS Retrospective, no. 216, [133] Memo of Discussion at 160th Meeting of the National Security Council, August 27, 1953, FRUS Retrospective, no. 304, [134] Manucher Farmanfarmaian, Blood and Oil: Memoirs of a Persian Prince (New York: Random House, 1997), 302–03; Henderson to Foster Dulles no. 949, October 22, 1953, RG 59 888.2553/10-2253; Henderson to Foster Dulles no. 958, October 23, 1953, RG 59 888.2553/10-2353. [135] Dulles to Henderson, September 23, 1953, USNA RG 59 CDF, Box 5511A, 888.2553/9-2153. [136] Quoted in, Multinational Oil Corporations and US Foreign Policy, Committee on Foreign Relations, US Senate (Washington: 1975), 68. [137] “The American Group’s Further Views: Basis for the Settlement with Anglo-Iranian,” British Petroleum Archive, Coventry UK [BP] 66232, March 16, 1954. [138] The legal means behind the “façade of nationalization” put in place by the 1954 agreement were complex. See, Heiss, “Creation of the Iranian Oil Consortium, 1953-1954,” 511­–35. [139] Statement of Policy by the National Security Council, January 2 1954, FRUS Retrospective, no. 355,; Memo from the Office of National Estimates, March 29, 1954, FRUS Retrospective, no. 365, [140] National Intelligence Estimate, December 7, 1954, FRUS Retrospective, no. 375, [141] Foster Dulles to Henderson, October 28, 1954, FRUS X, no. 502, [142] The Battle for Iran, 1. [143] Wilber, Clandestine Service History, 1, Appendix B: “‘London’ Draft of TPAJAX Operational Plan.” [144] Quoted in Katouzian, “Oil Boycott,” 209. [145] Memo of Discussion at the 312th Meeting of the National Security Council, February 7, 1957, FRUS 1955-1957 Vol. XII, no. 391, [146] Memo by Stutesman, May 8, 1953, Attachment, Henderson to State no. 4348, May 7, 1953, USNA RG 59 CDF, Box 5511A, 888.2553/5-853. [147] Barnes to Henderson, Conversion of US Aid Dollars to Rials, September 21, 1953, USNA RG 469 Records of U.S. Foreign Aid Agencies, Iran Branch, Subject Files 1952–1959, Box 2; Barnes to Warne and Henderson, Utilization of Grant Aid Funds, October 14, 1953, USNA RG 469 Records of U.S. Foreign Aid Agencies, Iran Branch, Subject Files 1952–1959, Box 2. [148] Paper by Komer of the National Security Council Staff, October 20, 1962, FRUS 1961-1963 Vol. XVIII Near East 1962-1963, no. 85, ) [contents] => Array ( [title] => [contents] => ) ) [2] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 1963 [post_author] => 311 [post_date] => 2019-10-10 05:00:28 [post_date_gmt] => 2019-10-10 09:00:28 [post_content] =>

The truth is that the jungle is neutral. It provides any amount of fresh water, and unlimited cover for friend as well as foe—an armed neutrality, if you like, but neutrality nevertheless. It is the attitude of mind that determines whether you go under or survive. ‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’ The jungle itself is neutral.[1]

- F. Spencer Chapman

  The urban environment is complex and difficult. Tactically, it strains communications, overloads sensory capability, and pushes the decision-making onus to the lowest level. Strategically, it is complex because tactical actions are amplified and the speed at which local and international audiences are informed has never been faster. American and British environmental doctrine emphasizes the significant operational challenges that this environment presents.[2] In truth, however, the urban setting is neutral. It affects all protagonists equally, even if it does not always appear to do so. In The Jungle is Neutral, the classic account of three years of behind-the-lines jungle fighting against the Japanese in Malaya during World War II, the British soldier F. Spencer Chapman attributed his success to the principle that the environment is intrinsically neither good nor bad but neutral. What is true for warfare in the jungle — an environment that inflicts its own demands every bit as severe as those of the city — ought to be true for urban warfare. And yet, although conflict in cities is more prevalent now than in the past on account of demographic trends and urbanization, the supposedly challenging nature of urban warfare — as opposed to warfare in other “simpler” environments — is contradicted by many historical and contemporary examples. There are obvious difficulties that fighting a war in an urban environment poses, but they are surmountable through a combination of realistic hard training, changes in command mindset — at the strategic and political level as much as at the tactical level — and technological innovation (in order of priority). In some ways, the urban environment is a rewarding one in which to fight because those best prepared to leverage the neutral environmental factors can use them to magnify their comparative strengths. There is no reason why professional, regular armed forces, such as predominate in the West, ought not to be the best prepared to fight in this domain. The factors that threaten an army’s equanimity when it comes to fighting in an urban environment are the same for all belligerents. They do not impact regular Western soldiers more than irregular, non-Western challengers, who are thought to be unaffected by, or even gain an advantage from, these factors. This thinking comes from an entrenched mindset that insists on the uniqueness of the urban environment and holds firmly to certain shibboleths about urban warfare that are equivocal, if not outright ahistoric. The better trained and better equipped soldier should be comfortable in the chaos of the city — or at any rate as comfortable as he or she would be in any other environment. This is true not only for confrontations between regular and irregular forces, but also for “near-peer” conflict. The advantages afforded to the better trained, equipped, supported, and mentally prepared soldier are magnified by this environment, which rewards tactical skill. The line that “the future of war is not the son of Desert Storm, but the stepchild of Chechnya and Somalia” is a staple of the literature on contemporary strategic affairs.[3] It was written by former United States Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Charles Krulak as part of a speech at the Royal United Services Institute in London in 1996 in which he also coined the oft-quoted term “strategic corporal.” His overall argument was as follows: On account of the increasing interconnectedness of the world, the West will inevitably be drawn into “someone else’s wars” — which is to say, wars of choice that feature limited political commitment on the part of intervening forces.[4] Those wars will increasingly be centered in large, poorly governed urban areas, and will be fought against well-armed and capable opponents who will most likely be nonstate or quasi-nonstate actors. All of this will take place under the unblinking stare of the camera, bringing the local to the global stage and the global to the local stage. Together, these factors create a monster — like the mythical hundred-eyed Greek giant Argus Panoptes — that looms in the consciousness of generals and statesmen.[5] Seemingly grave tactical challenges are mixed with strategic unpredictability in a context of strict limitations on the use of force and acceptance of casualties. British doctrine describes the near future of war alliteratively as congested, cluttered, connected, contested, and constrained.[6] Likewise, the notable strategic thinker David Kilcullen goes for three related Cs: crowded, complex, and coastal.[7] There has developed a sort of orthodoxy, going back at least 20 years, which holds that population growth, urbanization, and interconnectedness — the driving forces of change in the global political economy — are pushing war into modes and contexts that conventional armed forces are finding, and will continue to find, vexingly difficult — in particular, the city. Whether this orthodoxy is correct is debatable. The strength of its grasp on the military mind and the defense policy establishment, however, is not. This paper is the joint effort of an academic and a professional soldier with 18 years of experience in infantry command, including multiple tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. It uses an ethnographic approach, a technique that has been increasingly applied to contemporary defense policy and strategic studies.[8] It draws heavily on the subjective experience of practitioners with recent experience of urban warfighting, which we evaluate alongside a range of historical cases and extant doctrine from the United Kingdom, the United States, and NATO. In this respect, this paper also employs the techniques of applied history, which we understand in the sense described by the naval historian Geoffrey Till as the illumination of the present and future through resonant historical examples, not “to point out lessons [per se], but to isolate things that need thinking about.”[9] We conducted fieldwork in the United Kingdom, France, Russia, the United States, Canada, and Israel between 2014 and 2017, which included lengthy visits to urban warfare training facilities, including observing and embedding in military exercises for periods of several days at a time. We also participated in numerous professional symposia on the subject, seminars, simulations, and wargames, mostly with the British Army (though nearly always with an international presence), as well as NATO. All told, we conducted over 40 interviews with veteran officers and noncommissioned officers, urban warfare trainers and course designers, doctrine authors, and subject-area specialists. This paper proceeds in five sections. In the first section, we seek to establish the fundamental characteristics of urban warfare, making reference to canonical works on the history of the city; specifically, works on war and the city. This includes, first and foremost, how the city’s connections with other urban conglomerations and the density of the civilian population causes a distinctive compression of the levels of war such that the tactical and political become inextricably entangled. In the second section, we use two historical examples — the Roman sacking of Jerusalem in 70 AD and the British invasion of the River Plate during the Napoleonic Wars — to demonstrate that the problems of urban warfare are not new, as is often supposed or intimated. These examples serve as an important reminder to practitioners of the centuries of military and strategic wisdom accrued by their predecessors who faced similar dilemmas — and sometimes even solved them. In choosing the examples noted above, we focused only on cases that took place prior to World War I and are well-documented. We excluded numerous cases of besieged cities in which capitulation occurred after the exterior defenses were breached, or where a defending commander surrendered when a breach looked inevitable — a typical occurrence in early-modern European fortress warfare.[10] We also excluded cases where, although significant fighting continued on the streets after the outer defenses had failed, the historical accounts of said fighting were patchy and therefore there was little for us to say about it.[11] Our two examples were chosen because they superbly illustrate the rapid political, economic, and diplomatic impacts of urban warfare. Moreover, because they preceded the advent of the “information age,” which so preoccupies and confounds contemporary analysts, by about two millennia and two centuries, respectively, they serve as particularly apt correctives to the hype that often surrounds the topic of urban warfare today. In the third section, we show how a narrow view of the history of urban warfare, particularly one that is resolutely focused on the experience of one titanic and highly peculiar battle — Stalingrad — distorts perceptions of the problem at hand and its potential solutions. Other World War II battles, and a range of post-1945 conflicts up to the present day, call into serious question the validity of the “lessons” of Stalingrad, such as the tendency for commanders to lose control of the battle, the symbolic resonance of cities that causes politicians to invest greater strategic meaning in them than they ought, the permanent advantages of the defender, the high force ratios necessary to succeed, and the idea that superior weaponry, training, and mobility inevitably become less important or useful in city fighting. The fourth section shifts focus from diagnosis to prescription. Here, we suggest a rather prosaic, albeit fundamental, reform: the substantial upgrading of training protocols, urban warfare facilities, and tactical training systems to allow armed forces to better familiarize themselves with urban warfare, and to practice and experiment in convincing settings that can accommodate large combined-arms teams. The bulk of this section is based on extended visits to a range of such facilities in several countries, as well as interviews with training staff to identify the central problems and best practices. There is no equivalent scholarly research on this subject in the civil sphere, and we suspect, based on our research, in military circles either.[12] [quote id="1"] In the fifth section, we propose an approach to urban operations that we argue is in greater accordance with both the logic of projected force sizes, as compared with the current and imagined size of global megacities, and with our understanding of the best practices of military operations and leadership in all other environments — including simultaneity, tactical boldness, coordinated action of small units, and clarity of intent. The “strongest gang” model, as we call it, is a realistic solution to the problems of urban conflict that cannot be addressed by the current prevalent methods, which are too positively controlled, too manpower-intensive, too cautious, and cede too much initiative to objectively weaker and less capable opponents. In this section, we also discuss several potential contributions of technology to the successful conduct of 21st-century urban operations. Overall, we accept that the reality of demographics and geopolitics means that warfare will increasingly occur in urban environments. Nevertheless, we argue this is not, in itself, a development to be feared. If this represents a change, then it is one of degree not of fundamentals and is manageable with the right mindset — one that is sensitive to both opportunities and threats — and with bold and creative leadership.

The Challenges of Urban Warfare: Political and Tactical Entanglement

War is a “continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means,” wrote Clausewitz,[13] while politics, since the days of Plato’s ideal polis, has been wound up tightly with the affairs of the city. To impose political will upon a group of people through the use of force would seem to require that it be exercised where the people actually live, generate wealth, and conduct collective public life. It is, therefore, important to recognize that the fundamental problem of urban warfare, the one that pervades it from the heights of strategy to the minutiae of house-clearing, is the inextricability of the tactical from the political. Politics dictate what range of tactical options the practitioner can choose against which opponents in all contexts — this is a truism of war as applicable in cities as in rural areas, in cyberspace as well as outer space. For years now, there has been growing skepticism of the utility of the concept of “levels of war,” in which tactics nest hierarchically within operations, which nests within strategy, all of which are superseded by politics. This, essentially, is the essence of the aforementioned “strategic corporal” effect. There is an urge, therefore, to separate these levels for analytical purposes. But this would be a mistake. The urban environment has a tendency to amplify the negative effects of viewing the relationship between politics and tactics as hierarchical, discrete, and unidirectional. According to this manner of thinking, it is possible to rationalize isolating tactics from the study of policy — and sometimes strategy — because the latter two purportedly matter much more. Although there is certainly good cause to believe that, in the long term, great tactics cannot compensate for bad policy, tactics are both the base for and servant of strategy and ought not be left aside.[14] In cities, this is particularly true because the sheer density of people in a highly networked environment magnifies the degree to which politics and tactics are interwoven. Contemporary British doctrine, both in general as well as in regards to urban environments, illustrates this with its emphasis on the concept of “integrated action,” defined as the orchestration and execution of operations “in an interconnected world, where the consequences of military action are judged by an audience that extends from immediate participants to distant observers.”[15] The Limits of Avoiding the City For practically all of history, generals have loathed the prospect of fighting in cities and have sought to avoid it. Sun Tzu advised fighting in cities only if “absolutely necessary, as a last resort.”[16] For 2,500 years, generals have happily agreed with the strategic wisdom of this maxim, whether or not they have read ancient Chinese military philosophy. Even today, while decision-makers acknowledge that they are going to have to fight in an urban environment at some point, when left to their own devices in wargames and experiments, NATO generals elect to bypass cities without hesitation. Urban terrain poses a number of challenges for combat operations. Clausewitz described action in war as being like movement in a resistant medium. The elements that make up the atmosphere of war, he said, were danger, physical exertion, intelligence, and friction.[17] Each of these is supposedly intensified in the city. The profusion of places to hide in this multidimensional environment means engagement typically occurs at very short distances and fire fights are swift and brutal. The continuous high-level alertness required for close action, combined with extreme physical discomfort, is thought to hasten the onset of battle fatigue.[18] Command and control is bedeviled by communications problems caused by buildings that block both vision and radio signals. This, in turn, causes city battles to fragment rapidly into isolated and uncoordinated low-level fighting. If this kind of fighting is hard for professional soldiers who are trained in taking initiative, confident in their equipment, and physically prepared for the rigor involved, then how much harder is it for the less well-trained — or even untrained — conscript or amateur? Meanwhile, the presence of civilians in the urban environment adds a complicating element of friction that pervades every level, from tactics through strategy to policy. Indeed, Alice Hills, author of perhaps the most significant academic study on the challenges of urban warfare, describes the intractability of the problem as moral and normative in nature and therefore a particular concern for liberal states.[19] On the one hand, history suggests that there are conceivably many political, humanitarian, and legal reasons for even pacific liberal states to intervene in foreign cities, such as to conduct a strategic raid on specific facilities (e.g., weapons laboratories), to evacuate noncombatants, or to forestall genocide. (Imagine, for example, a raid on Radio Mille Collines, effectively the command-and-control system of the massacre of the Rwandan Tutsis.) On the other hand, such intervention risks becoming bogged down in a form of warfare that can exact a great toll on civilians and civilian infrastructure. How can commanders maximize their forces’ military effectiveness, which is necessary given the high costs of keeping personnel and equipment in the field, while maintaining domestic and international support in a media-saturated environment, where that support is dependent in large part on keeping casualties and collateral damage below an indeterminate threshold of public acceptability?[20] The 1992–93 American-led U.N. intervention in Somalia remains a textbook example of this problem: It was a humanitarian operation initially that ended ignominiously as a small war following a vicious battle in the streets of Mogadishu in which two American helicopters were shot down, 18 American soldiers were killed, 72 were wounded, and a pilot was captured.[21] [quote id="2"] It is no wonder, then, that when at all feasible the most politically desirable operation is one that involves no troops on the ground at all, no matter what the terrain. The 1999 Kosovo War, which NATO conducted almost entirely from the air, epitomized this line of strategic reasoning. Wesley Clark, the commanding general of the campaign, wrote in his account of the war about the political wrangling that took place over conducting a ground offensive and the likely casualties that would ensue. He remarked,
there was no military answer to the problem of urban warfare in Belgrade. Or the determined resistance of the Serb population along the way. The northern approach included the classic invasion routes, which the Yugoslav military would be well prepared to defend. I knew that the political problems for NATO would be insuperable.[22]
Since the advent of the “War on Terror,” avoiding putting “boots on the ground” has been far more difficult from a tactical perspective, particularly after the invasion of Iraq in March and April 2003. The appetite of all Western governments, including the United States, for the large-scale deployment of conventional forces has diminished markedly since the early days of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a case in point, Britain embarked more or less enthusiastically on the Iraq War, with Parliament voting 412 in favor and 149 against in 2003.[23] However, by August 2013, the Cameron government’s proposal to join American-led air strikes in Syria was defeated narrowly by a vote of 285 to 272. Even so, fully detaching from ongoing conflicts has proven extremely difficult. More recently, Western involvement in wars in the Middle East, and to a lesser extent Ukraine, has primarily involved airpower alongside special forces and small advisory teams in support of local forces — a far more politically palatable approach. The character of operations, however, has still been typified by the attack and defense of fortified locations, or urban areas that can be rapidly fortified (whether deliberately or as a by-product of combat), and operations that unfold over weeks and months, not hours and days. Ukrainian officers, for instance, characterized the months-long defense of the Donetsk Airport — a “serpentine grid of tunnels, bunkers, and underground communications systems” — against rebel forces of the Donbass Republic as a “mini-Stalingrad.”[24] In the Philippines, meanwhile, government forces needed five months to clear a force of about 1,000 Islamic State-affiliated Abu Sayyaf militants from Marawi, a town of 600,000 inhabitants that was significantly damaged in the process.[25] Undoubtedly, what primarily distinguishes cities from other theaters of conflict is the level to which they are intermingled with civilian life. But population centers can only be bypassed for so long in the hope of avoiding a military operation in the midst of a major concentration of noncombatants. At some point, one eventually gets to Baghdad or Mosul, or to Aleppo or Raqqa. Then what? The history of warfare is littered with instances of urban fighting. As the great historian of cities Lewis Mumford put it, war and the city are inextricable: “As soon as war had become one of the reasons for the city’s existence, the city’s own wealth and power made it a natural target.”[26] If you choose to fight “wars amongst the people,” as today’s wars have been described, then you must literally get among them.[27] In the mind of the contemporary Western politician, conflict in the urban environment — getting “amongst the people” — is synonymous with Stalingrad, and, as such, is beyond the public’s tolerance in terms of expenditure of “blood and treasure.” In order for the military to be able to present politicians with a full spectrum of credible and usable options, this assumption needs to be challenged. Currently it is based upon extant military doctrine — and, presumably, on the private advice of generals to policymakers — which says that urban conflict requires an approach that is reliant upon massive firepower and overwhelming manpower. But reports from practitioners at the tactical level and in training establishments, coupled with examples from military history, falsify this thesis. It is wrong — there is a different way.

Nothing Fundamental Has Changed

It is hard to gainsay Hills’ conclusions, particularly with regards to the primacy of politics. And yet, while she is cautious not to overemphasize the novelty of the problems she describes, writing that the “characteristics and tactical constraints of urban operations have remained remarkably consistent over the past 60 years,” because she rejects a longer historical approach, she misses that this statement would have been just as true 2,000 years ago.[28] The challenges of urban warfare that confront this generation of soldiers and statesmen are, for the most part, not new. Even the challenges that might seem new, such as the prevalence of the media, are only superficially different or, at most, an amplified echo of the past. Two examples from history show that governments have long been drawn into faraway urban conflicts with nonstate actors, and found them hard to fight, for reasons including political interconnectedness, media influence, and tactical complexity. Consider first the following scene from Flavius Josephus’ The Jewish War, which recounts a critical battle in the siege of Jerusalem by Roman legions under the command of Titus, son of the emperor Vespasian in the year 70 AD:
Threatening death to any of the populace who would breathe a word about surrender, and butchering all who even spoke casually about peace, they attacked the Romans who had entered. Some confronted them in the streets, some assailed them from the houses; while others, rushing forth without the wall through the upper gates, so disconcerted the guards at the ramparts, that they sprang down from their towers and retreated to their camp. Loud cries arose from those within, who were surrounded by enemies on all sides, and from those without, in alarm for their comrades who had been left behind.   The Jews, constantly increasing in numbers, and possessing many advantages in their knowledge of the streets, wounded many of the enemy, and drove them before them by repeated charges; while the Romans continued to resist mainly from sheer necessity, as they could not escape in mass owing to the narrowness of the breach; and had not Titus brought up fresh succours, all who had entered would probably have been cut down. Stationing his archers at the end of the streets and taking post himself where the enemy was in greatest force, he kept them at bay with missiles. Domitius Sabinus, who in this engagement, as in others, showed himself a brave man, aiding his exertions. Caesar held his ground, plying his arrows incessantly, and checking the advance of the Jews, until the last of the soldiers had retired.[29]
That this battle involved swords and clubs rather than M-4s and AK-47s matters little — just replace “archers” and “arrows” with "close combat attack” and “armed aviation” and the scene has an obvious contemporary resonance. Moreover, the tactics of the Jewish rebels differed little from those of, say, Islamic State insurgents in the months-long battle for Mosul in Iraq. Zealots among Jerusalem’s defenders murdered all moderate Jewish leaders and burnt the city’s dry food supply, which would have fed the population for a year or two, on the logic that it would compel noncombatants to join the fight. In fact, it only compounded the tragedy. More Jews died of the starvation brought on by the zealots than were killed by the Romans in the collective punishment that followed the defeat of the revolt. The wider political complexity of the campaign and its distinct and immediate connections to politics in the Roman capital over 2,300 miles away are equally noteworthy.[30] At the time of the battle, Vespasian had been emperor for just one year and the defeat of a Roman army, especially one commanded by his son, would have greatly undermined his power. Also bear in mind that Flavius Josephus was not an objective historian but rather a hagiographer. Famously described as the “Jewish Benedict Arnold,” he was quite literally owned by Titus and was conscious of the need to preserve and advance the celebrity of his master.[31] Thus, one must read between the lines of this account to see that what it describes is a tactical blunder by Titus, who advanced his troops prematurely through a too-small breach, and was then rescued from disaster by a competent subordinate, in addition to artillery support. In the introduction to her final chapter, “The Logic of Urban Operations,” Hills writes that the most important reason for examining urban battles is that they have the potential to become a critical security issue in the 21st century on account of, inter alia, demographic trends, globalization, and powerful nonstate adversaries. Cities are, moreover, not just politically significant but also economically significant as “base points” in a global web of production and markets, which conflict would disrupt.[32] And yet, the idea that the impact of urban warfare is increasingly strong — whether by resonating powerfully in international politics, causing upheaval in global markets, or impacting the mood of distant populations — has been true for at least two centuries, possibly even two millennia. [quote id="3"] For instance, in late June of 1806, British forces under the command of Adm. Sir Home Popham landed at the Rio de la Plata, Argentina with the aim of capturing Buenos Aires and ultimately seizing one of the greatest and richest Spanish colonies in South America. It was not a strategically planned gambit. In fact, Popham had acted independently on his own judgment as a commander, having convinced himself that the people of the region were “groaning under the tyranny” of Spain and eager for liberation. He also considered it an opportunity to counter Allied setbacks in the European theater — notably Napoleon’s victory at the Battle of Austerlitz in December 1805.[33] But ministers in London, once they learned of the event, thought he had vastly exceeded his authority. Their fury, however, was largely assuaged by the initially agreeable results: A superior Spanish military force was quickly routed at the cost of a handful of British casualties and Buenos Aires was occupied. The then vast sum of $1,086,000 was sent back to Britain by frigate along with six wagon-loads of other booty — primarily Jesuit’s bark (a valuable antimalarial) and mercury. A large quantity of arms and ammunition was also seized from abandoned and surrendered Spanish armories. Financial markets in London soared in anticipation that the good times would continue to roll. Unfortunately, by the time that these treasures had arrived in Britain, and reinforcements had been dispatched, events had already turned decidedly for the worse. While the British certainly did plunder the assets of the deposed Spanish regime, they took some care not to “exasperate” the local population, as counter-insurgency doctrine has wisely advised for over a hundred years.[34] Thus, private property was untouched; the population, which was regarded as liberated rather than conquered, was protected; local government, courts, and tax authorities were permitted to continue as normal; and the place of the Catholic Church in society was left untouched. It was to little avail, however, for two reasons. First, the improvisational nature of the campaign caused even those locals who were happy to see the end of Spanish rule to doubt the long-term intentions of the British, which in turn caused political unrest. Second, Santiago de Liniers y Bremond, a Knight of the Order of Malta in the service of Spain, played upon the unpacified mood of the population to organize a powerful insurgency out of a ragbag of escaped regular soldiers, angry civilians, and thrill-seeking gauchos. The result was a bitter humiliation for Great Britain, which resulted in the court-martial of the officer in charge of operations. Ironically, this was not Popham, who escaped immediate blame by moving on before things came to a head, but Gen. John Whitelocke, who had arrived in May 1807 with a small army of 6,000 troops under orders to recover the worsening situation with another assault on Buenos Aires. The fighting in the capital and the surrounding area proved insurmountably difficult for the British, who discovered that the thick walls and flat roofs of the Spanish colonial urban landscape cut through by narrow alleys provided endless opportunities for ambushes. In scenes reminiscent of Titus’ premature foray into Jerusalem, British soldiers were assailed from the roofs by a great proportion of the population with hand grenades, musket fire, stones, and boiling water, while at nearly every major street corner they were attacked by Spanish cannons loaded with grape-shot, which were stationed behind deep ditches that were reinforced by sharpened stakes. The war has generally been forgotten by Britons, but not Argentinians, for whom it was a precursor to revolution and independent nation-building.[35] It was unquestionably a “hybrid” battle with a mix of regular and irregular modes of warfare.[36] It also included the exploitation of clan, tribal, and illicit networks in order to sustain the insurgent fighting forces. In the final battles on the streets of Buenos Aires, de Liniers achieved the operational and tactical feat of deploying the most primitive arms alongside what were then cutting-edge ones. This is to say nothing of the political complexity of the conflict, which was substantial and wide-ranging. Tactical decisions in the local contest between Spanish colonial rulers, indigenous people, and their British liberators-cum-conquerors resonated very quickly in the distant capitals of London, Madrid, and Paris. Likewise, the effect on financial markets was a powerful factor driving political and military decision-making. There was a media dimension as well: first, in the enthusiastic celebration of Popham — who was acutely conscious of his celebrity — and, second, in the public pillorying of Whitelocke. One of the main conclusions of important scholars like Hills is that, although tactics of urban warfare have changed little, the strategic context has evolved considerably as a result of globalization, demography, and urbanization. And yet, based on examples from history, it would seem that the strategic context has not actually changed in any fundamental way.

"Stalingraditis" and Other Urban Legends

To say that there is little in today’s world that has not been seen or dealt with in the past is not to say that there is nothing new at all. Likewise, to say that present-day strategists exaggerate how much they are affected by the connectedness, complexity, and sheer riskiness of the world relative to their forebears is not to say that they do not face challenges. It is, rather, that strategists today will be better able to deal with such challenges if they are clear-eyed about what is new and what is not, and what lessons can be generalized — so long as they do not sever themselves entirely from the experience and knowledge of the past. In a recent keynote speech on the past, present, and future of urban warfare, the British military historian Antony Beevor, author of numerous works on World War II, including the classic Stalingrad, detailed a number of lessons that can be gleaned from that battle. First, he argued, commanders lose control of the battle more rapidly in urban environments than they do in others — it is, according to Beevor, intrinsically more difficult terrain on which to fight than any other. Second, cities are imbued with a symbolic resonance that makes them dangerous objectives for politicians. This makes them wont to devote more resources to them than their strategic value merits. Third, the defender usually determines the tactics in cities — a key advantage, and one that normally accrues to irregular more so than regular forces. Fourth, fighting in cities consumes far more troops than planners usually imagine while the urban environment diminishes the advantages of superior conventional weaponry, mobility, and training.[37] Beevor concludes that “there is something pitiless about urban warfare.” All of these lessons, including particularly the last one, are surely true of Stalingrad, and, in one form or another, one finds them repeated in British, American, and NATO doctrine.[38] The trouble is, however, that none of these lessons are generalizable, and thus it can be misleading when they are treated as such. The Myth of Intrinsic Difficulty: Is Urban Terrain the Hardest? Beevor claims that the urban environment is intrinsically difficult. This difficulty, however, is neutral, manifesting differently, but with equal impact, upon all sides. It is perhaps truer to say that the urban environment is more difficult to fight in for a commander who is not down at the small-team level. But tactical and operational victories are made up of small-team successes. The commander in charge of a small team can, in real time, take advantage of the multiple approach routes, the variety of possible sources of fire support, and the opportunities for surprise that the environment presents. The closeness of the terrain often allows commanders at this level to get further forward than would otherwise be possible and thus leads to them making rapid decisions with better information. In the urban context, a main benefit of a high-tempo maneuver operation over a methodical firepower-driven one is that the former deprives the defenders of the time to fortify, particularly by employing improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which have proven a difficult challenge for attacking forces, as well as a serious impediment to post-war rebuilding efforts. For instance, in the recent fighting with Islamic State forces in Mosul, Iraq, it was discovered that a single hospital complex had been laced with approximately 1,500 IEDs.[39] In this context, maintaining operational tempo could allow the attacking commander to continue to make military gains and deny the enemy time to place such devices, so long as the political situation is amenable. Moreover, a less firepower-intensive approach is likely to be a factor in maintaining political will and public consent. Nevertheless, small-unit maneuvering in a dispersed manner within cities presents some obvious challenges. These include having fewer safe rear areas and fewer heavily protected routes for supply and reinforcement and medical evacuation. There are, however, technological changes that may significantly alleviate these concerns, as discussed below. [quote id="4"] It is frequently observed that one of the great advantages of operating in “uncluttered” places like deserts, as opposed to cluttered urban centers, is that, whereas the former presents a logistical challenge, the dearth of civilians is an advantage. A German general captured by the British during the North Africa campaign in World War II put it this way: Desert fighting was a “tactician’s paradise and the quartermaster’s nightmare.”[40] This is based, however, on something of a misapprehension — that in environments outside of towns and cities one is not operating among the people. Even in the Libyan deserts, on the tracts of the desolate Sahara, a military commander is still operating amid a civilian population that may exert a direct impact on his operations. One can see this, for example, in the memoirs of Vladimir Peniakoff, one of the most colorful officers of British military history, who was commander of “Popski’s Private Army” — a legendary desert reconnaissance and raiding force in North Africa. Peniakoff described the manner of his operations and planning in this way:
What I like to do is to go myself beforehand over the country and get the feel of the plains, the mountains, and the valleys; the sand, the rocks, and the mud; at the same time, I listen to the local gossip; find out who commands the enemy and what are his pastimes—who my friends are and how far they are prepared to help me and what are the presents that will please. Then, when I come back later with my men to carry out my evil schemes, I can let the plan take care of itself.[41]
In other words, while the presence of civilians in the city is indeed a factor that adds to the complexity of the operating environment, this is also the case in other environments, even ones that seem, at first glance, to be relatively uncluttered. Replace plains, mountains, and valleys with boulevards, streets, and alleys, or sand, rocks, and mud with apartment complexes, shopping malls, and industrial parks, and it does not fundamentally change Peniakoff’s admonition about how to plan and lead a military operation. Though the density of habitation may change, war remains a human endeavor that takes place among people.[42] When it comes to warfare on land, there is no unpeopled place where combat can occur without reference to noncombatants, as though in a gladiatorial ring where bloodied fighters are clearly sequestered from the onlookers.[43] Urban warfare is undoubtedly fraught with serious difficulties, but so too is warfare in every environment. Rote pronouncements of its supremely challenging nature are unhelpful. Rarely are the potential advantages of operating in an urban environment considered. When questioned on this, however, our interlocutors remarked on several such advantages. For one thing, civilian observation and digital connectedness could be an intelligence resource to friendly forces. For another, the wealth of possible routes into and around the city could enable small unit movements and offer plentiful cover and concealment. The relatively short range of engagements can lead to greater visibility of the enemy allowing precision and, therefore, a possible reduction in the need to use indirect fire and a concomitant reduction in collateral damage. Moreover, outflanking the enemy is easier, as is isolating enemy positions. In sporting terminology, it is easier to create the “one-on-ones” that afford the team’s best players the opportunities to use their skills to the team’s advantage. In addition, the presence of the media need not be seen as a bad thing, as it could allow commanders to focus world attention for information operations or deception purposes. Finally, the dependence of some adversaries on one or more urban areas for their own sustainment — logistics, popular support, and so on — are potential centers of gravity that can be attacked. The enormous logistical advantages of operating in proximity to working port facilities was noted frequently by those we interviewed and studied. Indeed, it is striking in speaking to and reading the accounts of commanders of many post-Cold War operations how little they highlight the difficulties of urban environments as compared to other complaints. Problems of logistics, as always, feature prominently. An Australian commander in the 2000 East Timor operation, for example, described how he had to have four transport ships run ashore on the beach at Suai, where engineers cut the hulls open with oxyacetylene torches so that desperately needed supplies could be removed with a front-end loader — a triumph of improvisation but hardly an ideal manner in which to operate.[44] For all the difficulties of operating in urban settings, as long as the city is still functioning to some degree, the opportunities for “living off the land” are significantly greater than in most other environments. Fuel, electricity, water, food, shelter, medical facilities, communications facilities, places where repairs can be done, and the equipment with which to do such repairs are abundant in metropolitan settings — and in short supply outside of them — precisely because of the densely interconnected nature of the city. Triumph of the Lack of Will? On the Symbolic Importance of Cities The evidence surrounding the symbolic importance of cities and its hold on the minds of politicians is also quite mixed. One of the major problems with using Stalingrad as a benchmark is that it was extremely unusual in the strength of its political symbolism. For Stalin and Hitler, both unbridled totalitarian autocrats, the battle was a proxy for a personal and ideological contest — a test not only of each other’s will but of the total national strength they could command. Thus, neither could contemplate retreat or surrender, causing both men to hurl division after division into the cauldron of fire. This has not been the case, however, in more recent urban battles. If Fallujah had been renamed George Bush-ville after the first battle there in 2004, or if Sadr City was renamed Barack Obama City after the Obama administration took over the Iraq War, then a comparison with Stalingrad would perhaps be a bit more apt. The fact is, though, that American and British urban operations in Iraq after 2003 were, on the whole, characterized by a decided lack of sustained political concern as politicians and military-strategic headquarters back home urged caution and retreat on local commanders for fear of costly entanglement. Towns and cities were thus repeatedly cleared, or at any rate temporarily pacified, only to be subsequently abandoned to insurgents. Clearly neither city held particular symbolic importance for the United States or Great Britain. Instead, lack of will has tended to be more typical of urban battles in recent years. It must be said that Britain lately has been more guilty of this than the United States. The reasons why are not terribly mysterious: As the junior partner in the expeditionary campaigns of the “War on Terror,” Britain’s political and military leadership has perceived that it has less skin in the game and less responsibility for the ultimate outcome.[45] The best example of this lack of will is the British occupation of Basra, Iraq, which is described frankly in a vignette in the most recent British Army doctrine. It shows that much of the United Kingdom’s difficulties in southern Iraq stemmed from a lack of political will and an excess of caution in London. In essence, they were quite willing to give up Basra to insurgent control more than once.[46] When looking for an example of how political equivocality and strategic lassitude can exert a baleful influence on tactics in urban operations, it is hard to beat what took place on the morning of Oct. 23, 1983: A truck packed with 12,000 pounds of TNT was driven by a Shiite commando into the headquarters of the 22nd Marine Amphibious Unit in Beirut, where it exploded, killing 241 Americans almost instantaneously. A congressional inquiry into the attack concluded afterward that security had been “inadequate” and that the local commander had made serious errors of judgment. Yet, security was inadequate by design, though not the local commander’s. Taking stronger security measures would have clashed with the diffident political goals of the intervention, according to the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon. Moreover, given that before the attack the facility had been visited by no fewer than 24 generals and admirals, the question arises why the local commander’s putative errors were not remarked upon and rectified.[47] The fact is that the Marines were in a tactically indefensible posture because policymakers decided the political situation required it and generals advised them incorrectly about the risks, or argued inadequately as to their severity. [quote id="5"] For the Marine Corps, the Beirut attack was a major blow — the worst loss of life in a single day it had suffered since the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945. For the United States as a whole, it was an embarrassing setback, but it was not terribly consequential. Indeed, on the day of the attack, President Ronald Reagan signed the order authorizing the military intervention in Grenada.[48] This illustrates something that has typified the West’s “limited wars” since the era of decolonization: that although not always “low intensity” from the point of view of the immediate participants, politicians have always considered it a strategic option to pack up and go home (i.e., to lose), or move on to a different small war. Stalingrad, on the other hand, was unlimited. In fact, it was arguably the most completely committed battle of history’s most total war to date, rivaled only by the Battle of Berlin in the spring of 1945. As an illustration, consider the radio speech delivered by Reichsmarschal Hermann Goering in late January 1942 as the German defenses were collapsing:
[L]ike a mighty monument is Stalingrad… . One day this will be recognized as the greatest battle in our history, a battle of heroes… . We have a mighty epic of an incomparable struggle, the struggle of the Nibelungs. They, too, stood to the last.[49]
Despite Goering’s bombast, there is a kernel of truth to what he said: Stalingrad was undeniably stupendous and practically incomparable. Thus, to employ it as the yardstick by which all urban warfare is measured in perpetuity is deeply problematic. The Myth of the Defensive Advantage: Who Really Determines the Tactics? Good militaries increase in competence as they fight. Learning the hard lessons that a tenacious adversary can teach and armed conflict serves to cement is part of war.[50] For example, one might contrast the battles of Caen and Groningen, the former in June 1944 and the latter in April 1945. Both were urban conflicts and involved the same protagonists — the British and Canadians versus the Germans. Caen was a costly Allied victory, slow and nearly Pyrrhic, with a heavy toll of civilian casualties caused by high-level bombing and artillery barrages. Groningen, on the other hand, was a quick fight. It was decisive and caused few civilian casualties and involved the use of lighter, more discriminate weapons. It was not that the tactics themselves changed much between the two battles, but that they were simply better executed.[51] As a military force increases in tactical proficiency, it is able to secure political objectives without recourse to the kind of overwhelming firepower that destroys the city. Concurrently, as victory comes closer to hand, the minds of politicians turn more toward thoughts of “winning the peace” and thus the military becomes tactically less free to employ destructive measures such as mass aerial bombing and artillery barrages. It is not true, as Beevor argues, that the defender usually determines the tactics employed in urban fighting. There are so many examples to the contrary that, at best, it might be said that this is sometimes the case. Israel, for instance, has repeatedly been successful in determining the tactics in its fights with entrenched Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza at various times since the high point of violence of the Second Intifada in the early to mid-2000s. One oft-cited example is the way the Israelis conducted their attack on the town of Nablus in 2002 by “inverting the map” or “walking through walls … like a worm that eats its way forward” — using roads as barriers rather than thoroughfares, and using the interior of buildings as roads rather than a series of impermeable walls.
We interpreted the alley as a place forbidden to walk through, and the door as a place forbidden to pass through, and the window as a place forbidden to look through, because a weapon awaits us in the alley, and a booby trap awaits us behind the doors. This is because the enemy interprets space in a traditional, classical manner, and I do not want to obey this interpretation and fall into his traps.[52]
The reference to interpretation and reinterpretation of space shows the influence of postmodern and post-structuralist theory, which was popular in Israeli military thinking at the time. This was unfortunate because it obscured what otherwise was solid advice to commanders thinking about urban operations.[53] The fact is that no army that has fought in an urban environment for much time interprets space in a “traditional” manner. It adapts. It quickly learns to keep infantry off narrow streets that are easily raked by fire from entrenched positions, and to move forward by “mouseholing,” using the outer walls and roofs of buildings as natural cover under which to approach enemy positions and blow them up. Arguably, no army knows this as well as Israel’s. After all, one of the preeminent examples of successful urban warfighting comes from Israel’s War of Independence. In just six days of intense fighting beginning on April 26, 1948, a lightly armed, 600-strong force of Irgun — a Jewish paramilitary-cum-terrorist group headed by Menachem Begin, who later became prime minister — dislodged an entrenched and well-armed Arab military force more than twice its size from the city of Jaffa. The Irgun then defended its gains against counterattacks by a much larger British combined-arms force, which had the benefit of naval gunfire and air support.[54] The example of Jaffa contradicts the argument that urban warfare necessarily favors the defense over the offense — the Irgun was quite successful at both in the same battle. It also raises questions about the argument, discussed below, that urban operations are necessarily highly demanding in terms of manpower given that the Irgun were decidedly outnumbered.[55] The defending force can only determine the tactics of the attacking force so long as the attacker does not put the defender under cognitive as well as physical pressure. A steady, deliberate approach at the tactical level allows the enemy time to orient himself to the threat and then bring assets to bear to counter it. The attacker is then forced to win through the combination of weight and accuracy of firepower. The object of the attacking force ought to be to put the defending force into a state of material surprise, a condition in which, even if it is aware of the presence of the attacker, it will be unable to prepare accordingly for contact.[56] The deliberate approach is expensive in materiel if not manpower and can kill many civilians and heavily damage infrastructure. However, if the attacking force overwhelms the defending force’s ability to make decisions at the lowest level through speed, aggression, and simultaneous action in as many places as possible at the same time, then the defender will be unable to choose the tactics. It will be too busy trying to survive to dictate the terms of any engagement. Numbers in Urban Warfare: Force Competence Trumps Force Size There is perhaps no idea about urban warfare that is more firmly fixed than the idea that urban operations are unusually manpower-intensive. Towns and cities are typically thought to have the potential to absorb enormous numbers of soldiers — even if they are undefended. This stems, it is argued, from the size and geographical and architectural complexity of the environment. Guiding a force through all the potential bottlenecks of a city is time-consuming and difficult, while guarding against potential attacks at vulnerable locations and warding off re-infiltration of cleared areas soaks up troops.[57] The Soviet General Staff is reputed to have calculated on the basis of its experience during World War II that the optimum ratio of attacker to defender in urban environments was 10 to one. This would be a major impediment to anyone contemplating fighting in a city, and is a clear case of Stalingrad-itis. Other major battles of the war, however, would point to an opposite, or at any rate more nuanced, conclusion. First, in October 1944, two battalions of the American 26th Infantry Division (with armor and engineering attachments) soundly defeated a much larger entrenched German force of 5,000 troops in nine days of fighting in the city of Aachen.[58] Seventy-five Americans were killed and the German force that had been ordered by Hitler to fight to the last man was essentially wiped out. Second, in April 1945, elements of the 2nd Canadian Division defeated a German force of equal size that was trying to hold on to the Dutch city of Groningen. In that case, only 100 civilians were killed alongside 43 Canadians and approximately 150 Germans — a remarkable feat given that the civilian population was present throughout the fierce fighting.[59] Finally, also in April 1945, a battalion of the 6th Gurkha Rifles, supported by tanks of the King’s Hussars, defeated a large, well-equipped, well-led, and highly experienced force from the German 9th Parachute Division that was holding the small northern Italian town of Medicina. The German unit also had tank and artillery support. In a short, decisive battle lasting a few hours, much of it hand-to-hand, in which tanks blasted holes through the walls of structures through which the Gurkhas advanced, 100 Germans were killed, while the British lost only seven men.[60] Each of these instances featured unorthodox tactics; aggressive, rapid combined-arms action; and close-quarter fighting in which the allied troops had to guard against civilian casualties. And yet, in each, the attacking side prevailed, at less cost to itself than the defender, and (with the partial exception of Aachen) without massive damage to the civilian infrastructure, let alone the kind of wanton slaughter of noncombatants that was seen in Stalingrad.[61] More recent examples similarly suggest that the assumption of the high demands of manpower in urban operations is exaggerated. In early April 2003, for instance, while pundits were predicting a protracted and bloody siege of Iraq’s capital and the Iraqi government spokesman was declaring that there were no American troops in the city, tanks and armored personnel carriers of the 2nd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division were conducting “thunder runs,” blasting their way down Baghdad’s main thoroughfares.[62] Until this point, it had been widely supposed that armored vehicles could not successfully operate in urban environments. This was largely based on the defeat dealt to Russian mechanized forces in late December 1994 and early January 1995 by Chechen secessionist fighters in Grozny. [quote id="6"] The Chechens used “swarms” of loosely coordinated, highly capable small units to ambush Russian columns with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns in the canyons created by multistory tower blocks lining the city’s thoroughfares. Two mechanized brigades were all but destroyed, with at least 200 armored vehicles burnt up and 1,500 Russian troops killed.[63] The superiority of the weaponry of the Russian forces was diminished and the mobility of their armor proved to be fragile and contingent. And yet, Baghdad, a much larger and equally dense city, was captured in April 2003 by an armored force comprising around 1,000 men, suffering only a handful of casualties in the process. Consider also the 1st Brigade Combat Team, which was responsible for the city of Ramadi in Iraq from 2005 to 2006. Ramadi is four times larger than Fallujah, where a year earlier heavy operations by the U.S. Marine Corps consumed far more than the resources of one brigade in two major battles. Nevertheless, the end result was more or less positive: At a cost of 83 American lives, the city was cleared of al-Qaeda in Iraq insurgents, 1,500 of whom were killed. First, insurgents in the city were isolated from external support to the maximum extent possible by checkpoints on major transport routes. Then, neighborhoods were cleared one by one in operations normally starting with the rapid fortification of small combat outposts from which small-unit actions would be conducted. Meanwhile, the pacified areas were gradually handed over to Iraqi police. The techniques employed in the Ramadi operations were extraordinarily time-consuming — the campaign took nine months. But they had the effect of keeping al-Qaeda in Iraq off balance. 1st Brigade Combat Team was ordered to “Fix Ramadi, but don’t do a Fallujah,” and that is what it did. This goal was achieved, moreover, without the evacuation, voluntary or otherwise, of the civilian population.[64] Military force can create the minimum conditions to allow normal civilian life to continue, by killing, capturing, demoralizing, or deterring insurgents[65] — but the effect is temporary. For it to take hold requires the emergence of good government, administration, and policing. To say that this is difficult would be an understatement, as the last 18 years have shown. It is wrong, however, to place the blame for the confusion one sees in contemporary counter-insurgency theory and practice on the peculiarities of the urban environment. The key problem is not the urban terrain and the extraordinary demand for large numbers of troops that it is supposed to cause. Rather, as we have discussed already, it is about the policy objective: What is the political effect that the military force is supposed to achieve in the city? And is it actually achievable by military force, whatever its size? When it comes to the numbers and effectiveness of weapons, the most important thing is the tactical aptitude and leadership qualities of the combat forces involved. In this respect, the Russian military of the mid-1990s was staggeringly bad compared to the Chechen irregulars they faced, who were highly motivated, skilled, and well equipped.[66] In the case of Baghdad in 2003, the roles were reversed: The attacking American marines and soldiers were supremely capable and their boldness paid off against a demoralized, half-routed, and uncoordinated enemy that was decidedly back on its heels. The years that followed showed that, while urban operations are far from easy, the challenges they pose are not insurmountable.

Sweat Saves Blood: Training in the Right Environment

The lessons of Iraq notwithstanding, Krulak is still fundamentally right that warfare is likely to be even more centered on urban environments in the future. Western politicians will continue to have the urge to intervene militarily in other countries for one reason or another, whether good, bad, or imagined. How then to give Western forces the ability to operate confidently in cities, and to innovate and develop new methods that maintain and extend the gap in competence between them and their likely opponents? One part of the answer is prosaic, but nevertheless vital: training. In January and February 2001, the U.S. Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory conducted a series of battalion-level urban warfare exercises dubbed “Project Metropolis,” building on earlier experiments in the 1990s that had highlighted alarmingly high casualty rates among friendly forces in such environments. The experiments showed that the high initial rate of casualties experienced by Marine units dropped sharply after they had received hard and realistic training.[67] The report detailed a number of other technological and tactical improvements, but the gist was that training made the difference. In nearly all of the interviews with British unit commanders conducted for this research, whether at the Infantry Battle School's Urban Warfare Instructor’s Course or with the urban warfare group at the Land Warfare Centre, we heard words to this effect: “[A]t first my battalion/company/platoon was alarmingly poor at urban warfare but after training in the right environment I was much more confident.”[68] It is not that new training methods or new techniques are needed per se, because the old methods and techniques are still important. It is rather that training in the relevant methods requires the correct environment. It is the training environment that allows commanders to simulate the scale and complexity of the challenges troops will face in an urban battle. How the actual training is done depends on the commander organizing it. British commanders, for instance, are encouraged to brainstorm down to the junior noncommissioned officer level, then run their units through an exercise. After that, the operative scenario is changed slightly to ensure that soldiers are not “learning the range” but instead are learning to understand and solve the dynamic underlying problems. Then the exercise is run again. Finally, the exercise is run once more without leaders present, to ensure that the unit as a whole has absorbed the relevant lessons and is able to act accordingly in an organic manner. Far less ideal is when lessons are conducted straight out of a pamphlet (i.e., in accordance with a checklist and a generic scenario authored by someone other than the commander). How these exercises are run is also contingent on factors relating to the particular scenario at hand — which is dependent, in turn, on ever-shifting complexities of the real world — and the character and capabilities of the units involved. But regardless, having the right environment in which to train is the most important factor. As for what is the “right” environment, based on our interviews it comes down to three factors: authenticity, scale, and recoverability of lessons. Does the training area look — and ideally feel, sound, and smell — like the real thing? Is it sophisticated enough to accurately simulate the effects of various weapons? What feedback is being given to the soldier who is “hit”? Does he or she experience minor pain or an inconvenience or simply a loss of pride from being defeated? The instant and often uncomfortable result of using modified personal service weapons firing paint pellets accurate up to at least 100 feet sharpens the mind. Increasing the variety and range of the weapons being simulated or using a different feedback method would likely pay huge dividends. Can exercises be recorded and played back (as, for example, one might see in some video games), so that all commanders can learn from mistakes and successes, their own as well as others? Is the environment big enough for large units to practice macro-level combined arms and support functions simultaneously, not just micro-individual or small-unit battle drills? Urban Warfare Training: International Comparison Few countries possess facilities approaching the ideal standards. Although it has a large number of small sites for practicing close-quarter battle, the United States currently has no facility for training large units in realistic urban environments.[69] Likewise, Britain’s urban training areas are generally considered inadequate by its users — too small and too much like a central European village, the sort of urban environment the army envisaged it would need to fight in when they were built in the 1980s. There is a mock Afghan village in the Stanford Training Area in Norfolk, U.K., run by the Operational Training Advisory Group, which is an up-to-date and generally convincing portrayal of operating conditions in Helmand province. But it does not pretend to approximate the conditions of a city.[70] France has very good facilities at CENZUB in Sissonne, which features a large number of well-designed buildings of various types, and a standing opposition force able to perform a variety of “enemy force” roles: regular, irregular, and hybrid. A U.S. Marine Corps senior noncommissioned officer who visited the facility in the summer of 2017 was particularly impressed by the relative degree of seriousness with which the French treated urban training, remarking,
A significant aspect of this quality training is that the OpFor [Opposition Force] is staffed with quality soldiers who plan and fight with the will to win. I observed the OpFor actually “winning the battle” on several occasions. In a sense, this training has an element of “free play” in that while scripted in a way, the CENZUB staff creates conditions for free thinking on both sides.[71]
Britain has a degree of access to CENZUB in accordance with the 2010 Lancaster House Treaty on defense and security cooperation between the two countries, which could offset the relatively low quality of its own facilities. Certainly, the British soldiers and commanders with whom we have spoken who have trained there are very positive about the experience. However, when defense budgets are under pressure, savings are often found by cutting travel alongside other activities. CENZUB is only useful if you can get there. The best existing urban warfare training facility is in Israel’s Negev desert on the Tze’elim army base. Nicknamed “Baladia,” the Arabic word for “city,” the training area was built in 2005 in part by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at a cost of $45 million. It consists of around 6oo different buildings, including five mosques, a casbah, a clinic, a town hall, and an eight-story apartment building. The environment provides a highly realistic simulation of a Middle Eastern town, right down to a sound and pyrotechnic system able to recreate the ambient noises of normal civilian life (e.g., calls to prayer, music, road noise) as well as very convincing indirect fire attacks and IED blasts. The whole facility is controlled through a central monitoring station that can track and record all elements of large units through exercises for after-action review.[72] As a testament to the authenticity of Baladia, while one of us was writing up notes in a Tel Aviv bar after a visit to the facility, the bartender, an Israeli Defense Force reservist, recognized the crude sketch of the facility seen below and remarked that he had spent many weeks in training there. In his words, after a few days on exercise there it was hard sometimes to tell the difference between Baladia and actual operations in Gaza, where he had seen combat as a sharpshooter.  

“Baladia” camp, Tze’elim Israeli Defense Forces training area, Oct. 21, 2015. (Image courtesy of the authors)

  Germany is nearing completion of an urban warfare training area at Schnöggerssburg in Saxony-Anhalt, which will rival Baladia in scale and sophistication. It includes a range of building types set in neighborhoods including an “old town,” a shanty town, a light industrial area, a railway station, and an airport.[73] However, the key innovation of this facility is the “Legatus” simulation system developed by the weapons and engineering company Rheinmetall AG. In addition to recording exercises as described above, it can purportedly accurately model the effect of weapons fired externally on targets inside buildings or otherwise obscured by cover.[74] If true, this would represent a major advancement over existing optical laser-based training systems, which work well in relatively open terrain, where there is limited cover, but fail in cluttered urban environments where cover is plentiful and varies in ballistic resistance. Although most Russian bases, like American and British ones, usually include just a few buildings, occasionally ruins, in which small units practice urban combat drills, Russia is investing substantially in new facilities.[75] At the Mulino base near Nizhny Novgorod, for instance, the new 333rd Combat Training Center operates a range of sophisticated training simulators and a “battle town,” which is said to be large enough to accommodate a full battalion on exercise.[76] Additionally, the Chechen provincial government operates on behalf of the federal Russian army an impressively large and thoughtfully planned facility that is nearly 400 hectares in size and includes a range of building sizes. Like CENZUB, it features a permanent cadre of trainers with extensive practical experience with urban combat. However, the facility is reserved for Spetznaz units (Russian Special Operations Forces) exclusively and is almost entirely focused on counter-terrorism operations, thus its benefits are not available to Russian general-purpose forces.[77] Lessons Learned and Not Learned in Urban Warfare Training Whatever the environment, soldiers must be taught to outthink the adversary, to get inside the enemy’s decision-action cycle using violence and tempo and then stay there, because keeping the enemy on its heels, reeling backward and struggling just to survive, is universally recognized as key to a successful operation. “The battle always goes to the quickest,” was how the famous German general, Erwin Rommel, once put it.[78] Yet, whereas most Western armies have plenty of big spaces with varied natural terrain in which to experiment and practice how to do these things, the same is not true with regard to urban environments. Despite the fact that most of the soldiers that make up modern armies themselves live in cities, command and training establishments treat city fighting distinctly differently — they are more risk-averse and less bold, more rule-bound and less imaginative, and ultimately less able to innovate. British soldiers, for example, are told from the moment training begins that they are part of the most professional fighting force in history, that they are the best equipped, best trained, and best supported soldiers in the world, and that they need not fear anyone, or any environment. This message changes, however, during the few days of urban warfare training they are allocated as part of their six-month Combat Infantryman’s Course.[79] Soldiers are told that in other environments the use of initiative is not only tolerated but positively encouraged. However, in the urban environment, they are discouraged from aggressively pursuing an enemy who is almost certainly less well trained and equipped. The soldier is taught to fear the threats of a fast tempo — isolation, outflanking, a reduction in the fire support that can be brought to bear — but not taught to embrace these things as opportunities that can work in his or her favor. [quote id="7"] An example from the American forces also illustrates this curiously hidebound attitude. It is widely agreed that one of the most effective pieces of equipment in the arsenal of the urban counter-insurgency in Iraq was the collection of concrete barriers of varying sizes, called “T-walls” on account of their cross-sectional appearance.[80] Most famously, T-walls were a key element of the 2008 Battle of Sadr City, a large Shiite suburb of Baghdad, where they were used effectively to enable friendly force maneuver. Isolating operational areas with rapidly deployable walls deprived the insurgents of mobility, concealment, support, and initiative. As a RAND study of the battle concluded, “Concrete enlisted time on the side of the counterinsurgent,” which is quite a remarkable accomplishment.[81] For all its success, though, the method of deploying the barriers was extremely ad hoc, relying on civilian top-hooking cranes hired by the day, which needed to be unhooked from the blocks by hand by a military engineer who was exposed to fire in the process.[82] Eleven years later, it is still ad hoc: There have been no changes to any systems or equipment sets, such as the number of cranes assigned to engineer or maneuver units. There is no doctrine for emplacing concrete barriers or for the consideration of logistic packages that include concrete walls. And the technique for their emplacement is not practiced in training centers.[83] Why not change in response to what seems to be a significant lesson of modern warfare?[84] One area where the training of soldiers is being adjusted for the urban environment is physical conditioning. Both the American and British armed forces, among others, have shifted the emphasis of physical training away from the high endurance forced march toward developing all around stronger soldiers who are trained in the sort of repeated anaerobic bursts of activity typically required in urban operations, like hauling themselves, their equipment, and perhaps wounded comrades, over walls and through windows.[85] Still, more could be done. To prepare a soldier for urban warfare, he or she also needs to conceive of moving through the city quite differently than most civilians — to think like an urban explorer, the sort of person who is as happy moving through service tunnels and across rooftops as on sidewalks and roads.[86] Armed forces have long recruited directly, or otherwise sought as trainers or guides, the likes of poachers and backwoodsmen for their specialist fieldcraft skills. Why should the urban environment be any different?[87] Urban warfare is not intrinsically more difficult than other forms of warfare. It creates certain challenges but at the same time creates opportunities. The ability to overcome the former and exploit the latter rests ultimately on the quality of training. To return to Rommel, whom we quoted earlier, the kind of quick and fluid action that he sought in his troops begins long before the fight:
The commander must always strive to make his troops aware of the latest in tactical theory and developments, with a view to learning and applying the practical experience on the battlefield. …The best care of troops is founded in good training, as this reduces casualties.[88]
What is required to realize this is twofold: first, training facilities that are big enough for large combined-arms units with supporting logistic, medical, and intelligence elements, and realistic enough to approximate real-world battle conditions; and second, a mindset among those training soldiers in urban warfare that tells soldiers they can adapt to and thrive in this environment as well as in any other.

Tempo, Pressure, Pursuit: The Strongest Gang

Western armies have a longstanding habit of seeking solutions to tactical and strategic problems in technology because this plays to the strengths of Western countries. In a March 2017 NATO urban warfare game, for instance, the teams played with 39 different hypothetical and actual technologies. These included: various enhancements to C2ISR (command, control, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance), improving the ability of friendly forces to see and understand the operational environment in real time in complex detail; a range of autonomous weapons and logistics systems to reduce the exposure of soldiers to the highest risks; several measures to improve mobility and force protection; and some concepts for helping commanders to better influence the information environment.[89] Many, if not all, of these technologies and ideas could prove useful and will soon be or are already available. More important than changes in technology, however, are changes in how urban operations are conducted generally, something with which the British and American armies are already experimenting. We will deal with these first before looking further at developments in C2ISR and logistics. Combined arms operations, including the use of armor, are likely to continue to have a significant role in any future major urban conflict. We would not seek to suggest that light forces can, or indeed should, be the sole answer to the problem. As ever, force packages should be configured to deal with the threat presented by the enemy. However, regular force tactics must evolve. In a world containing urban clusters of up to 150 million people, saturating a city with soldiers cannot be the answer — as was prescribed by old field manuals and doctrine.[90] The numbers simply will not add up. What is needed is a substantial shift in thinking from extant, industrial-era, positive-control-oriented approaches, to one in which the regular force is simply the strongest gang in a given area. The key to fighting in the morass of the urban environment is not necessarily using divisional-level maneuvering to shatter an enemy general’s plan, but successfully overwhelming the adversary’s cognitive abilities at the team and individual level — all in an effort to achieve a given policy aim. The army fighting in this context should seek to create a thousand small outflanking maneuvers together to generate the conditions to destroy their enemy’s ability to put together a response. Beyond being an efficient method of killing the enemy, this approach could allow the attacking force to gain geographically distinct, localized control in a short timeframe. This would, of course, require enough soldiers to achieve multiple, simultaneous actions and in so doing create a situation complex enough to overwhelm the enemy’s ability to comprehend it. But it would also require commanders at all levels to have the courage to allow their subordinates to seize opportunities as they are created. To make the best use of the advantages regular soldiers have over their irregular and less well-trained adversaries, conventional military thinking must be turned on its head. At an individual level, regular soldiers are more lethal than their irregular adversaries, are in better physical condition, shoot straighter, and are from a military culture that (in theory) regards initiative as a key criterion for professional advancement. Put simply, Western soldiers have numerous advantages over the enemy. To focus only on their disadvantages is ceding the psychological high ground before the first shot has been fired. Currently, Western soldiers are likely to be part of a force that is loath to let them use those advantages because the politicians that control that force are often uncertain as to the value of the prize, which makes them risk-averse. It has long been a truism of military history, as observed earlier, that no amount of tactical acumen can make up for defective strategy. But now it is worse than that even — bad policy actively drives bad tactics, while making strategy largely irrelevant. Even the best fighting force in the world, if it is deployed statically and is permanently restrained from being proactive, is still eminently vulnerable to a fanatic in a bomb vest, with all the strategic impacts that that entails. It is ironic that in the pursuit of the laudable goal of limiting risk, specifically casualties to their own forces and to noncombatants, governments dictate strategies and prescribe tactics that, in practice, increase the risk and likely predetermine failure.[91] At the command level, the “maneuvrist approach” is the first tenet of the British Army’s philosophy for operations and a frequent reference point for allied armies.[92] Applying this philosophy in the urban environment demands that commanders fight the urge to control in real time. Control measures are essential, but they need to be simple, robust, and as unrestrictive as possible. The fragmenting tendencies of the city require everyone to be comfortable operating in the pursuit of a well-articulated goal while not requiring minute-by-minute direction. Perhaps being the strongest gang is most similar to how naval doctrine conceives of sea control — interventions that are limited in time and scale of ambition and are characterized by a high degree of ruthless, independent action. The current doctrine of strict control measures and positive control is no longer entirely fit for purpose, fixed as it is in the ground-holding concepts of land warfare. The underpinning logic of this doctrine is twofold. First, it is generally still supposed that urban battles involve the use of massed artillery to buy the time and space to maneuver and cause the maximum possible destruction of the enemy’s combat power before any attempt is made to engage in direct combat. Second, the lack of visibility and the fluidity of the battle make it very difficult to discern friend from foe. In an effort to avoid friendly fire and civilian casualties, therefore, commanders are wont to impose positive control upon their subordinates, requiring them to seek authorization for firing their weapons or moving. However, these concerns should be of decreasing importance. Western armed forces are unlikely to employ overwhelming firepower in a congested battlespace where there are so many noncombatants, because a) in most conceivable contingencies it would exceed the limits of political acceptability, and b) in most instances there are viable, or better, alternatives. Notably, technological advances in the form of precision-fire weapons supported by unmanned aerial vehicles reduce the requirement for conventional artillery, even if they do not replace them altogether. It is helpful to reflect on the remarks made half a century ago by the Brazilian Marxist revolutionary Carlos Marighella, who wrote what was essentially a gangster warfighting manual dressed up with ideological claptrap:
The urban guerrilla must possess initiative, mobility, and flexibility, as well as versatility and a command of any situation. Initiative especially is an indispensable quality. It is not always possible to foresee everything, and the urban guerrilla cannot let himself become confused, or wait for instructions. His duty is to act, to find adequate solutions for each problem he faces, and to retreat. It is better to err acting than to do nothing for fear of making a mistake.[93]
The truth of the matter is that this perfectly sensible tactical advice to the urban guerrilla is just as pertinent now to the regular Western soldier. Marighella and his followers and admirers were never so numerous or powerful as to be able to physically dominate the entirety of the cities in which they chose to operate. Neither is any Western army up to such a task without an extraordinary concentration of effort that is politically implausible and therefore strategically tenuous. The Technological Contribution: C2ISR and Logistics Before moving to our conclusion, it is worth dwelling briefly on the existing and likely impacts of technology on urban warfare, starting with C2ISR, as it is both an expansive and elusive subject, and its effects on the battlefield are pervasive and indirect. A main point we wish to stress, however, is that technology should be an enabler of the strongest gang theory — allowing dispersed operations of the sort idealized above. In practice, technology is too often an impediment when it is employed to reinforce a top-down, positive control-oriented command model that squelches small unit initiative. Technology is important, but it can become a problem when you let it drive the cart, as it were. Moreover, as we have stressed in other respects, it can be a neutral factor that affects all belligerents the same, for better or worse. For example, in some ways, technological developments in this field have seriously benefited irregular forces. For example, in addition to their extensive use of IEDs while fighting the Iraqi Army, Islamic State forces also employed vehicle-borne IEDs (VBIEDs) as a precision weapon, including armored variants. These were used in combination with other weapons. What allowed them to operate in this manner was the group’s relatively sophisticated C2ISR system, which included modified, off-the-shelf drones. With the aerial perspective afforded to them by such devices, Islamic State commanders were able to control and direct multiple VBIED attacks over a large area, including on moving columns or columns that had briefly halted. In response, Iraqi units were forced to construct ditches and other barriers around themselves and throughout the city to slow and control the threat.[94] Ultimately, all major road movements would be accompanied by a bulldozer on a flatbed truck. When forced to halt, instead of simply setting out pickets and heavy weapons pointed in the direction of potential attack, the bulldozer would be used to dig a ditch and berm enclosure, thus providing a good measure of defense against truck and car bombs.[95] [quote id="8"] There are many advantages to operating in such a manner, including fewer civilian casualties, as potentially jittery soldiers are less likely to open fire on unidentified vehicles approaching their perimeter. The disadvantages, though, are significant: For one thing, it cannot work without wrecking whatever civilian infrastructure is present, such as sewers, water mains, utility cables, and road surfaces. Conducting such an operation in an urban setting, when garnering and maintaining the good will of the local population is a main objective, is very challenging. Some potential solutions are already emerging in military engineering conferences and in the marketing brochures of firms selling defensive barriers and counter-mobility systems, the latter very often focused on changes to urban infrastructure for domestic counter-terrorism purposes.[96] One of these firms, Kenno, a Finnish manufacturer of laser-welded, steel-sandwich components, has, with the Finnish army, developed what is essentially a surface-mounted, reusable, modular fortress that can be assembled without specialist tools by a small team in a few hours.[97] What the above illustrates is that changes in civilian technologies — including robotics and microelectronics, miniaturization of batteries, and communications — enabled a nonstate actor, the Islamic State, to acquire one of the primary advantages of airpower (i.e., aerial reconnaissance) at a fraction of the cost of an air force. This, in turn, has caused the regular forces operating against the group to reinvent technologies and tactics that would have been recognizable to a Roman legionary constructing a marching fort in hostile territory at the end of a day’s march. It has also required regular forces to develop their own new techniques for utilizing new technologies, allowing them to operate in smaller teams in a more dispersed manner. For instance, at a recent conference of urban warfare specialists in New York, a senior officer highlighted the need to constantly develop new techniques while recounting an observation made to him by a young Australian special forces officer working with Iraqi forces in the fight against the Islamic State in 2017: “The most effective weapon on the current battlefield is a joint and inter-agency-enabled combined arms team with an armed ISR platform (i.e., a ‘drone’) flying above.”[98] Similarly, in a workshop on conflict in urban environments which we attended in Britain, a London-based company showcased a civilian technology that it had developed for creating precise 3D-renderings of urban infrastructure using laser-scanning, which allowed them to be experienced in virtual reality. The military applications of this for planning, simulation, and training are significant, if it can be made robust enough for the field, and if the scanning devices are light enough to be deployed on an unmanned aerial vehicle. The first question the senior officer in the room asked was how close to real time these simulations could be delivered.[99] The apprehensions that animated both senior officers noted above are consistent with those that pertain in any environment. Commanders want to have intimate knowledge of the terrain, including where their own forces are or will be, where their enemy is and may be going, and what their intentions are (such as they can be gleaned). Additionally, they want this information in a form that they can, quite literally, walk through with their subordinate commanders during the planning phase of an operation — and for all of this to happen more swiftly and accurately than for the opponent. Peniakoff would have asked for the same thing, as would have Wellington, or Marlborough, or any of the great captains of history all the way back to Alexander the Great. Developments in C2ISR seem to be making that more possible in the city than previously thought. Clearly, when forces are operating in relatively small numbers in a dispersed manner in a city in upheaval, there will be concerns about the security of supply chains. Technology may have some useful answers here also, which are worth discussing in a bit more detail. Consider, for instance, that NASA and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration have recently initiated the Urban Air Mobility Grand Challenges, modeled partly on the DARPA Grand Challenges that began experimenting with autonomous ground vehicles more than a decade ago. The main thrust of this effort is to alleviate a civilian problem, specifically the traffic jams that plague life and commerce in big cities, through the development of a new class of air vehicles that will bypass congestion by flying over it. “I happen to believe that this is a revolution coming in aviation,” were the words of one of the NASA officials involved — a revolution that has significant military impact too.[100] If the head of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Office can say that he is looking forward to the age of autonomous air taxis and Domino’s is already experimenting with the aerial drone delivery of pizzas fresh from its ovens to its customers’ backyards, then it stands to reason that urban military logistics, from resupply through medical evacuation, are likewise set for a shake-up.[101] Urban air mobility may have started with a civilian preoccupation with the frustrations of commuting and the perceived need for just-in-time delivery of everything from machine parts to snacks, but its potential military applications are significant. Accepting Risk, Avoiding Self-Defeat The essential point here is that many of the perceived problems of urban warfare are, in fact, self-imposed. They emerge from a constraint on the way military force is used together with the growing capability for real-time, friendly-force tracking, which reduces the risk of soldiers accidentally attacking their own side. Yet, constraining soldiers too tightly also reduces their ability to maximize their chances of victory against a determined enemy. The solution is to ruthlessly and efficiently apply the maneuvrist approach at the tactical level. Senior commanders must become comfortable with formulating a plan and then trusting in the skill of their most junior subordinates to see that plan succeed. Commanders at all levels must see the urban battlefield as a series of disparate and lightly connected nodes of activity.[102] The apogee of this approach would be for small groups of soldiers, whose activities are lightly coordinated and de-conflicted, to exert pressure upon the adversary in multiple places at the same time. Each small team would be given the freedoms and the resources to allow it to overwhelm the adversary through superior skill, tactics, and equipment. [quote id="9"] The reticence on the part of Western armies to accept an approach that is distinctly less oriented toward positive control, where local commanders are freer to maneuver more boldly and aggressively, accepting a higher degree of political risk, is based on admirable concerns. Senior commanders are uncomfortable with what could be seen as abandoning the individual soldier to a fight that pits him against his adversary. In this approach, the commander would have to effectively wash his hands of the ability to affect the outcome once the soldier has made contact with the enemy. Its potential benefits, however, are numerous. For starters, it produces less actual — as opposed to perceived — risk to the soldier because a fractured and retreating enemy is less able to coordinate resistance than one that is continually given time and space in which to reorganize and to evolve new tactics.[103] It also reduces the demand for indirect (i.e., non-precision) fire. It is a methodology that maximizes the strengths of a well-trained and equipped force and minimizes the time spent fighting in places where people actually live in dense concentrations. While the “strongest gang” approach does render an attacking force vulnerable to counter-tactics from the enemy, this will only be an issue if that force is not very effective. The assumption that this would be the case is a disappointing and self-defeating foundation from which to make military decisions and shows a disturbing lack of trust down the chain of command. Applying multiple points of pressure to the enemy would allow a force to achieve the mission while affording the commander the opportunity to judge where and how to commit resources to exploit success. There is little here that should offend or frighten modern commanders. Boldness, simultaneity, coordinated action, and the like are principles of combat that have long been taught and applauded in every other tactical environment. Why not the city?


The urban environment is a challenging setting in which to fight — as are all environments. Undoubtedly, the key constraint is the potential intermingling of civilians and civilian infrastructure with combat operations. Yet, civilians may be evacuated, limiting their exposure to harm, and it is sometimes possible to fight in a way that mitigates collateral damage, even when civilians are present throughout the battle. Unequivocally, significant political consequences may follow from a soldier pulling the trigger. But history and the experience of recent urban operations show that soldiers and commanders — properly trained and equipped — can act judiciously and achieve the goals of their mission despite the odds seeming to be against them. Military operations invariably have an impact on the urban landscape — even small arms can be devastating to structures — and there is no straightforward, correct answer to whether and to what extent it is acceptable to damage a city in pursuit of a political objective. It depends on many factors — military necessity and justness of cause, in particular — and the answer may vary even within the same conflict. Take for example operations in northwest Europe against Germany during World War II. Allied generals faced very different political strictures on tactics at the end of the campaign than they did at the beginning. Critics exaggerate the impact on the city when they speak of combat operations “killing the city” and of “urbicide,” purportedly a renascent war strategy that targets the “destruction of buildings qua representatives of urbanity.”[104] In reality, there are no major cities that have been destroyed by war. Groningen and Aachen — and even Berlin, Stalingrad, Hiroshima, and Carthage for that matter — were all back in business soon after being blasted to smithereens in warfighting that verged on the exterminatory. Sometimes, nature may destroy a city, but man, despite his best efforts, does not.[105] Technological change is a constant that touches upon every aspect of urban warfare. Weapons are more powerful as time passes and communications are more rapid and dense. Overall, there has been an acceleration of the transnational flow of people, ideas, and things across the global political economy that seems, at first glance, to be a major complicating factor in politics and warfare. There has also been a change of scale: Cities are simply bigger by an order of magnitude than they were in the past because there are vastly more people in the world and fewer of them are needed to work in agriculture. At the end of the day, however, these are changes in form rather than substance. The challenges faced by the British Army in Basra in 2005 were not all that different from those that it faced in Buenos Aires 200 years earlier. The reason the words “urban guerilla” cannot yet be replaced with “British soldier” in Marighella’s quote is the misalignment of policy with strategic realities and tactical common sense. The problem of the urban terrain is both political and tactical. However, it is beyond our remit and ken to solve the problem of a highly risk-averse political context, as we described it earlier. Western politicians probably ought not to pick fights in the world’s sprawling, ungoverned conurbations against little-understood enemies preying on collapsing civil societies. The best thing is not to fight at all, anywhere — as Sun Tzu quite rightly said. Nevertheless, there are a wide range of very plausible limited contingencies — strategic raids on certain facilities and noncombatant evacuation operations spring most readily to mind — that will propel armed forces into urban environments to one degree or another. It is possible to make some progress on the tactical side that will improve the chances of such actions being successful — namely, doing what is known to work, but doing it better and more consistently. For that to occur, however, Western armies must first stop deploying and re-deploying the same hoary old scare stories about what seems likely to be the normal operating environment for the foreseeable future. Tactics can be adjusted and training improved to master the neutrality of the environment. Military and strategic thought is most compelling and practically useful when it is empiric, pragmatic, and phlegmatic. Commanders will never be totally right in their decisions. They ought, though, to try to be “right enough” — to be able to determine the big picture goals, such that they are decisive and incisive enough to be turned into clear orders. And they must have the moral courage to let subordinate commanders get on with the task unburdened by micromanagement or bullying. Methodologies of strict cause and effect in complex problems of warfare, urban or otherwise, ought to be distrusted. Too often they are flawed by bad history — “just-so stories” that are based on habit and legend dressed up as authoritative models.[106] Moreover, the combination of Moore’s Law with the ubiquity of technology and its ever-decreasing cost ought to remind us that the context of contemporary operations is one in which having the technological edge is no longer decisive on its own, if indeed it ever was. Thriving in the urban environment requires that statesmen and commanders settle clearly and wisely on policy aims that military power has a chance of achieving. That is what will enable placing a greater emphasis on tempo and exploiting the greater tactical flexibility and individual lethality of the modern Western soldier in the conduct of operations. These injunctions would, we believe, result in operations more truly in line with the maneuvrist approach that is now frequently invoked but is not actively practiced. The city is a harsh and complex place in which to fight. But, like Spencer Chapman’s jungle, it is neutral. In the pursuit of sound policies, Western militaries possess the skills and capabilities to master warfare in the city, if only leaders have the courage to let them get on with it.   David Betz is Professor of War in the Modern World in the War Studies Department at King’s College London. He is head of the Insurgency Research Group, deputy director of the King’s Centre for Strategic Communications, and senior fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (Philadelphia). He has written on information warfare, the future of land forces, the virtual dimension of insurgency, propaganda of the deed, cyberspace and insurgency, and British counter-insurgency in such journals as the Journal of Strategic Studies, the Journal of Contemporary Security Studies, and Orbis. His latest book is Carnage and Connectivity: Landmarks in the Decline of Conventional Military Power (Hurst/Oxford University Press). He is now working on a new book entitled Walled Worlds, which explores the contemporary resurgence of fortification strategies. Hugo Stanford-Tuck is a lieutenant colonel in the British Army’s Royal Gurkha Rifles, a light infantry regiment specializing in air assault and jungle operations. He has commanded infantry soldiers on operations in Sierra Leone, the Balkans, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Lt. Col. Stanford-Tuck has planned military campaigns at the political-strategic level, disaster relief activities at the operational level, and combat operations at the tactical level. He has written about counter-insurgency, combat, and the entwined Darwinian relationship between adversaries. He is currently studying for an MBA at Warwick Business School and next year will be establishing and then commanding a new battalion of Gurkha Specialized Infantry.   Image: Eden Briand [post_title] => The City Is Neutral: On Urban Warfare in the 21st Century [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => the-city-is-neutral-on-urban-warfare-in-the-21st-century [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2020-01-09 11:01:39 [post_modified_gmt] => 2020-01-09 16:01:39 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw [lead] => Contrary to what is often supposed, urban warfare is not more difficult than other types of warfare. The combat environment is neutral, just like every other environment. Urban warfare is, however, likely to be more prevalent in coming years, which is why it is important that Western armies learn to do it confidently. The current approach to this type of fighting is wrong because it is burdened by bad history. The problems of urban combat are not new. Moreover, they are solvable through a combination of hard training, changes in command mindset, and technological innovation. We propose a “strongest gang” model as a realistic solution to the problems of urban conflict that cannot be addressed by the current dominant methods that are too positively controlled, too manpower-intensive, too cautious, and cede too much initiative to objectively weaker and less capable opponents. [pubinfo] => [issue] => Vol 2, Iss 4 [quotes] => Array ( [0] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => The advantages afforded to the better trained, equipped, supported, and mentally prepared soldier are magnified by this environment, which rewards tactical skill. ) [1] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => But population centers can only be bypassed for so long in the hope of avoiding a military operation in the midst of a major concentration of noncombatants.  ) [2] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => That this battle involved swords and clubs rather than M-4s and AK-47s matters little — just replace “archers” and “arrows” with “close combat attack” and “armed aviation” and the scene has an obvious contemporary resonance.  ) [3] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => Beevor claims that the urban environment is intrinsically difficult. This difficulty, however, is neutral, manifesting differently, but with equal impact, upon all sides. ) [4] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => One of the major problems with using Stalingrad as a benchmark is that it was extremely unusual in the strength of its political symbolism.  ) [5] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => When it comes to the numbers and effectiveness of weapons, the most important thing is the tactical aptitude and leadership qualities of the combat forces involved.  ) [6] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => To prepare a soldier for urban warfare, he or she also needs to conceive of moving through the city quite differently than most civilians — to think like an urban explorer, the sort of person who is as happy moving through service tunnels and across rooftops as on sidewalks and roads. ) [7] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => In practice, technology is too often an impediment when it is employed to reinforce a top-down, positive control-oriented command model that squelches small unit initiative.  ) [8] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => Boldness, simultaneity, coordinated action, and the like are principles of combat that have long been taught and applauded in every other tactical environment. Why not the city? ) ) [style] => scholarly [type] => Scholarly [style_label] => The Scholar [download] => Array ( [title] => PDF Download [file] => 2438 ) [authors] => Array ( [0] => 311 [1] => 312 ) [endnotes] => Array ( [title] => Endnotes [endnotes] => [1] F. Spencer Chapman, The Jungle Is Neutral (London: Chatto and Windus, 1950), 125. [2] See the list of urban warfare characteristics in, Joint Urban Operations, Joint Publication 3-06 (Washington, DC: Joint Chiefs of Staff, Nov. 20, 2013), I-5–I-9. [3] Charles C. Krulak, “The United States Marine Corps in 21st Century,” RUSI Journal 141, no. 4 (1996): 25, [4] Krulak writes in his article that “we” will be drawn into such wars, referring to the United States Marine Corps. It is apparent from context, though, speaking to a British audience for publication in a Western professional military journal, that his message was aimed at the United States and its allies. [5] We thank independent scholar Lily Betz for this apposite allusion to mythology. [6] Strategic Trends Programme: Future Operating Environment 2035, U.K. Developments, Concepts, and Doctrine Centre, U.K. Ministry of Defence,  2015, 21, [7] David Kilcullen, Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla (London: Hurst, 2013), chap. 5. [8] For more on which, as well as a good example of such, see Amanda Chisholm, “Ethnography in Conflict Zones: The Perils of Researching Private Security Contractors,” in, The Routledge Companion to Military Research Methods, ed. Alison J. Williams et al. (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2016), chap. 11. [9] Geoffrey Till, Maritime Strategy and the Nuclear Age (London: Macmillan, 1982), 224. [10] Christopher Duffy, Fire and Stone: The Science of Fortress Warfare, 1660-1860 (London: Greenhill Books, 1975), 188. [11] The cases considered were: Jerusalem 70, Rome 410, Constantinople 1453, Londonderry 1689, Gibraltar 1779–83, Acre 1799, Sevastopol 1854, Lucknow 1857, Paris 1870–71, Plevna 1877, Mafeking 1899–1900, and Port Arthur 1904–05. [12] The United States Marine Corps Tactics and Operations Group based at Twentynine Palms, CA, has the longest established and most extensive experience in this subject area. The urban warfare group in the Modern War Institute at West Point is a more recent initiative but has done excellent work in the public domain. [13] Carl Von Clausewitz, On War, ed. Michael Howard and Peter Parker (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1993), 99. [14] On the interaction of bad policy with tactics, see, David Betz and Hugo Stanford-Tuck, “Teaching Your Enemy to Win,” Infinity Journal 6, no. 3 (Winter 2019): 16–22, A compelling case for the rectification of the relative isolation of tactics from scholarship on war is made by B.A. Friedman, On Tactics: A Theory of Victory in Battle (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2017). [15] See, Land Operations, Land Warfare Development Centre, Army Doctrine Publication AC 71940, (2017), 4-01; see also Operations in the Urban Environment, Land Warfare Development Centre, Doctrine Note 15/13, (2010), 59–60. [16] Sun Tzu, The Art of War in, Classics of Strategy and Counsel Vol. 1: The Collected Translations of Thomas Cleary (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2000), 74. [17] Clausewitz, On War, 139–41. [18] Gregory J. Ashworth, War and the City (New York: Routledge, 1991), 121. See also Todd C. Helmus and Russell W. Glenn, Steeling the Mind: Combat Stress Reactions and their Implications for Future Warfare (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2005), 39­–67. [19] Alice Hills, Future War in Cities: Rethinking a Liberal Dilemma (London: Frank Cass, 2004). [20] Hills, Future War in Cities, 229 and chap. 9. [21] See Theo Farrell, “Sliding Into War: The Somalia Imbroglio and US Army Peace Operations Doctrine,” International Peacekeeping 2, no. 2 (1995), [22] Wesley K. Clark, Waging Modern War (New York: Public Affairs, 2001), 318. [23] “Iraq — Declaration of War — 18 Mar 2003 at 22:00,” The Public Whip, March 18, 2003, [24] Oliver Carroll, “Inside the Bloody Battle for Ukraine’s Donetsk Airport,” Newsweek, Feb. 3, 2015, [25] 165 government troops, 45 civilians, and practically all of the Abu Sayyaf fighters were killed. The damage to the city may be seen in this photo essay: “Marawi in Ruins After Battle Against Pro-ISIL Fighters,” Al Jazeera, Oct. 23, 2017, [26] Lewis Mumford, The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects (London: Harvest/HBJ, 1986), 43. [27] Rupert Smith, The Utility Of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World (London: Allen Lane, 2005). [28] Hills, Future War in Cities, 243. [29] Flavius Josephus, The Jewish War, Vol. 2, trans. Robert Traill (London: Houlston and Stoneman, 1851), 143. [30] Indeed, it is arguably one of the most consequential battles of all history. Without the destruction of Jerusalem, religious scholars reckon that Christianity might not have arisen as the dominant faith of the West centered on Rome. See Diarmaid MacCulloch, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (London: Penguin, 2009), 111. In colloquial Spanish, a phrase probably brought by Sephardic Jews and their descendants fleeing the massacre, “mas malo que Tito” (worse than Titus), survives in common use to this day. [31] For a discussion of the merits of the traitorous appellation of Flavius, see William den Hollander, “Was Josephus a ‘Jewish Benedict Arnold?’” Mosaic, Nov. 14, 2014, [32] Hills, Future War in Cities, 242. [33] The section of this paper dealing with the British in Argentina in 1806–07 is based upon Ian Hernon, The Savage Empire: Forgotten Wars of the Nineteenth Century, (Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing, 2000). [34] The advisement not to “exasperate” is one of the characteristically economical and wise principles of the British counterinsurgency guru C.E. Callwell in his classic, Small Wars: Their Principles and Practice, 3rd ed. (London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1906). The contemporary influence of the work is discussed in, David Betz, “Counter-insurgency, Victorian-Style,” Survival 54, no. 4 (2012): 161–82, [35] A painting entitled “La Reconquista de Buenos Aires,” by the French artist Charles Fouqueray showing the dejected British commander, Gen. Beresford, surrendering to de Liniers hangs proudly in the Argentine National Historical Museum, Buenos Aires. [36] Frank G. Hoffman, Conflict in the 21st Century: The Rise of Hybrid Wars (Arlington, VA: Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, 2007). [37] Sir Antony Beevor, “Keynote Speech,” Urban Warfare: Past, Present, and Future Conference, Royal United Services Institute, Feb. 2, 2018. [38] Joint Urban Operations, Joint Publication 3-06, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Nov. 20, 2013, I-5-I-9, [39] Report on the Protection of Civilians in the Context of the Ninewa Operations and the Retaking of Mosul City, 17 October 2016-10 July 2017, United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq, undated, 2, [40] Quoted in James Holland, Together We Stand: Turning the Tide in the West: North Africa, 1942-1943 (London: HarperCollins, 2005), 24. [41] Emphasis added. Vladimir Peniakoff, Popski’s Private Army (London: The Reprint Society, 1953), 55. [42] Jim Storr, The Human Face of War (London: Continuum Press, 2009). [43] A point made particularly clearly by Smith in, The Utility of Force, 284–85. British urban warfare doctrine specifically notes Smith’s paradigm of “war amongst the people” as a key driver of the need of the aforementioned concept of “integrated action.” See, Operations in the Urban Environment, 59. [44] Duncan Lewis, “Lessons from East Timor,” in, Future Armies, Future Challenges: Land Warfare in the Information Age, ed. Michael Evans, Russell Parkin, and Alan Ryan (Crows Nest NSW, Australia: Allen and Unwin, 2004). [45] For further elaboration on this, see, David Betz and Anthony Cormack, “Iraq, Afghanistan and British Strategy,” Orbis 53, no. 2 (Spring 2009), 319–36,; and David Betz, Carnage and Connectivity: Landmarks in the Decline of Conventional Military Power (London: Hurst, 2015), esp. chap. 5. [46] Betz, Carnage and Connectivity, 31. [47] See, the chapter on Beirut and the Reagan era intervention in Lebanon in Peter Huchthausen, America’s Splendid Little Wars: A Short History of U.S. Military Engagements, 1975-2000 (London: Viking, 2003), 45–64. [48] Huchthausen, America’s Splendid Little Wars, 62. [49] Quoted in, William Craig, Enemy at the Gates: The Battle for Stalingrad (London: Book Club Associates, 1973), 373. [50] Alec Wahlman credits American success in urban operations, despite the lack of consistent effort to prepare for it specifically, to two factors: transferable competence (i.e., the applicability of skills, techniques, and equipment not designed specifically for urban conflict), and battlefield adaptation, in, Storming the City: U.S. Military Performance in Urban Warfare from World War II to Vietnam (Denton, TX: University of North Texas Press, 2015), 237–46. [51] A point that Jim Storr argues holds true for the Allied armies in general in World War II. See, The Hall of Mirrors: War and Warfare in the Twentieth Century (Warwick, UK: Helion and Co., 2018), 155. [52] Quoted in, Eyal Weizman, Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation (New York: Verso, 2012), 198. [53] Weizman, Hollow Land. The insistence of Israeli military strategists in the Operational Theory Research Institute on using such terms did much harm to their cause insofar as it freighted a good deal of common sense with language that made it incomprehensible to those who needed it. A point remarked upon by the post-2006 Lebanon War report on the perceived Israeli failings there. See, Winograd Commission: The Commission to Investigate the Events of the 2006 Lebanon Campaign, State of Israel, January 2008 [in Hebrew]. See also Eyal Weizman, “Walking Through Walls: Soldiers as Architects in the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict,” Lecture at the Arxipelago of Exception conference, Centre de Cultura Contemporania de Barcelona, Nov. 11, 2005. [54] Benjamin Runkle, “Jaffa, 1948,” in, City Fights: Selected Histories of Urban Combat from World War II to Vietnam, ed. John Antal and Bradley Gericke (New York: Presidio Press, 2003), 289–314. [55] The historiography of the Jaffa battle is complex and contested. The post-1948 Israeli Defense Forces had good reason to downplay the contributions of the Irgun. In the Irgun Museum in Tel Aviv, the battle is portrayed as a triumph. There are no good detailed accounts from the British side. It is apparent though, for obvious reasons, that in 1948, the eagerness of British forces to fight was small as they were withdrawing from Palestine. Thanks to Dr. Eitan Shamir from the Political Science Department at Bar Ilan University for reviewing the Hebrew sources on our behalf. [56] See, Robert R. Leonhard, Fighting by Minutes: Time and the Art of War, 2nd ed. (Scotts Valley, CA: CreateSpace, 2017), 180. [57] See, Lutz Unterseher, “Urban Warfare,” in, Brassey’s Enclopedia of Land Forces and Warfare, ed. Franklin D. Margiotta (London: Brassey’s, 2000), 1099. [58] Christopher R. Gabel, “Knock ‘em All Down: The Reduction of Aachen, October 1944,” in, Block by Block: The Challenges of Urban Operations, ed. William G. Robertson (Fort Leavenworth, KS: US Army Command and General Staff College Press, 2003), 84–85. [59] Ashworth, War and the City, 150. Unlike Aachen, where the Americans made decisive use of heavy artillery, the Canadian commander forbade the use of indirect-fire artillery and aerial bombing in order to mitigate collateral damage. [60] The battle is ill-remembered outside of the Gurkhas. This account was given to us in the officers’ mess of the modern Gurkha Regiment, where a painting by Terence Cuneo depicts it. [61] The solvability of urban combat is a powerful theme in Wahlman, Storming the City, passim and 6. [62] The definitive account of this is, David Zucchino, Thunder Run: Three Days in the Battle for Baghdad (London: Atlantic Books, 2004). [63] Louis A. DiMarco, Concrete Hell: Urban Warfare from Stalingrad to Iraq (Oxford: Osprey, 2012), 162. [64] DiMarco, Concrete Hell, 196. [65] William F. Owen, “Killing Your Way to Control,” British Army Review, no. 151 (Spring 2011), 34–37. [66] See, Anatol Lieven, Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998), esp. chap. 8. [67] Project Metropolis: Military Operations in Urbanized Terrain, Battalion Level Experiments, Experiment After Action Report, Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, May 7, 2001. Project Metropolis has recently been restarted. See, Todd South, “How This Urban Warfighting Experiment Could Transform How Marines Fight in Cities,” Marine Times, Jan. 7, 2019. [68] American colleagues, including Col. Douglas Winter, chair of the Department of Military Strategy, Planning, and Operations U.S. Army War College at the Changing Character of Warfare conference, Oxford University, June 27, 2019, and Maj. (ret.) John Spencer, chair of Urban Warfare Studies at the Modern War Institute, West Point at War in the Global City conference, Warwick University, Dec. 11, 2018, echoed the same things our British interlocutors told us. [69] John Spencer, “The Army Needs an Urban Warfare School and It Needs it Soon,” Modern War Institute, April 5, 2017, Some of our interlocutors advised that a new facility has been approved in the United States that is large and, by international standards, lavishly well funded (reputedly at $6-9 billion). The key feature of this facility is meant to be its relatively large and impressively realistic civilian population. However, as far as we have been able to determine thus far, there has been no official announcement of this nor have we seen any written documentation of it. [70] See, “Troops Train in the Middle East of England,” U.K. Ministry of Defence, Jan. 18, 2011, [71] Taken from an unclassified and unpublished trip report provided us by one of our Marine Corps interlocutors, June 27, 2017. [72] See, “Preparing for More Urban Warfare,” Economist, Jan. 25, 2018. [73] The base can be seen in this report by Gunnar Breske: ‘Häuserkampf in Schnöggersburg- Bundeswehr baut Geisterstadt,” Tagesthemen, ARD television, Oct. 2, 2015, in German but with English subtitles, [74] “Rheinmetall Presented Its Latest Legatus Live Urban Operations Training Systems at Eurosatory 2018,” Army Recognition, June 22, 2018, [75] Interview with former senior Russian Ministry of Defence official, Moscow, Oct. 6, 2017. [76] J. Hawk, Daniel Deiss, and Edwin Watson, “Russia Defense Report: Fighting the Next War,” South Front, March 19, 2016, Interestingly, the simulation system at Mulino was originally supposed to be provided by Rheinmetall, presumably a variant of the Legatus system, under a €100 million contract from which the Germans withdrew after the imposition of sanctions in 2014. [77] Interview with former senior Russian Ministry of Defence official, Moscow, Oct. 6, 2017. [78] Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, Rommel and His Art of War, ed. John Pimlott (London: Wrens Park, 2003), 133. [79] It is perhaps instructive that a British infantry soldier under training spends more time on the drill square learning to march than learning the core skill of fighting in an urban environment. [80] As convincingly recounted in, Bing West, The Strongest Tribe: War, Politics, and the Endgame in Iraq (New York: Random House, 2008), 330. [81] David E. Johnson, M. Wade Markel, and Brian Shannon, The 2008 Battle of Sadr City: Reimagining Urban Combat (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2013), 108, [82] For an illustration see the photos in Johnson, Markel, and Shannon, The 2008 Battle of Sadr City, 75–76. [83] Correspondence with Maj. (ret.) John Spencer, chair of Urban Warfare Studies at the Modern War Institute, Nov. 16, 2017. Spencer was a company commander in the Sadr City battle and also served in Iraq in 2015–16 as an adviser on barrier systems. [84] We were unable to obtain from our interviewees a consistent or plausible answer to this question. It was supposed by several, including Spencer (see note 83), that perhaps the Army did not think it would have to do it again, which runs contrary to the stated assumption that urban warfare is going to be more common and is therefore perplexing. [85] Sean Kimmons, “Army Combat Fitness Test to Become New PT Test of Record in Late 2020,” Army News Service, July 9, 2018, [86] For insight into the philosophy and techniques of “place hacking,” a good place to start is, Bradley L. Garrett, Explore Everything: Place-Hacking the City (London: Verso, 2013). For this research, we interviewed a place-hacker in October 2017 who illustrated for us, with photos as an example, a typical hack of our own university — an adventure that encompassed crawling through generally unknown (and publicly inaccessible) service tunnels, climbing decorative surface features of structures, and traversing the rooftops of several central London landmarks over a space of three city blocks. Another worthwhile text for opportunistically reshaping the way cities are envisioned is, Geoff Manaugh, A Burglar’s Guide to the City (New York: Farrakhan, Strauss, and Giroux, 2016). [87] Our interlocutors at the British Army Infantry Battle School’s Urban Warfare Instructor’s Course half-joked that a good number of private soldiers brought to the table extensive burglary and other relevant skills from their civilian lives. The special forces and intelligence agencies sometimes actively seek out such recruits for specialist work, notably surveillance. However, except for a few one-off and ad hoc consultations with waterworks and sewage utilities, we came across no systematic engagement by regular forces with a range of urban specialists, whether licit or (as we would suggest that they also do) semi-licit or illicit ones. [88] Quote from, Rommel, Rommel and His Art of War, 133–34. [89] Urbanisation Seminar Game, NATO Defence College, Rome, Sept. 28–Oct. 7, 2017. [90] “China Is Trying to Turn Itself Into a Country of 19 Super-Regions,” Economist, June 23, 2018, [91] Clausewitz was not the first to repeat this sentiment, but his formulation of it is especially adroitly put, “the mistakes that come from kindness are the very worst.” See, Clausewitz, On War, 84. This category of mistake, however, is by far the most common in contemporary Western strategy. On which point also see, Betz and Stanford-Tuck, “Teaching Your Enemy to Win.” [92] Land Operations, 5–2. [93] Carlos Marighella, Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla (1969), 4. A version of this manual can be read here: [94] What the Battle for Mosul Teaches the Force, Mosul Study Group, no. 17-24 U, U.S. Army, September 2017, 36, [95] Interview by authors with a British Army officer who was part of an advisory team in Iraq during Mosul operations, Brecon, Wales, March 2018. [96] These are discussed in greater detail in, David Betz, “World of Wallcraft: The Contemporary Resurgence of Fortification Strategies,” Infinity Journal 6, no. 1 (Winter 2018): 18–22. [97] Technical data and a video of the Balpro system may be seen on the company’s website: “Force Protection Balpro Protector – Fast Fortification System,” Kenno, [98] Maj. Gen. Rick Burr, “Future War in Cities: Australian Thoughts,” Multi-Domain Battle in Megacities Conference, Fort Hamilton, NY, April 3­–4, 2018, [99] Urban Warfare Study Day at British Army, Land Warfare Centre, Warminster, July 10, 2018. [100] Alan Boyle, “NASA and FAA Cast a Wide Net to Get Set for Revolution in Urban Air Mobility,” GeekWire, Nov. 2, 2018, [101] David Reid, “Domino’s Delivers World’s First Ever Pizza by Drone’, CNBC, Nov. 16,  2016. [102] A related thought suggests it be treated as an organism. See, John Spencer and John Amble, “A Better Approach to Urban Operations: Treat Cities Like Human Bodies,” Modern War Institute, Sept. 13, 2017, [103] On which point, see, Betz and Stanford-Tuck, “Teaching Your Enemy to Win,” 16–22. [104] Martin Coward, Urbicide: The Politics of Urban Destruction (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2009), 15. [105] A point treated with great perspicacity recently in, John Spencer, “The Destructive Age of Urban Warfare; or, How to Kill a City and How to Protect it,” Modern War Institute, March 28, 2019, [106] Storr, The Human Face of War, 199. ) [contents] => Array ( [title] => [contents] => ) ) [3] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 1833 [post_author] => 296 [post_date] => 2019-09-03 05:00:10 [post_date_gmt] => 2019-09-03 09:00:10 [post_content] => At 00:50 on June 9, 2016, in the East China Sea, a frigate belonging to the Chinese navy[1] entered the contiguous zone surrounding the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands on a course toward the islands’ territorial waters.[2] While ships belonging to various Chinese agencies had entered both the contiguous zone and the territorial waters around the islands in the past, this was a first for a Chinese naval vessel. A Japanese Self Defense Forces destroyer following the vessel’s movements hailed it, advising it to change course — to no avail. Meanwhile, in Tokyo, a team assembled inside the crisis management center of the prime minister’s office to monitor the situation. In the early hours of the morning, the Chinese ambassador was summoned to the Japanese Foreign Ministry, where Vice Minister Saiki Akitaka met him with a demand for the vessel’s immediate withdrawal. While declining to formally accept this demand, the ambassador conveyed that escalation was undesirable and that he would report back to Beijing. The Chinese naval vessel subsequently exited the contiguous zone at 03:10.[3] Unlike previous “white-on-white” engagements — a label denoting the color of the ships’ hulls — between the Japanese Coast Guard and non-military Chinese vessels, this incident held the potential of becoming a dangerous “gray-on-gray” military showdown. Had the Chinese naval ship entered the islands’ territorial waters, it is highly conceivable that the Japanese government would have authorized the Japanese Self Defense Forces to employ force. Saiki would later reflect that there was real concern at the time that the situation would escalate into a serious confrontation between the Chinese and the Japanese forces.[4] The tensions of that night reflect the stakes involved: Intentionally or unintentionally, actions by either side could have sparked a military escalation involving the world’s three largest economies. Consisting of five core islands and a number of other minor features, the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are claimed by Japan, the People’s Republic of China, and Taiwan.[5] Although Japan has administered the islands since 1972 — when the United States transferred control — and continues to maintain that no dispute exists, its position has increasingly been challenged by the presence of official Chinese vessels in the islands’ adjacent waters.[6] The United States, while not taking a stance on the sovereignty of the islands, nevertheless has committed itself to come to Japan’s defense should it be attacked in the exercise of its administrative control.[7] The islands thus constitute a potentially dangerous flashpoint in East Asia, highlighted by a number of analyses as a possible trigger for armed conflict — if not war — in the region.[8] My goal in this paper is to supply an evidence-based, theoretically informed account of recent developments in the contest over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. To do so, I draw upon primary and secondary source material in Japanese and Chinese, as well as extensive interviews in both countries. I argue that, objectively speaking — apart from the mere fact that the Senkaku/Diaoyu are tangible features in the East China Sea to which Tokyo and Beijing both lay claim — the particular details of the disputed islands in themselves are by and large irrelevant. Rather, to explain why the islands have become the flashpoint they are today, we must look at how their significance within Sino-Japanese relations has grown in ways that have little to do with their actual, inherent value. Specifically, there are three important dimensions to the increased significance of the islands. The first dimension is symbolic. Since late 2010, the islands have increasingly become a proxy for an array of latent and newly emerging intangible concerns, frustrations, resentments, and anxieties on both sides. These have given the islands import and salience by raising the perceived stakes involved. The second dimension is domestic. The emergence of an active contest over the islands generated both opportunities and vulnerabilities within the domestic political sphere of each state. At crucial moments, these domestic dynamics have raised the profile of the dispute and increased pressure on policymakers to take firmer action. The third dimension is competitive. The islands have become the concrete focus of an ongoing set of escalatory, interactive dynamics, in which actions taken by one side to improve its standing in the dispute elicit counter-measures from the other. These spiralling dynamics continue to play out across a variety of domains and remain a source of further potential conflict. In brief, since late 2010 the islands have increased in significance as a symbol, as a domestic political football, and as an object of ongoing, competitive jockeying. Existing work has highlighted certain aspects of these roles in isolation, but I argue that we must view them as the interwoven pieces of a whole. The islands became increasingly salient as a domestic political issue in no small part because of their growing symbolic significance. But at the same time, the symbolic import of the islands benefitted immensely from being championed by domestic politicians, activists, and others who latched onto the issue, whether opportunistically or out of sincere conviction. As the island’s symbolic and domestic political importance rose, so too did the respective pressures on the leaders managing the contest to take stronger action. This set in motion competitive spirals of move and counter-move between Tokyo and Beijing. The friction this generated has, in turn, helped to further feed into the islands’ symbolic and domestic political significance. The different facets of the islands’ increasing significance are therefore closely interconnected. This paper proceeds in six parts. First, it lays out why the escalation over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands since 2010 is so puzzling. Second, it investigates arguments concerning the material value of the islands. Third, it examines the potential non-material value attached to the islands before 2010. Fourth, it evaluates the possibility that leaders on either side actively sought to initiate the dispute for self-interested reasons. Fifth, it offers an alternative explanation, arguing that we need to examine the increasing significance of the islands within Sino-Japanese relations with a focus on three dimensions. Finally, it concludes by considering potential paths forward.

The Puzzle of Escalation

Prior to 2010, the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands were a relatively peripheral issue in Sino-Japanese relations. On Sept. 7, 2010, however, a Chinese fishing trawler collided with Japanese Coast Guard ships in the waters surrounding the islands, resulting in the Japanese detention of the ship and crew and the arrest of the captain. This spiraled into a major diplomatic incident, as Beijing applied increasing pressure on Japan for their return. Japan first released the ship and crew, and then eventually also the captain, after which tensions subsided. But in 2012, tensions reignited when — despite Beijing’s objections — the Japanese government chose to preempt an initiative by the nationalist mayor of Tokyo to buy several of the islands from a private owner by purchasing the islands itself. This unleashed a new round of conflict involving popular protests and official tensions. As Sheila Smith has written, “Until 2010, what had largely been perceived as a manageable difference between Tokyo and Beijing, of interest only to small groups of nationalist activists in both countries, had blown up into a major confrontation between the two states.”[9] The 2010 collision and subsequent 2012 purchase were thus decisive turning points in the nature of the Sino-Japanese dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. This is evidenced by substantial shifts in the official and popular prominence of the dispute. Consider the attention the islands have received from the People’s Daily, the Chinese government’s official mouthpiece: Only 16 articles referenced the islands in the five years before the 2010 collision compared to 312 in the five years after.[10] In Japanese officialdom, that these events marked turning points in the dispute is evidenced by parliamentary references: As one study demonstrates, 2010 marked a watershed for the islands’ salience within parliamentary debates, with mentions increasing exponentially over previous years.[11] As for the popular prominence of the dispute, the Chinese search engine, Baidu, shows few online searches for the islands in the five years prior to 2010. In September 2010, there was a sudden burst in Chinese interest, which was subsequently dwarfed in 2012 with searches increasing nearly six-fold.[12] In Japan, Google Trends shows little interest in the islands in the years before the 2010 incident as well. Interest first shot up massively in 2010 and then again in 2012.[13] [quote id="1"] Seven years on, the prominence of the dispute has subsided somewhat; however, the situation in the waters around the islands remains a far cry from the status quo ante. Since 2012, official Chinese maritime vessels have conducted regular incursions into the islands’ territorial waters, and official Chinese aircraft have repeatedly appeared in the airspace above them.[14] In 2013, Beijing announced an Air Defense Identification Zone including the airspace over the islands, raising the risk of aerial confrontation. Though there has been progress since then — most notably a maritime communication mechanism between the Japanese Self Defense Forces and the People’s Liberation Army[15] — as well as a more general improvement in the tone of relations, the area around the islands has become more crowded and the possibility for serious conflict remains. The above broadly describes what happened, but not why. Looking to the existing literature on territorial disputes, one approach to seeking an explanation would be to ask what it is about the contested islands’ material value — be it strategic or economic — that has motivated such tensions. Another approach would be to examine the islands’ preexisting non-material value — religious, ethnic, or historical. A third approach would be to adopt a cynical perspective, investigating the potential of a “wag-the-dog” scenario in which the governments involved intentionally initiated the dispute to distract from domestic concerns or, alternately, to gain bargaining leverage in other areas. This paper examines each of these explanations in turn and finds them wanting. The material value of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands is, at best, questionable. Nor does it explain why tensions did not begin until 2010. If anything, estimates of the islands’ economic value have been repeatedly adjusted downward. Regarding non-material value, the islands are uninhabited and host no sites of major religious or ethnic meaning. If there have been revisions to their perceived historical significance, these have arguably occurred as a function of post-2010 developments. And lastly, all available evidence suggests neither side was initially seeking escalation. The following three sections lay out these findings in detail, leaving the developments in the years since 2010 a mystery.

The Question of Material Value

A number of existing approaches explain territorial disputes according to the tangible benefits possession of a disputed territory can supply. These include strategic advantage, natural resources, control of trade routes, an increased population or tax base, or extra land to settle.[16] Given that the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are small and uninhabited, most material arguments have focused on their strategic or economic value. Strategic Value One argument for the strategic value of the islands is that possessing them would aid the Chinese military in breaking through the first island chain separating continental China from the Pacific Ocean. Alternately, were Japanese forces to possess them, it would help prevent a Chinese military breakthrough.[17] The first island chain stretches from the Korean peninsula southward across the Japanese Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan, and beyond to the Philippines.[18] The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are located inside this island chain, northeast of Taiwan on the western edge of the Okinawa Trough. But while nearer to the first island chain than the Chinese continental coastline, the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are, at their closest, still at least 60 miles (100 km) away from any feature in the chain.[19] Consequently, even if the People’s Republic of China possessed the islands, penetrating Japanese-held sections of the chain would still require Chinese military vessels to transit a considerable distance and pass through one of several bottlenecks, most prominently the Miyako Strait, between the Japanese islands of Okinawa and Miyako. These islands already house formidable Japanese military capabilities, including mobile, surface-to-ship missiles covering the strait’s entrance, and a submarine sound-surveillance system extending along the Ryuku archipelago.[20] Apart from mobile, land-based missiles stationed across the chain, Japan can also deploy guided-missile patrol boats, submarines, and even mines to block critical passageways.[21] Correspondingly, Japan does not need control of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands to obstruct the Chinese navy’s movement through its portion of the first island chain. Therefore, as one analyst has noted, to break through the chain the Chinese military would likely attempt capturing islands such as Miyako and Ishigaki for control of the strait that lies between them.[22] Certainly, Japan could do more to increase its defenses on these islands.[23] But taking them remains a daunting task involving the long-distance transport of an invasion force. Chinese possession of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands would not markedly change that fact. A second argument for the strategic value of the islands is that they would provide a platform for placing strategically useful assets — such as radar installations or missiles — closer to either the island chain or the Chinese continental coastline, respectively, as well as nearby sea lines of communication.[24] And yet, such an advantage would be marginal at best. For one, anything placed on the islands would be highly vulnerable. Only one of the islands — Uotsuri/Diaoyu Island — has a surface area greater than half a square mile (or 1 sq km). But at less than 1.4 square miles (3.6 sq km.) it is just “a bit larger than New York City’s Central Park.”[25] Accordingly, the islands have scant space to hide assets or develop redundancies. In a conflict scenario, assets on the islands would offer easily identifiable targets unlikely to survive an opening salvo.[26] Moreover, the islands are relatively isolated: They are over 60 miles (100 km) from either the nearest Japanese islands or Taiwan and more than 180 miles (300 km) from the Chinese mainland. Resupply under combat conditions would pose major logistical difficulties.[27] What is more, such capabilities can be placed elsewhere. To cite a former Japanese defense official, “you could get the same result from putting radar on the Senkaku as from putting it nearby on a ship, or, alternately, by flying AWACS [Airborne Warning And Control Systems] you could get information from farther away.”[28] Not only do ship-mounted and airborne capabilities have the advantages of mobility, the latter also have the advantage of altitude, providing a much farther radar horizon.[29] So, while the strategic value of the islands is not zero, it is quite low. According to one former Japanese vice admiral, they are “just junk rocks, no strategic value.”[30] Still, one could argue that Beijing’s behavior in the South China Sea — including fortifying tiny features with military hardware despite international condemnation — demonstrates the value it places on such outposts. There are, however, several crucial differences. First, compared to the relatively isolated Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, the outposts built by the People’s Republic of China in the South China Sea sit within a crowded cluster of contested features, where other claimants have already competitively established military footholds to cement their position.[31] Second, while Chinese military assets on these small outposts are similarly vulnerable to U.S. attack, they nevertheless offer intimidating advantages against less well-equipped competitors in the South China Sea “whose navies barely rate as coast guards.”[32] Placing assets on the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands would not grant such advantages with regards to Japan, a more formidable adversary. Lastly, to date, the People’s Republic of China has only militarized features in the South China Sea that it has already controlled for decades. Militarizing the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, however, would require first expelling Japan and risking a wider conflagration with the United States. In this regard alone, the potential strategic value of the islands pales in contrast to the costs and dangers of such a confrontation, even assuming the Chinese military were to prevail. Nor would preventing Japan from militarizing the islands stop the latter from shifting capabilities westward. In fact, Japan has already moved assets westward by stationing a defense facility, complete with radar, to the south of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands on another island, Yonaguni.[33] All said, it is difficult to argue that the marginal strategic benefit the islands would offer either side justifies risking war to obtain them. Economic Value? But what of their economic value? A central factor is the potential 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone entitlements assumed to be conferred on the state with sovereign rights to these islands under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Given overlapping claims, one study has calculated that potentially 19,800 square nautical miles of exclusive economic zone entitlements are at stake.[34] These entitlements are seen as valuable primarily due to a 1969 U.N. Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East report, which suggested the area “may be one of the most prolific oil reserves in the world.”[35] Importantly, the report failed to confirm actual reserves, only hypothesizing their existence given the area’s geological structure. At the time of the report’s release, Taiwan and Japan (both claimants) entered into joint development negotiations; however, these ended in 1970 when the People’s Republic of China voiced objections.[36] Since then, there has been no exploratory drilling, due to the contested nature of the area, and thus the actual presence of oil and gas reserves remains unsubstantiated. Nevertheless, this has not stopped speculation. One figure for the fossil fuel prospects of the entire East China Sea that has frequently appeared in Chinese academic writings is 109.5 billion barrels.[37] This number, however, is of apparently dubious provenance, allegedly stemming from a 1969 New York Times article in which a Japanese official quotes findings from the U.N. report. The report, however, contains no such number.[38] Another common figure is 3 to 7 billion tons — purportedly put forward by official Chinese experts in 1982 without any hard evidence.[39] Other similarly high Chinese estimates exist, but as a U.S. Energy Information Administration report notes, they remain without corroboration and “do not take into account economic factors relevant to bring them to production.”[40] In fact, one source from a major Chinese oil company confided that “inside the [Chinese] oil industry, you do not hear anyone making big claims about oil and gas around the islands these days, especially given the limited findings in other parts of the East China Sea.”[41] [quote id="2"] Indeed, other recent estimates are more conservative. In 2006, one Japanese official estimated oil and gas reserves on Japan’s side of its self-proclaimed East China Sea median line — including potential Senkaku/Diaoyu entitlements — at approximately 500 million kilo-liters, equivalent to less than a year’s worth of Chinese consumption at 2015 levels.[42] The Energy Information Administration has estimated “proved and probable reserves” in the entire East China Sea at approximately “200 million barrels of oil” and “between 1 and 2 trillion cubic feet” of natural gas.[43] At China’s 2015 consumption levels, that equals just 16 days’ worth of oil and between 55 to 100 days of natural gas.[44] In short, although potential oil and gas resources may have initially generated an interest in the islands decades ago,  it currently remains unclear what resources actually lie in the surrounding seabed, and recent estimates have tended to decrease expectations significantly.[45] A second potential source of economic value is the fishing resources around the islands. At present, under a 1997 agreement, each side has agreed not to enforce its laws on the “nationals and fishing vessels” of the other in the waters 12 nautical miles beyond the islands. The friction, however, is within the narrow 12-nautical-mile bands of water surrounding the islands. The Japanese government claims these as territorial waters to which the 1997 agreement does not apply,[46] and Chinese fishing boats thus face being chased off by the Japanese Coast Guard when approaching.[47] These waters, however, constitute only a small fraction of the disputed East China Sea exclusive economic zone area. Moreover, due to over-fishing in the general area, the fishing stocks in these waters have declined precipitously in line with broader trends in the East China Sea.[48] This decline, together with factors including increasing fuel costs for travel to the islands, has put off many local Japanese fishers from traveling to the islands.[49] A third potential source of economic value is seabed mining, primarily of polymetallic manganese nodules or polymetallic sulfides.[50] But polymetallic sulfides and economically viable concentrations of manganese nodules are generally limited to deeper waters, the former around underwater vents.[51] In the East China Sea, the chief concentrations are in the depths of the Okinawa Trough, in the vicinity of undisputed Japanese islands in the Ryukyus.[52] The shallower waters of the continental shelf floor surrounding the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands would thus appear to offer considerably less of potential value, while sovereignty over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands would make only a relatively minor difference for claims in deeper waters.[53] There is a further issue concerning the economic value of the islands: Settling the question of sovereignty over them would still leave unresolved the problem of who is entitled to the resources in and below their surrounding waters. Granted, under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the state with undisputed sovereignty over the islands would have claim to 12 nautical miles of territorial waters around each of the features above water at high tide. But as noted above, many of the resources under dispute lie outside these narrow confines and thus ownership would depend on further exclusive economic zone entitlements.[54] And yet, it is far from certain an international court or arbitral tribunal would grant the Senkaku/Diaoyu exclusive economic zone entitlements. Specifically, to qualify for an exclusive economic zone or continental shelf entitlement, the features in question need to be capable of sustaining human habitation or economic life of their own.[55] Given the stringency with which the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling applied this requirement to the South China Sea, it is questionable whether the small, uninhabited Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands would qualify.[56] Let us assume, nevertheless, that one or more of the Senkaku/Diaoyu features were found to meet the legal requirements for generating an exclusive economic zone entitlement. In negotiations or judicial proceedings to allocate exclusive economic zones between claimants in the East China Sea, such an entitlement might still only receive reduced consideration or be wholly discounted due to a variety of factors.  These include the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands’ relatively small size, lack of population and economic activity, and distance from other features.[57] Even if the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands’ entitlements to an exclusive economic zone were granted full effect in the process of drawing borders, they would still need to be weighed against all the other potential exclusive economic zone and continental shelf entitlements that extend from Taiwan, continental China, and the Japanese archipelago and also require consideration. With all these overlapping entitlements, the final determination of the exclusive economic zone boundaries in the East China Sea is far from straightforward. Given that the processes of negotiation or third-party arbitration pertaining to maritime borders is highly complicated and unpredictable, the actual benefits to be reaped from having sovereignty over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands when entering into such proceedings are very uncertain and possibly quite trivial. This also assumes such proceedings would even occur. As one legal scholar notes, “the unpredictability of litigation, the probable domestic illegitimacy of any adverse result, and the lack of any means short of force to enforce a judgment all work to discourage litigation or arbitration.”[58] Evaluating Material Motives Asked in 2016 if the islands have strategic or economic value, former Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda replied, “No, no, using all that petrol for patrols … I think it is a waste.”[59] Strategically, the islands are isolated and easily targeted, and attempting to militarize them would entail substantial risk for marginal advantage. The fishing stocks are in decline while potential oil and gas reserves remain unconfirmed and have repeatedly been re-estimated as lower than previously thought. Moreover, it remains uncertain what — if any — advantage sovereignty over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands would provide in negotiations or judicial proceedings over the delimitation of maritime resource entitlements, should these ever even occur. Nevertheless, one could argue it is perceptions, not the actual value, that matter. Policymakers may, after all, still be driven by perceived material aims. For instance, retired Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan claims the islands are “treasure islands” and have “great geostrategic significance.”[60] But we should be careful in taking such publicly presented rationales at face value, particularly when they come from Chinese military hawks who are active in public affairs.[61] In truth, if Beijing’s aim is installing stationary military outposts in the East China Sea, it has easier options. In fact, having already built several oil and gas rigs in the East China Sea further to the north, abutting the Japanese-demarcated median line, the Chinese government could erect more such structures to the south, along its side of the median line near the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and adjacent important sea lanes. Such rigs can host radar and missile emplacements. Indeed, the Japanese side has already accused Beijing of installing military-use radar on its northerly rigs.[62] If Beijing desires a tripwire between Japan and Taiwan, these could serve the purpose. Alternately, if the driving motive is economic, joint development would offer considerable gains over the status quo without the risk of costly conflict. In actuality, this may be the only feasible option for Tokyo, as underwater topography is unfavorable to unilateral Japanese development of what is likely to be natural gas.[63] The Japanese government has itself admitted as much.[64] Ironically, running a pipeline to the Chinese coast is far more feasible.[65] One might argue it still makes sense for Japan to defend its claim in order to prevent China from taking all the spoils. But Beijing has already, on multiple occasions, proposed joint development while shelving the sovereignty issue.[66] Admittedly, such cooperation would require ironing out many details. And yet, there are successful precedents: In 1974, Japan and the Republic of Korea agreed to jointly develop highly anticipated petroleum deposits in waters where both shared overlapping claims, although they subsequently found little of value.[67] It is extraordinarily difficult to prove a negative. Yet, if the core motives for escalating the contest over the islands were material, we should have expected the protagonists to act in ways that maximize advantages or gains in these categories. That we have not, and the prominence of the dispute has increased even while the islands’ economic value now appears less than originally thought, suggests other things at work.

Non-material Value?

Another potential approach, also drawn from the literature on territorial disputes, would be to examine preexisting non-material factors, such as the historic or religious value of the contested space, or the ethnic heritage of its population.[68] The actual disagreement between Japan and the People’s Republic of China over the islands, however, is of relatively recent provenance, beginning when Beijing first publicly challenged Japanese sovereignty with its own claim in 1971.[69] Before that, the islands had a relatively trivial existence: They had no religious or historic meaning of note, no Chinese citizens had ever lived there, and a Japanese fish-processing factory that had been there before the war had long been abandoned. At the time Beijing raised its claim, the islands were uninhabited, with several of them leased to the United States for target practice. Strikingly, in 1972, when Japanese Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei brought up the islands with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai during normalization negotiations, Zhou’s response was, “Because oil has emerged, that is why this is a problem.”[70] It is, therefore, difficult to argue the islands possess any distant historical lineage of value. Even today, the islands remain nothing more than small, isolated, uninhabited features without any population, meaningful infrastructure, or sites of major religious or historical consequence. Critics might simply retreat to saying that territory is an issue of national sovereignty, and that regardless of their history, once both sides laid claim to the islands they became a core national interest.[71] Additionally, critics could also point to the overlapping claims to the islands advanced by Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China, thus linking the issue to the larger question of Chinese national unification. But even if one were to concede these points, they still do not explain the historic variation in how the dispute has unfolded within Sino-Japanese relations. General concerns over sovereignty fail to explain why certain territories might be valued more than others. Concerns over national sovereignty or unification are also longstanding and static and thus do little to explain how the willingness of both sides to risk conflict over the islands has changed over time. [quote id="3"] There remains important historic variation that needs explaining, particularly between the nature of the dispute in the pre- and post-2010 periods. Prior to 2010, both sides had adopted a delaying strategy regarding the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.[72] Indeed, in 1972 Zhou stated he did not want to discuss the dispute,[73] and in 1978 Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping suggested shelving the issue for the next generation to solve.[74] Neither actively sought to raise the dispute and were responding to its having been brought up by the Japanese side. And while Tokyo never publicly acknowledged — and in fact repeatedly denied — shelving the dispute, in practice, both countries subsequently worked to minimize the issue while Japan continued to exercise administrative control.[75] Admittedly, there were points of friction. In 1978, when members of the ruling Japanese Liberal Democratic Party criticized their leadership for not leveraging Treaty of Peace and Friendship negotiations to get Beijing to cede its claim, hundreds of Chinese fishing ships appeared near the islands.[76] The Chinese central government, however, later described the incident as “accidental,” generating speculation that this was the result of internal divisions over the treaty.[77] In 1992, the People’s Republic of China passed the Law on the Territorial Sea and Contiguous Zone, which explicitly names the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands as its territory. This move was reportedly fiercely debated internally and done under pressure from the military.[78] But as both Beijing and Tokyo were more focused on the Japanese emperor’s upcoming visit to China, there was limited fallout.[79] In 2008, official Chinese ships entered the territorial waters around the islands for the first time.[80] In light of other high-level efforts to improve relations at the time, including a Sino-Japanese East China Sea joint development agreement — concluded despite internal Chinese opposition — some have attributed this to dissenting Chinese hardliners.[81] More prominently, however, it was small activist groups on both sides that generated problems. In the 1970s, the dispute had already galvanized “Protect the Diaoyu” groups in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the United States. In Japan, various nationalist groups also rallied to the cause, the most prominent being the Nihon Seinensha.[82] Attempts by these actors to land on the islands, or alternately, in the case of Nihon Seinensha, advance the cause by building and registering lighthouses, constituted an ongoing irritant, particularly in the 1990s.[83] Additionally, in 2004, after multiple failed attempts, members of the mainland China-based “Chinese Federation for Defending the Diaoyu Islands” landed on one of the islands for the first time. In response, the Japanese government simply repatriated the Chinese activists back to the Chinese mainland. The government in Beijing, for its part, prevented further attempts by the group to travel to the islands.[84] On the whole, both Tokyo and Beijing repeatedly worked to contain the impact of their activists: Beijing suppressed press coverage and prevented organized protests, while Tokyo refused to officially recognize the efforts of its nationalist groups and sought to limit their activities.[85] All in all, Japanese policy prior to 2010 could be summarized with the words of Japan’s foreign minister, Sonoda Sunao: “eschew provocative, propagandizing behavior … only carefully, calmly do what is necessary for domestic political needs.”[86] The policy of the People’s Republic of China, in turn, could, with few exceptions, be summed up in Chinese Vice Premier Gu Mu’s words: “[The Diaoyu Islands] have always been Chinese territory. … [W]e can temporarily shelve the sovereignty issue. Let the later generations resolve it.”[87] Erica Downs and Phillip Saunders argue that in the past this policy to contain the dispute was due to concerns about its possible impact on bilateral economic relations.[88] Given mainland China’s economic growth, one could suggest that economic relations with Japan are not currently as crucial to Beijing as they were when Downs and Saunders were writing. But the fact is that even now Japan still remains a major economic partner. As recently as 2017 Japan ranked as China’s third largest export destination and second largest import partner, as well as a key source of investment.[89] Moreover, Taylor Fravel, writing in 2010, also noted a number of other reasons we should have expected both sides to avoid conflict, including the deterrent effect of U.S. commitments, the desire by both to maintain a regional reputation as “constructive and benign powers,” and the prior ability of all sides to manage the dispute.[90] Given all these countervailing factors, an explanation is still needed for the substantial change that took place after the 2010 collision incident.

Intentional Conflict?

A third potential explanation would be that the 2010 confrontation was intentional. One conceivable reason for deliberately provoking an escalation of the dispute would be to distract from internal issues and improve the domestic popularity of each country’s respective leadership, a position commonly advanced under the rubric of “diversionary war theory.”[91] Another possibility is that the escalation demonstrates, as Krista Wiegand has argued, an intentional effort at “issue linkage” in which Beijing sought to use “the islands dispute as bargaining leverage to gain concessions from Japan on other disputed issues.”[92] All available evidence, however, suggests the initial incident in 2010 was neither planned nor welcomed by either side. The trawler’s captain was reportedly intoxicated when arrested, and thus was not likely a covert Chinese agent.[93] Though initially feted upon returning home to mainland China, he was subsequently forbidden to fish and subjected to a “soft” house arrest.[94] Additionally, the Chinese government’s response — far from seeking to immediately leverage the incident — was restrained at first. Although protesting to the Japanese ambassador and canceling visits and East China Sea joint-development negotiations, in the first week after the captain’s arrest, Beijing suppressed protests and conveyed to Tokyo through back channels, “Somehow, please just get this settled without a fuss.”[95] Only after the Japanese side decided to extend the detention of the fishing captain despite releasing the ship and crew did Beijing escalate its response. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao publicly pressed for the captain’s release, reports emerged of an alleged Chinese embargo on rare-earth exports to Japan, and Beijing detained four Japanese citizens.[96] Nothing here suggests an official Chinese conspiracy or reactive opportunism. In reality, Beijing was likely responding to an initially perceived loss: Tokyo had asserted its domestic law in the waters around the islands.[97] Neither would this seem to be a clever plot planned by the Japanese government. Maehara Seiji, the Japanese minister in charge of the Japanese Coast Guard at the time, subsequently claimed to be following an “arrest manual” inherited from a previous administration.[98] Even if Maehara did see a chance to assert Japanese jurisdiction, little preparation was made for what to do afterwards. The Kan Naoto administration was left scrambling for ways to contain the damage, fearful of being forced to pay the political price for intervening in the legal process in order to end the incident.[99] Facing increasing pressure from Beijing, a Japanese foreign ministry delegation gave a presentation to the local prosecutor’s office, ostensibly at the latter’s request.[100] The following day, the prosecutor announced the captain’s release. As Maehara himself admits, the handling of the situation was a “mishmash” (chūtohanpa).[101] Notably, both countries subsequently sought to mend the relationship. Kan met with Wen on the sidelines of a summit in October 2010, where both agreed to promote a mutually beneficial strategic relationship. When the triple disaster of March 11 struck Japan in 2011 — the earthquake, tsunami, and meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant — Beijing expressed condolences and provided aid in an effort to improve relations.[102] Preparations thus began to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Sino-Japanese normalization. As Kan’s successor, Noda Yoshihiko, recalls, in 2011 he “had no premonition” that the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands would again become a problem.[103] [quote id="4"] Consequently, when in April 2012 the mayor of Tokyo, Ishihara Shintaro, proposed purchasing the islands, it was a development unwelcome to both governments. Ishihara was well known as a right-wing nationalist and there were concerns he would provoke Beijing such that “Sino-Japanese relations would enter an extremely dangerous state.”[104] To contain the situation, the new Noda administration began quietly exploring the possibility of preemptively buying the islands. Behind the scenes, it also reached out to Chinese officials, arguing it was better for the Japanese government to hold title to the islands. Initially, the Japanese government thought it might be making headway in gaining tacit acceptance from Beijing of this point.[105] The hope was to surreptitiously transfer the islands’ ownership without any publicity. This plan failed, however, when in July 2012 a Japanese newspaper made the story front-page news and Noda was forced to publicly announce his plans to pursue a potential purchase.[106] Compounding the damage, this announcement also coincided with an important wartime anniversary, the Marco Polo Bridge Incident in 1937 which had precipitated Imperial Japan’s full-scale military invasion of China. Even still, the Chinese government only began meaningfully escalating its response in mid-August, suggesting it, too, had initially wished to handle the issue quietly. But despite the apparent initial intentions of both sides, the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands subsequently became a highly salient flashpoint. Yet it remains unclear why.

The Three Dimensions of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands’ Increased Significance

In examining the evidence, three dimensions of the islands’ increased significance emerge as important in explaining how the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands have developed into the flashpoint they are today. Those dimensions are symbolic, domestic, and competitive. The initial catalyst for the islands to begin growing in significance was the 2010 collision incident. The 2012 Japanese purchase of the islands exacerbated this even further. The Symbolic Dimension Surveying official statements, news reports, and comments from government officials regarding the islands, it becomes clear that the dispute over the islands rapidly came to implicate much more than their immediate, tangible value. Political scientists have long suggested that international relations are populated with a variety of intangible concerns. State actors care about reputation, status, prestige, and honor within the international community.[107] In some cases, these are ends in themselves, such as, for instance, when international prestige satisfies a need for national self-esteem or a certain international status constitutes an important element of a state’s national identity. In other cases, they can be a means to an end — for example, in order to increase the international deference a state enjoys and ease its ability to achieve its desired outcomes.[108] The pursuit of intangibles — such as reputation — may even stem from mistaken fears over how other states will evaluate a given state’s resolve.[109] Such concerns may be particularly salient for state actors who believe their international standing does not reflect what they are due, or alternately, perceive their status and prestige to be slipping away. Apart from global concerns, there may also exist intangible concerns that are particular to certain relationships between specific states. These include not only particular fixations with relative status and hierarchy vis-à-vis key counterparts, but also historical resentments and grievances, stories of unrectified humiliation and betrayal, and even mutual suspicion and prejudices.[110] Even before 2010, Sino-Japanese relations had experienced various episodes of contention over intangible issues. In the early 2000s, issues concerning the legacies of Japanese aggression against China — the “history problem” as it is called — loomed large. In particular, Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro’s annual visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, where 14 Japanese Class A war criminals are enshrined, were an especial irritant — by the end of his administration the top Chinese leadership refused to even meet with him.[111] This was exacerbated, among other things, by disputes over textbook content and ongoing wartime compensation issues.[112] Beijing’s official position was that Japan was not taking the proper attitude toward its history, while for many on the Japanese side, the Chinese government was also responsible for cynically playing up history and exaggerating the threat of Japanese militarism.[113] Indeed, in a 2010 poll, the majority of Chinese respondents blamed a lack of Japanese historical consciousness for the history problem between the two countries, while Japanese respondents primarily blamed China’s anti-Japanese education.[114] Nevertheless, these controversies over history played out primarily in the realm of rhetoric and, occasionally, protests — not military planning. The flare-up of the dispute over the islands, however, supplied these struggles over history a concrete focal point.[115] The official Japanese position is that the islands were terra nullis when declared Japanese territory in 1895. In the decades that followed, China did not challenge Japanese use of the islands, and neither did it object to U.S. administration of the islands after World War II. From the Japanese perspective, the Chinese government’s 1971 claim thus appeared suspicious so close on the heels of the publication of the U.N. Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East report suggesting the existence of significant petroleum deposits.[116] In this view, by making a historical claim Beijing was duplicitously inserting itself into the game retroactively when it appeared there was material gain to be had, again twisting history to its own political ends.[117] The official Chinese position, however, is that China first discovered and administered the islands and that Japan only secretly incorporated them after gaining the upper hand in the 1894–1895 Sino-Japanese War. The islands were thus Japanese spoils of war, ceded with Taiwan, and therefore subject to return under the 1945 terms of the Japanese surrender. But they were not returned, and the People’s Republic of China was excluded from the 1951 peace treaty process. Therefore, in 1971, as the United States prepared to transfer the islands to Japan, Beijing made its position clear.[118] In this reading, Japan is again white-washing past aggression and distorting history, and has “rejected and challenged the outcomes of the victory of the World Anti-Fascist War.”[119] Granted, these diverging historical arguments existed prior to the 2010 incident, and were known to activists and specialists. With the dispute thrust into the limelight by the events of 2010 and 2012, however, the islands became implicated in the larger “history problem” for the domestic publics in both states, with all the perceptions of bad faith that entailed. The islands became more than just another vessel for historical disagreements, frustrations, and grievances, however. They also came to implicate higher matters of justice. In China, this is exemplified by a sudden uptick after the People’s Daily referred to Japan as “stealing” (qiequ) the islands in 2010.[120] The language of theft was also used in Japan, where, as one Japanese commentator noted, the logic took the following pattern: The events triggered a “[the islands] ‘may be stolen’ victimhood-consciousness,” resulting in “an instantaneous ‘we cannot let [them] be stolen’ reflexive response.”[121] Certainly, if, as each country insists, the islands are its “inherent” territory,[122] the other country cannot but have criminal intent and is acting unjustly. All the above erupted against the larger backdrop of Sino-Japanese relations, in which China was seen in both countries as increasingly overshadowing Japan politically, economically, and militarily.[123] Notably, 2010 was the year China’s gross domestic product surpassed Japan’s, becoming second only to the United States’.[124] Consequently, within Japan, Beijing’s conduct crystallized fears of how a stronger China might behave in the future: bullying and ignoring the rules and using its military and economic might to assert its prerogatives in the region and beyond.[125] Indeed, as Smith notes, in Japan the 2010 incident earned the title “Senkaku shokku [shock],” as it demonstrated how a “hostile” China might behave.[126] Some in Japan even began suggesting a domino logic — “If we give them Senkaku, next it will be giving over Yonaguni Island or even the main island of Okinawa.”[127] These concerns resonated with poll results revealing unfavorable popular perceptions of Chinese people more generally, likely influenced by recent negative press concerning poor behavior by mainland Chinese tourists in Japan as well as a high-profile scandal involving poisoned Chinese food imports, but also suggesting possible racist undertones of longer lineage within certain parts of the population.[128] On the eve of the 2010 collision, only a small percentage of Japanese people reported viewing mainland Chinese as peaceful, altruistic, or trustworthy, and a majority in earlier polls described mainland Chinese people as greedy, nationalistic, and rude.[129] All this further echoed and bled into larger anxieties over Japan’s place in the world given its declining population and internal malaise.[130] [quote id="5"] For Beijing, however, Japanese behavior belied the notion that other states would accord China greater respect in line with its growing strength. The inverse logic of the Chinese axiom “those who are backwards will be bullied”[131] is that great powers should receive greater deference. Yet, from the official Chinese perspective, Japan was showing no such deference: It obstinately refused to acknowledge the dispute, unilaterally abrogated the implicit agreement between the two countries to shelve the issue, and repeatedly and flagrantly disregarded Beijing’s warnings.[132] In the words of a general in the People’s Liberation Army, “Japan should view these warnings very clearly, today’s China is different from the China of the past.”[133] The China of the past may have been preyed upon due to its weakness, but the strong China of today deserved to have its wishes respected. That Japan did not do so spoke to larger suspicions in China that Japan “cannot acknowledge any other Asian country, cannot accept any other Asian country’s development, believes Japan should stand eternally at the head of the Asian powers.”[134]  This corresponded to more general views recorded in polls: Large majorities of Chinese respondents perceived the Japanese people as arrogant, nationalistic, and violent.[135] The islands thus became a symbol of something larger for both countries. In the words of a former high-ranking Japanese defense official, “it is not a struggle over economic interests … it is not something that would affect the military balance, and so what is left is honor—it is a nationalistic symbol.”[136] Similarly, a former Japanese vice admiral stated that the islands “are a kind of psychological symbol … politically and psychologically we cannot allow China to take them.”[137] Former Japanese ambassador Miyamoto Yūji framed the stakes even more poignantly: “We consider giving them up, what will they do next, does Japan really want to be a part of China, dominated by Chinese influence? … If Japanese lose the guts to defend the Senkaku, we become, ‘Yes, I follow your orders, China, king.’”[138] Alternately, multiple Chinese interviewees in academia and at think tanks also privately conveyed the islands’ value to be neither strategic nor economic, but primarily symbolic and political.[139] As one scholar noted, the islands are worthless, but one cannot say so because the issue is too emotional. He continued, “The islands are emotionally important. They are just a few rocks, but we cannot back down. Japan took the islands when China was weak.”[140] In sum, following the 2010 incident, the dispute over the islands quickly became about much more than the islands themselves — they became concrete proxies in larger morally and emotionally charged struggles over history, reputation, recognition, victimization, and status. There is, therefore, an important symbolic dimension to the significance of the islands within Sino-Japanese relations. Their increased symbolic meaning elevated the dispute’s salience and raised the perceived stakes involved. The Domestic Dimension In examining how the dispute developed after the 2010 incident, it is equally impossible to ignore the domestic dynamics that were set into motion in both countries. Domestically, the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands became a major political football. Much has been made within the international relations literature of “outbidding,” whereby domestic political actors seek to raise their profile and political chances by taking hardline foreign policy positions.[141] The conflict over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands supplied an opportunity par excellence for such outbidding. Advocating harsher measures, domestic politicians and political activists were able to differentiate themselves from their competitors by playing to popular hawkish biases.[142] That said, for the leaders managing the territorial contest, the dispute over the islands constituted a point of exposure that domestic opponents could leverage on a domestic playing field that was not fully level. Not holding power, political opponents were at liberty to criticize without offering solutions or, alternately, to propose tactics that play well domestically regardless of their international ramifications. Importantly, the conflict also erupted at a difficult time for the leadership in both countries. The Democratic Party of Japan, a relatively new party without previous ruling experience, had assumed power. In China, a leadership struggle was underway. The conflict thus was a potential source of vulnerability for those in power and a potential source of ammunition for their critics. Within Japan, the ruling Democratic Party of Japan quickly came under fire for giving the appearance that the captain had been released due to pressure from Beijing. Linus Hagström has chronicled how policymakers, elites, and the press in Japan viewed the episode: “a diplomatic defeat,” “caved in to pressure,” “a humiliating retreat,” “a fiasco.”[143] Above all, the Democratic Party of Japan was attacked as “spineless.”[144] Even the Japanese ambassador in Beijing was criticized for responding to late-night summonses from the Chinese government.[145] The opposition also called for the Democratic Party of Japan to release the coast guard footage of the incident to clarify who was at fault. Chief Cabinet Secretary Sengoku Yoshito argued the video was evidence and could not be made public, but this was ridiculed as deferring to Chinese sensibilities while Beijing spread untruths, such as the claim that the captain was innocent.[146] Consequently, a coast guard official who had access to the video and was angry with the Japanese government’s behavior leaked the footage.[147] The leak, in turn, ignited a further controversy over the ruling party’s control of its own officials.[148] The overall effect was a blow to the Democratic Party of Japan. As one parliamentarian who belonged to that party relates, after 2010, “we were in a different political climate … much of the criticism, or even I would say hatred towards the DPJ [Democratic Party of Japan] stems from that, that we were seen as being weak … almost having a collusive relationship with the Chinese.”[149] This, in turn, set the stage for 2012. By announcing his plan to purchase the islands, Tokyo’s mayor, Ishihara, cast himself as defending the national interest where the Democratic Party of Japan had failed: “The government should buy them, but it doesn’t. Tokyo will defend the Senkaku.”[150] Ishihara was known for his antipathy toward the People’s Republic of China — frequently referring to it with the derogatory term shina.[151] But this was also a political opportunity. As Noda observed, “He was the mayor of Tokyo, but after that he founds a new party, and becoming ambitious towards national politics, he may have been looking for something with which to appeal to the public.”[152] In the wake of 2010, that is exactly what happened: One early poll showed 69 percent support for Ishihara’s plan.[153] The Liberal Democratic Party followed suit, adding the purchase of the islands to its manifesto.[154] Ishihara quickly amassed a large number of public donations worth 1.4 billion yen, both increasing his leverage and making it difficult to back down.[155] Ishihara was also quite cavalier about the risks. Speaking privately with Noda, he suggested that even if China were provoked to military action, things would be fine, because “if it involves conventional forces, the Japanese Self Defense Forces would win.”[156] Afraid of what would happen should Ishihara purchase the islands, the Noda government thus entered into a covert contest with him to buy them first.  Although the Japanese government may eventually have sought ownership of the islands regardless so as to control their use, Ishihara accelerated its timeline, limited its options, and brought unwanted publicity.[157] Complicating matters, the islands’ owner was slow and fickle, causing some drama as both sides sought to curry favor with him.[158] Even after securing the owner’s agreement to sell, the Japanese government worried he might change his mind. Initially, the Japanese government was hopeful that its counterparts in Beijing might be amenable to its efforts. As events progressed, however, Japan’s top officials came to believe that Beijing would object irrespective of the timing and thus it would be better to finish with buying the islands quickly before the upcoming transition in China’s leadership.[159] All the same, the forcefulness of the Chinese side’s response exceeded their expectations.[160] [quote id="6"] Even with the purchase completed, the islands remained a prominent domestic political issue in Japan. In the September 2012 leadership race within the Liberal Democratic Party — which was playing out against the backdrop of violent Chinese protests — all candidates but one advocated increasing Japan’s “effective control of the islands.[161] Chief among these was Abe Shinzō, the victor, who proposed solidifying Japanese control by building a small harbor or structure to house officials on the islands.[162] He continued a hawkish line going into the December lower-house elections, attacking the Democratic Party of Japan for “three years of diplomatic failure.”[163] The Liberal Democratic Party won, making Abe prime minister. In office, he has maintained a firm position, which arguably has played to his advantage as he has sought to increase Japanese defense spending and loosen legal restrictions on the Japanese Self Defense Forces.[164] Domestic dynamics within the People’s Republic of China are less clear, but internal political pressures also appear to have been at work. Scholars have long noted the importance of Sino-Japanese relations to the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party, this being a domain of particularly strong perceived nationalist emotions.[165] Nevertheless, prior to the 2010 incident, the administration of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao had been actively working to improve relations with Japan, reaching a controversial agreement to jointly develop oil and gas resources in the East China Sea. The agreement attracted internal domestic criticism and at the time was pushed through despite objections from members of various maritime security agencies.[166] The Japanese arrest of the fishing captain put Hu and Wen in a difficult position, as it suggested their concessions were for naught. Not surprisingly, the joint agreement was an early casualty of the 2010 confrontation.[167] Wen, in turn, became the face of China’s criticism of Japan, sharply attacking the arrest as “eliciting the anger of all Chinese at home and abroad.”[168] The incident also elicited domestic protests, although these were subject to official restraint.[169] Interestingly, in 2010, Chongqing was both one of the earliest sites of anti-Japanese protests and one of the last — the final demonstration occurred after the central government had begun officially discouraging protests.[170] This protest was apparently tolerated by local authorities, given that calls for the rally had “circulated days in advance and drawn international media coverage.”[171] Although it was unclear at the time, we now know the Chinese Communist Party secretary of Chongqing at the time, Bo Xilai, was engaged in a fierce political struggle for a top leadership position. One of his methods of gaining support was an unorthodox campaign to foster mass popularity. That Bo might have sought to leverage the conflict for political gain is not inconceivable — it would have helped bolster even further his populist credentials while putting pressure on the center. Bo eventually fell in 2012 — embroiled in a drama involving the murder of an expat. This scandal, along with the larger leadership succession struggle within the Chinese Communist Party prior to the 18th Party Congress, unfolded at the same time as Tokyo was moving closer to buying the islands. The Japanese purchase thus came at a very difficult time for Hu and Wen.[172] As the then-Japanese ambassador recounts, from July 2012 onward, Beijing repeatedly communicated to Tokyo that it should desist with efforts to purchase the islands, conveying the message: “The Party Congress is in November, this will be an extremely large problem.”[173] The exact details of the leadership struggle remain a mystery — including Xi Jinping’s sudden disappearance in September, officially due to a “back injury.”[174] What is clear, however, is that a considerable hardening of Beijing’s position vis-à-vis Tokyo occurred in mid-August 2012, following a Chinese Communist Party leadership conference in Beidaihe. Online censorship of nationalistic posts concerning the islands dropped precipitously starting August 18, and in mid-August Chinese authorities became more permissive toward nationalist activities, allowing demonstrations and attempts by Hong Kong activists to land on the islands, even providing media coverage.[175] Several Japanese scholars have argued that political adversaries used the dispute to attack Hu and gain leverage in the leadership struggle, with some even suggesting the demonstrations were part of a plot by the subsequently deposed security chief, Zhou Yongkang.[176] Even if this was not the case, Hu likely was politically on his heels, with a close aide under fire for corruption.[177] Consequently, it is doubtful he could have tolerated letting the contest with Japan become an additional source of vulnerability. Unsurprisingly, when Hu encountered Noda at an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference on Sept. 9, 2012, he strongly conveyed Beijing’s objections. As Noda recalls, he approached Hu to give his condolences and offer support for a recent earthquake, but “not at all responding to that, what came back was ‘[we] absolutely cannot accept nationalization of the islands ….’”[178] Hu’s warning did not dissuade Noda. The following day he announced the purchase of the islands. As the then-Japanese ambassador has observed, the timing “was a bit diplomatically rude.”[179] For Hu, it was a clear attack on his authority. For Hu’s successor Xi, however, it presented an opportunity and a crucial trial. Xi was reportedly charged with heading a leading small group — a key policy body reporting to the Politburo — to respond to the Japanese purchase.[180] If true, this constituted an important test of his leadership abilities and offered Xi the chance to project strength in contrast to Hu. The safest course for him was arguably a harsh response, provided it did not escalate out of control. As there were already calls to increase patrols around the islands, Xi could prove his mettle by supporting them, which apparently he did.[181] Xi continued to take a hard line toward Japan in the years that followed, siding with the People’s Liberation Army in 2013 — over objections from the foreign ministry — on the plan to establish an Air Defense Identification Zone over the disputed islands.[182] The political logic makes sense: When he was first in office, Xi was embroiled in fierce domestic battles, most prominently the massive anti-corruption campaign that has become one of the defining elements of his rule. Taking a hardline stance prevented criticism, appealed to key constituencies in the military and security apparatuses, and bolstered his popularity as a strong leader. It would be two years before Xi would first meet Abe, and only after both sides had hammered out statements seemingly agreeing to disagree about the existence of a disagreement over the islands.[183] The combination of vulnerability and opportunity therefore pressured leaders in both countries to adopt a harder line. But numerous minor actors on both sides — too many to list here — also saw opportunity in the conflict. This extended beyond the many nationalist activists on both sides who mobilized for the cause — online and in the streets — and the tabloids supplying sensationalist reporting. The conflict also became the subject of pulpy books for the general public, ranging from the People’s Liberation Army Rear Admiral Zhang Zhaozhong’s History of Disputed Islands to former Japanese Coast Guard official Isshiki Masaharu’s account of leaking the collision footage.[184] Conspiracy theorists also found an outlet, suggesting, for instance, that the 2010 collision was a Chinese plot or that the death of a Chinese panda on loan to Japan was deliberate.[185] Jiun Bang, in her excellent work on nationalist kitsch, has mapped the myriad ways private entrepreneurs in both Japan and China capitalized on the dispute.[186] Merchandise included stickers, keychains, shirts, food, and even alcohol — one example being the 106-proof “Diaoyudoa patriotic liquor” available in an artillery-shell-shaped flask. Private investors even sought to purchase the trawler from the 2010 collision to house a sarcastically named “Sino-Japanese Friendship Restaurant.”[187] In China, the conflict spawned videogames, from the cartoonishly racist “Protect Diaoyudao,”[188] to the more realistic “Glorious Mission,” which was designed by the People’s Liberation Army.[189] All served to further cement the dispute within the public sphere and raise its salience. In sum, there has been a clear domestic dimension to the significance of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Developments concerning the islands generated both opportunities for domestic political actors and private entrepreneurs and potential vulnerabilities for each country’s leadership. Those not in power had incentives to play up the drama and the intangible stakes of the contest for selfish ends — whether personal, ideological, or commercial. For those in power, the stakes of the contest — for better or worse — potentially included their own political fate. The overall impact domestically was to direct attention to the contest and exert pressure on policymakers to take ever stronger actions in response. The Competitive Dimension The 2010 incident — and the subsequent 2012 purchase even more so — sparked not just immediate retaliatory gestures but also a variety of concurrent forms of positional competition between the two countries. Akin to the security dilemma, in which actions by one side to improve its security render the other side less secure, here actions taken to improve one side’s position in the dispute were detrimental to the other’s, thus eliciting counter-measures. Such positional competition did not just take military form, it also unfolded within the domains of public diplomacy, legal contestation, and even historical research. Through move and counter-move, a set of interactive dynamics emerged that even now continue to propel escalation of the dispute forward. The islands are thus also significant in that they became a concrete, enduring target for all these positional struggles. Things began with the disagreements over the Japanese arrest of the trawler captain and the subsequent purchase of the islands, both of which generated strong reactions from both countries. In response to the latter, in particular, Beijing launched a “diplomacy of anger,”[190] expressing outrage, suspending meetings and exchanges, and taking various punitive measures. As one Chinese scholar writes, “to defend the sovereignty of the Chinese Diaoyu Islands, the Chinese government adopted a series of forceful countermeasures” ranging from sending maritime surveillance ships and aircraft into the area, to the official publication of basepoints and baselines around the islands, to even introducing daily televised weather forecasts for the islands.[191] Beijing also permitted protests in over 200 cities, some involving violence and the destruction of stores, restaurants, and property associated with Japan.[192] Japan, in turn, was host to various forms of activism, as well as protests and denunciations of China’s behavior.[193] Although the vehemence of these immediate reactions appears to have subsided, both states also took further measures to solidify their respective standing in the dispute, setting in motion various forms of positional competition that remain ongoing. Military Competition Perhaps the most prominent form of positional competition has been in the military — or paramilitary — domain, whereby each side seeks advantage through acquiring and deploying relevant capabilities. Most strikingly, official Chinese vessels and aircraft have become a regular presence around the disputed islands, challenging Japanese control. Following the 2010 arrest of the Chinese trawler captain, Beijing successively sent a number of official vessels into the contiguous zone surrounding the islands. After the 2012 purchase, these increased markedly: Sixty-six patrols entered the islands’ territorial waters over the subsequent year.[194] In the latter half of 2013, these stabilized into regular patrols two or three times per month,[195] and were accompanied by increasing Chinese air patrols as well.[196] The initial Japanese response was to shift half of its entire coast guard to the area surrounding the islands and keep up a constant pace of scrambling fighters to intercept approaching Chinese aircraft.[197] The longer-term response on both sides, however, has been a qualitative and quantitative increase in both the capabilities deployed in the immediate vicinity of the islands as well as the overall portfolio of capabilities that both sides possess. Beijing has steadily increased military spending and has also invested heavily in its paramilitary maritime forces.[198] Certainly, this is a trend that predates 2010 and involves a multitude of factors. But this spending includes capabilities that would be useful for a scenario involving the islands. Indeed, official Chinese ships appearing in adjacent waters have, of late, become larger and more militarily capable, with a number of Chinese navy vessels being repurposed as coast guard ships.[199] Correspondingly, Japan has increased its military spending and responded with a variety of measures, including the construction of new Japanese Self Defense Forces and Japanese Coast Guard facilities on nearby islands, the creation of a “dedicated Senkaku Territorial Waters Guard Unit” to maintain a “24/7 presence” around the islands, a 50 percent increase in coast guard tonnage, and the creation of an amphibious force capable of retaking remote islands.[200] Japan has also repeatedly sought U.S. support, receiving assurances that their defense agreement covers the islands and successfully seeking revisions to the bilateral defense guidelines so as to better respond to potential contingencies involving the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.[201] [quote id="7"] The overall consequence of the above developments is a much more crowded maritime environment coupled with a greater increase in the potential force both sides can bring to bear. As Adam Liff and Andrew Erikson note, “Despite … the fact neither Beijing nor Tokyo wants conflict, the post-2012 operational status quo has significantly increased the possibility of even an unintended miscalculation or incident.”[202] There have been close encounters, including incidents in which Chinese military vessels have locked onto Japanese counterparts with fire-control radar and episodes of “mock dogfighting” between both sides in the air.[203] As each state seeks to materially defend or improve its position, the potential danger of the situation increases. Public Diplomacy However, the ongoing, interactive material competition is not the only one in play. Positional jockeying has also unfolded in the realm of public diplomacy, with each country appealing for support internationally. As the conflict proceeded, Beijing became particularly active in broadcasting its position — mobilizing diplomats to author op-eds in foreign newspapers, encouraging demonstrations abroad, releasing a new white paper, and creating a multi-language pamphlet for international distribution.[204] Kitagami Keiro, an aide in Noda’s administration, recalled Noda presenting him the Japanese-language version of the pamphlet, saying, “one of my friends visited China for business purposes and they gave him this. … We have to give our side of the argument.”[205] Consequently, Japan began producing its own pamphlets and videos, and diplomats were given orders to respond where possible — at the United Nations, at international conferences, and in the opinion pages of major foreign newspapers.[206] At times, this bordered on the absurd, as when Chinese and Japanese diplomats in Britain traded public accusations as to which was more akin to Voldemort, the villain from the Harry Potter books.[207] The core message each country endeavored to convey, however, was more serious. Beijing sought to portray Japan as an unrepentant, militaristic challenger to the post-World War II order, while Tokyo sought to portray itself as upholding a rules-based order in the face of broad Chinese revisionism in both the East and South China Seas.[208] Legal and Historical Contestation The public diplomacy campaigns intersected with two other domains in which Sino-Japanese positional struggles were unfolding: those of legal contestation and historical scholarship. Legal imperatives, in particular, can have quite pernicious effects, motivating competitive “displays of sovereignty” to avoid any sign of acquiescence and to counter every move made by the other side.[209] In particular, this has driven contests between Chinese and Japanese vessels over jurisdictional control in the waters off the islands. Legal argumentation also incentivizes each side to promote self-serving interpretations while denying any legitimacy to the position of the other, reinforcing a sense of self-righteous victimization. As noted above, the Japanese legal claim contends the islands were terra nullis and that, for decades, it exercised effective control with Chinese consent, while Beijing argues its legal claim on the basis of prior discovery and the Japanese conditions of surrender in 1945.[210] Discrepancies between these justificatory histories feed the impression that each side’s national cause is just and the other’s is duplicitous. Thus, as both countries seek to legitimate their claims, they become cemented in positions ever less amenable to compromise. To supplement their legal claims, both countries have also resorted to competitive historical documentation and research. Each side has sought to support its position with historical maps, documents, and sympathetic scholarship.[211] History has also been marshalled to fortify domestic support through historical exhibitions and updated textbooks.[212] Historical argumentation can work in destabilizing ways, however. For example, in 2013, two Chinese scholars published a piece in the People’s Daily arguing not only that the Diaoyu Islands belonged to Taiwan, but that even Japanese claims to the Ryukyu Islands had a troubled history.[213] According to one of the authors, the goal was to point out, “If one says that the Ryukyus in early history were not part of Japan, what evidence does Japan have to prove that the Diaoyu Islands are Japanese territory[?]”[214] Ostensibly intended to discredit Japanese claims to the islands as “inherent territory,” in Japan, the essay was interpreted much more ominously, with conservative papers proclaiming, “not just the Senkaku, China’s blatant intention to seize all of Okinawa has become visible.”[215] The article only provided further confirmation of Chinese malevolence to hawks in Japan arguing that the islands were just the first domino. In short, the islands have also grown in significance as the focus of ongoing positional competition across a variety of domains. They act as a concrete object for both sides to continue to struggle over. As each side has mobilized its diplomats, soldiers, scholars, and lawyers for their respective efforts, the result has been ever hardening positions and more points of friction within Sino-Japanese relations. Even after the immediate tensions subsided, these various forms of competition have continued to unfold, shaping mutual perceptions and setting the stage for further tensions. Perhaps most crucially, these different forms of competition appear to be taking on lives of their own irrespective of the original value of the stakes involved. Indeed, it is, in general, not the place of those tasked with achieving positional advantage to question the aims — only to find the best way to execute their mandate. Thinking in Three Dimensions The recent increase in significance of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands has three key dimensions. The first is the symbolic dimension, which consists of the expanding, intangible stakes that were projected onto the islands and elevated their prominence. The second, the domestic dimension, encompasses the ways in which the islands became a political football, generating increased internal pressure on leaders on both sides to take firmer measures. And the third is the competitive dimension, which refers to the role the islands have played as an object of various positional struggles that continue to unfold. Even as the relationship has now taken an apparent turn for the better, various forms of positional competition are still operative and a collision at sea or in the air could easily set off a new round of tensions. Unquestionably, the three-dimensional account outlined here draws significant inspiration from existing, process-focused strands within the literature on territorial disputes. First, it echoes approaches that highlight the symbolic dimension of territorial disputes, including concerns about rivalry, reputation, and symbolic entrenchment.[216] But it does not promote any one concern — such as reputation — over the others, arguing that a multiplicity of intangible concerns have simultaneously been in play, including prejudices, moralized judgments, status issues, and resentment. Second, it builds on work that stresses the importance of the domestic dimension.[217] But it does not treat these dynamics as necessarily more pronounced in democracies,[218] nor does it focus only on the domestic coalitions that involvement in these disputes engenders.[219] It additionally highlights how a wide variety of actors — journalists, academics, activists, and even economic opportunists — participated in elevating the domestic salience of the dispute. Lastly, it resonates with work that explores the interactive nature of disputes in terms of positional competition — whether this involves argumentation or militarization — but broadens the focus to include the arenas of international public diplomacy, legal rationalization, and historical research.[220] Beyond this, however, it is crucial to note that none of the developments outlined above played out in isolation. Quite the contrary. At various times, when one facet of the islands’ significance increased, the other dimensions were affected as well. The island’s growing symbolic significance, for instance, rendered them more attractive for use as a domestic political football. Indeed, a variety of substate actors in the domestic realm — politicians, journalists, online commentators, demonstrators, even businesses producing nationalist kitsch such as “Diaoyu Beer,” sporting the exhortation to “drink the Diaoyu, strengthen your patriotism!”[221] — leveraged the symbolic import of the islands to their own ends. But at the same time, the symbolic meaning of the islands also grew in return as a result of their activism. Ishihara, in particular, was a key protagonist in this regard, stoking concerns that “before we know it, Japan could become the sixth star on China’s national flag.”[222] [quote id="8"] The rising symbolic and domestic stakes attached to the islands, in turn, increased the weight of demands on policymakers to take firmer measures, both in the waters around the islands and in the arena of international public opinion. These actions, however, set in motion their own escalatory, interactive dynamics, generating additional points of friction.  The People’s Daily article on the “unresolved” status of Okinawa mentioned above is a prime example of this — an escalation in the realm of historical argumentation that provided ammunition to Japanese hawks while exacerbating more general Japanese concerns over China’s intentions. Moves such as this only served to further heighten the symbolic and domestic import of the islands. Conversely, while counterfactuals are always problematic, there exists a strong logical argument that were one to have stripped away any one of these dimensions of the islands’ significance, events might have played out quite differently. Without the ineffable anxieties, frustrations, and resentments that became symbolically attached to the islands, the islands would arguably have been less salient a political issue for domestic opportunists to exploit. Here, too, Ishihara looms especially large. Had he not been able to leverage the issue for sizable donations and public support, his threat to purchase the islands would have lacked credibility. Without the domestic significance of the islands as a source of political vulnerability — whether for the beleaguered Democratic Party of Japan government or during the troubled leadership transition in Beijing — both governments would have perhaps had more room to delay, downplay the issue, or seek alternative courses of action. Lastly, without the significance of the islands as a concrete and enduring focal point of positional jockeying that continues even now on multiple fronts, the potential risk of new cycles of conflict involving the islands would be significantly reduced.


In many ways, the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands have played the role of what the famous British film director Alfred Hitchcock labeled a “MacGuffin” — an object that the protagonists of a narrative find themselves struggling to obtain. For instance, “in crook stories it is always the necklace and spy stories it is always the papers.”[223] For Hitchcock, the attributes of the MacGuffin were more or less irrelevant. The MacGuffin was only important because it gave the main characters something to fight over, thus driving the plot forward and rendering the film compelling. In Hitchcock’s words, “the logicians are all wrong in trying to figure out the truth of a MacGuffin, since it’s beside the point. … To me, the narrator, [it is] of no importance whatever.”[224] Similarly, the argument here is that asking after the “truth” of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, in terms of their prior strategic, economic, or historic value, is not of much analytical use. Rather, we should look to the roles they play in the larger story. They are significant within Sino-Japanese relations as a symbol, a domestic political football, and an object of various forms of ongoing positional competition. The purpose of this article has been to provide an evidence-based, theoretically informed account of how and why the contest over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands has turned into what it is. The three-dimensional approach taken here may apply to other disputes to greater or lesser degrees as well, and this could offer an interesting avenue for future research. But it should also be noted that the contest over the islands is distinctly characterized by being initially unwelcome by both sides and seemingly detached from the actual, tangible stakes involved. Given the potential dangers implicated in this dispute, making sense of it is an important task in and of itself. Moreover, understanding the dynamics at work can help inform how we consider potential paths forward. That said, there is no erasing the past. The politicized nature of the dispute means the options available for reversing the developments of the past several years are quite limited. However, one could endeavor to call public attention to the limited tangible worth of the islands. Taking into account both the tremendous value of stable economic and political relations between Japan and the People’s Republic of China, not to mention the massive potential damage even a minor armed clash over the islands might produce, the concrete value of the islands pales in comparison, especially in light of their relative unimportance for individual citizens’ lives and livelihoods. Framing the dispute in this manner would create political incentives to contain or shelve the conflict and work to detach the islands from the intangible significance they have come to accrue. But at the same time, there are parties on either side who might strongly push back against such attempts — and indeed, a number of China hawks already have[225] — thus rendering this option decidedly difficult. And while recent efforts to set up crisis communication mechanisms are to be welcomed, more needs to be done to decrease the possibility of dangerous incidents in the vicinity of the islands. One avenue would be an agreement to mutually reduce or limit deployments to the area coupled with the explicit understanding that this would alter neither side’s legal position. Even better, declaring the islands and their territorial waters a mutually recognized nature sanctuary would offer good reason to keep ships out of the vicinity.[226] Currently, however, this option is unlikely to find much domestic support in either country. Whatever measures are taken, the eventual goal should be to return the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands to the periphery of Sino-Japanese relations. After all, despite the swirl of anxiety and resentment, political struggles and intrigue, and contests for military and diplomatic advantage, at the center of this dispute lies just a set of uninhabited rocks — rocks of questionable substantive value at that.   Acknowledgements: This paper is the result of much time, attention, and assistance from many individuals. I want to thank Andrea Bjorklund, Ja Ian Chong, Janina Dill, Reinhard Drifte, Sarah Eaton, Erik Gartzke, Chenchao Lian, David Leheny, Kate Sullivan de Estrada, and anonymous reviewers for this journal for their extraordinarily helpful feedback, as well participants in sessions at the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge, the University of Goettingen, the University of Tokyo, and the 2019 International Studies Association Annual Meeting in Toronto for their comments. Rosemary Foot deserves special thanks for suffering through multiple drafts and offering so many brilliant insights. I am very grateful to the Social Science Research Council’s Abe Fellowship for funding and supporting research for this project, and especially to Nicole Restrick Levit and Tak Ozaki — who went way beyond the call of duty — for all their support. I am also very indebted to the Institute for Social Studies at the University of Tokyo for hosting me, and Maeda Hiroko, Kawashima Shin, Matsuda Yasuhiro, Gregory Noble, Takahara Akio, and so many more (for whom I will err on the side of caution in leaving anonymous) for being so welcoming to me while I was in Tokyo. A similar debt of gratitude goes to all those in China who took the time to speak with me and who also, for obvious reasons, will remain anonymous. Megan Oprea provided excellent editing help in getting this article polished for publication. It goes without saying, the views and errors of this paper are mine.   Todd Hall is an associate professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations and tutor in politics at St Anne’s College. His research interests extend to the areas of international relations theory; the intersection of emotion, affect, and foreign policy; and Chinese foreign policy. Recent publications include articles on the dynamics of crises in East Asia, provocation in international relations, and the lessons of World War I for contemporary East Asian international politics. Professor Hall is also the author of Emotional Diplomacy: Official Emotion on the International Stage (Cornell University Press), which was named co-recipient of the International Studies Association's 2016 Diplomatic Studies Section Book Award.     Image: Al Jazeera English [post_title] => More Significance than Value: Explaining Developments in the Sino-Japanese Contest Over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => more-significance-than-value-explaining-developments-in-the-sino-japanese-contest-over-the-senkaku-diaoyu-islands [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2020-01-09 10:59:22 [post_modified_gmt] => 2020-01-09 15:59:22 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw [lead] => The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are presently the focus of a dangerous contest between the People’s Republic of China and Japan, one that even now has the potential to spark a military conflict that could draw in the United States. How has this come about? Whether seen from a strategic, economic, or historical perspective, the value of the islands does not appear to merit the risks of such a contest. Consequently, what has driven the escalation is not anything particular to the islands themselves, but rather the increasing symbolic stakes attached to them, their role within the domestic politics of both sides, and the measures each side has taken to shore up its respective claims. [pubinfo] => [issue] => Vol 2, Iss 4 [quotes] => Array ( [0] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => Prior to 2010, the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands were a relatively peripheral issue in Sino-Japanese relations.  ) [1] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => In short, although potential oil and gas resources may have initially generated an interest in the islands decades ago,  it currently remains unclear what resources actually lie in the surrounding seabed... ) [2] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => Even today, the islands remain nothing more than small, isolated, uninhabited features without any population, meaningful infrastructure, or sites of major religious or historical consequence.  ) [3] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => But despite the apparent initial intentions of both sides, the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands subsequently became a highly salient flashpoint.  ) [4] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => All the above erupted against the larger backdrop of Sino-Japanese relations, in which China was seen in both countries as increasingly overshadowing Japan politically, economically, and militarily. ) [5] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => Afraid of what would happen should Ishihara purchase the islands, the Noda government thus entered into a covert contest with him to buy them first. ) [6] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => As each state seeks to materially defend or improve its position, the potential danger of the situation increases. ) [7] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => At various times, when one facet of the islands’ significance increased, the other dimensions were affected as well. ) ) [style] => scholarly [type] => Scholarly [style_label] => The Scholar [download] => Array ( [title] => PDF Download [file] => 2437 ) [authors] => Array ( [0] => 296 ) [endnotes] => Array ( [title] => Endnotes [endnotes] => [1] For the purposes of this piece, uses of the term “China” post-1949 shall refer to the People’s Republic of China. [2] The Japanese name for the islands is “Senkakushotō,” while the People’s Republic of China uses “Diaoyudao”; for the purposes of neutrality, this piece uses “Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.” A “contiguous zone,” as defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, consists of the waters extending not more than 24 nautical miles “from the baselines from which the breadth of the territorial sea is measured” in which states may “exercise the control necessary to (a) prevent infringement of its customs, fiscal, immigration or sanitary laws and regulations within its territory or territorial sea; [and] (b) punish infringement of the above laws and regulations committed within its territory or territorial sea.” See: United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, accessed on July 9, 2019, [3] This account is reconstructed from contemporary reporting and interviews with anonymous Japanese officials. For Japanese news reports, see: “Senkaku ni gunkan, mimei no kinpaku,” [Chinese warship near Senkaku, early morning tension], Asahi Shimbun, June 9, 2016, Morning Edition, 2; “Senkaku setsuzoku suiiki ni Chūgoku gunkan,” [Chinese warship in Senkaku contiguous zone], Yomiuri Shimbun, June 9, 2016, 1; “Senkaku setsuzoku suiiki ni Chūgoku gunkan,” [Chinese warship in Senkaku contiguous zone], Mainichi Shimbun, June 10, 2016. [4] Vice Minister Saiki Akitaka, author’s interview, Tokyo, July 14, 2017. Subsequent analysis suggested the People’s Liberation Army Navy was not engaged in a planned provocation, but rather reacting to Russian warships transiting the contiguous zone from the south, returning to Vladivostok. See, “Chūgoku gunkan ga Senkaku shūhen no setsuzoku suiiki-hairi…” [Chinese warship enters contiguous zone around Senkaku…], Reuters, June 9, 2016,; Some, however, suggested Sino-Russian collusion. See, “Senkaku setsuzoku suiiki ni Chūgoku gunkan,” [Chinese warship in Senkaku contiguous zone], Mainichi Shimbun, June 10, 2016. [5] This paper focuses primarily on relations between Japan and the People’s Republic of China concerning the islands. Relations between Japan and Taiwan and between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China concerning the islands are outside the purview of this article. [6] See, “Senkaku Islands Q&A,” Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, April 13, 2016, [7] Mark Manyin, Senkaku (Diaoyu/Diaoyutai) Islands Dispute: US Treaty Obligations (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, 2016). [8] Graham Allison, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap? (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017), 176–78; Michael McDevitt, Senkaku Islands Tabletop Exercise Report (Suffolk, Virginia: Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA, 2017); Eric Heginbotham and Richard J. Samuels, "Active Denial: Redesigning Japan's Response to China's Military Challenge," International Security 42, no. 4 (Spring 2018): 148, [9] Sheila A. Smith, Intimate Rivals: Japanese Domestic Politics and a Rising China (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), 190. [10] Full-text search of People’s Daily articles for “钓鱼岛” comparing the period between Sept. 6, 2005, and Sept. 6, 2010, to the period between Sept. 7, 2010, and Sept. 7, 2015. For longer-term analysis showing a similar trend, see, Yasuhiro Matsuda, "How to Understand China's Assertiveness since 2009: Hypotheses and Policy Implications," Center for Strategic and International Studies, Strategic Japan, April 2014, 4. [11] Yasuo Nakauchi, "Ryōdo O Meguru Mondai to Nihon Gaikō ― 2010-Nen Ikō No Ugoki to Kokkai Rongi" [Territorial issues and Japanese diplomacy — Developments after 2010 and Parliamentary Debate], Rippō to chōsa, 342 (2017): 3. [12] Baidu Zhishu query for the personal computer search history data for “钓鱼岛,” using (Baidu account necessary for use) accessed July 12, 2018. Interestingly, closely tracking this was searches for “钓鱼岛地图” (Diaoyu Islands map) suggesting many people were trying to locate the islands. [13] Google Trends query for “尖閣” search history in Japan,尖閣, accessed Aug. 7, 2018. Notably, the most interest appears in November 2010, ostensibly due to the video scandal discussed below. [14] See, “Trends in Chinese Government and Other Vessels in the Waters Surrounding the Senkaku Islands, and Japan's Response,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, June 8, 2018,; “China’s Activities Surrounding Japan’s Airspace,” Ministry of Defense of Japan, accessed June 26, 2018, [15] “Japan, China Launch Maritime-Aerial Communication Mechanism,” Mainichi Shinbun, June 8, 2018, [16] Paul Diehl and Gary Goertz, Territorial Changes and International Conflict (New York: Routledge, 2002), 14–18; Paul Diehl, A Road Map to War: Territorial Dimensions of International Conflict (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1999), x–xi; Monica Duffy Toft, "Territory and War," Journal of Peace Research 51, no. 2 (2014): 187–89,; Paul Hensel, "Contentious Issues and World Politics: The Management of Territorial Claims in the Americas, 1816–1992," International Studies Quarterly 45, no. 1 (March 2001): 81–109, [17] Li Ran, “Zhuanjia cheng riben kanzhong wo guo diaoyudao zhanlue jiazhi,” [Experts claim Japan is focused on the strategic value of our country’s Diaoyu Islands], Renmin Wang, July 7, 2012,; Akimoto Kazumine, "The Strategic Value of Territorial Islands from the Perspective of National Security," Review of Island Studies, Oct. 9, 2013, [18] Toshi Yoshihara, "China's Vision of Its Seascape: The First Island Chain and Chinese Seapower," Asian Politics and Policy 4, no. 3 (July 2012): 293–314, [19] Measured from Taisho-jima/Chiweiyu. [20] Desmond Ball and Richard Tanter, Tools of Owatatsumi: Japan's Ocean Surveillance and Costal Defence Capabilities (Canberra: Australian National University Press, 2015), 11, 103. [21] Toshi Yoshihara, "Sino-Japanese Rivalry at Sea: How Tokyo Can Go Anti-Access on China," Orbis 59, no. 1 (Winter 2015): 69–71, [22] Yoshihara, "China's Vision of Its Seascape," 306–07. [23] Heginbotham and Samuels, "Active Denial." [24] Taylor Fravel and Alexander Liebman, "Beyond the Moat: The Plan’s Evolving Interests and Potential Influence," in The Chinese Navy: Expanding Capabilities, Evolving Roles, ed. Saunders, et al. (Washington, DC: CreateSpace, 2011), 53–54; Zhu Fenglan, "21 Shijichu De Riben Haiyang Zhanlue," in Yatai Diqu Fazhan Baogao, ed. Zhang Yunling and Sun Shihai (Beijing: Shehui kexue wenxian chubanshe, 2006), 249. [25] For the dimensions, see, “The Senkaku Islands: Location, Area, and Other Geographical Data,” Review of Island Studies, Feb. 17, 2015,; for the quote, see Manyin, "Senkaku (Diaoyu/Diaoyutai) Islands Dispute," 1. [26] Stephen Biddle and Ivan Oelrich, "Future Warfare in the Western Pacific: Chinese Antiaccess/Area Denial, US Airsea Battle, and Command of the Commons in East Asia," International Security 41, no. 1 (Summer 2016): 7–48, [27] Anonymous interviews, Japanese Self Defense Force officials, Tokyo, April–May 2017. [28] Anonymous interview, former Japanese Defense Ministry official, May 2017. [29] Biddle and Oelrich, "Future Warfare in the Western Pacific," 23–24. [30] Retired Vice Admiral Yoji Koda, author’s interview, Tokyo, April 19, 2017. [31] "Occupation and Island Building," Center for Strategic and International Studies, Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative, [32] James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara, "Five Shades of Chinese Gray-Zone Strategy," National Interest, May 2, 2017, [33] Ball and Tanter, Tools of Owatatsumi, 22–27. [34] Victor Prescott and Clive Schofield, The Maritime Political Boundaries of the World (Boston: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2005), 436­–39. [35] Cited in James Manicom, Bridging Troubled Waters: China, Japan, and Maritime Order in the East China Sea (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2014), 43. [36] Manicom, Bridging Troubled Waters, 44. [37] See, for instance, Caihua Ma et al., "Diaoyudao Ziyuan Jiazhi Tanjiu " [Study of the resource value of the Diaoyu Islands], Zhongguo Yuye JIngji, no. 6 (2012): 126. [38] See Lengcui Fei, "Diaoyudao Daodi Cangle Duoshao Shiyou?" [How much oil do the Diaoyu Islands really contain?], Qingnian yu Shehui, no. 11 (2012): 34; for the original, see, "Japan Will Press Efforts to Exploit Major Oil Find," New York Times, Sept. 1, 1969, 2. [39] Qian Song, "Haiyang Shiyou--Shiyou Shengchan Zengzhang De Qianli Suozai " [Offshore oil- the potential for growth in oil production], Zhongguo shiyou he huagong jingji fenxi, no. 2 (2006): 46. [40] "East China Sea," U.S. Energy Information Administration, Sept. 17, 2014, [41] Anonymous interview, Beijing, July 2018. [42] Diet Session 164, Sangiin gyōsei kanshi iinkai, April 24, 2006. Calculated based on consumption figures provided by the U.S. Energy Information Administration: “International Energy Statistics,” U.S. Energy Information Administration, accessed Feb. 12, 2018, [43] "East China Sea." [44] Calculated based on consumption figures provided by the U.S. Energy Information Administration: “International Energy Statistics,” U.S. Energy Information Administration, accessed Feb. 12, 2018, [45] Paul O’Shea, "How Economic, Strategic, and Domestic Factors Shape Patterns of Conflict and Cooperation in the East China Sea Dispute," Asian Survey 55, no. 3 (May/June 2015): 555–56, [46] Nobukatsu Kanehara and Yutaka Arima, "New Fishing Order-Japan's New Agreement on Fisheries with the Republic of Korea and with the People's Republic of China," Japanese Annual of International Law, no. 42 (1999): 27–28, [47] Hirose Hajime, "Kaijōhoanchō Ni Yoru Senkaku Keibi No Rekishi" [A history of Japanese Coast Guard policing of the Senkaku], Sōsa kenkyū 65, no. 9 (2016). [48] Makomo Kuniyoshi, "Senkakushotō Ni Okeru Gyogyō No Rekishi to Genjō" [History and current state of Senkaku fisheries], Nippon Suisan Gakkasishi 77, no. 4 (2011): 707; Tseng Katherine Hui-yi, Lessons from the Disturbed Waters: The Diaoyu/Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands Disputes (Singapore: World Scientific, 2015), 75–78. Given that fish generally do not pay attention to borders, this is not surprising. [49] “Fuon'na ryōba/Senkaku” [Turbulent fishing grounds/Senkaku], Ryuku Shimpo, March 1, 2013, 3. [50] Thomas Peacock and Matthew H. Alford, "Is Deep-Sea Mining Worth It?" Scientific American 318, no. 5 (May 2018): 72–77,; G.P. Glasby, "Deep Seabed Mining: Past Failures and Future Prospects," Marine Georesources and Geotechnology 20, no. 2 (2002): 165, [51] Nobuyuki Okamoto et al., "Current Status of Japan's Activities for Deep-Sea Commercial Mining Campaign," paper presented at the 2018 OCEANS-MTS/IEEE Kobe Techno-Oceans (OTO), 2018. [52] Satoshi Ueda and Nobuyuki Okamoto, "Nihon Shūhen Kaiiki Ni Bunpu Suru Kaiteinessuikōshō No Kaihatsu Purojekuto No Gaiyō," [The Overview of Project for Developing Seafloor Massive Sulfides in the EEZ of Japan (sic)], Journal of MMIJ no. 131 (2015). [53] And this would depend on the People’s Republic of China asserting an exclusive economic zone on the basis of sovereignty over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, which it has not yet done. Such a claim on these resources, particularly those more northerly, would more likely be based on continental shelf entitlements. See, Mark J. Valencia, "The East China Sea Dispute: Context, Claims, Issues, and Possible Solutions," Asian Perspective 31, no. 1 (2007): 139, For the Chinese claim, see, “Submission by the People’s Republic of China Concerning the Outer Limits of the Continental Shelf Beyond 200 Nautical Miles in Part of the East China Sea,” United Nations Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea, Dec. 14, 2012, summary_EN.pdf. [54] Carlos Ramos-Mrosovsky, "International Law's Unhelpful Role in the Senkaku Islands," University of Pennsylvania Journal of International Law, no. 29 (2007): 931, [55] See, Article 121, United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, accessed on July 9, 2019, [56] The requirement was clarified as, “the objective capacity of a feature, in its natural condition, to sustain either a stable community of people or economic activity that is not dependent on outside resources or purely extractive in nature.” See, “The South China Sea Arbitration (the Republic of the Philippines V. The People’s Republic of China),” Permanent Court of Arbitration Press Release, The Hague, July 12, 2016,; Manyin, "Senkaku (Diaoyu/Diaoyutai) Islands Dispute," 1. [57] Clive Schofield, "One Step Forward, Two Steps Back? Progress and Challenges in the Delimitation of Maritime Boundaries since the Drafting of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea," in 30 Years of UNCLOS (1982-2012): Progress and Prospects, Guifang Xue and Ashley White (Beijing: China Universtiy of Political Science and Law Press, 2013). [58] Ramos-Mrosovsky, "International Law's Unhelpful Role in the Senkaku Islands," 907. [59] Former Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, author’s interview, Tokyo, July 10, 2017. [60] Yuan Luo, "Diaoyudao Bu Shi Wuzuqingzhong De 'Huangdao,'" Huanqui Shibao, Sept. 4, 2012. [61] Andrew Chubb, "Propaganda, Not Policy: Explaining the PLA's Hawkish Faction (Part One)," China Brief 13, no. 15 (2013), [62] Ankit Panda, "A New Chinese Threat in the East China Sea? Not So Fast," The Diplomat, July 23, 2015, [63] Rongxing Guo, Territorial Disputes and Seabed Petroleum Exploitation: Some Options for the East China Sea (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, September 2010), 9, 19,; Manicom, Bridging Troubled Waters, 154. [64] “Sekō keizai sangyō daijin no kakugigo kishakaiken no gaiyō” [Press conference with METI Minister Sekō after Cabinet Meeting], Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, Sept. 13, 2016, [65] Guo, Territorial Disputes and Seabed Petroleum Exploitation, 19; Manicom, Bridging Troubled Waters, 154. [66] Reinhard Drifte, "The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands Territorial Dispute Between Japan and China: Between the Materialization of the "China Threat,” UNISCI Discussion Papers 32, no. 32 (May 2013): 26,; “Sangiin gyōsei kanshi iinkai,” Diet Session 164, April 24, 2006. [67] Clive Schofield and Ian Townsend-Gault, "Choppy Waters Ahead in 'a Sea of Peace Cooperation and Friendship'?: Slow Progress Towards the Application of Maritime Joint Development to the East China Sea," Marine Policy 35, no. 1 (2011): 28–29, [68] Diehl and Goertz, Territorial Changes and International Conflict, 19–20; Toft, "Territory and War," 189. [69] “Zhonghua renmin gongheguo waijiaobu shengming (1971 nian 12 yue 30 ri)” [Chinese People’s Republic Foreign Ministry Statement (1971 December 30)],” Foreign Ministry of the People’s Republic of China, accessed April 5, 2018, [70] Akira Ishi et al., Nitchu Kokkou Seijouka, Nitchu Heiwa Yuukou Jouyaku Teiketsu Koushou [Concluding Negotiations for Sino-Japanese Normalization, the Sino-Japanese Treaty of Peace and Friendship] (Tokyo: Iwanami, 2010), 68. [71] Alessio Patalano, "Seapower and Sino-Japanese Relations in the East China Sea," Asian Affairs 45, no. 1 (2014): 37, [72] Taylor Fravel, Strong Borders, Secure Nation: Cooperation and Conflict in China's Territorial Disputes (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008). [73] Ishi et al., Nitchu Kokkou Seijouka, Nitchu Heiwa Yuukou Jouyaku Teiketsu Koushou, 68. [74] Masato Tomebachi, Senkaku Wo Meguru “Gokai” Wo Toku [Resolving misunderstandings surrounding the Senkakus] (Tokyo: Nihon Kyōhōsha, 2016), 92; Lili Zhang, Xin Zhongguo He Riben Guanxi Shi [History of Relations between Japan and the new China] (Shanghai: Renmin Chubanshe, 2016), 146. [75] Tomebachi, Senkaku Wo Meguru “Gokai” Wo Toku, 16–17, 79–97; Taylor Fravel, "Explaining Stability in the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Dispute," in Getting the Triangle Straight: Managing China-Japan-US Relations, ed. Gerald L. Curtis, Ryosei Kokuburn, and Jisi Wang (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2010). [76] Daniel Tretiak, "The Sino-Japanese Treaty of 1978: The Senkaku Incident Prelude," Asian Survey 18, no. 12 (December 1978): 1235–49, [77]  Tretiak, "The Sino-Japanese Treaty of 1978, 1243; Hajime, "Kaijōhoanchō Ni Yoru Senkaku Keibi No Rekishi," 114–16; Ryosei Kokubun et al., Nitchūkankeishi [History of Sino-Japanese Relations] (Tokyo: Yuhikaku Aruma, 2014), 133. [78] Mori Kazuko, Nitchū Hyōryū [Sino-Japanese Drift] (Tokyo: Iwatami Shinsho, 2017), 89, 215. [79] Kazuko, Nitchū Hyōryū, 90; Kokubun et al., Nitchūkankeishi, 179–80. [80] Richard C. Bush, The Perils of Proximity: China-Japan Security Relations (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2010), 74–75. [81] Mori Kazuko, Nitchū Hyōryū, 208–11. Miyamoto Yūji, former Japanese ambassador to the People’s Republic of China (2006–2010), author’s interview, Tokyo, May 12, 2017. Importantly, this also resulted in a strengthening of the Japanese security operations around the islands. See, Bush, The Perils of Proximity, 74–75. [82] Jinxing Chen, "Radicalization of the Protect Diaoyutai Movement in 1970s-America," Journal of Chinese Overseas 5, no. 2 (2009); Smith, Intimate Rivals, 127–34, 212–17, [83] Erica Strecker Downs and Phillip C. Saunders, "Legitimacy and the Limits of Nationalism: China and the Diaoyu Islands," International Security 23, no. 3 (Winter 1998/1999),; Smith, Intimate Rivals, 127–34; Jessica Chen Weiss, Powerful Patriots: Nationalist Protest in China's Foreign Relations (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 116–18. [84] Shi Jiangtao, “Protesters Barred from Diaoyu Mission,” South China Morning Post, July 20, 2004, 5. [85] Weiss, Powerful Patriots, 120–25; Downs and Saunders, "Legitimacy and the Limits of Nationalism." [86] Tomebachi, Senkaku Wo Meguru “Gokai” Wo Toku, 81. [87] Zhang, Xin Zhongguo He Riben Guanxi Shi, 153. [88] Downs and Saunders, "Legitimacy and the Limits of Nationalism." [89] “The World Factbook, East and Southeast Asia: China, 2017,” Central Intelligence Agency, accessed on March 13, 2018, [90] Fravel, "Explaining Stability in the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands Dispute,"159. [91] Tir, "Territorial Diversion." [92] Krista Wiegand, Enduring Territorial Disputes: Strategies of Bargaining, Coercive Diplomacy, and Settlement (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2011), 98. [93] Smith, Intimate Rivals, 190. [94] “Senkaku oki shōtotsu jiken no chūgokujin senchō ga “jitaku nankin” jōtai, shutsugyo mo kinshi” [The Chinese captain from the Senkaku sea collision under ‘house arrest,’ also forbidden to fish], Searchina, May 24, 2011. [95] Citing a Japanese official, Tsuyoshi Sunohara, Antō: Senkaku Kokuyū-Ka [Secret Battle: The Senkaku Nationalization] (Tokyo: Shinchō bunko, 2013), 23. [96] Alastair Iain Johnston, "How New and Assertive Is China's New Assertiveness?" International Security 37, no. 4 (Spring 2013): 23–26,; Linus Hagström, "‘Power Shift’ in East Asia? A Critical Reappraisal of Narratives on the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands Incident in 2010," Chinese Journal of International Politics 5, no. 3 (Autumn 2012): 282–83, Johnston disputes the embargo using Japanese import data. This, however, overlooks the pervasive “quasi-smuggling” on the People’s Republic of China side — many 2010 rare earth exports were not classified as such when leaving the People’s Republic of China but registered in Japanese import data upon arrival. See, Nabeel A. Mancheri and Marukawa Tomoo, Rare Earth Elements: China and Japan in Industry, Trade and Value Chain (Tokyo: University of Tokyo Institute of Social Science, 2016), 159–60. At the time, multiple Japanese firms did report sudden stoppages, and officials from the People’s Republic of China reportedly confirmed the embargo to U.S. counterparts privately. See, Richard McGregor, Asia's Reckoning: The Struggle for Global Dominance (London: Penguin UK, 2017), 265. The evidence, however, remains inconclusive at best. Michael Green et al., Countering Coercion in Maritime Asia: The Theory and Practice of Gray Zone Deterrence, Center for Strategic and International Studies, May 9, 2017, 85–90, On the detention of Japanese nationals, see: Smith, Intimate Rivals, 191; Hagström, "‘Power Shift’ in East Asia?" 281. Hagström suggests the timing could be coincidental. [97] M. Taylor Fravel, "Explaining China’s Escalation over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands," Global Summitry 2, no. 1 (2016): 24–37, [98] Maehara, author’s interview. [99] Sunohara, Antō, 16–17, 36. [100] Sunohara, Antō, 39–43. [101] Maehara, author’s interview. [102] Sunohara, Antō, 49; Zhang, Xin Zhongguo He Riben Guanxi Shi, 299. [103] Noda Yoshihiko, former prime minister, author’s interview, Tokyo, Sept. 5, 2017. [104] Yoshihiko, author’s interview. [105] Sunohara, Antō, 173–83, 253–55. [106] Sunohara, Antō, 189–91. [107] Allan Dafoe, Jonathan Renshon, and Paul Huth, "Reputation and Status as Motives for War," Annual Review of Political Science no. 17 (May 2014): 371–93,; T. V. Paul, Deborah Welch Larson, and William C. Wolhlforth, eds., Status in World Politics (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014); Deborah Welch Larson and Alexei Shevchenko, "Status Seekers: Chinese and Russian Responses to US Primacy," International Security 34, no. 4 (Spring 2010): 63–95,; Barry O'Neill, Honor, Symbols, and War (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2001); Richard Ned Lebow, A Cultural Theory of International Relations (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008); Reinhard Wolf, "Respect and Disrespect in International Politics: The Significance of Status Recognition," International Theory 3, no. 1 (2011): 105–42, [108] Dafoe et al., "Reputation and Status as Motives for War," 382–83. [109] Shiping Tang, "Reputation, Cult of Reputation, and International Conflict," Security Studies 14, no. 1 (2005): 34–62,; Jonathan Mercer, Reputation and International Politics (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010); Daryl Press, "The Credibility of Power: Assessing Threats During the 'Appeasement' Crises of the 1930s," International Security 29, no. 3 (Winter 2004/2005): 136–69, [110] Reinhard Wolf, "Resentment in International Relations," paper presented at the European Consortium for Political Research Workshop on Status Claims, Recognition, and Emotions in International Relations, Mainz, March, 2013; Khaled Fattah and K.M. Fierke, "A Clash of Emotions: The Politics of Humiliation and Political Violence in the Middle East," European Journal of International Relations 15, no. 1 (2009),; Paul Saurette, "You Dissin Me? Humiliation and Post 9/11 Global Politics," Review of International Studies 32, no. 3 (2006): 495–522,; Richard Herrmann et al., "Images in International Relations: An Experimental Test of Cognitive Schemata," International Studies Quarterly 41, no. 3 (September 1997): 403–33, [111] Smith, Intimate Rivals, 59; Ming Wan, Sino-Japanese Relations: Interaction, Logic, and Transformation (Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006), 260. [112] Caroline Rose, Sino-Japanese Relations: Facing the Past, Looking to the Future? (New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004). [113] Smith, Intimate Rivals, 95–96; Karl Gustafsson, "Recognising Recognition through Thick and Thin: Insights from Sino-Japanese Relations," Cooperation and Conflict 51, no. 3 (2016): 255–71, [114] “Dai 6-kai nitchū kyōdō seronchōsa” [The Sixth Japan-China Joint Attitude Survey], Tokyo-Beijing Fōramu,  Aug. 12, 2010, [115] For detailed analysis, see, Reinhard Drifte, "The Japan-China Confrontation Over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands–Between 'Shelving' and 'Dispute Escalation,'" Asia-Pacific Journal 12, no. 30 (2014), [116] “Senkaku Islands Q&A.” [117] The common Japanese term is ato dashi janken — entering a game of paper-rock-scissors after the other side has shown its hand. See, Tomebachi, Senkaku Wo Meguru “Gokai” Wo Toku, 6. [118] “Diaoyu Dao, an Inherent Territory of China,” The State Council of the People’s Republic of China, September 2012, [119] “Diaoyu Dao, an Inherent Territory of China.” [120] Chisako Masuo, "Lun Zhongguo Zhengfu Guanyu 'Diaoyudao' Zhuzhang De Fazhan Guocheng " [The Development Process of Chinese Official Discourse on Senkaku/ Diaoyu Islands], Contemporary Japan and East-Asia Studies 2, no. 2 (2018): 17. [121] Takashi Okada, Senkaku Shotō Mondai: Ryōdo Nashyonarizumu No Miryoku [Senkaku Islands Problem: The Attraction of Territorial Nationalism] (Tokyo: Sososha, 2010), 3. [122] Both even use the same word, 固有 (Japanese: koyū, Chinese: guyou). [123] Giulio Pugliese and Aurelio Insisa, Sino-Japanese Power Politics: Might, Money and Minds (Springer, 2016); Michael Yahuda, Sino-Japanese Relations after the Cold War: Two Tigers Sharing a Mountain (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013), 39–63. [124] Smith, Intimate Rivals, 21. This was mentioned repeatedly in interviews on both sides. [125]  Smith, Intimate Rivals, 189–236; Shogo Suzuki, "The Rise of the Chinese ‘Other’ in Japan's Construction of Identity: Is China a Focal Point of Japanese Nationalism?" Pacific Review 28, no. 1 (2014),; Hagström, "‘Power Shift’ in East Asia?" 275–80. [126] Smith, Intimate Rivals, 189. [127] Okada, Senkaku Shotō Mondai, 3. [128] Yuko Kawai, "Deracialised Race, Obscured Racism: Japaneseness, Western and Japanese Concepts of Race, and Modalities of Racism," Japanese Studies 35, no. 1 (2015): 23–47, [129] “Dai 6-kai nitchū kyōdō seronchōsa” [The Sixth Japan-China Joint Attitude Survey], Tokyo-Beijing Fōramu, 2006,; "China’s Neighbors Worry About Its Growing Military Strength," Pew Research Center, Sept. 21, 2006, 4, [130] Hagström, "'Power Shift' in East Asia?" 292. [131] “Luohou jiu yao ai da.” See, Peter Hays Gries, China's New Nationalism: Pride, Politics, and Diplomacy (Oakland: University of California Press, 2004), 50–51. [132] Guo Jiping, “Diaoyudao shi zhongguo lingtu, tiezheng rushan” [The Diaoyu Islands are Chinese territory, the mountain-high evidence is ironclad], Renmin Ribao, Oct. 12, 2012, 3. (Guo Jiping being the pseudonym for authoritative foreign affairs commentaries.) [133] Jin Yinan, Shijie Dageju Zhongguo You Taidu [The grand international setup, China has an attitude] (Beijing: Beijing Lianhe Chuban Gongsi, 2017), 66. [134] See, Wang Fan, Daguo Waijiao [Great Power Diplomacy] (Beijing: Beijing Lianhe Chuban Gongsi, 2016), 279. [135] "China’s Neighbors Worry About Its Growing Military Strength," 4. [136] Yanigisawa Kyōji, former assistant chief cabinet secretary for national security (2004–2009), author’s interview, May 24, 2017. [137] Koda, author’s interview. [138] Miyamoto, author’s interview. [139] Anonymous interviews, Beijing, June 18–July 5, 2017. [140] Anonymous interview, Beijing, June 2017. [141] Michael Colaresi, Scare Tactics: The Politics of International Rivalry (Syracuse University Press, 2005), 20, 29–35 [142] Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon, "Hawkish Biases," in American Foreign Policy and the Politics of Fear: Threat Inflation since 9/11, ed. A. Trevor Thrall and Jane K. Cramer (New York: Routledge, 2009). [143] Hagström and Jerdén, "Understanding Fluctuations in Sino-Japanese Relations," 276–79. [144] Smith, Intimate Rivals, 208. [145] Niwa Uichiro, Pekin Retsujistu [Scorching Beijing Days] (Tokyo: Bungei Shunju, 2013), 15. [146] Smith, Intimate Rivals, 206. [147] Masaharu Isshiki, Nani Ka No Tame Ni [For something] (Tokyo: Asahi Shinbun Chuban, 2011), 87. [148] Smith, Intimate Rivals, 207–09. [149] Kitagami Keiro, Japanese Parliamentarian, author’s interview, Tokyo, June 6, 2017. [150] Sunohara, Antō, 78. [151] “Shina” was a term used by Imperial Japan. [152] Noda, author’s interview. On Ishihara’s political ambitions, see also, Okada, Senkaku Shotō Mondai 16–20, 104. [153] “Gaikō, kiki kanri' seronchōsa kekka” [Diplomacy, crisis management poll results], Shizuoka Shinbun, June 18, 2012, 2. [154] Smith, Intimate Rivals, 224. [155] Approximately $15,000,000. “Senkaku kifu-kin jōto” [Transfer of Senkaku donation money], Sankei Shinbun, 7 September 2012, 1. [156] Noda, author’s interview. [157] Nagashima Akihisa, special advisor to Noda for foreign affairs and national security (2011–2012), author’s interview, Tokyo, July 19, 2017. [158] Sunohara, Antō. [159] Noda, author’s interview. [160] Noda, Nagashima, author’s interviews. [161] Smith, Intimate Rivals, 234. [162] “Jimintōsōsaisen - shin sōsai ni Abe moto shushō” [LDP presidential election – new president, former PM Abe], Mainichi Shinbun, Sept. 27, 2012. [163] “Shūin-sen kōyaku bunseki - gaikō TPP” [Lower house election analysis – diplomacy, TPP], Yomiuri Shinbun, Dec. 14, 2012, 11. [164] Adam P. Liff, "Japan’s Security Policy in the “Abe Era”: Radical Transformation or Evolutionary Shift?" Texas National Security Review 1, no. 3 (May 2018), [165] Susan Shirk, China: Fragile Superpower (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007); William Callahan, China: The Pessoptimist Nation (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010); Gries, China's New Nationalism. [166] Anonymous interviews, Beijing, June 18–July 5, 2017; Manicom, Bridging Troubled Waters, 151; Bush, The Perils of Proximity, 79–80; Weiss, Powerful Patriots, 162–64. [167] Smith, Intimate Rivals, 191. [168] “Wenjiabao zongli zai niuyue qianglie duncu rifang liji wutiaojian fang ren” [Premier Wen Jiabao in New York strongly presses the Japanese side for an immediate and unconditional release], Zhongyang Zhengfu Menhu Wangzhan, Sept. 22, 2010, [169] Weiss, Powerful Patriots, 160–88. [170] Weiss, Powerful Patriots, 182. [171] Weiss, Powerful Patriots. [172] McGregor, Asia's Reckoning, 272–74; "Report 245/Asia: Dangerous Waters: China-Japan Relations on the Rocks," International Crisis Group, April 8, 2013, 7–8, [173] Uichiro Niwa, Chūgoku No Dai Mondai [China’s Major Issues] (Tokyo: PHP Shinsho, 2014), 143. [174] McGregor, Asia's Reckoning, 279. [175] Christopher Cairns and Allen Carlson, "Real-World Islands in a Social Media Sea: Nationalism and Censorship on Weibo During the 2012 Diaoyu/Senkaku Crisis," China Quarterly no. 225 (March 2016): 23–49,; Weiss, Powerful Patriots, 198–205. [176] Kokubun et al., Nitchūkankeishi, 245–46; Kokubun Ryosei, Chū Kuni Seiji Kara Mita Nitchūkankei [Sino-Japanese relations from the perspective of Chinese politics] (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 2017), 223–24. [177] Li, Chinese Politics in the Xi Jinping Era, 23–24. [178] Noda, author’s interview; see also, McGregor, Asia's Reckoning, 267–69. [179] Niwa, author’s interview. [180] McGregor, Asia's Reckoning, 270–71; International Crisis Group, "Dangerous Waters," 7. Linda Jakobson, “How Involved Is Xi Jinping in the Diaoyu Crisis?” The Diplomat, Feb. 8, 2013, Michael Swaine, “Chinese Views Regarding the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands Dispute,” Chinese Leadership Monitor, 41 (Spring 2013), 9-11, The group is potentially the “Leading Small Group for the Protection of Maritime Rights and Interests,” whose full membership is unclear, but it first appears in September of 2012 on the CV of at least one People’s Republic of China cadre; see, “Liu Cigui, Jianli,” Difanglingdao ziliaoku, accessed on Sept. 5, 2018, [181] Andrew Chubb, "Assessing Public Opinion’s Influence on Foreign Policy: The Case of China’s Assertive Maritime Behavior," Asian Security 15, no. 2 (2019): 14, [182] Anonymous interviews, Beijing, June 18– July 5, 2017. See also, Feng Zhang, “Should Beijing Establish an Air Defense Identification Zone Over the South China Sea?” Foreign Policy, June 4, 2015, [183] Adam P. Liff, "Principles Without Consensus: Setting the Record Straight on the 2014 Sino-Japanese ‘Agreement to Improve Bilateral Relations,'" Working Paper, Nov. 8, 2014, [184] Zhang Zhaogong, Shishuo Daozheng [History of Disputed Islands] (Beijing: Beijing Chubanshe, 2014); Isshiki, Nani Ka No Tame Ni. [185] Nani Ka No Tame Ni, 49–50. McGregor, Asia's Reckoning, 264. [186] Jiun Bang, "“Commodification of Nationalism,” Unpublished Manuscript, (2017). [187] This was thwarted by the government. “Senkaku shōtotsu no Chūgoku gyosen wo nitchūyūkō no resutoran-sen ni?” [The Chinese ship from the Senkaku collision to be a Japan-China friendship restaurant?], Searchina, May 24, 2011. [188] “‘Baowei diaoyudao’ youxi xiajiahou, yansheng duoge shanzaiban” [After the ‘Protect Diaoyudao’ videogame took off, it spawned many imitations], Renminwang, July 12, 2012, [189] J. T. Quigley, “Diaoyu Island Assault,” The Diplomat, Aug. 2, 2013, [190] Todd Hall, Emotional Diplomacy: Official Emotion on the International Stage (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015), 39–79. [191] Zhang, Xin Zhongguo He Riben Guanxi Shi, 300–01. [192] International Crisis Group, "Dangerous Waters," 10–11; Weiss, Powerful Patriots, 160–218. [193] Smith, Intimate Rivals, 224–28. [194] Green et al., Countering Coercion in Maritime Asia, 75,142–44; Fravel, "Explaining China’s Escalation Over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands," 32–33; Adam Liff, "China’s Maritime Gray Zone Operations in the East China Sea and Japan’s Response," in China’s Maritime Gray Zone Operations, ed. Andrew S. Erickson and Ryan D. Martinson (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2019); “Trends in Chinese Government and Other Vessels.” [195] Liff, "China’s Maritime Gray Zone Operations," 9. [196] “China’s Activities Surrounding Japan’s Airspace.” [197] Green et al., Countering Coercion in Maritime Asia, 143. [198] Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2018, (Washington, DC: United States Department of Defense, 2018). [199] Liff, "China’s Maritime Gray Zone Operations," 13. [200] Adam P. Liff and G. John Ikenberry, "Racing Toward Tragedy?: China's Rise, Military Competition in the Asia Pacific, and the Security Dilemma," International Security 39, no. 2 (Fall 2014): 73–78,; Liff, "China’s Maritime Gray Zone Operations," 17–21; Christopher Hughes, "Japan’s ‘Resentful Realism’and Balancing China’s Rise," Chinese Journal of International Politics 9, no. 2 (Summer 2016): 144–45, [201] Manyin, "Senkaku (Diaoyu/Diaoyutai) Islands Dispute," 6–8. [202] Adam P. Liff and Andrew S. Erickson, "From Management Crisis to Crisis Management? Japan’s Post-2012 Institutional Reforms and Sino-Japanese Crisis (In)stability," Journal of Strategic Studies 40, no. 5 (2017): 604, [203] Liff and Erickson, "From Management Crisis to Crisis Management?" 605. Although the Chinese government denies the radar incidents. [204] “Diaoyu Dao, an Inherent Territory of China”; “China Publishes Pamphlet on Diaoyu Islands,” Beijing Review, Sept. 21, 2012, [205] Kitagami, author’s interview. [206] Kitagami, author’s interview; Linus Hagström, "The Sino-Japanese Battle for Soft Power: Pitfalls and Promises," Global Affairs 1, no. 2 (2015): 129–37,; Pugliese and Insisa, Sino-Japanese Power Politics, 103–27. “Japanese Territory: Reference Room,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan, accessed Sept. 10, 2018 at: [207] Tyler Roney, “The Sino-Japanese Voldemort Wars,” The Diplomat, Jan. 9, 2014, [208] Hagström, "The Sino-Japanese Battle for Soft Power"; Pugliese and Insisa, Sino-Japanese Power Politics, 103–27. [209] Ramos-Mrosovsky, "International Law's Unhelpful Role in the Senkaku Islands," 906;  Paul O’Shea, "Sovereignty and the Senkaku/Diaoyu Territorial Dispute, Working Paper 240," (Stockholm: EJIS Stockholm School of Economics, 2012). [210] “Senkaku Islands Q&A”; “Diaoyu Dao, an Inherent Territory of China.” [211] “Commissioned Research Report on Archives of Senkaku Islands,” Office of Planning and Coordination on Territory and Sovereignty, Cabinet Office, Japan, accessed Sept. 10, 2018,; “Diaoyu Dao: The Inherent Territory of China,” National Marine Data and Information Service, accessed Sept. 10, 2018, [212] “Shenyang ‘9-18’ lishibowuguan: jiang zengjia diaoyudao shishi zhanlan neirong” [Shenyang 9-18 history museum: will increase content of Diaoyu Island historical exhibit], Renminwang, Sept. 15, 2012,; “Ryōdo shuken tenji-kan hōmupēji” [National Museum of Territory and History Homepage], Japan, accessed Sept. 11, 2018,; “New Chinese Textbook Lays Claim to Senkakus, Dates Start of War with Japan to 1931,” Japan Times, Sept. 1, 2017,; “Japanese Textbooks Toe Government Line on Disputed Islands,” Nikkei Asian Review, April 7, 2015, [213] Zhang Haipeng and Li Guoqiang, “Lun maguantiaoyue and diaoyudao wenti” [Discussing the Treaty of Shimonoseki and the Diaoyu Islands Question], Renmin Ribao, May 8, 2013, 9. [214] “Renminribao kan wen zhiyi liuqiu guishu” [The People’s Daily publishes an essay questioning the ownership of the Ryukyus], Zhongguo guangbowang, accessed Sept. 11, 2018, [215] “Chūgoku no Okinawa ronbun” [China’s Okinawa essay], Sankei Shinbun, May 10, 2013, 2. [216] Hassner, "The Path to Intractability"; Barbara Walter, "Explaining the Intractability of Territorial Conflict," International Studies Review 5, no. 4 (December 2003): 137–53,; Colaresi et al., Strategic Rivalries in World Politics; Monica Toft, "Indivisible Territory, Geographic Concentration, and Ethnic War," Security Studies 12, no. 2 (2002): 82–119, [217] Sumit Ganguly and William Thompson, Asian Rivalries: Conflict, Escalation, and Limitations on Two-Level Games (Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011). [218] Paul K. Huth and Todd L. Allee, "Domestic Political Accountability and the Escalation and Settlement of International Disputes," Journal of Conflict Resolution 46, no. 6 (2002), [219] Stacie Goddard, "Uncommon Ground: Indivisible Territory and the Politics of Legitimacy," International Organization 60, no. 1 (January 2006): 35–68, [220] Goddard, "Uncommon Ground"; Hassner, "The Path to Intractability"; Vasquez, The War Puzzle Revisited, 110, 424–25. [221] “Diaoyudao pijiu,”[Diaoyu Islands Beer], [222] Yuka Hayashi, “Ishihara Unplugged,” Wall Street Journal, May 29, 2012, [223] Fred R. Shapiro, The Yale Book of Quotations (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006), 360–61. [224] François Truffaut, Hitchcock (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985), 192. [225] Jin, Shijie Dageju Zhongguo You Taidu, 62–63. [226] Reinhard Drifte, "Moving Forward on the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands Issue: Policy Context and Policy Options," Kokusai-hō gaikō zasshi [International Law Diplomacy Journal] 113, no. 2 (2014): 67–68. ) [contents] => Array ( [title] => [contents] => ) ) [4] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 1630 [post_author] => 285 [post_date] => 2019-07-30 15:16:15 [post_date_gmt] => 2019-07-30 19:16:15 [post_content] => The Belt and Road Initiative, an unprecedented infrastructure program that extends across and beyond the Eurasian continent, has elicited increasingly hostile reactions in the West and come to symbolize U.S. leaders’ disillusionment regarding Beijing’s growing assertiveness and authoritarianism under Xi Jinping.[1] However, the initiative’s nature and its potential repercussions remain unclear. What is Belt and Road? What implications could it have for America’s grand strategy?[2] This article investigates these questions with a particular focus on security dynamics, arguing that, despite multiple problems and ambiguities, Belt and Road spearheads a coherent Chinese grand strategy that could weaken the foundations of America’s post-World War II hegemony but also advance some U.S. interests.[3] Many observers view Beijing’s initiative as a threat. The Trump administration, whose December 2017 National Security Strategy declared China a “revisionist” power that aims “to erode American security and prosperity,” has vehemently denounced Beijing’s predatory economic practices and, along with some allies and partners, is developing alternative investment projects.[4] Likewise, most scholars are skeptical about Chinese intentions. Some perceive Belt and Road as an opportunity.[5] Others stress that its primary goal is to advance China’s domestic economic growth.[6] Yet, many believe that under the guise of spreading prosperity Beijing intends to centralize global economic activity, weaken America’s alliances, and erode the U.S.-led international order, with baleful consequences.[7] At the same time, most experts contend that China’s prospects of success are slim. Belt and Road’s closest equivalent, the Marshall Plan for Western Europe, which the United States launched while at the height of its power, had a much narrower financial reach and timeline (1947 – 1951) and covered far fewer nations — but ones that were economically stronger.[8] While some scholars anticipate that Belt and Road will generate modest returns,[9] many criticize it as a mere slogan or an “endless list of unrelated activities” that will drain Beijing’s finances and damage recipient countries.[10] In this article, I engage this conversation and argue that, for all its flaws, the Belt and Road Initiative is much more coherent, potent, and resilient than many believe. First, it leverages China’s unique geoeconomic assets, such as state control over national actors, a vast national market, and growth rates superior to those of most countries, to circumvent Washington’s military primacy.[11] Second, Belt and Road works in tandem with Beijing’s industrial modernization, defense buildup, omni-directional engagement, and sophisticated propaganda, thereby transcending the U.S. military-centric approach. Third, the initiative advances a hybrid cross-regional geostrategy that yields powerful sea-land synergies, in contrast with America’s more circumscribed vision. Finally, China’s initiative exploits Washington’s post-Cold War overreach — militarization, political and neoliberal interference — and the strains in its alliance network. Left unchecked, Belt and Road could erode America’s post-World War II hegemony. However, it also offers opportunities that could be leveraged to advance some U.S. interests. This article makes two contributions to the literature. First, and most important, its multidisciplinary and comprehensive approach helps capture Belt and Road’s mutually reinforcing foundations. Excellent studies have addressed the genesis and contours of China’s initiative in general terms, or have explored its implementation in specific domains (e.g., finance and technology), geographic areas (e.g., Pakistan and Southeast Asia), or projects, like Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port.[12] However, investigating its historical and cultural roots, multidimensional nature, synergy with other Chinese policies, and geostrategic manifestations altogether against the backdrop of America’s hegemony helps uncover why Beijing’s endeavor is more coherent, potent, and sustainable than many believe. Second, the article stresses the role of geoeconomics in grand strategy. Leading scholars have shown how economic assets can elevate a state’s international position.[13] Recent studies have demonstrated how “deeper, faster … and more integrated” markets impact foreign policy, or have compared the U.S.-China competition to the contest between Germany and Great Britain in infrastructure, technology, trade, and finance in the late 19th century.[14] However, endorsing the realist paradigm that “effective power is [essentially] a function of … military forces,”[15] many experts “shy away” from economic analysis.[16] To them, grand strategy mostly relies on “military remedies,”[17] “concentrates … on how the military instrument should be employed,”[18] and necessitates the ability to “use … force internationally.”[19] This analysis builds on these vital contributions but, it reintroduces geoeconomics into the picture. The article proceeds in three sections. First, it outlines Belt and Road’s progress, its position within China’s grand strategy and strategic culture, and its resilience. Second, it explores how Belt and Road helps protect the foundations of Beijing’s power. Third, it investigates how the initiative allows China to project influence abroad. In each section, the article also discusses the impact of Beijing’s ambitions on the interdependent levers of influence — military, economic, diplomatic, and geostrategic — that have underpinned America’s post-World War II hegemony. It concludes with policy recommendations for U.S. leaders.

Belt and Road: More than a Slogan

Despite its many problems, the Belt and Road Initiative relies on powerful drivers that are sources of coherence, strength, and sustainability. After a brief overview of Belt and Road, this section discusses the initiative’s position within China’s grand strategy and strategic culture, and its resilience in the face of uncertainties, setbacks, and rising competition. Emerging Features The Belt and Road Initiative was launched in the fall of 2013. At its core, it seeks to use trade and foreign direct investment, most of which emanate from state-owned banks, to build connectivity across Eurasia. Its two main branches, the Maritime Silk Road and the Silk Road Economic Belt, initially radiated in six directions: the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor, the China-Mongolia-Russia Corridor, the China-Central Asia-Western Asia Corridor, the China-Indochina Peninsula Economic Corridor, and the New Eurasian Land Bridge. As formalized in March 2015, Beijing intends to develop transport, energy, and telecommunication infrastructure to bolster commerce, financial integration, policy coordination, and “people-to-people bonds.”[20] [quote id="1"] One oft-cited description of the Belt and Road Initiative portrays a multidecade undertaking of $4 trillion spanning areas that represent 70 percent of the world’s population, 55 percent of the global economic output, and 75 percent of the planet’s energy reserves. Another study predicted that Belt and Road funding would ultimately exceed $8 trillion.[21] These estimates are speculative. However, the initiative has already become a concrete reality. Beijing spent $138 billion in investments — meant to acquire “ownership stake[s]” — and $208 billion in construction projects conducted for third parties in Belt and Road countries between 2014 and 2017, compared to $76 billion and $140 billion, respectively, between 2010 and 2013. Belt and Road’s share in China’s foreign direct investments rose from less than 20 percent in 2017 to 40 percent in 2018, although that increase partly resulted from expanding membership in the initiative.[22] Moreover, Belt and Road trade exceeded $1.3 trillion in 2018, a 16.3 percent jump that dwarfed China’s 12.6 percent overall trade increase.[23] The scope and content of the initiative are ambiguous and in constant flux. However, these characteristics do not necessarily handicap it. Belt and Road’s membership — currently more than 100 countries — continues to expand. Although many observers have derided the vagueness of its Memoranda of Understanding, these documents have real political value and initiate processes that can gain momentum over time. Moreover, many actors located outside Belt and Road’s boundaries are collaborating with China’s initiative, including the Saudi government, British banks, and American companies.[24] Finally, Belt and Road works in conjunction with Beijing’s industrial modernization, economic and diplomatic outreach, propaganda, and military expansion. Observers rightly point out that the initiative lacks transparency and that its projects are impacted — sometimes corrupted — by Chinese substate actors who compete against each other to serve their own agendas.[25] Indeed, the post-1978 “fragmentation, decentralization and internationalization of … state apparatuses” in China has allowed bureaucracies and state-owned companies to work around governmental directives, and has left provinces free to engage internationally without much oversight.[26] Furthermore, Chinese government elites themselves use Belt and Road to build “discourses of hopes and fears” that shift the domestic narrative away from growing economic difficulties.[27] However, Beijing’s authorities are highly committed to rationalizing the process. Xi Jinping, the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao, involved his own legitimacy in Belt and Road, enshrined the latter into the national constitution, created a high-level committee that regularly intervenes to address the initiative’s dysfunctions, and presented Belt and Road to the rest of the world as a symbol of China’s rise and credibility.[28] To be sure, problems will persist, but they are likely to remain under control. Some experts emphasize that Belt and Road is merely a slogan because many of the methods and projects that it encompasses existed before its launch. Indeed, the initiative doubles down on state control of the national economy and exploitation of Beijing’s foreign commercial appeal. It resonates with the Western development strategy, designed in the late 1990s to reduce inequalities between China’s coastal and continental provinces; the “Going Out” investment plan for strategic assets, begun in the 2000s; growth-seeking infrastructure campaigns launched in 1997 and 2008; and rhetorical catchphrases, such as “peaceful rise,” promoted in the mid-2000s.[29] The same can be said of specific projects. For instance, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor builds upon a long friendship rooted in a common interest in encircling India. Yet, these continuities suggest a real degree of coherence. Additionally, Belt and Road is taking past endeavors to new heights. Moreover, the initiative publicizes China’s emerging global ambitions at a time of widespread perception of America’s relative decline. Belt and Road’s Position Within China’s Grand Strategy and Strategic Culture The coherence of the Belt and Road Initiative also stems from its symbiotic integration within the arc of Communist China’s grand strategy. That strategy was largely defined by the “century of humiliation” — the period between the start of the First Opium War in 1839 and the creation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 — which destroyed the “extraordinarily high … civilizational self-regard in which the Celestial Empire had for so long insisted on holding itself.”[30] The trauma generated a “post-imperial ideology” of victimization,[31] and convinced many Chinese that their country’s “destiny” was to recover “global status and power.”[32] This perspective reflects important facets of China’s strategic culture itself. Beijing’s leaders have long claimed to have a unique “pacifist, non-expansionist, and purely defensive” orientation.[33] Endorsing this assessment, many experts who delved into the writings of traditional figures such as Confucius or Sun Tzu stressed a national preference for “strategic defense,” “diplomatic intrigue,” “alliance building,” and “the restrained application of force for clearly enunciated political ends.”[34] Those virtues are often contrasted with Western civilization’s allegedly aggressive outlook. Indeed, according to some scholars, Chinese leaders developed a “siege mentality” that they now direct toward the United States, which they consider to be in opposition to Beijing’s resurgence.[35] Belt and Road aligns with this intellectual framework. China promotes it to pursue “strategic hedging” — optimizing its ability to handle potential threats coming from the international system’s hegemon without taking explicit military action.[36] More broadly, Belt and Road is being used to “shape [an] environment that is conducive to … [Beijing’s] economic, social, and political development.”[37] In doing so, the initiative departs from the Western strategic tradition, which stresses “force on force.”[38] Designed to circumvent U.S. military superiority, its geoeconomic thrust, omni-directional engagement, and hybrid maritime-continental orientation reflect centuries-old tactics, such as “forestalling hostile coalitions … seeking relative advantage rather than high-risk confrontations,”[39] and “[using] the soft and gentle to overcome the hard and strong.”[40] Moreover, Belt and Road conveys a narrative of peaceful benevolence.[41] Honoring the spirit of the ancient Silk Road, the initiative officially welcomes everyone, offers “win-win cooperation,” and promotes “friendship, shared development, peace, harmony and a better future.”[42] This lofty rhetoric obliquely refers to the tribute system that helped China dominate Asia via “civilizational attraction” from the 3rd century B.C. to the mid-19th century.[43] [quote id="2"] However, this narrative could be curtailed by other facets of Beijing’s strategic culture. To begin with, that culture is characterized by a Sino-centrism stretching back to the third millennium B.C. according to which all those who lived beyond China’s peripheries were “subordinate barbarians.”[44] Those patterns have been exacerbated by the Chinese Communist Party’s ideology and nationalism. In fact, Belt and Road’s early implementation has shown some propensity to ignore local expectations in recipient countries. Additionally, the initiative perpetuates China’s perennial “pull between closure and openness,” as illustrated by its lack of transparency or by the promotion of authoritarian standards via the Digital Silk Road.[45] Most important, Belt and Road constitutes an open “counter-hegemonic” effort.[46] Breaking with the “hide and bide” approach defined by Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s, Xi Jinping publicly announced a plan to achieve “global [leadership] in … comprehensive national power” by 2049.[47] This declaration marks the end of the “strategy of transition,” which was adopted after the 1996 Taiwan crisis to help China emerge “within … a unipolar international system.”[48] Xi’s growing assertiveness could illustrate what some leading scholars have presented as the dominant face of China’s strategic culture, one that heavily relies on violence and offensive warfare.[49] After all, over the centuries, many Chinese leaders have conducted “campaigns of conquest” and built their legitimacy on territorial expansion.[50] Some aspects of Belt and Road might reflect that logic. For one thing, as illustrated by recent controversies, the initiative could facilitate economic coercion.[51] Moreover, it is working in tandem with a strong military buildup and an expanding defense doctrine, and it might help Beijing establish a foreign base network. However, even the experts who argue that China’s strategic culture is predominantly aggressive explain that such impulses are tempered by “posturing that stresses … disinterested and violence-averse benevolence,” and by “a conscious sensitivity to changing relative capabilities.”[52] Additionally, in some ways Beijing still wants to let a declining America assume the costly responsibilities of maintaining the international order.[53] Considering all of these aspects, Belt and Road is useful in that it allows the defensive and offensive facets of China’s dual strategic culture to cohabitate while keeping all options open for the future. However, other cultural characteristics deserve attention as well when examining Beijing’s initiative. Chinese leaders have often privileged long-term vision over immediate gains and tended to approach strategic issues with “the whole situation in mind” rather than one single battlefield. They also focus less on specific assets than on the way these assets “work … in concert” in a logic of encirclement or counter-encirclement.[54] Such elements might help reveal the potency of Belt and Road. Although the initiative’s ambiguous and disaggregated aspects have attracted valid criticism, over time synergies may emerge between its various dimensions, its regional manifestations, and the other instruments of Beijing’s grand strategy. Consider, for instance, how the nascent Polar Silk Road and the combination of infrastructure investments in continental Eurasia, the Suez Canal, and European port terminals might propel China’s commercial penetration of wealthy northwestern European economies.[55] Likewise, a growing naval presence, new land corridors through Pakistan and Myanmar, and a rising influence in island states like Sri Lanka and the Maldives could turn Beijing into a “resident power” in the Indian Ocean region.[56] Admittedly, none of these outcomes is predetermined. But they seem reasonably plausible and, should they materialize, could have far-reaching implications for the United States. Belt and Road’s Resilience Observers have expressed legitimate doubts about Belt and Road’s sustainability in view of Beijing’s domestic difficulties, its setbacks in recipient states, and rising alternatives. However, although those challenges could potentially cripple the Chinese initiative, it may nevertheless prove resilient if Beijing’s leaders make certain adjustments. One of Belt and Road’s key challenges stems from China’s domestic troubles. These include an economic slowdown, debt, corruption, inequality, and a rapidly aging population. Additionally, traditional measurement methods like Gross Domestic Product (GDP) have overestimated the strength of the Chinese economy.[57] Furthermore, Xi Jinping’s centralization of power could compromise the regime’s effectiveness, not to mention its system of succession. Each of these problems could single-handedly derail the country’s trajectory.[58] Belt and Road itself could exacerbate those tensions by diverting money that might better be used at home. Beijing’s economy could also suffer from the graft, rent-seeking, and domestic agendas of the initiative’s foreign recipients.[59] In fact, the steep fall of Chinese overseas investments since 2016 might jeopardize Belt and Road’s future.[60] Yet, those problems must be put into perspective. China has made phenomenal progress since the 1980s. Moreover, it repeatedly disproved the experts who prophesied its demise, and its economy still has major assets including competent leadership, low government debt, vast foreign exchange reserves, manufacturing dominance, a much-underestimated ability to innovate, and solid growth — whether measured in GDP or alternative methods such as “inclusive wealth.”[61] As for Belt and Road, it is likely to prove financially sustainable. While considerable, the amount of money involved in the initiative pales in comparison to the $5.9 trillion that the United States has spent on the global war on terrorism since 2001 or will inevitably spend in the form of interest rates, veterans’ care, and other obligations.[62] Some of Belt and Road’s losses were anticipated from the start and, despite the controversies surrounding China’s failures, many of its projects could yield high returns. Moreover, Beijing’s recent foreign direct investment review may optimize decision-making.[63] Forecasts put annual Belt and Road investments and construction contracts at $50 billion and $60 billion, respectively. Such predictions seem rather reasonable given China’s low stock-to-GDP ratio — 10.9 percent versus America’s 28.9 percent — and private investments could push them further.[64]  Therefore, drawing any conclusions from Beijing’s current difficulties would be highly premature. The future of Belt and Road could also be compromised by the growing tensions observed in recipient states. China’s promises have not always materialized and corrupt projects make the headlines, stirring disappointment among local populations. Beijing’s nondiscriminative approach means lower governance standards than those of Western institutions like the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund, especially when it comes to transparency and social responsibility. Additionally, Chinese actors capture most of Belt and Road’s contracts at the expense of local companies.[65] Furthermore, the massive loans extended to recipient states can create what many observers have called a “debt trap,” as illustrated by China’s takeover of Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port in December 2017, and skyrocketing national debt levels in countries like the Maldives, Djibouti, or Montenegro.[66] Local discontent has torpedoed major contracts, including Pakistan’s $14 billion Diamer-Bhasha dam in November 2017 and Malaysia’s $20 billion East Coast Rail Line in May 2018. Discord could intensify as Belt and Road loans near expiration and as China gets embroiled in regional rivalries — such as the one between Saudi Arabia and Iran — and local politics. Finally, Chinese citizens have been the target of terrorist or insurgent attacks, for example in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province. [quote id="3"] Yet, Belt and Road’s appeal remains strong. To begin, the initiative’s relevance is guaranteed by the fact that projected global infrastructure needs from 2013 to 2030 may amount to $57 trillion.[67] Additionally, Western-led organizations have long neglected building infrastructure and have been highly risk-averse, which led them to ignore many poor countries, a gap that Beijing is now trying to bridge.[68] Moreover, while the criticism of China deserves attention — after all, it uses its economic power to gain leverage and some of its practices are dangerous — its development financing has had positive effects. This impact, which includes economic growth, job creation, and providing alternatives to austerity in times of crisis, explains Beijing’s undeniable popularity in Africa and Latin America.[69] As for the “debt trap” accusations, they have their limits. Seeking too many bankruptcies would not make sense for China as it would cripple its finances. Authoritative institutions such as the Center for Global Development concluded that Belt and Road “is unlikely to cause a systemic debt problem.”[70] In fact, Beijing’s credit from 2000 to 2016 only counted for 2 percent of the developing countries’ $6.9 trillion accumulated debt, which largely results from the West’s colonial legacies, unfair commercial terms, austerity measures, and dollar-denominated payment requirements.[71] Additionally, China is not the only actor that indulges in assets takeover, as exemplified in August 2015 when a German firm took control — with the European Union’s and the International Monetary Fund’s approval — of 14 Greek airports valued at $1.23 billion for 40 years due to Athens’ unsustainable debt.[72] Xi Jinping’s promises during the April 2019 Belt and Road summit to ameliorate some aspects of the initiative may prove to be empty words. However, his public acknowledgement of the criticism that Beijing has received might suggest otherwise, not to mention the adjustments — albeit insufficient ones — that are already under way, such as increasing local hires, improving transparency, and consulting with local leaders.[73] Importantly, early studies on foreign perceptions of the Chinese initiative are not overly alarming.[74] Despite notable hiccups, Beijing’s financial reach, non-discriminative approach, cheap technical assets, fast delivery, and anti-imperialist rhetoric often suffice to preserve Belt and Road’s appeal. For example, Middle Eastern state leaders believe that the initiative could help them exploit their energy resources, diversify their economies, create jobs, and integrate global supply chains.[75] Additionally, China’s momentum persists even in countries where severe controversies have erupted. For instance, Pakistan and Sri Lanka’s new leaders “softened” their electoral campaign criticisms of Belt and Road. Malaysia is still pursuing the $10.5 billion Melaka Gateway, resumed the $34 billion “Bandar Malaysia” project, and revived the East Coast Rail Line after obtaining a 30 percent discount, which signals Beijing’s willingness to compromise. Similarly, after years of interruption, Myanmar gave the green light to the Kyaukpyu port project — potentially worth $6 to $7 billion — in November 2017.[76] Belt and Road could also lose momentum due to the alternative infrastructure projects that are emerging. In the last two years, Western countries have expressed growing concerns about China’s low governance standards in the context of their disillusionment over Beijing’s increasing protectionism, authoritarianism, and military assertiveness. The main alternatives to Belt and Road include Japan’s “quality infrastructure” blueprint, which would invest $200 billion over five years; the Indo-Japanese Asia-Africa Growth Corridor; the European Union’s Eurasia connectivity plan; and a revamped U.S. development finance agency with a $60 billion portfolio.[77] This competition could hurt China’s endeavor given these countries’ strong expertise, economic firepower, and determination to work together. It could also create a healthy competition that would ultimately benefit recipient states and their local populations. However, these counter-initiatives may face a number of obstacles: First, most of them are still in their infancy and are progressing more slowly than Belt and Road. Second, for all the criticism of China’s practices, the West’s political and economic interferences and austerity standards have also generated their fair share of controversy among developing countries in the past. As such, the appeal of these competing projects should not be overestimated.[78] Third, while Western countries’ foreign direct investment, which originates mostly from private actors, is much higher in the aggregate, China can more easily use its foreign direct investment for strategic purposes thanks to a much tighter, if imperfect, control over national actors.[79] Fourth, these countries may have difficulty coordinating their counter-initiatives because of differing standards, priorities, and underlying strategic objectives. Fifth, domestic economic hardships could stand in the way. While China’s share in East Asia’s GDP rose from 8 percent to 51 percent between 1990 and 2014, Japan’s plunged from 72 percent to 22 percent. Meanwhile, India struggles with poverty, socio-ethnic and religious strife, and security threats.[80] Interestingly, the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor proposed by Tokyo and New Delhi remains “abstract … and both governments may be de-emphasizing the idea.”[81] As for European economies, they are declining and Brussels’ Eurasia connectivity plan only offers “an increased fire-power of up to €60 billion” spread out between 2021 and 2027.[82] Finally, America’s response is blunted by deep fiscal deficits, a liberal outlook that rejects state interventionism, and the participation of powerful U.S. multinationals in Belt and Road.[83] Meanwhile, the frustrations prompted by Beijing’s commercial practices do not compromise the appeal of its market and products across the world. Moreover, the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and suspension of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations expand China’s window of opportunity. Admittedly, Washington is pushing for deals akin to the revised North American Free Trade Agreement (announced in October 2018), which forbids commercial deals with Beijing. Yet, President Donald Trump may not be able to impose his views as easily on Japan, the European Union, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), heavyweights that value economic relations with China and oppose Washington’s protectionism.[84]

Protecting the Foundations of China’s Power

The Belt and Road Initiative helps protect the foundations of Chinese national power in three areas. First, it bolsters the country’s national sovereignty and domestic stability. Second, it buttresses its economic security. Third, it enhances its industrial-military potential. These mutually reinforcing dynamics allow Beijing to hedge against potential U.S. aggressions. Border and Domestic Security Belt and Road is designed to bolster China’s border and domestic security. The vastness of the country’s western and southern peripheries, the local demographic superiority of non-Han ethnic groups, and the historical weakness of local state authority have always exposed Chinese leaders to domestic unrest and foreign interference.[85] In that light, the United States has, in recent history, been a perennial concern. Washington tried to exploit turmoil in Tibet and Xinjiang during the early Cold War.[86] Beijing has also worried for decades about America launching ideological attacks to “bring [China] into its own system.”[87] For example, in recent years, Chinese leaders have resented Washington’s decision to grant political asylum to Xinjiang activists as well as its support for the National Endowment for Democracy and Radio Free Asia.[88] Furthermore, the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia caused Beijing to pay even greater attention to its neighbors.[89] The Indo-American rapprochement, starting in the mid-2000s, compounded Sino-American tensions. Indeed, China has long competed with India across territories that stretch from Myanmar to Kashmir and Tibet, and it deeply resents New Delhi’s protection of the Dalai Lama.[90] [quote id="4"] The Belt and Road Initiative addresses those problems in several ways. First, it is likely to stimulate the economies of China’s remote provinces, thereby reducing incentives for unrest. Second, combined with a robust military buildup in Tibet, the $62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and Beijing’s investments in Central Asia, northern South Asia, and continental Southeast Asia, are aimed at blunting regional separatist and terrorist threats.[91] Third, the Digital Silk Road, which promotes Chinese telecommunications equipment and internet standards, optimizes surveillance and repression, buttresses domestic security cooperation with like-minded regimes, including Russia, and secures data from interception by foreign governments.[92] Moreover, Belt and Road increases China’s push against New Delhi’s regional influence and could even tighten the encirclement of India, whose vulnerable northern flank, especially the Siliguri Corridor, provides strategic leverage to Beijing. Most important, the initiative reduces the harm that America could potentially inflict on Chinese peripheries.[93] However, the increase in Beijing’s border and domestic security should not pose insurmountable problems for the United States. Although Belt and Road reduces Washington’s ability to interfere in China’s backyard, doing so would have always been highly dangerous given Beijing’s nuclear status and growing power. Furthermore, as it improves China’s security, Belt and Road may allow American leaders to manage bilateral tensions more easily. The initiative has the potential to increase autocratic tendencies in Central Asia, inner Southeast Asia, and northern South Asia. However, promoting local democracy was never a priority for Washington. The United States does have an interest in backing India in its border disputes with China. Yet, beyond that specific imperative, massive regional efforts would risk diluting America’s resources in distant areas where Beijing often has a comparative advantage. Pakistan deserves attention, especially given India’s strident opposition to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. However, given Washington’s inability to influence Islamabad — despite spending more than $33 billion in economic and military assistance since 2001  — striving to match Beijing’s local grip would be pointless.[94] China’s vested interest in stability could actually restrain the Pakistani army and facilitate a U.S. withdrawal from the deadlocked war in Afghanistan. More broadly, Belt and Road could bolster counter-terrorism efforts, help economic development, and divert (at least temporarily) some of Beijing’s resources away from areas that are of utmost strategic importance to the United States, like the Strait of Malacca. Economic Security Belt and Road is also designed to enhance China’s economic security. This effort targets multiple contingencies, but the challenges posed by America rank particularly high among them. Chinese leaders have never forgotten Washington’s trade embargo, which lasted from 1950 to 1971, nor its support of Taiwanese operations against Beijing’s sea lines of communication in the mid-1950s.[95] The United States became a tacit ally of China in the later decades of the Cold War. However, Beijing’s concerns gradually resurfaced following the fall of the Soviet Union. Washington’s persistent military encirclement of China, its debates about blockade scenarios, and its Air-Sea Battle Doctrine only aggravated those concerns.[96] Doubling down on longstanding patterns, Belt and Road targets fast-growing, underdeveloped countries to boost national growth, attenuate industrial overproduction, transition away from a low-cost, low-end production paradigm, and reduce exposure to competitors. This reorientation appears sound — Belt and Road partners’ share in global GDP rose from 21 percent to 37 percent from 1995 to 2015.[97] The trade war that the Trump administration launched in mid-2018 gave this process more urgency. However, Beijing’s ability to resist pressures is rising. Washington disrupted China’s supply chains and businesses, but its measures also hurt American companies and are unlikely to have transformative effects on Beijing’s behavior.[98] Belt and Road also optimizes Chinese trade routes. By 2015, China had already invested in two-thirds of the 50 largest container ports worldwide and represented 39 percent of the top 10 operators’ traffic.[99] Beijing has concentrated its attention on chokepoints. Indeed, 10 of its main port installations surround the South China Sea and eight command access to the Strait of Malacca, a crucial chokepoint that is exposed to the U.S. Navy. But China is also pressing for the Kra Canal in Thailand, which could more quickly link the Indian and Pacific Oceans.[100] It is expanding its influence near the straits of Hormuz and Bab-el-Mandeb, including in Djibouti, which hosts Africa’s largest free-trade zone, and Oman’s $10.7 billion port in Duqm.[101] Likewise, Beijing acquired a 20 percent share in the Suez Canal container terminal, is erecting a second local terminal, purchased southern European port facilities, and is developing major ports and a Red Sea-Mediterranean railway with Israel. China also ramped up investments in northern Europe, including a 35 percent share in Rotterdam’s Euromax terminal.[102] Finally, the nascent Polar Silk Road could bypass current chokepoints, cut sailing time to rich northwestern European markets, and save Beijing between $533 billion and $1.274 trillion annually.[103] In parallel, Belt and Road is betting on roads, railways, and facilities across Central Asia, the South Caucasus, Turkey, and Eastern and Southern Europe. Although most Eurasian economic centers abut coastlines and maritime shipping remains more capable, affordable, and predictable,[104] land transportation, which is faster than the sea and cheaper than the air, could help the high-tech, fashion, agriculture, and heavy machinery sectors, among others. The digitization of border procedures and the ongoing logistics revolution could boost traffic further.[105] Moreover, major hybrid sea-land routes are set to emerge. For example, transportation infrastructure across Greece and the Balkans will link up with the Suez Canal maritime routes to allow products in Beijing to reach northwestern European markets eight to 12 days faster than through the Strait of Gibraltar.[106] China is also focusing on energy and food security. Beijing has leveraged America’s post-Cold War regional security architecture and the unpopularity of the war on terrorism to nurture its economic presence in the oil-rich Middle East. China’s trade in the region grew by 350 percent from 2005 to 2016 and its foreign direct investment reached $29.5 billion in 2016, compared to Washington’s $6.9 billion.[107] Saudi Arabia is gravitating toward Belt and Road: A number of bilateral deals worth $65 billion were signed during King Salman’s visit in March 2017 and Riyadh has signed agreements worth $20 billion as a preliminary investment in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Iran, an old ally of Beijing, has enjoyed renewed favors since the signing of the 2015 nuclear deal: China’s local foreign direct investment rose 20 percent between March 2014 and January 2018, bilateral trade soared 19 percent from 2016 to 2017, and joint ventures like the North Azadegan and Yadavaran oil fields, estimated at $5 billion, are moving forward.[108] The Trump administration’s recent sanctions have curtailed this momentum; however, Beijing — which may be joined by others, including European countries — is likely to work around them, as it has in the past. Meanwhile, China’s noninterference principles have helped to spread its regional influence, as illustrated by the fact that Qatar, Kuwait, Syria, and Iraq support Sino-Iranian ties while Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel see Beijing’s relationship with, and potential leverage over, Iran as a reason to engage China diplomatically and economically.[109] Similarly, Beijing is investing in energy assets in Central Asia, Africa, Latin America, Canada, and the Arctic. It has also become the main producer of 23 of the 41 most strategically valuable metals and minerals worldwide.[110] Finally, China’s investments in Belt and Road partners’ agricultural sectors and in companies such as the Swiss Syngenta — a leader in agrochemicals, seeds, and biotech acquired for $43 billion in 2016 — improve the country’s resilience by diversifying suppliers and increasing domestic production.[111] These trends could create challenges for Washington. For example, Chinese port operators could collect intelligence on docked U.S. vessels in allied countries such as Israel. The Belt and Road Initiative will also diminish the likelihood of an American blockade by strengthening Beijing’s sea lines of communication, incentivizing littoral states to prevent trade disruptions, and, through continental pathways in Central Asia, Pakistan, and Myanmar, diversifying its shipping options.[112] More broadly, China’s gains could erode Washington’s influence since guaranteeing the “provision of [Middle Eastern] oil” has long given the United States strategic leverage over other countries.[113] Additionally, Beijing has secured “a lock on supplies of nine of the 10 [metals and minerals] judged to be at the highest risk of unavailability,”[114] and might “lock up … farmland … and food processing assets” worldwide.[115] [quote id="5"] However, the impact of these dynamics on American security should not be overestimated. In the first place, although the possibility of imposing a blockade against China has decreased, such a move would have always been highly complex and dangerously escalatory.[116] In reality, the decline of Beijing’s insecurity reduces the risk of war. Moreover, although they have given America some influence, military interventions in the Middle East since the early 1990s have incurred severe costs, destabilized local countries, diverted Washington’s attention away from East Asia, and allowed China to free-ride.[117] Admittedly, the United States retains an interest in the free flow of oil, but so does Beijing. More broadly, America has enough military assets in the region and beyond to deter misbehavior. Therefore, Belt and Road, rather than exclusively posing a threat, might in fact offer Washington an opportunity to rethink how it engages in the Middle East and to cooperate with China in efforts such as countering terrorism and fighting piracy. As for the Chinese challenge in domains like food security, access to key metals and minerals, and influence on other states, a determined geoeconomic response would go a long way toward preserving key American interests. One final way in which China is ensuring its economic security is via its investments in green energy. The Belt and Road Initiative financed “clean” projects worth $11.8 billion in 2015 and 2016, and issued a $2.15 billion climate bond in 2017. Pointing to Beijing’s skyrocketing pollution levels, most observers have castigated Belt and Road as a scheme designed to export polluting industries.[118] These critiques have merit. However, current trends might hide a deeper shift toward renewable energies.[119] Either way, a green Belt and Road would be in Washington’s interest. Although this outcome could potentially allow Beijing to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, build resilient infrastructure, curtail the appeal of the American shale gas revolution, dominate emerging industries like electric cars, and command international “regulations [and] pricing policies,” Washington could mitigate those risks by rekindling its own environmental ambitions.[120] More importantly, a green China would more proactively help fight global warming, a threat that should dwarf any other concerns. Industrial-Military Potential The Belt and Road Initiative is geared toward enhancing China’s industrial-military potential. Although multiple factors drive this effort, the United States looms large. America’s prowess during the 1990 – 1991 Gulf War, the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis, and the 2003 invasion of Iraq gave Beijing powerful incentives to modernize. Additionally, Chinese leaders have resented Washington’s regular attempts to curtail their country’s progress, including pressuring European allies not to lift their post-Tiananmen embargo on exports of military hardware.[121] Belt and Road could facilitate Beijing’s defense modernization in several ways. Indeed, it overlaps with “Internet Plus,” a plan to integrate new technologies like big data and advanced manufacturing sectors to make China more competitive in the global markets.[122] It also works in conjunction with “Made in China 2025” — a program to dominate high-tech industries, such as semi-conductors, by increasing subsidies and attracting foreign companies that will be squeezed out of the market once their knowledge is extracted.[123] Belt and Road optimizes those efforts by opening new markets for Chinese companies, exporting technical standards, and facilitating industrial espionage.[124] However, significant obstacles remain. Beijing’s state-centric approach is plagued by inertia, talent deficits, intellectual property violations, and rising Western investment-screening mechanisms. Moreover, many foreign firms only use China to assemble components that were manufactured abroad.[125] Yet, the technological gap with the United States is narrowing. Beijing is training more STEM graduates than in the past — a projected 48 million between 2015 and 2030 compared with America’s 10 million for the same time period — attracting more graduate returnees, whose number jumped from 272,900 in 2012 to 432,500 in 2016; progressing in academic rankings; and claiming more patents than ever before, with a 28 percent increase between 2016 and 2017. Additionally, its research and development spending could overtake Washington’s by 2022.[126] Furthermore, the huge size of its national market allows China to replicate foreign technology, generate a “learning curve” effect, and collect more data, a crucial asset for artificial intelligence and biotech. Beijing, which accounted for 42 percent of the global digital economy in 2017, could soon dominate underequipped regions like Southeast Asia and the Middle East.[127] The number of Chinese enterprises ranked in a list of the 20 most valuable internet companies worldwide rose from two to nine between 2013 and 2018, and China could be the first major power to roll out 5G technology on a large scale — although recent U.S. sanctions on Huawei might delay that process.[128] Finally, despite new protections, most advanced economies and private companies remain exposed to Beijing’s foreign direct investment, espionage, and commercial appeal, while countries like Israel or Singapore have yet to ramp up their defenses.[129] The security implications of China’s technological progress are significant. Building on the Strategic Support Force, a new branch of Beijing’s military dedicated to electronics, space, and cyber, and capitalizing on its financial reach, civil-military fusion, lesser ethical concerns, and the larger amounts of data that it can collect from its population, China is investing in disruptive technologies like artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and hypersonic weapons that could diminish America’s competitive edge 15 years down the road to win “informatized wars” — conflicts whose outcome will be determined by the mastery of telecommunications and computer systems.[130] The Digital Silk Road supports these efforts by strengthening the country’s best companies and improving industrial-military espionage.[131] For example, new submarine cable projects — which jumped from representing 7 percent of the world total between 2012 and 2015 to 20 percent between 2016 and 2019 — could boost China’s intelligence and anti-submarine capabilities.[132] Likewise, Belt and Road partnerships help export and upgrade BeiDou, a satellite navigation system that will allow Beijing to “shift away from reliance on [America’s] GPS for precision strike[s]” by 2020.[133] Progress in China’s military sector is plagued by bureaucratic inertia, welfare and personnel costs, as well as the costs incurred by domestic instability. Moreover, turning economic power into military capabilities becomes more difficult as technological sophistication increases.[134] Yet Beijing, which allocated only 1.9 percent of its GDP to defense in 2018 — compared with America’s 3.2 percent — has consistently outpaced intelligence forecasts so far, and may soon pull ahead in key domains like artificial intelligence.[135] Washington, on the other hand, retains significant industrial potential and can build upon the investment stock that it has accumulated since World War II.[136] However, its defense industrial base “continues to shrink,” per-troop expenditures have soared by 50 percent in 15 years,[137] and, having “over-invested in legacy systems,” the United States must shoulder “huge financial burdens … and … [conservative] constituencies.”[138] The country’s performance is further hurt by the Trump administration’s poor record on innovation and its strained relations with tech companies.[139]

Projecting Strategic Influence

The Belt and Road Initiative not only helps China blunt potential aggressions, it also allows it to project strategic influence at the bilateral, regional, and systemic levels. Although the United States remains dominant on each of those levels, Beijing could gradually erode America’s hegemony and weaken its security system in the Indo-Pacific. Systemic Benefits Belt and Road is designed to erode America’s grip on the international governance architecture, a dominance that Beijing has long resented. Chinese-led financial bodies like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which has a $50 billion endowment and has attracted dozens of states despite U.S. attempts to stop them from joining, or Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa’s (BRICS’) New Development Bank, which has a similar endowment, accelerate the momentum generated by the Chiang Mai Initiative — an endeavor that works to decrease regional defaults in partnership with ASEAN, Japan, and South Korea — the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s Interbank Consortium, and maybe soon a non-Western credit rating agency.[140] Additionally, Belt and Road has led to the signature of many bilateral commercial agreements and the creation of China-based international courts for conflict resolution. It boosted negotiations over the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which could lift the barriers that separate leading Asian economies, including China, India, Japan, South Korea, and ASEAN, on more than 90 percent of the products that they exchange. Finally, Beijing’s new Cross-Border Interbank Payment System and clearing centers help internationalize the RMB (or yuan, as it is commonly known).[141] Although this effort is curtailed by capital controls, the Chinese central bank’s lack of independence, Beijing’s investments in U.S. treasury bonds, and the dollar’s domination, the International Monetary Fund added the RMB to its Special Drawing Reserve, and European financial centers are positioning themselves as “‘hubs’ for its use.”[142] Meanwhile, the newly created “petro-yuan” could transform the pivotal worldwide commodity market.[143] [quote id="6"] Systemic consequences might follow from the strides Beijing has made. By offering alternatives to loan recipients, promoting infrastructure building, and distinguishing economics from politics, China-led financial institutions, in combination with Chinese bilateral development policies, could slowly weaken the austerity principles that the so-called “Washington Consensus” has dictated for decades.[144] Belt and Road’s commercial agreements could consolidate Beijing’s “agenda-setter” status.[145] Finally, while the RMB may never achieve dominance, it could erode the dollar’s supremacy, which is already threatened by America’s fiscal deficits and large-scale “economic warfare” with countries like China, Russia, and Iran, not to mention digital currencies and the BRICS’ de-dollarization campaign.[146] Washington’s security interests may be affected by those dynamics. Thanks to its leadership in international institutions — such as the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank — and its monetary dominance, America became a “system-maker” after 1945. Combined with the appeal of its loans, investments, and market, this status allowed the United States to borrow without consequences, navigate financial crises, offload adjustment costs, dictate lending terms, tame economic competitors, and open foreign markets.[147] In turn, these gains strengthened the foundations of America’s hard power. They also contributed to weakening Britain’s empire, maintaining Europe and Japan’s strategic dependency, and convincing most allies to fund U.S. military enterprises. They even helped punish Washington’s enemies — for example, Russia following its 2014 military aggression against Ukraine.[148] As it erodes America’s “system-maker” status, Belt and Road could reduce these benefits. Eurasian Integration Belt and Road may help China optimize its geostrategic posture in Eurasia. Breaking with its historical continental orientation, Beijing has significantly developed its sea power following the Soviet breakup, Taiwan’s democratization process, and the growing dependence of the Chinese economy on foreign resources.[149] However, there are a number of challenges to achieving maritime dominance. To begin with, building a fleet is extraordinarily costly. Moreover, many Eurasian land powers over history, including Imperial Germany and the Soviet Union, failed to command the oceans because they faced too many continental contingencies. China faces a similar predicament. It has to cope with a superior U.S. navy that “operate[s] freely on exterior lines.”[150] But it must also protect its vulnerable heartland, and a “March West” helps project influence with less risk of conflict with Washington.[151] Beijing’s current hybrid sea-land posture raises complex dilemmas in domains like threat management and resource allocation. However, provided Chinese leaders utilize the country’s huge national resources effectively, this posture could optimize China’s “independence and geostrategic flexibility.”[152] From that perspective, the nascent strategy of “using the land to control the sea, and using the seas to control the oceans” signals Beijing’s determination to make the most of both its continental depth and its location along the Eurasian rimland.[153] Belt and Road may contribute to this strategy by facilitating the integration of neighboring economies in Eurasia. Although China has encountered some issues in Central Asia due to local graft, corruption, and politics, bilateral trade, which is 30 times greater than it was in the early 1990s, covers a massive share of these countries’ GDP. Belt and Road infrastructure is also becoming indispensable for them to access markets in the region and beyond.[154] Most importantly, the Ukraine crisis has accelerated the rapprochement that China and Russia had initiated in the post-Cold War era. Indeed, the rift that it caused with the West encouraged Moscow to increase the technological sophistication of its military exports to Beijing,[155] and to endorse Belt and Road, which provides Russia with international legitimacy, lowers its reliance on the West, and fortifies its flailing Eurasian Economic Union.[156] To be sure, the two countries have a long history of strategic competition and Moscow often allied with maritime powers against Eurasian competitors. However, even prominent skeptics recognize that China and Russia “are committed to making things last.”[157] Both Moscow and Beijing uphold an authoritarian model, seek regional counter-terrorism and economic development, aspire to blunt U.S. influence, and want to minimize their border frictions to pursue ambitions elsewhere.[158] Additionally, China holds significant leverage over Russia. While their GDPs were similar in 1993, Beijing’s is now more than 10 times greater than Moscow’s. Russia’s dismal infrastructure and energy sector need Belt and Road capital, as illustrated by the 30-year, $400 billion oil deal signed in 2014 and ambitious joint ventures in the Arctic. Besides, Moscow is well aware that China could use its significant demographic superiority to infiltrate and destabilize its neighbor’s thinly populated Far East.[159] More broadly, the Middle Eastern oil industries’ growing independence from the West, Iran’s Islamic revolution, the Soviet Union’s unravelling, and China’s and India’s rise opened new opportunities for integration. The resource-rich and capital-rich countries of Eurasia complement one another, which could help lay the foundations of a “new continentalism.”[160] For example, Iran could become a major energy provider for Pakistan and E.U. countries and a critical export outlet for Central Asia and the South Caucasus.[161] This Eurasian integration is accentuated by the European Union’s post-Cold War enlargement eastward; the growing connections between western China’s supply chains and those dominated by Germany in central Europe; and the search for continental connectivity of middle powers such as South Korea, Turkey, and Kazakhstan.[162] This process, which also benefits from the “national and domestic resonance” of the ancient Silk Road in most of these countries, could thrive further under organizations like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.[163] The latter, whose institutional prerogatives now extend to defense and diplomacy, welcomed India and Pakistan in 2017 and might soon be joined by Iran and Turkey. Likewise, Beijing’s “New Security Concept” for Asia, which stresses economic cooperation and implicitly rejects U.S. involvement, could gain momentum.[164] These trends could have important security implications. Since the early days of the post-World War II era, fears that a rising hegemon could capture Eurasia’s unmatched resources and markets have led American leaders to forge local alliances and to systematically oppose regional organizations and cross-regional energy networks. These efforts helped entrench Washington’s hegemony and have legitimized its military, political, and economic interferences across Eurasia for decades.[165] But today’s emerging “continentalism” alters this paradigm. Combined with China’s expanding security dialogues with entities such as the Arab League and the African Union and its growing responsibilities at the United Nations, including contributions to the budget and peacekeeping efforts, institutions like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization could gradually weaken America’s ability to isolate its enemies.[166] Belt and Road could ultimately create a “continental zone of pre-eminent Chinese influence” and allow Beijing to concentrate on the seas.[167] These trends ought to be worrisome for Washington. However, because some of the continental geographic areas coveted by Beijing have less strategic value to American leaders, China’s efforts in those regions might (at least temporarily, but possibly much longer) divert some of its resources away from areas that are of key interest to the United States. Additionally, some of the most proactive and geographically expansive forms of engagement that Washington has adopted in Eurasia in the past led to disasters such as the Vietnam and Iraq wars, incurring enormous costs in blood, treasure, and reputation. In that sense, Beijing’s rise could help check the temptation to overreach. Moreover, a less systematic opposition to China may ease bilateral tensions and help advance other American objectives, such as economic development and counter-terrorism. Bilateral Leverage Belt and Road’s geoeconomic approach also enhances China’s bilateral leverage. Beijing’s ability to coerce other states is constrained by its insufficient, albeit significant, control over Chinese companies and bureaucracies, its competitors’ ability to find alternatives, and financial and reputational costs. Nevertheless, China has had some success steering other countries in its preferred direction. For instance, by cutting oil imports, Beijing was able to drive Iran into the 2015 nuclear deal, which facilitated Belt and Road’s development in Tehran. Similarly, economic pressures convinced Turkey to restrict the activism of its Uyghur community, which had created concerns in China. Likewise, Chinese sanctions targeting South Korea’s installation of America’s THAAD missile-defense system in 2017 persuaded Seoul to reject future deployments of this kind.[168] These coercion efforts could grow as China refines its instruments to target specific companies, institutions, sectors, and “politically salient constituencies.”[169] However, Beijing’s long-term strategy relies primarily on inducements, long-term engagement, the identification of common goals, and joint solutions that rely on China’s ability to address development gaps.[170] This approach could breed significant influence. For instance, many African and Latin American states tend to align with Beijing at the United Nations, while Taiwan has lost almost a quarter of its diplomatic partners since 2016. More broadly, despite occasional tensions, Asian states already accept most of China’s strategic interests.[171] Over time, more and more world leaders may be tempted to “pre-empt [its] demands” on various issues.[172] [quote id="7"] Finally, Belt and Road works in tandem with China’s rising military influence. Beijing has already leveraged U.S. fears of escalation to assert its claims, deploy its assets, and display an image of inevitability in the South China Sea.[173] But Belt and Road complements these dynamics by providing more instruments to pressure or incentivize other states to follow China’s interests without reaching escalatory thresholds.[174] Moreover, the global spread of its national assets requires Beijing to deploy its military and its private defense companies, and to partner with host nations in the arenas of law enforcement, intelligence, and defense. Despite the opening of a base in Djibouti in mid-2017, the dredging of fortified artificial islands in the South China Sea beginning in 2014, reports of covert military outposts in Tajikistan since 2016, news coverage of a secret agreement for facilities in Cambodia in spring 2019, and rumors about future installations on various sites, such as Pakistan’s Gwadar port, a large base network seems unlikely for now, as it would contradict Beijing’s “anti-imperialist” ideology and risk controversies.[175] However, China is likely to create more bases over time, and current arrangements, such as refueling and port of calls, already bolster its international presence. America’s global military network remains absolutely unrivaled. But current trends could constrain the mobility of U.S. forces in some areas.[176] Dislocating the U.S.-Led Maritime Security System Over time, Belt and Road could heavily impact security dynamics in the Indo-Pacific, the main flashpoint of the U.S.-China contest. Washington has long maintained a robust security system that uses the “energy resources, well-situated … port facilities, large land masses, sophisticated infrastructures,” and “secure rear-basing facilities” of allies and partners in Southeast Asia, East Asia, and the Pacific.[177] Combined with the “stopping power of water,” this strategy helped contain the Soviet Union and China during the Cold War.[178] But its importance increased as Asia’s share in the world’s economic output skyrocketed and as Beijing emerged as a potential competitor. China’s key objective today is to break what it sees as America’s strategic island chains to gain room for maneuvering, facilitate the projection of military power, and burnish its credibility.[179] In response to Beijing’s ambitions, the Trump administration, building on President Barack Obama’s pivot-rebalance to Asia, revived “the Quad,” a naval partnership with India, Australia, and Japan, in November 2017. It also ramped up its “Freedom of Navigation Operations” in the South China Sea. Additionally, its withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in February 2019 will allow the United States to upgrade its ground-based missiles, and to expand its firepower across Asia.[180] However, Beijing’s proximity to the fields of competition means it is more able to absorb setbacks, while America’s distance means it needs key Asian powers to balance or hedge in its favor. Leading scholars have argued that most local leaders will continue to align with the United States due to the threat posed by China, the path-dependence created by past agreements, and the fact that far-flung sea hegemons often seem more benign than continental neighbors.[181] Yet, there are reasons to doubt this outcome. Balancing carries with it significant political and financial costs and can hinder strategic autonomy, while domestic strains can stymie its execution.[182] Moreover, as illustrated by China’s tribute system, balancing theories do not necessarily apply well to Asia.[183] Furthermore, despite aggressive moves like the establishment of the Air Defense Identification Zone in East Asia in 2013 and island-building in the South China Sea since 2014, Beijing today is a far cry from the threatening regime that fought the United States, South Korea, India, the Soviets, and Vietnam during the Cold War.[184] Additionally, because maritime systems advantage military defense over military offense, many local states may decide that buck-passing preserves their security more effectively than balancing.[185] Finally, most regional leaders are perceiving a “precipitous decline” in America’s influence.[186] According to the Rand Corporation’s U.S.-China Military Scorecard, “trend lines are moving against [Washington] across a broad spectrum.” Beijing’s technological progress and ability to deploy assets in more and more massive numbers threaten to overwhelm the United States’ local advantages and could compromise its resolve to fight.[187] Such assessments might even underestimate the damage caused by initial Chinese missile strikes, the degree to which America’s submarines are stretched thin across the Pacific Ocean, and China’s mine warfare capabilities.[188] However, recent U.S. defense budget increases are unlikely to change this trend. Washington’s military superiority has been receding for years despite the fact that its overall defense expenditures are more than three times the size of China’s (underreported) budget and that the People’s Liberation Army also has to deal with domestic security. Indeed, while the United States must honor commitments across the globe, Beijing only has to concentrate on its own geographic region. Moreover, America’s security paradigm seems unsustainable. The U.S. Navy’s 355-ship buildup is crippled by severe financial and industrial limitations, the Air Force fleet is older than ever, with the average airframe at 27 years of age, and the modernization of Washington’s satellite system and nuclear triad remains unbudgeted.[189] This is not to mention Trump’s tax cuts, with losses expected to reach $260 billion annually,[190] sector pensions that remain unfunded and could amount to as much as $5 trillion, and the looming exhaustion of Social Security and Medicare funds. The Congressional Budget Office itself calculates that defense expenditures could fall to 2.6 percent of GDP by the mid-2020s.[191] In sum, perceptions of the regional balance of power will most likely continue to shift against Washington, something that the Trump administration’s notoriously erratic and raucous foreign policy only aggravates. Beijing does not have an easy path ahead. Nevertheless, combined with its diplomatic outreach, propaganda, and military rise, China’s geoeconomic offensive seems poised to exploit the underlying strains of the U.S.-led regional security system. From that standpoint, some recent trends are concerning. Although Southeast Asian countries have long hedged with a preference for Washington, Beijing’s ascendance is increasingly magnifying America’s distance, receding economic clout, and unpopular efforts to promote democracy and Western governance standards locally. Most regional states, including the Philippines, have leaned closer to China since 2016.[192] In East Asia, Japan’s relative assertiveness under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe constitutes “a rear-guard attempt to slow down” Tokyo’s dramatic decline.[193] Nearly half of Japanese companies’ overseas operations are located in China, whose share in Tokyo’s exports and imports now reaches 20 percent and 25 percent, respectively, compared to America’s declining shares — 18 percent and 11 percent, respectively. In the last two years, Abe has striven to defuse diplomatic tensions with Beijing, approved a currency-swap deal worth $29 billion, decided to cooperate with Belt and Road, and distanced his government from Taiwan.[194] Similar patterns emerged in South Korea. Trade with China surged 82 percent in five years to hit $90 billion, overshadowing America’s $46 billion. Seoul also tried to delay the deployment of the THAAD missile-defense system, dismissed Washington’s “free and open Indo-Pacific,” and agreed to collaborate with Belt and Road.[195] Further away, Australia has opposed Beijing’s political interference and its influence in neighboring Pacific islands. Yet, bilateral commerce rose 29 percent in 2017 and reached 29 percent of Canberra’s foreign trade in 2018.[196] Australia estimates that China’s GDP will far surpass America’s by 2030 — $42 trillion versus $24 trillion — and that domestic politics will inhibit Washington’s response.[197] Prime Minister Scott Morrison recently announced a plan to “turbo-charge [the] national effort in engaging China.”[198] India rejected Belt and Road but despite ambitious projects such as the co-development of the Iranian port of Chabahar, it has struggled to offer any alternatives. Moreover, India understands that a close rapprochement with America could curtail its “strategic autonomy,” antagonize China, and disrupt relations with Russia and Iran.[199] New Delhi is the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank’s main beneficiary, its dismal infrastructure needs investments, and booming trade with Beijing reached a record $84.4 billion in 2017, representing 22 percent of India’s foreign commerce. Combined with other facets of China’s power, such ties incentivize New Delhi to alleviate bilateral tensions.[200] Prime Minister Narendra Modi has charted a more nonaligned course since the mid-2017 Doklam plateau standoff, and according to a recent survey, only 43 percent of India’s strategic elites want “closer collaboration with [Washington] in the event of greater U.S.-China competition.”[201] [quote id="8"] The European Union recently branded Beijing a “systemic rival.” Some of its members, including France and the United Kingdom, have deployed military assets and developed ties with Japan, India, or Australia to address the “return of … power assertiveness” in the Indo-Pacific. Additionally, more and more European actors have criticized China’s commercial and industrial practices, espionage, and attempts to gain political influence.[202] However, their tone is significantly milder than that of American leaders, and Beijing’s economic appeal remains. Despite severe U.S. pressures, many European countries are reluctant to exclude Chinese companies from their 5G networks. Beijing’s leaders have also successfully approached some of the region’s smaller states on a bilateral basis, exploiting their economic hardships, rivalries, and resentment toward Brussels to divide and paralyze the European Union.[203] Italy joined Belt and Road in March 2019, while Brexit prospects boosted the appeal of China’s market in Great Britain, where London’s financial elites have already begun their “rebalancing” toward East Asia and are assisting the Chinese initiative. Finally, despite expressing reservations, the European Union, Germany, and France themselves still intend to engage Beijing, including on Belt and Road.[204] Meanwhile, prospects of transatlantic convergence are corroded by Trump’s hostility to multilateralism, free trade, environmental regulations, the Iran nuclear deal, and the European Union itself.[205]


It may take decades to parse the strategic consequences of the Belt and Road Initiative. China’s enormous endeavor will undoubtedly inspire more controversies and record more failures. It might even unravel. Yet, its coherence, potency, and resilience should not be underestimated. Belt and Road reflects core aspects of Beijing’s grand strategy and strategic culture. It deftly enhances, publicizes, and knits together China’s geoeconomic leverage, industrial-technological capacity, omni-directional diplomacy, propaganda, and military power. If Beijing can make enough adjustments to optimize returns, nurture partnerships, and sustain economic growth, Belt and Road could have far-reaching implications. Some of them may serve American interests. But, if left unchecked, China’s initiative could pull apart the interdependent levers of influence that have underpinned U.S. hegemony in the post-World War II era. Washington must develop an ambitious response to Beijing. The first step is to restore a sense of domestic bipartisanship, recognizing that a divided America will struggle to maintain credibility and prestige abroad. The second step is to strengthen the economic foundations of the United States’ power. At home, American leaders must boost investments in infrastructure, healthcare, education, and research. They should tighten technology transfer restrictions and ramp up counter-intelligence and cyber defense capabilities.[206] Cuts in the modernization of America’s overwhelmingly superior nuclear triad may be necessary. Moreover, although occasional operations will always be required, U.S. leaders should wind down what remains of the global war on terrorism, the costs of which have been overwhelming. Likewise, Washington must definitively renounce nation-building, a costly undertaking that has yielded dubious results, diverted America’s resources, and allowed China to increase its clout in Iraq and Afghanistan.[207] Additionally, the United States ought to rethink its efforts to shrink Russia’s and Iran’s resilient spheres of influence to conserve resources, reduce risks of entanglement, and refocus on Beijing. Having freed up those resources, Washington should project its geoeconomic power more ambitiously. It must re-endorse multilateralism, join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, resume negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, and stop pressing allies on commercial issues. It should also more actively exploit the leverage provided by the shale gas revolution (without neglecting environmental reforms), boost foreign infrastructure financing, and shore up the economies and political systems of key allies, partners, and pivotal states.[208] Moreover, Washington ought to pursue “competitive strategies” to “channel [Beijing’s] attention, effort, and resources toward actions … that are least threatening.”[209] Reducing U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia would force China to assume costly responsibilities in its backyard. Likewise, an ambitious, but fair, communication strategy regarding Belt and Road’s abuses could compel Beijing to respond constructively. Similarly, improving relations with Russia and Iran — even to a limited extent — would help exploit their underlying competition for influence with China. By contrast, aggressive policies will only push Moscow and Tehran further into Beijing’s arms. However, Washington must also recalibrate some aspects of its China strategy toward greater conciliation. It ought to maintain its overall military superiority, support its allies, and deter misbehavior. But its “attack-in-depth” doctrine and its ambition to retain full command of the Indo-Pacific are costly, dangerous, and self-defeating, as illustrated by the steady erosion of U.S. military superiority along China’s coastline.[210] Instead of pursuing an unsustainable posture whose sudden breakdown could dramatically hurt its credibility, the United States should incrementally adapt to the structural evolution of the local balance of power. It should refrain from operations that are too aggressive, disperse some of its assets to reduce their vulnerability to potential Chinese strikes, capitalize on cheap but highly effective anti-access/area-denial capabilities for deterrence purposes, encourage allies to contribute more actively to the regional military balance, and recognize Beijing’s legitimate concerns about American encirclement. These moves may appear to be signs of decline, but combined with the aforementioned geoeconomic measures, they would boost U.S. credibility by consolidating more sustainable positions and tracing a less dangerous path. An aggressive zero-sum-game approach, on the other hand, could increase the risk of war and disincentivize other leaders from high-end collaboration with the United States.[211] Furthermore, while some aspects of the Belt and Road Initiative must be steadily opposed, U.S. leaders should acknowledge that Beijing has made some positive contributions in the developing world and that their own policies toward those countries have not always been particularly benevolent or flawless. A more open stance may yield Chinese concessions on debt, job creation, and environmental questions, and open up more business deals for American companies. By contrast, systematic attempts to portray Belt and Road as a predatory scheme are likely to isolate the United States. To be sure, Washington must continue to be vigilant. However, moderation and a keener grasp of the limits of American power would reduce the risk of catastrophic escalation, unlock cooperation opportunities, and maintain the theoretical possibility of a modus vivendi in Asia. These adjustments would help chart a more sensible and sustainable U.S. grand strategy.   Acknowledgements: For invaluable comments and suggestions, the author would like to thank Michael Beckley, Joshua Rovner, two anonymous reviewers, the editorial team at the Texas National Security Review, and participants in seminars hosted by the Center for Strategic Studies at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, and by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School. He would also like to thank Monica Toft for her support.   Thomas P. Cavanna is a visiting assistant professor at the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy in the Center for Strategic Studies. He writes on U.S. grand strategy and U.S. foreign policy toward China and South Asia. He holds a French “Agrégation” and a Master’s degree and doctorate in history from Sciences Po. He was also a Fox Fellow at Yale. Dr. Cavanna is currently working on a book on the Belt and Road Initiative and U.S. grand strategy.   Image: dcmaster [post_title] => Unlocking the Gates of Eurasia: China's Belt and Road Initiative and Its Implications for U.S. Grand Strategy [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => unlocking-the-gates-of-eurasia-chinas-belt-and-road-initiative-and-its-implications-for-u-s-grand-strategy [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2019-09-12 17:44:20 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-09-12 21:44:20 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw [lead] => What is the Belt and Road Initiative and what implications could it have for America’s grand strategy? As many observers have pointed out, China’s Belt and Road suffers from a number of problems and ambiguities. However, it is a much more coherent, potent, and resilient endeavor than many experts believe. Belt and Road is deeply grounded within Chinese grand strategy and strategic culture, helps protect the foundations of China’s national power, and allows Beijing to project influence across and beyond the Eurasian continent. If left unchecked, it could erode the foundations of America’s post-World War II hegemony. However, provided U.S. leaders respond the right way, it could offer important benefits to Washington. [pubinfo] => [issue] => Vol 2, Iss 3 [quotes] => Array ( [0] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => The scope and content of the initiative are ambiguous and in constant flux. However, these characteristics do not necessarily handicap it. ) [1] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => The coherence of the Belt and Road Initiative also stems from its symbiotic integration within the arc of Communist China’s grand strategy.  ) [2] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => The future of Belt and Road could also be compromised by the growing tensions observed in recipient states.  ) [3] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => Although Belt and Road reduces Washington’s ability to interfere in China’s backyard, doing so would have always been highly dangerous given Beijing’s nuclear status and growing power.  ) [4] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => Beijing has leveraged America’s post-Cold War regional security architecture and the unpopularity of the war on terrorism to nurture its economic presence in the oil-rich Middle East. ) [5] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => Belt and Road is designed to erode America’s grip on the international governance architecture, a dominance that Beijing has long resented.  ) [6] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => Moreover, a less systematic opposition to China may ease bilateral tensions and help advance other American objectives, such as economic development and counter-terrorism. ) [7] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => Meanwhile, prospects of transatlantic convergence are corroded by Trump’s hostility to multilateralism, free trade, environmental regulations, the Iran nuclear deal, and the European Union itself. ) ) [style] => scholarly [type] => Scholarly [style_label] => The Scholar [download] => Array ( [title] => PDF Download [file] => 1818 ) [authors] => Array ( [0] => 285 ) [endnotes] => Array ( [title] => Endnotes [endnotes] => [1] On the risk of war, Graham T. Allison, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017); Aaron L. Friedberg, A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2011); for a pessimistic view of America’s prospects, Martin Jacques, When China Rules the World: the Rise of the Middle Kingdom and the End of the Western World (London: Allen Lane, 2009); for optimistic accounts, Michael Beckley, Unrivaled: Why America Will Remain the World’s Sole Superpower (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2018); Thomas J. Christensen, The China Challenge: Shaping the Choices of a Rising Power (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2015); David L. Shambaugh, China Goes Global: the Partial Power (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013). [2] At its core, grand strategy is “the intellectual architecture that lends structure to foreign policy”; Hal Brands, What Good is Grand Strategy? Power and Purpose in American Statecraft (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014), 1. For debates on the nature and relevance of grand strategy, see Brands, What Good Is Grand Strategy? 1–16; Nina Silove, “Beyond the Buzzword: The Three Meanings of ‘Grand Strategy,’” Security Studies 27, no. 1 (January 2018): 27–57,; Rebecca Friedman Lissner, “What Is Grand Strategy? Sweeping a Conceptual Minefield,” Texas National Security Review 2, no. 1 (November 2018), 53–73, [3] Like primacy or preponderance, hegemony entails superior power, but it also implies acknowledgement of a state’s authority by most of the other members of the international system; G. John Ikenberry, Charles A. Kupchan, “Socialization and Hegemonic Power,” International Organization 44, no. 3 (Summer 1990): 283–315, [4] National Security Strategy of the United States of America, The White House, December 2017, 2, 25,; Jeff Smith, “China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Strategic Implications and International Opposition,” Heritage Foundation, Aug. 9, 2018, 9–10, [5] Gal Luft, “China’s Infrastructure Play: Why Washington Should Accept the New Silk Road,” Foreign Affairs 95, no. 5 (September/October 2016): 68–75,; Parag Khanna, "Washington Is Dismissing China's Belt and Road. That’s a Huge Strategic Mistake," Politico, April 30, 2019, [6] Peter Cai, “Understanding China’s Belt and Road Initiative,” Lowy Institute, March 2017, 1–22,; Tim Summers, “China’s ‘New Silk Roads’: Sub-National Regions and Networks of Global Political Economy,” Third World Quarterly 37, no. 9 (2016): 1628–43,; Christopher K. Johnson, “President Xi Jinping’s ‘Belt and Road’ Initiative: a Practical Assessment of the Chinese Communist Party’s Roadmap For China’s Global Resurgence,” Center for International and Strategic Studies, March 28, 2016, 19–20, v, [7] Bruno Maçães, Belt and Road: a Chinese World Order (London: Hurts & Company, 2018), 5–8; Jennifer Lind, “Life in China’s Asia: What Regional Hegemony Would Look Like,” Foreign Affairs 97, no. 2 (March/April 2018): 72–75,; Alek Chance, “American Perspectives on the Belt And Road Initiative: Sources of Concern, Possibilities for U.S.-China Cooperation,” Institute for China-America Studies, November 2016, 15–17,; Dalton Lin, “The One Belt One Road Project and China's Foreign Relations,” Carter Center, china Program Policy Paper 1, no. 2 (September  2015), [8] It cost $122 billion (current dollars); Ely Ratner, Elizabeth Rosenberg, Daniel Kliman, “The China Challenge,” Center for a New American Security, June 27, 2018, [9] Johnson, “President Xi Jinping’s ‘Belt and Road,’” vi. [10] Jonathan E. Hillman, “China’s Belt and Road is Full of Holes,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, Sept. 4, 2018,; David G. Landry, “The Belt and Road Bubble Is Starting to Burst,” Foreign Policy, June 27, 2018,; Landry, “The Belt and Road Bubble”; Tanner Greer, “One Belt, One road, One Big Mistake,” Foreign Policy, Dec. 6, 2018, [11] Geoeconomics is the “use of economic instruments…to produce beneficial geopolitical results”; Robert D. Blackwill and Jennifer M. Harris, War by Other Means: Geoeconomics and Statecraft (Cambridge, MA: Belknapp Press of Harvard University Press, 2016), 20. For additional information on China’s geoeconomic assets, see Blackwill and Harris, War by Other Means, 129–51. [12] For works of reference, see, Bruno Maçães, Belt and Road; and Nadège Rolland, China’s New Eurasian Century? Political and Strategic Implications of the Belt and Road Initiative (Seattle: National Bureau of Asian Research, 2017). [13] Albert Hirschman, National Power and the Structure of Foreign Trade (Berkeley: UCLA Press, 1945); Richard N. Rosecrance, The Rise of the Trading State: Commerce and Conquest in the Modern World (New York: Basic Books, 1986); Paul M. Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 (New York: Random House, 1987). [14] Harris and Blackwill, War by Other Means, 37; Parag Khanna, Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization (New York: Random House, 2016); Markus Brunnermeier, Rush Doshi, and Harold James, “Beijing’s Bismarckian Ghosts: How Great Powers Compete Economically,” Washington Quarterly 41, no. 3 (Fall 2018): 161–76, [15] John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2014), 55. [16] Silove, “Beyond the Buzzword,” 28–29. On the diminishing returns of military power, see Daniel W. Drezner, “Military Primacy Doesn’t Pay (Nearly As Much As You Think),” International Security 38, no. 1 (Summer 2013), 52–79,; for an article arguing that military capabilities are more influential than economic “dependency,” see Robert S. Ross, “Balance of Power Politics and the Rise of China,” International Security 15, no. 3 (2006), 355–95, [17] Barry Posen, Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014), 1. [18] Robert J. Art, A Grand Strategy for America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003), 2. [19] Colin Dueck, Reluctant Crusaders: Power, Culture, and Change in American Grand Strategy (Princeton, NY: Princeton University Press, 2006), 10. [20] “Xi Says Belt and Road Vision Becoming Reality,” Xinhua, May 14, 2017, [21] Gisela Grieger, “One Belt, One Road: China’s Regional Integration Initiative,” European Parliament Research Service, July 2016, 4,; Thomas S. Eder and Jacob Mardell, “Belt and Road Reality Check: How to Assess China’s Investment in Eastern Europe,” Mercator Institute for China Studies, July 7, 2018, [22] Cecilia Joy-Perez and Derek Scissors, “The Chinese State Funds Belt and Road but Does Not Have Trillions to Spare,” American Enterprise Institute, March 28, 2018, 1–2,; Derek Scissors, “Chinese Investment: State-Owned Enterprises Stop Globalizing, For Now,” American Enterprise Institute, Jan. 17 2019, 5, [23] “2018 Belt and Road Trade Reached $1.3 Trillion,” Maritime Executive, Jan. 26, 2019, [24] See later sections. [25] Richard Ghiasy and Jiayi Zhou, The Silk Road Economic Belt: Considering Security Implications and EU-China Cooperation Prospects (Stockholm: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute), 5, [26] Lee Jones and Yizheng Zou, “Rethinking the Role of State-Owned Enterprises in China’s Rise,” New Political Economy 22, no. 6 (2017): 744,; Shahar Hameiri and Lee Jones, “China Challenges Global Governance? Chinese International Development finance and the AIIB,” International Affairs 94, no. 3 (May 2018): 580, 584, [27] Ngai-Ling Sum, “The Intertwined Geopolitics and Geoeconomics of Hopes/Fears: China’s Triple Economic Bubbles and the ‘One Belt, One Road’ Imaginary,” Territory, Politics, Governance, published online Oct. 5, 2018, 1–2, [28] “China Moves to Define ‘Belt and Road’ Projects for the First Time”, Taiwan Straits, April 3, 2019,; Rolland, China’s New Eurasian Century, 50, 55. [29] Maçaes and Rolland, China’s New Eurasian Century, 7, 108; Alice Ekman et al., “Three Years of China’s New Silk Roads: From Words to (Re)action?” Institut français des relations, February 2017, 10, 17–21,; Johnson, “President Xi Jinping’s ‘Belt and Road,’” 5. [30] Christopher A. Ford, China Looks at the West: Identity, Global Ambitions, and the Future of Sino-American Relations (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2015), 90. [31] Manjari Chatterjee Miller, Wronged by Empire: Post-Imperial Ideology and Foreign Policy in India and China (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013), 2. [32] Ford, China Looks at the West, 421. [33] Quoted from Andrew Scobell, China and Strategic Culture (Honolulu: Hawaii University Press, 2004), 3. Strategic culture is the “central paradigmatic assumptions about the nature of conflict and the enemy and collectively shared by decision makers”; Alastair I. Johnston, Cultural Realism: Strategic Culture and Grand Strategy in Chinese History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995), ix. [34] Johnston, Cultural Realism, 25. [35] Scobell, China and Strategic Culture, 11–12, 17; Andrew Scobell, “China’s Real Strategic Culture: A Great Wall of the Imagination,” Contemporary Security Policy 35, no. 2 (2014): 220–21, [36] This definition largely builds upon Brock Tessman and Wojtek Wolfe, “Great Powers and Strategic Hedging: The Case of Chinese Energy Security Strategy,” International Studies Review 13, no. 2 (June 2011): 220, [37] Zhang Yuling and Tang Shiping, “China’s Regional Strategy,” in, Power Shift: China and Asia’s New Dynamics, ed. David Shambaugh (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 48. [38] David Lai, “Learning from the Stones: A Go Approach to Mastering China’s Strategic Concept, Shi,” Strategic Studies Institute, May 2004, 5, [39] Flynt Leverett and Wu Binging, “The New Silk Road and China’s Evolving Grand Strategy,” China Journal, no. 77 (January 2017): 113, On the People’s Liberation Army and ancient Chinese strategic thought, see, Andrea Ghiselli, “Revising China’s Strategic Culture: Contemporary Cherry-Picking of Ancient Strategic Thought,” China Quarterly, no. 233 (March 2018): 177–80, [40] Lai, “Learning From the Stones,” 5. [41] Randall L. Schweller and Xiaoyu Pu, “After Unipolarity: China’s Visions of International Order in an Era of U.S. Decline,” International Security 36, no. 1 (Summer 2011): 44, [42] “Full Text of President Xi’s Speech at Opening of Belt and Road Forum,” Xinhua, May 14, 2017, [43] Christopher A. 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Wilson, “The Chinese Way of War,” in, Strategy in Asia: The Past, Present, and Future of Regional Security, ed. Thomas J. Mahnken and Dan Blumenthal (Redwood, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014), 109–11. [51] Kari Lindberg and Tripti Lahiri, “From Asia to Africa, China’s ‘Debt-Trap Diplomacy’ Was Under Siege in 2018,” Quartz, Dec. 28, 2018, [52] Ford, “Realpolitik with Chinese Characteristics,” 30; Alastair Iain Johnston, “Cultural Realism and Strategy in Maoist China,” in, Cultures of National Security: Norms and Identity in World Politics, ed. Peter J. Katzenstein (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 219. [53] Schweller and Pu, “After Unipolarity,” 65. [54] Lai, “Learning from the Stones,” 27–28; Henry A. Kissinger, On China (New York: Penguin Press, 2011), 22–25. [55] See below. 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Fung et al., “Digital Silk Road, Silicon Valley and Connectivity,” Journal of Chinese Economic and Business Studies 16, no. 3 (2018): 315,; Juro Osawa and Paul Mozur, “The Rise of China's Innovation Machine,” Wall Street Journal, Jan. 16, 2014, [127] Graham Webster et al., “China’s Plan to ‘Lead’ In AI: Purpose, Prospects, and Problems,” New America, Aug. 1, 2017,; Yanfei Li, “Understanding China’s Technological Rise,” The Diplomat, Aug. 3, 2018,; “World Power 'Threatened' By Chinese AI,” BBC, Nov. 28, 2017,; Edward H. 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On a cold winter day in 1793, a crowd of French revolutionaries burst into the chapel of the Sorbonne. Streaming toward a large sarcophagus in the center of the apse, the mob laid into the cool marble with their rifle butts, hammering away at the central figure’s aquiline features. Howling vandals dragged a desiccated cadaver from the crypt, and a grisly — and most likely apocryphal — tale describes how street urchins were later spotted playing with its severed head.[1] Alexandre Lenoir, an archeologist, waded into the whirlwind of mayhem and — at the price of a bayonet-skewered hand — managed to save one of baroque sculpture’s masterpieces from total destruction.[2] The object of the sans-culottes' ire was a man who had been dead for over a century and a half, but who remains to this day a towering symbol of Ancien Régime absolutism: Armand Jean du Plessis — better known as Cardinal Richelieu. The clergyman, who served as Louis XIII’s chief minister from 1624 to 1642, has long constituted one of the more polarizing and fascinating figures in the history of Western statecraft. Renowned for his fierce intellect, mastery of the dark arts of propaganda, and unshakeable belief in the centralizing virtues of the French monarchy, Richelieu’s actions as chief minister have been debated by generations of historians, political philosophers, novelists, and biographers.[3] Richelieu is best known for three things: his unabashed authoritarianism, his efforts to stiffen the sinews of the French state, and his decision to position France as a counterweight to Habsburg hegemony through a network of alliances with Protestant powers. It is these aspects of his domestic and international legacy — all of which are frequently viewed as closely intertwined — that have triggered the most controversy. On the one hand, there are the aforementioned critics — those that viewed the cardinal as a devious and shadowy character, the mustachio-twirling villain of The Three Musketeers who cloaked his naked ambition and venal appetites under his crimson robes.[4] On the other hand, there has always been an equally strong cohort of Richelieu enthusiasts. For many modern French writers, Louis XIII’s chief minister was an early patriot who contributed to the secularization (laïcisation) of French foreign policy, and by extension, of French national identity.[5] Eminent German historians have viewed the cleric as a symbol of diplomatic prudence and dexterity, and have compared him in glowing terms to another “white revolutionary,” Otto Von Bismarck.[6] Henry Kissinger, a great admirer of the Frenchman, memorably characterized him as “the charting genius of a new concept of centralized statecraft and foreign policy based on the balance of power.”[7] This article focuses on this last aspect of Richelieu’s life and legacy: his conception and practice of great power competition. The goal is not to engage in a moral examination of his actions, but rather to debate their overall effectiveness in advancing France’s foreign policy interests during the Thirty Years’ War. What philosophy of power and statecraft underpinned the cardinal’s approach to counter-hegemonic balancing? How did he view France’s role in the world and what was his vision of collective security? Finally, what insights can be derived from Richelieu’s approach to foreign policy and great power competition? Is Richelieu the embodiment of prudentia, or sagacious statecraft, as some have argued? Perhaps most importantly, are the policies and writings of a 17th-century clergyman relevant and worthy of scrutiny by contemporary security managers?[8] In an effort to answer these questions, the article proceeds in three main parts. The first section will explore the intellectual foundations of Richelieu’s foreign policy. The cardinal was a product of early European nationalism, and he — along with other segments of the country’s ruling elites — was steeped in a heavily mythicized belief in French exceptionalism. These messianic and nationalist tendencies were buttressed by the development of a sophisticated body of thought on raison d’état — or reason of state. Raison d’état fused foreign ideological imports, such as Machiavellianism, with neo-stoicism and France’s own tradition of divine absolutism. The net result was a philosophy of power tempered by prudence — one which sought to transcend confessional divisions in favor of domestic unity and international strength. Richelieu’s vision of foreign policy, and of an “Augustan golden age” in which France would play the arbitral role in a carefully balanced order of nation-states, can thus best be understood as a subtle amalgamation of these two intellectual currents, raison d’état and French exceptionalism. In the second part, the paper examines Richelieu’s strategy in action. At the beginning of the chief minister’s tenure, it was readily apparent that the kingdom of Louis XIII was in no position to directly challenge Habsburg dominance. Weakened by years of war and religious turmoil, and riven with bitter divisions, France, which only a century earlier was considered the greatest military power in the West, was in a defensive crouch, ill-equipped and reluctant to engage in a transcontinental armed struggle. Its finances were in shambles, its military system in dire need of reform, and its security elites almost irreconcilably disunited in their approach to grand strategy. For the first decade or so of his tenure as chief minister, Richelieu sought, therefore, to recover France’s strategic solvency by strengthening its state apparatus, dampening internecine hatreds, and crushing perceived political threats to the monarchy. In the decades-long competition with the Habsburgs, Richelieu viewed time as a precious strategic commodity, and opted wherever possible for a strategy of exhaustion and harassment — la guerre couverte (covert war) — over one of frontal confrontation. He waged war via a complex constellation of proxies, while his most able diplomats were dispatched to foment internal divisions within both Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. Meanwhile, Richelieu’s attempts to craft a more flexible and dynamic form of foreign policy ran into fierce opposition from the dévots — Catholic zealots who rejected French alliances with Protestant powers, and sought to accommodate Habsburg Spain. Even as the cardinal sought to prevail in these bitter ideological struggles and establish some modicum of strategic consensus, he also embarked on an ambitious — and only partially successful — effort to enact internal reforms and strengthen France’s overall state capacity.[9] In 1635, drastic changes in the regional configuration of power forced Richelieu to reluctantly transition from la guerre couverte to la guerre ouverte — or open war. Until his death in 1642, the cardinal found himself in the challenging position of overseeing a war unprecedented in scale, and waged on several fronts, a conflict that drained the state’s coffers and placed considerable stress on a public administration still in its adolescence. Increasingly unpopular and ever fearful of falling out of his mercurial monarch’s favor, the chief minister’s frail constitution finally gave way in 1642. He thus never got to witness the French victory over Spain at the battle of Rocroi only a few months later— a triumph that, in the eyes of many, marked a definitive shift in the European balance of power.[10] What lessons can be derived from Richelieu’s 18 years at the apex of government? In the third and final section, the essay engages in an assessment of the actions undertaken by this complex and remarkable figure. It conducts a postmortem of Richelieu’s grand strategy of counter-hegemonic balancing and points to its successes as well as its failures and shortcomings. The French historian Philippe Ariès once quipped, “Time sticks to the historian’s thoughts like soil to a gardener’s spade.”[11] As the current generation of strategic thinkers grapples with a period marked by geopolitical upheaval and political disunion, Richelieu’s era — full of its own ideological tumult and nationalist fracas — provides a particularly rich soil in which to start digging.

Richelieu's Vision

Categorizing or succinctly defining Richelieu’s approach to great power competition is no easy task. Unlike other great strategic thinkers such as Clausewitz or Machiavelli, the body of thought bequeathed to us in his voluminous writings does not easily lend itself to systematization.[12] The cardinal was certainly deeply intellectual: He read Greek, Latin, Italian, and Spanish; was a major patron of the arts; and his personal library, which contained proscribed works, including books on Calvinist theology, was considered one of the finest in Europe.[13] Above all, however, he was a statesman and a policy practitioner, less interested in articulating a set of novel theoretical constructs or in pioneering a school of thought than in harnessing knowledge for the purpose of advancing the interests and ideology of the French state. At a time when European political leaders and counselors were avid consumers of new translations and interpretations of Roman history, Richelieu warned against viewing the works of Tacitus, Cicero, or Seneca as precise instruction manuals for the present, stating, for instance, that
There is nothing more dangerous for the state than men who want to govern kingdoms on the basis of maxims which they cull from books. When they do this they often destroy them, because the past is not the same as the present, and times, places, and persons change.[14]
Indeed, one of the defining characteristics of Richelieu’s career was precisely his struggle to preserve a degree of intellectual (and political) maneuverability by circumventing the strictures that accompanied narrow ideologies, politicized confessional divisions, or overly systematized schools of thought. That said, it is also evident upon further examination that he operated under the clear guidance of an overarching vision — one that is best understood as a deep yearning for order in a dislocated world. The cardinal’s lifelong battle against what he perceived as the forces of entropy, chaos, and decline — both within France and, on a more macrocosmic level, overseas — can no doubt be partially explained by two factors. First, Richelieu’s quest for order cannot be dissociated from his own experiences growing up in war-torn France.[15] Second, the cardinal was a product of a historical context propitious to such thinking: early modern Europe as it transitioned from the late Renaissance to the Baroque era, and an intellectual environment marked by the blossoming of thought on raison d’état and a revival of French exceptionalism. Richelieu was raised in a country rent by confessional divisions, wracked with penury and famine, and haunted by the specter of its own decline. Born in 1585 into the Poitou region’s minor nobility, his family’s travails provide a vignette of the broader pressures affecting late 16th-century France. As one biographer notes, “Not a year of his [Richelieu’s] early life was passed in peace, and the waves of war and plague broke right against the frowning walls of the family castle.”[16] Even as a young child, he would have been aware of the disastrous effects of the collapse of royal authority and of the many years of conflict that had pitted French Catholics against their Protestant, Huguenot neighbors.[17] The verdant plains of Poitou — traditionally a major thoroughfare in times of war — remained dotted with gutted buildings and charred crops. The du Plessis lands had been repeatedly despoiled by roving war bands and brigands regularly visited their depredations on local villagers.[18] [quote id="1"] This climate of bloody lawlessness extended to Richelieu’s own relatives, who had been embroiled in a Shakespearean feud with another local family, the Maussons, who ruled over a small castle about a mile and a half away. Following an ugly dispute over control of a local church, the Maussons butchered Richelieu’s uncle, Louis du Plessis. His younger brother — and Richelieu’s future father — the 17-year-old François, was serving as a page at the royal court at the time. Upon hearing the news, the teenager returned to his ancestral lands, lay in wait for the Lord of Mausson by a small bridge, and murdered him.[19] This revenge killing was only the beginning of a remarkably successful — and blood-spattered — military career for Richelieu’s father, who became one of Henri III’s most effective commanders and executioners, personally overseeing the gruesome deaths of a number of declared enemies of the state.[20] Following the king’s assassination at the hands of a Catholic fanatic, François du Plessis immediately pledged loyalty to his designated successor, Henri de Navarre, even though the latter had yet to convert to Catholicism. In this, he displayed a form of “supra-confessional” loyalty to the state that, in some ways, foreshadowed that of his son.[21] Shortly after Henri de Navarre’s coronation as Henri IV, his flinty henchman succumbed to fever. Richelieu was only five at the time and for much of the remainder of his youth his mother struggled with mounting debts and exacting circumstances. A sickly child, Richelieu compensated for his physical frailty with a remarkable intellect coupled with a voracious appetite for learning. Once he came of age, his family directed him toward the bishopric of Luçon, which he acquired in 1607, after having received a special papal dispensation for his young age.[22] A decade later, he entered the royal court as a secretary of state, and in 1622 was named cardinal. Two years later, he ascended to the rank of chief minister, and in 1629 he was awarded the title under which we know him today — that of Duke of Richelieu — Richelieu being the small hamlet where the du Plessis tribe had been raised. A Product of Early French Exceptionalism From his vantage point at the height of France’s royal bureaucracy, the cardinal looked back at the past half-century of chaos, during which five French kings had either died prematurely or been assassinated by religious fanatics and his country had been ravaged by a seemingly endless cycle of war. For men such as Richelieu, these decades of unrest had not only resulted in widespread misery and the weakening of royal authority, they had also turbocharged France’s decline on the international stage. Among a certain constituency of French elites — the politiques or bons français — France’s inability to overcome its communal tensions had only redounded to the advantage of its European competitors, who had capitalized on those divisions. These sentiments were laid bare in pamphlets that lamented that lesser European powers had descended on a weakened France like vultures, “extinguishing the torches of their ambition in France’s blood, emptying their humors on its bosom, and importing their quarrels to its very altars.”[23] If the people of France did not unite, warned such writers, the nation’s fate would be a grim one indeed — it would be reduced to “some little monster of a republic, to some canton (…) or some gray league” of disparate parts.[24] And indeed, during the second half of the 16th century, foreign powers had repeatedly interfered in the nation’s domestic politics and intervened in its civil wars. Philip II’s Spain, which had an interest in keeping France in a state of civil strife, had been especially meddlesome, supporting and subsidizing the uprising of the Catholic League during the succession crisis that followed Henri III’s death in 1589.[25] In short, France in the late 16th century was much like Syria today: a nation crisscrossed with foreign soldiers, mercenaries, and proxies, and a spectacle of almost unremitting misery and desolation, with some modern estimates putting the numbers of casualties at well over a million out of a population about 16 times that size.[26] The reign of Henri IV, from 1589 to 1610, brought a measure of stability to domestic affairs, with the king proving as skilled at fostering unity as he had been at waging war. The signing of the Edict of Nantes, in 1598, ushered in a period of almost unprecedented religious toleration and a fragile peace returned to the realm. Despite his manifold accomplishments, Henri IV’s reign remained fiercely contested by religious extremists on both sides. After miraculously surviving over a dozen assassination attempts, death finally caught up with the “good King Henri” when, in 1610, an unhinged zealot stabbed him to death. His murder constituted something of a unifying trauma for a country weary of the endless spirals of bloodletting and desperate to recover its lost grandeur.[27] Indeed, while conventional wisdom has long held that the messianic character of French nationalism is essentially a modern phenomenon and a natural outgrowth of the universalism of the French enlightenment and revolution, historians have increasingly demonstrated the extent to which French intellectual elites from the medieval era onward already viewed their country as predestined for continental leadership and as a role model for other European monarchies.[28] This form of pre-modern exceptionalism was structured around three main pillars, or conceptual templates. The first was France’s history of imperial glory and martial prowess, with a particular focus on the empire of Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor, and on France’s leading role during the Crusades, during which it provided the bulk of expeditionary military power. The early 17th century bore witness to a revival of interest in these myth-shrouded eras of France’s past and contemporary texts frequently reprised the medieval papal designation of the French as God’s “chosen people,” or peuple élu.[29] The second was a sense that French dominance was the natural “order of things,” due to the nation’s size, central position, fertile lands, and demographic heft. (The kingdom of France was the most populous in Europe).[30] And the third pillar was a unique brand of French Catholicism — Gallicanism — that argued against excessive papal interference in domestic matters and was closely tied to France’s tradition of divine absolutism.[31] The French monarch, or “most Christian” king, as he was formally known, was revered as a religious figure vested with certain sacred powers and abilities (such as the ability to cure scrofula and other ailments through the power of touch) and as one of God’s “lieutenants” on Earth.[32] [quote id="2"] All of this was accompanied by a sense of cultural superiority that had become increasingly widespread with the diffusion of vernacular French, which many viewed as the “purest” of European tongues after Latin, and the continued circulation of exceptionalist origin myths, such as that the French were descended from the Trojans.[33] These expressions of civilizational pride occasionally went hand in hand with territorial revisionism, as an increasingly vocal body of French jurists and pamphleteers argued in favor of the “recapture” of French imperial possessions harking back to the era of Charlemagne. In so doing, their revanchist arguments bear a resemblance to those of certain contemporary Chinese nationalists, who argue that the People’s Republic of China should hold sway over all territories once controlled by the Ming or Qing dynasties.[34] This cocktail of wounded nationalism and frustrated exceptionalism was rendered more potent by the rise of foreign adversaries that French elites had long perceived as their natural inferiors. While France had been consumed with internal struggles, the Habsburg powers — with their two dynastic branches in Spain and Austria — had been consolidating their strength. Writers in Paris emitted dark warnings of Madrid’s ultimate ambition to establish a “universal monarchy,” which would exert uncontested hegemony from Iberia to Bohemia.[35] Spain — which had humiliated France during the Council of Trent and displaced it as Europe’s most redoubtable military power — was viewed as the most serious and immediate threat. Portrayed in French writings as a “mongrel,” corrupt, and upstart nation, Habsburg Spain had succeeded with the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis in 1559 in strong-arming the French monarchy into acknowledging Spanish dominance over much of Italy.[36] This was a source of intense dismay for a whole generation of French nobles, who had been reared on the tales of their ancestors’ transalpine exploits. A social caste that had drawn much of its raison d'être from the martial luster of foreign ventures feared that it had been trapped in a “post-heroic era.” As one soldier-aristocrat wrote at the time, commenting on the signing of the treaty, “In the space of an hour, with a simple gesture with a quill, we were forced to surrender everything, and to tarnish all our glorious past victories with a few drops of ink.”[37] At the same time, a growing body of nobles had begun to look at France’s religious conflicts with distaste — viewing them as dishonorable, fratricidal, and barbaric — and pined for the “glory days” of foreign wars.[38] As a member of the minor nobility, and the son of a renowned warrior who had served across confessional lines, Richelieu was a direct product of this melancholic, fin-de-siècle zeitgeist. The sections of his writings that expound on the nature and characteristics of the French people frequently resemble those of an exasperated, yet loving, parent. His works also reflect the intellectual tradition of viewing France as uniquely positioned for European leadership and its people as destined for greatness, provided they ceased to wallow in the mediocrity brought about by internal divisions.[39] The cardinal was hardly subtle in his suggestion that he was destined for a leading role, with an almost sacred responsibility to inject discipline into France’s boisterous society and channel its formidable energy into the recovery of its natural place at the cockpit of European geopolitics. The latter goal would require him to pursue a bold and controversial foreign policy vision — one intellectually grounded in theories of raison d’état. Raison d’Etat and Authoritarianism Few political theorists have generated quite as much heated controversy as Niccolò Machiavelli.[40] The Machiavellian assertion of a clear and necessary distinction between private morality and state behavior was viewed as a moral affront — or at least a severe intellectual challenge — by many early modern Christian thinkers. And then, of course, there was the whiff of sulfur that came with the mere mention of the Italian humanist’s name. His works were placed on the papal index of proscribed books and he had become associated in popular culture with atheism and republicanism. In early 17th-century France, in particular, there was a radioactive quality to affirming oneself as a disciple of Machiavelli, whose very “Italianness” rendered his ideas suspect.[41] For many political theorists of the early Baroque era, it was safer to simply bypass the works of the controversial Florentine to plumb the ruminations of the sages of the ancient world. Tacitus, in particular, was considered, in the words of Montaigne, to be a veritable “nursery of ethical and political discourses for the use and ornament of those who have status in the management of the world.”[42] As one historian notes, 17th-century writers began to contrast Machiavellianism with Tacitism, framing them as “two terms connoting either a pejorative or a positive interpretation of raison d’état principles.”[43] The rise of this particular brand of Tacitism coincided with the growth of the neo-stoic movement, which drew solace from the virtues celebrated by Roman stoics such as Seneca — constantia, self-discipline, obedience, and rationality. The spread of neo-stoicism, many have argued, was a natural reaction to decades of violence and disruption.[44] Neo-stoicism was more than just a consolatory credo, however. It was also a philosophy of action that emphasized patriotism and public service.[45] In that sense, it aligned neatly with the goals of many Christian political theorists of the Counter-Reformation, who had set out to prove that it was possible to advance the interests of the state without completely severing ties with the Christian ethical tradition.[46] The flowering of such writings gave birth to a remarkably rich and sophisticated body of thought, one that largely succeeded in its mission to develop a pragmatic, yet religiously inflected, foreign policy ethos. It is through this prism that one should read Richelieu’s own writings on statecraft, rather than viewing him simply as the “French Machiavelli,” or as the harbinger of a continent-wide secularization of foreign policy.[47] Indeed, in lieu of detaching France’s secular interests from its faith-based traditions, Richelieu and the writers and polemicists with whom he surrounded himself sought to combine the two and “endeavored to show that the good of the state coincided with that of the religion.”[48] In this Richelieu and his supporters were greatly aided by France’s pre-existing exceptionalist mythos and tradition of divine absolutism. The first provided the kingdom with an ideological predisposition toward strategic autonomy, while the second lent a religious “cover” for actions that might otherwise appear hostile to the interests of the Catholic Church. French raison d’état was deeply intertwined with the nation’s tradition of divine absolutism. For Richelieu and his absolutist fellow travelers, monarchy was not only the most effective form of government, it was also the most natural.[49] The French monarch, by virtue of his divine nature, was infused with a purer, higher form of reason, which allowed him to pursue a more pragmatic foreign policy at a remove from the unruly passions and parochial concerns of the common man.[50] This view of the king as the metaphysical embodiment of the state is evident throughout the works of Richelieu’s closest collaborators, with one of them writing that the king was so divinely “animated by the power of reason,” that “the interests of the state” had replaced the “passions of his soul.”[51] At the same time, however, the corporeal structure of the state — its territorial integrity, armies, and institutions — remained profoundly mortal. Its defense could only be guaranteed by a small, trusted group of icy-veined custodians mounting an undying — and unforgiving — vigil. Richelieu thus warned that Christian charity could hardly be extended to seditious actors, for while
man’s salvation occurs ultimately in the next world … states have no being after this world. Their salvation is either in the present or nonexistent. Hence the punishments that are necessary to their survival may not be postponed but must be immediate.[52]
Indeed, raison d’état was also inherently authoritarian. French raison d’état theorists were not just ruthless, they were also elitists, convinced that the arcana imperii, or mysteries of state, could only be mastered and entrusted to a select few.[53] Having witnessed mob violence and religious cleansing on a horrific scale over the course of the past century, thinkers such as Richelieu were ever wary of the fickleness of their nation’s subjects — ordinary men and women who could fall prey to demagoguery and who, in their minds, were incapable of rising above their petty needs and brutish impulses in order to pursue the greater good. This paternalistic and imperious view of how a nation’s grand strategy should be conducted undergirds the infamous passage in which Richelieu compares the common people to stubborn mules requiring a careful mixture of cajolement and discipline.[54] Richelieu’s seeming dismissal of the everyday concerns of the French peasantry went hand in hand with a determination to impose order both at home and abroad — regardless of temporary hardship or foreign opposition. This single-mindedness was more than just the sign of a merciless operator, however. Although the chief minister was suffused with the pessimism and misanthropy characteristic of authoritarian thinkers, his vision for the future of French and European foreign policy was also strangely optimistic and, some might argue, enlightened for his age. Balancing and Collective Security In 1642, only a few weeks before Richelieu’s death, a heroic comedy, entitled Europe, was performed at the royal court. By all accounts, the production was terrible, with wooden performances and leaden dialogue.[55] Partly ghostwritten by Richelieu on his deathbed, the play was an allegorical representation of the cardinal’s foreign policy. It depicted a struggle between the aggressive, wolfish Ibère (Spain) and the brave, noble Françion (France) for the heart of a delicate princess, Europe. Ibère is portrayed as a haughty, insensitive, and controlling suitor. Europe winds up asking Françion to be her protector and begs him to shield her from the lust-filled Spaniard’s unwanted attentions. The play has little artistic merit, but as a late-career encapsulation of Richelieu’s foreign policy vision, it makes for an interesting read, especially the discussions on the sovereignty of small nation-states, wars of necessity versus wars of choice, and the means by which to attain a lasting peace on the continent. As one analyst notes, the play lays out a vision for a future European defense system that would ensure peace — “but always with France in the driver’s seat.”[56] One segment, in which Françion describes his willingness to sacrifice his own ambitions to shield Europe from Ibère’s predations, is particularly noteworthy:
The innocent and the weak will find in me the source of their support, I was born the tutor of all young princes My strength is what maintains the trembling provinces Everywhere my allies implore my aid And it is with reason, Princess, that I run to them, For fear of otherwise being powerless in my own defense, At last war is needed, and I am drawn into it Not by ambition, but by necessity.[57]
This passage captures several key aspects of Richelieu’s grand strategy: his desire to position France not only as a counterweight to Spanish dominance but also as a future arbiter of state sovereignty; his conviction that France’s foreign policy should be tempered by prudence and not fueled solely by the desire for territorial aggrandizement; and his fixation on his nation’s reputation and credibility, particularly among its smaller allies. One of the unique aspects of the cardinal’s vision to achieve a “general peace” was his desire to position France both as one of the scales in the balance and as the “holder of the [said] balance.”[58] As the weaker party in the Franco-Habsburg rivalry, the French monarchy hoped smaller states could be incited to buy into a more benign model of European geopolitics, with France promising to act as the guarantor of their “ancient freedoms” and “sovereign rights” and as the enforcer of a continent-wide “public liberty.”[59] Naturally, there was an element of cynicism to these pledges as well as to the cardinal’s professed desire to landscape the European jungle into a neatly manicured French garden. Richelieu’s quest for diplomatic equilibrium, along with his hopes for a durable peace settlement, were undoubtedly driven by an ambition, first and foremost, to recover French primacy. That said, notes William Church, all evidence shows that Richelieu was also quite sincere in his hopes for a more peaceful regional order and that he was “sufficiently astute to realize that a Europe-wide system of sovereign states was the only viable alternative to Habsburg universalism.”[60] German historians, such as Fritz Dickmann and Klaus Malettke, have focused on the importance of legalism in Richelieu’s thought and diplomatic instructions and have convincingly argued that the clergyman was already thinking of a collective defense system buttressed by international law and shared security guarantees in addition to balance-of-power politics.[61] [quote id="3"] Of course, Richelieu was hardly the only European thinker to tout the stability-inducing virtues of a regional power equilibrium.[62] David Sturdy has noted that his tenure also coincided with advances in the field of philosophy (such as Cartesianism), and science (such as the discovery of celestial mechanics), which increasingly viewed the physical universe as an intricate assemblage of multiple, self-regulating states of equilibrium. “By analogy,” Sturdy ventures,
Richelieu thought of a Europe in which smaller, satellite states would orbit larger benevolent protectors, none of which would seek hegemony, but which instead would preserve in Europe a peace and equilibrium corresponding to the harmony of the heavens.[63]
There are also some more easily discernible sources of inspiration drawn from history — despite Richelieu’s distaste for warmed-over compilations of ancient aphorisms. Both the chief minister and his most trusted aide, Father Joseph — a  wily Capuchin monk who “combined in his own persons the oddly assorted characters of Metternich and Savonarola” — frequently referred to the advent of a new “Augustan golden age” they hoped would dawn on European affairs following the bloody unrest of the Thirty Years’ War, much as the reign of Augustus had put an end to the chaos of Rome’s civil wars.[64] Neo-stoicism relayed a strongly cyclical view of foreign affairs and baroque raison d’état theorists focused intensely on the lessons to be derived from the study of the rise and fall of ancient empires.[65] One of the most eloquent articulations of the era’s predilection for applied history was made by the Savoyard Giovanni Botero in his masterpiece Della Ragion di Stato (The Reason of State), when he stated that, while one could learn from both the living or the dead, “a much greater field from which to learn is that offered to us by the dead with the histories written by them.”[66] For classically educated nationalists such as Richelieu, it appeared evident that France was in many ways the new Rome and Spain — with its kaleidoscope of ethnicities, dispersed territories, and maritime empire — was Carthage.[67] The challenge was how to effectively implement a strategy that would allow France to buy time, gather its strength, and eventually defeat Spain, much as Rome finally prevailed over its trans-Mediterranean foe after a century of bitter struggle.

Richelieu's Strategy

The Habsburg Challenge and the Art of the Long View When Richelieu was elevated to the rank of chief minister in 1624, France’s strategic position, locked in the heart of a war-torn Europe, appeared — at first glance — rather grim. With the kingdom surrounded on all sides by Habsburg possessions, from the Spanish Netherlands in the north to the Iberian Peninsula in the southwest, the cardinal labored to develop a strategy that would allow France to break out of its constricted geopolitical environment. This strategy was undergirded by three main assumptions. First, France and its underdeveloped army were not yet ready to engage in direct confrontation with their battle-hardened Spanish counterparts, and a weary, fractious French political establishment was unlikely to support any drawn-out military effort. Time was therefore the recuperating nation’s most precious strategic commodity. A strategy of delay and protraction was not only required to muster its martial strength but also to forge the necessary elite consensus. Provided France could continue to buy time and bleed the Habsburgs via a league of well-funded and militarily capable proxies, Richelieu was convinced that France’s demographic and economic resources would allow it to eventually gain the upper hand in its protracted competition with Spain. As he had confidently predicted in a letter to his ambassador in Madrid in 1632,
Nowhere is Spain in a position to resist a concentrated power such as France over a long period, and in the final analysis the outcome of a general war must necessarily be calamitous for our Iberian neighbor.[68]
Second, Richelieu believed that France’s geographic predicament — its location at the center of the European chessboard and its seeming state of encirclement — could, in fact, be leveraged to its advantage. As one recent study of past rivalries has noted, great powers with extended economic and military interests must frequently grapple with two major challenges: First, they offer many points for enemies to threaten and attack, and second, their capacity to project military strength is eroded the further the contested zone is from the core of their power.[69] With its dispersed holdings, Spain was heavily reliant on the lines of communication that formed the connective tissue of its sprawling empire — whether by sea, or by land, via the so-called Spanish road that ran from the Netherlands through the Italian peninsula.[70] As Richelieu later gloated in the Testament Politique, France’s centrality and superior interior lines of communication provided it with the means to sever the various strands of Spain’s imperial web:
The providence of God, who desires to keep everything in balance, has ensured that France, thanks to its geographical position, should separate the states of Spain and weaken them by dividing them.[71]
J.H. Elliott, an eminent scholar of early modern Spain, has shown the extent to which Richelieu’s Spanish counterpart and longstanding nemesis, the Count-Duke of Olivares, was aware of the inherent vulnerabilities that came with Spain’s sprawling empire.[72] Elliott notes that Richelieu’s fears of encirclement were paralleled by Olivares’ “obsession with the French threat to the network of international communications on which Spanish power depended. … What to France was a noose, was to Spain a life-line.”[73]  

Image 1: Map of Europe During Richelieu’s Time as Chief Minister

  Richelieu did not confine his strategy of great power competition to the continental theater, however. From the very beginning of his time as chief minister he stressed the importance of seapower and resolutely focused on the development of France’s naval strength.[74] While prestige undoubtedly played a role in Richelieu’s energetic pursuit of seapower, it was not the only motivation. His quest to see France emerge as a full-spectrum great power was also undergirded by an ambition to better compete for access to an increasingly globalized market and a desire to shield France’s maritime approaches and seaborne trade from predatory naval action.[75] Threatening some of Spain’s most vital maritime resupply lines and further complicating its strategic planning was simply the icing on the cake.[76] The story of Richelieu’s stewardship of the French Royal Navy is not one of untrammeled success. His efforts to vault France into the ranks of Europe’s greatest oceanic powers were chronically undermined by bureaucratic and logistical travails and the fleet’s funding was often neglected in favor of a perpetually resource-starved army.[77] Overall, however, the cardinal’s overarching goals were more than met. By 1635, he had succeeded in creating a navy that overshadowed England’s and matched that of Spain in the Mediterranean.[78] Finally, Richelieu knew that France would struggle to prosecute a multifront campaign against the combined military might of the Habsburgs’ two dynastic branches. Through dexterous and continuous diplomacy, he therefore sought to forestall the advent of a formalized military alliance between Vienna and Madrid. At the same time, Richelieu worked to accentuate internal frictions within both Spain and the Holy Roman Empire, supporting secessionist movements in Portugal and Catalonia, and quietly stoking the resentment of liberty-starved prince-electors in Germany.[79] In this, Richelieu was aided by a formidable coterie of advisers, bureaucratic allies, and diplomatic envoys, who tirelessly crisscrossed the continent and produced exquisitely detailed strategic forecasts. Some of these studies, which engage in a dispassionate, multilevel analysis of the respective competitive advantages and disadvantages of different European powers, apply the same level of analytical rigor that one would expect from the best of contemporary net assessments.[80] La Guerre Couverte Many of Richelieu’s first actions as chief minister focused on domestic consolidation and on preempting any perceived political threats to the reign of a youthful and unseasoned monarch. In his earlier incarnation as bishop of Luçon, an area with a heavy Calvinist minority population, Richelieu had displayed a proclivity for toleration. Both in his actions as bishop and in his theological writings, he had repeatedly argued that Protestants should be converted by the power of reason and dialectical discussion, rather than force of arms.[81] As a government official, however, he and other leading members of the royal council took an increasingly hardline approach to the various Huguenot enclaves that dotted French territory. Under the terms of the Edict of Nantes, these communities had been granted a strong degree of autonomy, and, with their fortified cities and independent political assemblies, appeared, in the words of Richelieu, to seek to “share the state” with the French monarch.[82] Fears over the emergence of a parallel political structure, or of a “state within the state” with strong ties to potentially hostile foreign powers, were accompanied by a more diffuse sense of ideological peril. French absolutist thinkers fretted over the subversive appeal and longstanding popularity of Calvinist republicanism, which they perceived as profoundly antipathetic to monarchic government, among the higher echelons of the French nobility.[83] These tensions came to a head in 1627 with the royal siege of the Huguenot port-city of La Rochelle — a massive military undertaking that was led by the king, overseen by the cardinal-minister, and involved the bulk of royal military resources at the time. [quote id="4"] Richelieu, whose earlier attempts at preserving peace with the great Huguenot lords had led to his being derisively dubbed the “Cardinal of La Rochelle” by his dévot opponents, now showed himself to be methodical and ruthless in his prosecution of the year-long siege. England’s decision to dispatch a large amphibious task force in an (unsuccessful) bid to aid its beleaguered co-religionists in La Rochelle had only strengthened the cardinal-minister’s determination to forcibly subsume Huguenot communities within the French state. The monarchy’s eventual victory over the Huguenot rebels and their great power sponsor precipitated the collapse of Protestant opposition to royal rule and considerably burnished young Louis XIII’s martial credentials in the eyes of fellow European leaders. It was succeeded by the Peace of Alais, which erased most of the Huguenots’ past political privileges, while continuing, by and large, to accord them freedom of worship. Leading figures of the Huguenot uprising were pardoned or treated with clemency after having sworn fealty to the French king, and some, such as the Duke of Rohan, went on to number among some of France’s greatest generals.[84] Subsequently, royal historians took great pains to stress that the king’s Protestant subjects had not been punished on account of their religion, but rather because they had chosen the path of armed rebellion and collusion with a foreign power.[85] Richelieu’s suppression of the Huguenot uprising was part of a broader effort to do away with alternative power centers or codes of loyalty within France, carried out via an expansion of the definition of treason or lèse-majesté, and a series of policies targeting the French nobility that focused on its capacity to resist royal authority and its distinct strategic sub-culture.[86] In 1626, for example, Richelieu ordered the destruction of all fortresses not situated on the nation’s frontiers, regardless of the religious affiliation of their proprietors. That same year, he issued a much-decried edict against dueling. While this measure may seem almost quaint to a modern reader, it was in fact hugely significant.[87] It took direct aim at some of the French nobility’s most cherished beliefs, including their hallowed honor code. Richelieu, whose elder brother perished in a duel in 1619, was weary of witnessing promising members of the nation’s warrior caste ritually kill one another at an alarming rate.[88] As historians of the Ancien Régime have noted, these deadly contests fulfilled an important symbolic and social function within a French nobility still wedded to ideals of Homeric heroism and medieval chivalry.[89] The aristocracy’s fighting ethos was undergirded by its members’ desire to demonstrate their worth to other members of their social caste and win that most precious of social currencies — gloire. Dueling had progressively become like a religion — death in single combat was a “human sacrifice to the god of peer opinion.”[90] Richelieu, like many of his contemporaries, was of two minds regarding the French nobility’s warrior ethos. He appreciated its age-old emphasis on courage and personal sacrifice, but also criticized its tendency toward erratic emotionalism, along with its vainglorious and self-destructive tendencies.[91] In his later correspondence with French nobles deployed to the front, it is telling that he sometimes advised his soldier-aristocrats to rein in their natural hotheadedness and to behave with “prudence.”[92] More than anything, the cardinal-minister wished to redirect the famed furia francese and thirst for glory of the nobility so that it served the broader geopolitical ambitions of the French crown rather than merely the competitive impulses of a narrow and fractious social stratum. As the monarchy cemented control, it also found itself embroiled in a series of foreign policy crises, whose management by Richelieu and his allies spurred fierce domestic controversy. Lashed by gusts of bureaucratic opposition, the chief minister strove to husband France’s military resources, bleed its enemies, and buy time. All the while, he sought, with the help of his extensive network of foreign envoys and spies, to maintain as many diplomatic channels as possible and to avert any precipitate escalation to a full-spectrum and system-wide war with a unified Habsburg foe. Richelieu consistently emphasized the importance of prevailing, first and foremost, in the diplomatic arena — at the lavish royal courts and stuffy religious conclaves where the fate of European politics was truly decided. In Testament Politique, he opines that the ability to negotiate without ceasing, openly or secretly, and everywhere, even if it yields no immediate fruit and the expected one is not yet apparent, is absolutely necessary for the well-being of states.[93] The Valtellina and Mantuan Succession Crises The most significant crises during the guerre couverte period occurred at the bloody peripheries and messy intersections of each great power’s sphere of interest. France and Spain vied for access and influence, probed each other’s weaknesses, and worked to dilute each other’s ability to maintain alliance structures and project power across the European theater. As the Duke of Rohan later noted, the Franco-Spanish rivalry had become the structuring force across Christendom. The two states formed “the two poles from which stemmed the pressures for war and peace upon other states,” with France seeking to play the “counterpoise” to Spanish ambitions, and the princes of Europe “attaching themselves to one or the other according to their interests.”[94] This increasingly tense cold war was fundamentally a two-level game — a combination of geopolitical competition and interference in one another’s domestic politics — accentuating pre-existing movements of internal unrest with the hope of precipitating an abrupt dislocation of their rival’s fragile state structure. For close to a century, since the early 1500s, France and Spain had jostled for control over the portes or gateways that provided staging points into their respective heartlands and over the military corridors that allowed each state to safely siphon funding and troops toward their junior partners and proxies.[95] One such artery was the Valtellina (or Val Telline), a valley that snaked through the central Alps, connecting Lombardy with the Spanish Netherlands. The Valtellina had long constituted a territorial flashpoint. Ruled by a league of Swiss Protestant lords, the Grisons, the Valtellina was of critical importance to both France and Spain. For Spain, the winding mountain passes provided one of the main land routes through which it could bolster its military presence in the Spanish Netherlands, and, if the need ever arose, provide the Holy Roman Empire with reinforcements. For Richelieu and his disciples, the prospect of Spanish dominion over the Valtellina was therefore an alarming one, adding to longstanding French fears of encirclement by combined Habsburg forces. Furthermore, were France to find itself suddenly locked out of the Valtellina, it would no longer be able to rapidly supplement the martial efforts of its own traditional allies on the Italian peninsula, such as Venice. The dispute over control of the Valtellina was driven both by concerns over military response times and logistical supply, and by status considerations and alliance politics. In 1620, Madrid shrewdly sought to capitalize on the momentary chaos triggered by a revolt of the Catholic subjects of the Grisons by erecting a chain of military bases along the Valtellina. Two years later, its garrisons facing expulsion by allied forces of France, Venice, and Savoy, Spain reluctantly agreed to let its soldiers be replaced by papal troops. For Richelieu, however, this settlement remained inadequate, as the Vatican had allowed Spain to continue to use the Valtellina as one of its prime military thoroughfares. A few months after becoming chief minister, Richelieu sought to rebalance the situation by conducting secret negotiations with Savoyard and Swiss allies, catching Spain off guard. A small force of French and Swiss troops flowed into the Valtellina and unceremoniously expelled its papal custodians. Meanwhile, a larger French army joined forces with its Savoyard allies in a protracted siege of Genoa, in a bold attempt to neutralize one of Spain’s main bankers and truncate the southern arm of the Spanish road. This last endeavor ultimately proved unsuccessful, with Madrid succeeding in breaking through a French naval interception force in the Mediterranean and relieving Genoa by sea. France and Spain subsequently entered lengthy negotiations, which ultimately led to the signing of the Treaty of Monzon in 1626. The treaty restored control of the Valtellina to the Grisons, while enshrining and protecting the exercise of Catholicism in the valley. All fortifications were levelled and papal troops were once again dispatched to preserve the peace. Most importantly, the treaty granted equal rights of transit to both Spain and France, thus reinstating — at least in the military sphere — the old status quo.[96] [quote id="5"] Barely a year later, another crisis flared up in northern Italy. In this case, tensions revolved around the Duke of Mantua’s succession. This minor dynastic squabble quickly took on geopolitical significance. The duchy of Mantua and its dependency of Monferrato were fiefs of the Holy Roman Empire, strategically located along the Po river, abutting the Spanish duchy of Milan. Following the death of Duke Vincent II of Mantua in 1627, who had failed to produce a son and heir, the duchy was claimed by his closest male relative, the flamboyant French noble Charles de Nevers. De Nevers, in a typical display of impetuosity, preemptively took possession of the duchy without consulting Vienna, as feudal protocol would have dictated.[97] His actions precipitated the reluctant intervention of Europe’s three greatest powers — France, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire — all of which would rather have focused their attention and resources elsewhere.[98] The conflict soon devolved into a slugging match, dragging on for close to four years, and only coming to an end with the signing of the Treaty of Cherasco in 1631. The troublesome de Nevers was ultimately granted his imperial investiture and the right to rule over his now-ravaged duchy, albeit at the price of territorial concessions. More importantly for Richelieu, the conflict imposed significant financial costs on both Spain and the Holy Roman Empire, strained relations between the two partners, and forced them to divert large numbers of troops away from more critical theaters of operation for extended periods.[99] Madrid’s decision to intervene on the Italian peninsula negatively affected its military operations in Flanders. Meanwhile, the imperial troops Olivares had been hoping would join his prosecution of the Dutch, and who were also much needed in Germany to stave off the advance of the Swedes, were instead channeled southward, toward Mantua, where they were decimated by plague.[100] Through secretly negotiated clauses, France also gained access to the strategically positioned mountain fortress of Pinerolo in the Piedmont, which it had quietly wrested from Savoy.[101] All in all, therefore — and despite the cost and clear risks associated with France’s decision to intervene in support of its belligerent proxy, Richelieu’s calculus seemed to have paid off — France weathered the protracted crisis far better than its two main competitors. The Challenges of Alliance Management The Mantuan succession crisis also showed, as David Parrott notes, that
While the rulers of the major powers may have wished to construct their political strategies in the clear light of state interest and international Realpolitik, they were frequently confronted by lesser territories whose juridical status and succession arrangements were often diffuse or ambiguous, and whose rulers were explicitly determined to assert and defend their rights as sovereigns. (…) In circumstances such as the Mantuan crisis, where the grip of the major Italian powers was for various reasons weakened, the initiatives and interests of these lesser states could lead to dramatic destabilization.[102]
Richelieu was well aware of the risks of entanglement and entrapment inherent to asymmetric alliance structures. The unexpected ramifications of the Mantuan succession crisis undoubtedly helped shape some of his more interesting — and still resonant — reflections on the challenges of alliance management. In Testament Politique, for instance, the cardinal warns future statesmen “not to embark voluntarily on the founding of a league created for some difficult objective” unless they are sure “they can carry it out alone,” should their allies desert them. He argues this is for two reasons:
The first is based is on the weakness of unions, which are never too secure when headed by central sovereigns. The second consists in the fact that lesser princes are often as careful and diligent in involving great kings in important commitments as they are feeble in aiding them, although they are fully obligated to do so.[103]
Despite these wry observations on the fickleness of security partners, Richelieu put alliance politics at the very center of his grand strategy, seeking to develop, in parallel, two separate German and Italian leagues. The Italian league, with Savoy and Venice at its core, was designed to exert a slow stranglehold over Spanish possessions in Naples and Milan. In Germany, Richelieu sought to stoke the resentment of restive prince-electors, and to further fragment the empire’s political mosaic by supporting the establishment of a separate pro-French and anti-Habsburg Catholic League under the leadership of Bavaria.[104] On occasion, France’s policy of political disruption bore fruit. This was evident, for instance, during the Diet of Regensburg in 1630, when Richelieu’s agents, led by the wily Father Joseph, succeeded in dealing a major blow to Emperor Ferdinand II’s power and prestige by quietly encouraging the elector counts to veto the election of his son as his successor and dismiss one of the Imperial Army’s more talented commanders, Albrecht Von Wallenstein. France’s overarching goal was to keep the Holy Roman Empire in a state of managed disequilibrium and to buy time — time that could be used to further erode the foundations of Habsburg power in Germany. This cynical policy could be implemented, the sly monk argued in a memorandum to the king, in a relatively straightforward fashion, by simply continuing the centuries-old French tradition of mediation in German affairs.[105] Weakening the Viennese Habsburgs also provided France with greater latitude to exert control over the lands circling its eastern periphery, in particular the duchy of Lorraine. Lorraine was technically a fiefdom of the Holy Roman Empire, and its leader, the young duke Charles IV, had become a thorn in Richelieu’s side. Bright but brash, Charles IV was less adept at balancing France and the Holy Roman Empire than his forebears. He was also far less canny at steering a middle course than, for instance, the dukes of Savoy in Italy, whose adroit manipulation of the Franco-Spanish rivalry forced grudging admiration in both Paris and Madrid.[106] The duke of Lorraine, on the other hand, pursued a lopsided policy that was consistently and aggressively hostile to the interests of the French crown — plotting with its foreign enemies, abetting its insurgencies, and providing a safe haven for the leaders of France’s domestic opposition.[107] Over the course of a decade, France engaged in a series of punitive raids and limited encroachments on Lothringian territory, pressuring the contumacious duke into a series of increasingly unequal and humiliating treaties, until, in 1633, Richelieu ordered a full-scale invasion and annexation of Lorraine. Charles IV eventually abdicated and fled overseas and Lothringian lords were forced to swear oaths of loyalty to the French crown.[108] Most of the time, however, Richelieu’s behavior was not classically expansionist, as he did not seek to engage in a rigid linearization of a new, more extensive set of French boundaries. Instead, he wove a web of protectorates along the kingdom’s borders, offering to ensure the defense of weaker principalities, fiefdoms, and bishoprics in exchange for transit rights or the stationing of small detachments of French troops in strategically positioned fortresses — often overlooking key segments of the Spanish road. These garrisoned protectorates were viewed by the chief minister as serving a dual function — both as watchtowers and as potential staging areas for future military interventions.[109] Even as Richelieu pursued his strategy of delay, limited military involvement, and tailored assertiveness within France’s near abroad, he also sought to sap Habsburg power from afar, through a policy of indirect or subsidized warfare. This policy of remote-control balancing was not only financially onerous — involving the disbursement of increasingly large flows of subsidies to France’s Protestant proxies — but also diplomatically challenging. French envoys were sent to broker agreements and mediate disputes between France’s partners and third parties, such as Sweden and Poland, so that the former could redirect the entirety of its military machine toward the German theater.[110] The sheer heterogeneity of France’s many coetaneous alliance structures proved to be a major, sometimes insuperable, challenge. Indeed, managing such a disparate array of security partners with competing territorial and confessional agendas eventually became almost impossible — leading a reluctant Richelieu to privilege the preservation of the alliance with Sweden over that with Bavaria.[111] Another chronic set of difficulties encountered by Richelieu and his envoys will be familiar to any modern student of security studies: the fact that proxies and/or client states rarely share similar objectives to those of their sponsors, and that, generally speaking, the stronger a proxy is, the less dependent and politically beholden it is to its patron.[112] This was a clear and recurring feature of the France-Sweden relationship during Richelieu’s tenure. When France first signed the Treaty of Barwalde with Sweden in 1631, promising one million livres per annum over the course of five years in exchange for Stockholm maintaining a fully equipped army of 30,000 infantry and 6,000 cavalry in Germany, Richelieu was enthusiastic. He waxed lyrical about the martial prowess of Gustavus Adolphus, the Swedish king, comparing him to Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great.[113] Following Adolphus’ crushing victory over imperial forces at the Battle of Breitenfeld, however, the Swedish warrior-king’s relentless advance through a war-torn Germany began to foster French anxieties.[114] His victories — too definitive and complete — ran the risk of completely unraveling France’s efforts to portray itself as a neutral arbitrator of state interests and led to a lasting rift with an embittered Maximilian of Bavaria. Richelieu also began to wonder whether Sweden, flush with the fruits of its conquests and no longer in need of French subsidies, might decide to turn its attention against France’s cluster of German protectorates. It was not without some relief, therefore, that the cardinal heard the news of the Northern Lion’s death at the battle of Lützen in 1632. Propaganda Wars Throughout his political life, Richelieu was constantly reminded of both the tenuousness of his position and his own mortality. An unpopular man working for a sickly king, the chief minister was the target of countless foreign plots and elaborate court machinations.[115] Much of the resentment directed at him stemmed from his domestic policies: his blunt and wide-ranging efforts to centralize power, increase taxation, and rein in the nobility, along with his habit of supplanting old court favorites with his own sprawling networks of clientele.[116] His relatively moderate stance on confessional issues also stirred controversy in some quarters. The most vivid and substantive debates, however, centered on issues of foreign policy. Richelieu’s dévot opponents — whether in meetings of the Royal Council or via the clandestine production of vitriolic pamphlets — relentlessly assailed the core aspects of his grand strategy, most notably his alliance with and subsidization of Protestant powers, along with his decision to confront rather than align with Spain, a fellow Catholic nation. Although Richelieu’s vision was the one that ultimately triumphed, it is worth noting that there were many compelling reasons for distinguished statesmen to oppose his foreign policy. In a country still reeling from decades of civil strife, many wanted to focus on domestic recovery and reducing the burden of taxation that helped finance France’s foreign military ventures and proxies — even if it came at the cost of appeasing Spain.[117] France’s hamlets and villages were seething with discontent, and local uprisings — often euphemistically designated as “popular displays of emotion” (émotions populaires) — were commonplace.[118] In fretful whispers, perfumed courtiers would share their grisly tales from the dark forested hinterland — of peasants hacking a “tax collector to pieces and dismembering a surgeon whom they mistook for a revenue official.”[119] For many who had lived through the Boschian hell of France’s religious wars, the fear of being catapulted into yet another cataract of anarchy and bloodletting was ever present. [quote id="6"] Furthermore, some argued, why not choose to align with the Habsburgs? Would that not bring about a much-needed peace, advance the cause of international Catholicism, and be preferable to funding the systematic, continent-wide slaughter of co-religionists by foreign heretics? After all, Habsburg blood flowed in Marie de Medici’s veins, Anne of Austria was Spanish, and the queen of Spain was Louis XIII’s own younger sister, Elizabeth. From some of the gilded chambers of the Louvre, Richelieu’s grand schemes thus ran the risk of appearing not only unethical, but also increasingly fratricidal.[120] It took over six years for the chief minister to quash this fierce internal opposition and it was only after the famous Day of the Dupes in November 1630 — when he dramatically prevailed over both the queen mother and his two main political opponents, the Marillac brothers — that he achieved unvarnished royal support for his agenda. Even after 1630, Richelieu still had to contend with the periodic opposition to his policies and fretted that the spiritual and impressionable Louis XIII might find himself persuaded by a member of his entourage to jettison his Protestant allies.[121] These struggles over the direction of France’s foreign policy were not confined to the corridors of power. Beyond the ornate antechambers and soaring palace walls, the future of French grand strategy was being debated in another wider and more untamed space — in the pages of the political pamphlets and news gazettes that had become a ubiquitous feature of early 17th-century France.[122] Richelieu, like many of his European contemporaries, was acutely aware of the growing power and malleability of public opinion in the era of the printing press, and of the need to shape collective perceptions through targeted, state-directed propaganda efforts. From the earliest days of his tenure as chief minister, he moved decisively to exert control over the political media, appointing his minions to head leading publications such as Le Mercure François, France’s first yearly newspaper, and the Gazette, a weekly publication, and waging a tireless counter-intelligence campaign against clandestine printing activities. Richelieu surrounded himself with a “politico-literary strike force” of some of the nation’s most accomplished political theorists and polemicists, who labored to defend France’s European grand strategy from a fierce onslaught of dévot-inspired critiques.[123] These critiques, particularly those penned by talented writers such as Matthieu de Morgues — one of Richelieu’s more formidable and relentless opponents — were often incisive and compelling.[124] Not only did they consistently assail Richelieu’s Protestant alliances as “ungodly,” they also sought to depict the chief minister as a grasping and vulpine figure, an “antichristus purpuratus,” who pursued his grandiose diplomatic schemes despite widespread popular discontent, and who, in contempt of his status as a “prince of the church,” worked to methodically undermine the Vatican. The ideological counteroffensive launched by the bons politiques was equally robust, clearly articulated, and often remarkably well-timed. In countless tracts, treatises, and pamphlets, the politiques strenuously argued in defense of the cardinal’s character, stressing his personal loyalty to the king, as well as the strategic merits of his foreign policy — however disquieting the short-term costs may be. Tugging at their readers’ patriotic heartstrings, they stressed the urgency of recovering France’s “natural” primacy on the continent and warned of the long-term perils of a premature peace settlement that would confine the French monarchy to a subordinate status. In response to those who advocated an alignment with Madrid, they pointed to Spain’s history of interference in French domestic politics and to its perceived duplicity. To trust that such a history of enmity could be reversed, argued one of Richelieu’s disciples, was not only naïve, it was also a sign that one had inherited some of the seditious leanings “of a member of the old Catholic league” and had “thus ceased to be French.”[125] Furthermore, argued Richelieu’s supporters, one need only look at Spain’s crimes against its foreign subjects or against colonized indigenous people in the new world to see the extent of its hypocrisy.[126] The sanctimonious Spaniards, “who held a sword in one hand and a breviary in another,” had, according to this counteroffensive, “erected a god of blood and destruction” and pursued their dream of a universal monarchy “under specious pretexts draped in painted crosses and invocations of Jesus.”[127] Their wealth, added one noteworthy critique, was tarnished with the misery of the native American peoples whose resources they had brutally exploited.[128] As for France’s alliances with Protestant powers, where was it written that “God had expressly declared that he wished for the Spaniards to become the masters of the Dutch,” and for Spain to emerge as the unrivalled hegemon in Europe?[129] Emphasizing the importance of credibility and reputation in international politics, the bons politiques invoked France’s historic role as a security patron in key regions such as the Valtelline and Northern Italy, arguing that, in the case of the Grisons, for instance, “heresy alone did not suffice to deprive them of their sovereignty and of their right to (French) protection and assistance.”[130] These day-to-day propaganda efforts were accompanied by a more ambitious and externally-oriented policy of cultural grandeur, whereby the industrious cleric sought to transform Paris into the artistic and academic capital of Europe — a city which would eventually outshine Madrid, Vienna, and maybe even Rome. He famously created the Académie Française, which initially hosted many of the more proficient politique theorists, and established the royal press, or Imprimerie Royale, in the Louvre, which turned France into a publishing hub for high-quality books and engravings.[131] Richelieu was particularly intent on nurturing a body of sophisticated legal theorists. These experts could then work to weaponize the rapidly evolving field of international jurisprudence — not only to lend credence to France’s territorial pretensions but also to justify French military actions in the eyes of international public opinion.[132] This aspect of Richelieu’s diplomacy was to become abundantly evident in May 1635, when France finally formally declared war on Spain. La Guerre Ouverte Louis XIII was a traditionalist with a deep attachment to chivalric values and ancient courtly rites. The flamboyant manner in which war was declared on Spain — with a mounted herald delivering the message before the Hallegate of Brussels after having been announced by trumpet — was characteristic of the French monarch. For years he had been champing at the bit, urging Richelieu to move from la guerre couverte to la guerre ouverte. The chief minister had consistently counseled patience, pleading with his sovereign to delay a full declaration of war as long as possible. By the spring of 1635, however, it was clear to Richelieu that this strategy, which had served France so well over the past decade, could no longer continue. The Habsburgs’ resounding victory at the battle of Nördlingen in 1634 — during which a combined force of imperial and Spanish troops decisively routed their Swedish-led Protestant foes — abruptly reconfigured the European balance of power.[133] France’s newly imperiled allies — Sweden and the Dutch United Provinces in particular — were increasingly insistent that their great power sponsor commit large-scale military forces to the fray. In the tense months following Nördlingen, the Vatican desperately sought to arrest the slide toward war, even offering to host a peace summit where Madrid and Paris could resolve their disputes through a process of mediated arbitration. Pope Urban VIII’s frantic diplomatic efforts were to no avail, however. Both Richelieu and Olivares had resigned themselves to the inevitability of conflict, and the massive, clunking cogs of their respective nations’ military machineries had begun to turn, as thousands of fresh troops were mobilized for war. Decision-makers in Spain — pointing to France’s much larger population and advantageous geographical position — became increasingly convinced that any protracted military struggle with France would not redound to their benefit. It was therefore necessary, argued Olivares, to seek an early end to the conflict by striking hard and fast. Military preparations were conducted “in width rather than in breadth.”[134] The plan was to overwhelm French defenses on several fronts with the hope that the resolve of its less battle-hardened troops would crumble.[135] These war plans were driven, in part, by Spain’s alarm over France’s massive military buildup under Richelieu’s tenure, which included the cardinal’s attempts to create a first-class navy. The development of France’s ground forces, however, was far more spectacular and of greater immediate concern to its enemies across the Pyrenees. As the cardinal’s network of spies at the Spanish court began to apprise him of Madrid’s plans for a series of preemptive military strikes, this buildup accelerated and France fielded an army of unprecedented size on the eve of war. [quote id="7"] Throughout the religious wars of the previous half-century, French royal forces rarely exceeded 16,000 men.[136] During the brief periods of peace that followed each flare-up of civil violence, the bulk of these troops were often demobilized. When larger hosts were assembled, they were frequently composed primarily of foreign mercenaries, sometimes reaching up to 70 percent of the total number, rather than troops levied on French soil. In the absence of a well-organized and institutionalized standing army, French kings relied most often on a nucleus of gens d’ordonnance, or gendarmerie, a small body of heavy cavalry that was the country’s only permanently mobilized and fully professional military force — not including a few small garrisons lightly sprinkled across its borders. At its peak, Henri IV’s army in 1610 may have numbered up to 55,000 men.[137] In contrast, by the time Louis XIII and Richelieu were mobilizing for war with Spain in 1634, documents show that they were accounting for up to 100,368 soldiers in service.[138] As military preparations continued apace, these numbers steadily grew.[139] French officials diligently recorded numbers of raised troops between 135,000 and 211,000 in the early years of their nation’s conflict with Spain, with one scholar estimating that up to 150,000 men may have been under arms in 1635.[140] Before unleashing his freshly minted legions, however, the French chief minister insisted on getting France’s diplomatic house in order. Although the decision to go to war was made as early as April, he waited until France had fully cemented its renewed alliances with both the United Provinces and Sweden before dispatching the herald to Brussels. Following the envoy’s theatrical declaration, a public diplomacy campaign was launched whereby French propagandists moved to preempt their Spanish counterparts by issuing a series of manifestos clearly geared toward an international as well as a domestic audience, emphasizing the moral legitimacy of France’s actions. There is evidence that these carefully coordinated communication efforts were successful in shaping the overall narrative, as Olivares evinced frustration that the cardinal’s publicists always seemed to move faster and more efficiently than his own.[141] The official justification for France’s declaration of war was Spain’s capture of the town of Trier, a French protectorate, the slaughter of its small French garrison, and the abduction of its archbishop-elector in March 1625. This act of great power aggression, read the herald’s declaration, was “against the law of nations” and an “offense against the interests of all princes of Christianity.”[142] France once again positioned itself as the guardian of smaller states’ interests and the bulwark against Habsburg ambitions of universal monarchy. This time, however, the chief minister’s legion of lettrés was working to lay the moral underpinnings for a much more direct and overtly militarized French bid for European leadership. Louis XIII issued his own royal communiqué, arguing that while he had patiently tolerated, thus far, the constant “outrages” of Spain’s interference in France’s domestic affairs, the “Spaniards, by their arms and practices,” were now threatening the “very foundations of public liberty” in Europe.[143] Naturally, the view from Madrid ­was very different. Indeed, for Olivares and his indignant acolytes, France — with its heady ambitions, exceptionalist ethos, litany of grievances, and overall truculence — was the revisionist power and great disruptor of the status quo. From the very get-go, therefore, the conflict was not framed as a mere tussle over territory and resources, but rather as a paradigm-defining battle for leadership legitimacy and shaping the international order. Significantly, the French monarchy’s declaration of war was aimed at only one of the Habsburg branches. Richelieu hoped that Ferdinand II, already consumed with the difficult internal negotiations leading up to the Peace of Prague, would be reluctant to lend imperial military strength to the fight against France. This last-ditch attempt at alliance decoupling, however, proved unsuccessful. After months of prevarication, a reluctant Ferdinand II succumbed to the pressure exerted by the imperial court’s pro-Spanish lobby and formally declared war on France in March 1636.[144] Richelieu was now facing the climactic struggle he had often anticipated but always dreaded: a war waged on an unprecedented scale, on multiple fronts, and against the combined might of both dynastic branches of the Habsburgs. France’s military performance at the outset of this war was decidedly mixed. After a promising initial victory over an outnumbered Spanish force at the battle of Aveins, French forces, suffering from hunger and afflicted with typhus, encountered a series of military setbacks. In the summer of 1636, a joint Habsburg force led by Cardinal-Infante Ferdinand (the governor of the Spanish Netherlands and younger brother of King Philip IV) conducted a major counter-attack into French territory. The invading force met unexpectedly feeble resistance as it ravaged Picardy and Champagne and swept through a series of northern forts. The garrisons, untested and unsettled by their enemies’ novel use of shrieking mortar bombs, surrendered one after another.[145] The Habsburg army, a large proportion of which was mounted, moved quickly, thrusting ever deeper into French territory, until it had captured the stronghold of La Corbie, along the Somme. Due to the rapid and unexpected nature of the troops’ advance, there was no sizable interposing military force in between them and Paris, barely sixty miles away. At the news of the cardinal-infante’s blitzkrieg-style incursion into France’s fertile northern plains, Richelieu was reportedly plunged into a deep depression. An unnerved Parisian populace directed its seething resentment at the unpopular chief minister and called for his ouster. The shaken cardinal tendered his resignation and nervously awaited his fall from grace. But although the king may have been occasionally frustrated with his adviser, he was astute enough to realize that there was no individual better suited to the position of chief minister, or more dedicated to the advancement of French prestige and interests. He therefore crisply rejected Richelieu’s offer and the fiery Father Joseph was dispatched to shake his master out of his crippling state of despondency.[146] Meanwhile, Louis XIII — in perhaps his finest hour — initiated a mass recruitment drive. Cantering through the cobbled streets of Paris, the monarch, who had always fancied himself as something of an Arthurian warrior-king, called upon every man capable of bearing arms to join him in expelling the hated foreigners from French territory. In reality, however, the panic of the French royal court — while understandable — was unjustified. The Habsburg advance had proved remarkably successful, but the cardinal-infante was concerned that his forces’ supply lines were overextended and was already planning his withdrawal. The Corbie campaign had proved to “be no more than a short-lived pyrotechnical display.”[147] It did succeed, however, in galvanizing French public sentiment and in temporarily uniting royal court factions in support of Richelieu’s war efforts. From that point, the Franco-Habsburg conflict slipped into a numbing see-saw of partial gains mitigated by temporary losses, a war of attrition that severely strained the resources, stability, and organizational capacity of the French state. The challenges associated with coordinating the simultaneous operations of multiple armies over vast distances at a time when communications were both rudimentary and easily subject to delay or disruption were daunting. While military dispatches to Flanders or Italy would take perhaps 12 to 16 days when sent overland from France, they could take almost three months to arrive by sea from Spain. As a result, notes J.H. Elliott, it was “considerably easier to run a war from Paris than from Madrid.”[148] Even then, there was inevitably a “lag effect,” when it came to issuing precise directives to faraway generals: the distance between Richelieu’s chambers and the frontlines was not only spatial — it was also temporal. The cardinal therefore often encouraged commanders to operate under their own initiative and to exercise their own judgment — provided they were not brash — as to when to seize opportunities to push into enemy territory. French generals could be reluctant to do so, however, if only because they feared the cardinal’s wrath in the event of failure. Indeed, Richelieu could be a singularly demanding overseer, demanding thick stacks of detailed correspondence on every aspect of the war effort and meting out severe punishment in response to perceived cowardice or military shortcomings.[149] More broadly, many of the civil-military pathologies affecting French higher command during the Thirty Years’ War would be familiar to any student of authoritarian regimes. Most notably, Richelieu’s focus on “coup-proofing” meant that the perceived loyalty of a noble would often count more in terms of his military advancement than his battlefield performance. As contemporary scholars in the field of security studies have noted, regimes facing significant internal threats frequently adopt sub-optimal organizational practices, basing their promotion patterns on political loyalty rather than on combat prowess. [150] Richelieu, who, like all of his 17th-century European counterparts, operated at the heart of a complex web of patronage, was consistently torn between his desires to shore up his own power base and to shield his monarch from internal threats, as well as the need to effectively use the very small pool of able generals he had at his disposal.[151] This sometimes resulted in confusing and counterproductive personnel policies, whereby he dismissed or disgraced competent military commanders and promoted mediocre alternatives. On other occasions, however, Richelieu could demonstrate a measure of tolerance and foresight, forgiving a proficient general’s past transgressions in favor of advancing the war effort. And at times, the canny clergyman managed to have it both ways, by preemptively absorbing promising commanders within his own networks of clientage, thus ensuring their future loyalty. This was the case, for instance, with the Count of Harcourt, whose military acumen impressed Richelieu, and who was therefore allowed to marry into the chief minister’s family despite his middling aristocratic standing.[152] From then on, Harcourt was entrusted with a series of high-level military commands. [quote id="8"] The French monarchy’s perennial fear of a resurgence of domestic disorder also led it to adopt a more centralized approach to the management of military operations. Whereas most other European powers continued to subcontract the levying and management of military forces to powerful nobles and “military entrepreneurs,” the royal administration of Louis XIII insisted on preserving a degree of direct control over its expanding military apparatus.[153] Foreign military entrepreneurs, such as the highly effective Bernard of Saxe-Weimar, could be hired for the prosecution of overseas campaigns, but armies based and recruited on French territory remained strictly answerable to royal authority. A degree of local autonomy and decentralization remained necessary, given the bureaucratic limitations of the early 17th-century French state, and French nobles or bishops could thus continue to raise troops on their own account. The levied soldiers, however, remained under the proprietorship of the French monarchy, which stubbornly refused to take the easier — but in its eyes riskier — path of formalized military delegation. France’s rejection of the military entrepreneurship system was accompanied by the expansion of a body of civil servants — the famed intendants d’armée — whose role was to act as agents of royal authority, operating alongside French generals and co-supervising their military operations.[154] The decision to empower and deploy additional numbers of intendants was part of a broader move toward greater bureaucratic control over every aspect of the French war effort, from taxation to infrastructure development.[155] The intendants were entrusted with a broad set of responsibilities that ranged from investigating corruption and dispensing justice, to managing funds and supervising army expenditure. One should guard oneself, however, from overstating their ability to enact immediate change and override the decisions and policies undertaken by powerful local commanders. As David Parrott notes, the popular perception that Richelieu’s intendants were “seventeenth-century equivalents of the bolshevik commissars within the Red Army,” is in need of revision.[156] Indeed, the relationships between field generals and royal intendants were often overshadowed or subsumed within complex pre-existing networks of clientele, and in some cases these culturally entrenched alternative power structures severely diluted the intendant’s authority.[157] The general-intendant relationship was thus most often characterized by careful negotiation, as royal agents walked an administrative tightrope, making their best efforts to enact centralized directives — which were often somewhat overambitious or outdated — all while remaining mindful of local conditions, power dynamics, and logistical constraints. In some cases, this dual command structure acted as an impediment to military effectiveness, with royal intendants frequently butting heads with the commanders of their assigned military units. In other cases, however, the relationship could prove to be far more harmonious and productive. Military correspondence, after all, flowed in both directions, through a revamped network of dedicated postal relays that aimed to reduce some of the delays in communication. Intendants funneled reams of vital information back to the state center, keeping Richelieu and the secretariat of war somewhat better apprised of the manifold challenges plaguing the efforts of their frontline commanders. Although France, unlike Spain, benefited from interior lines of communication, the distances remained vast and the terrain nearly impassable in many parts of the country, with thick forests, underdeveloped roads, and large, rugged mountainous regions.[158] Problems of transportation and supply were a chronic source of concern, as were those of funding. The colossal costs of fielding such a large military force — one that sometimes included half a dozen armies operating simultaneously — placed a terrible strain on French finances, as well as on the country’s internal stability. Even before the war, in 1630, Richelieu grumblingly queried whether
There is a kingdom in the world that can regularly pay two or three armies at once … I would like to be told whether reason does not require that one better fund an army operating on enemy territory against powerful forces against whom it has been tried in combat, and where expenses and incommodities are indeterminate, rather than one that remains within the kingdom out of precaution of the harm that could befall it.[159]
This complaint pointed to one of the core quandaries confronted by the resource-hungry French armies. For the first half-decade or so of guerre ouverte, they operated largely on their own soil and thus were deprived of the possibility of engaging in the traditional practice of collecting “contributions” in the form of rapine and punitive payments extracted from enemy territory. When French troops were deployed abroad, particularly across the Rhine, their numbers often began to melt away as soldiers fled the unfamiliar and hostile German landscapes and streamed back to their villages and homesteads. This helps explain why it was deemed preferable to wage war with foreign mercenaries deep within imperial territory, while using national troops for operations in France or within its near abroad. For much of this period, the French monarchy teetered on the edge of financial collapse, staggering from one socio-economic crisis to another and racking up sizable debts to financiers who charged exorbitant rates. On average, funds allocated to defense amounted to 72 percent of government expenditure during Richelieu’s ministry.[160] During the years of guerre ouverte these expenditures were rendered all the more extravagant by the crown’s continued subsidy of the Dutch and Swedes, as well as of the mercenary army of Saxe-Weimar. Unlike his Spanish rival, Richelieu could not rely on the riches from a sprawling network of overseas colonies, nor, for the reasons described above, could he hope to transfer the costs of military operations onto despoiled tracts of enemy territory. The preservation of the kingdom’s newly aggrandized military machine was therefore largely dependent upon a massive expansion of domestic taxation. In this, Richelieu was mostly successful, with some estimates showing that the income of the French crown doubled in real terms over the course of his tenure.[161] Per capita taxation also soared and the country’s peasantry — already reeling after a series of harsh winters and poor harvests — was plunged into an even more dire state of poverty. Throughout the war, the country was gripped by a series of rural uprisings, with some — such as the massive croquant revolt of 1637 or the rebellion of the Va-Nu-Pieds in Normandy in 1639 — requiring the temporary redirection of thousands of French troops away from the frontlines.[162] A careful perusal of Richelieu’s writings show that, although he could sometimes appear dismissive of the common folk’s plight (and ruthless in the quashing of mass uprisings), he was not as callous or unyielding as some have taken him to be. He frequently expressed concern over the severity of the peasantry’s conditions, often granting temporary concessions in an attempt to stave off further unrest.[163] His steely determination to prevail in the competition with the Habsburgs was interwoven with a deeper and more nagging fear: that the French state and people would not withstand the enormous pressures placed upon them, and that if he did not “keep a few steps ahead of financial disaster and uncontrollable social insubordination,” the country would slide back into civil war and find itself at the mercy, once again, of the predatory appetites of foreign powers.[164] In this, he was not aided by the hodgepodge character of France’s new army. Many of the troops he had raised over the past decade were relatively unseasoned and the question of whether it was more judicious to concentrate the minority of experienced veterans in distinct “crack” units or to sprinkle them across the force was one that frequently remained unresolved. Most importantly, France’s high command drew on a more heterogeneous set of wartime experiences than its Spanish or imperial counterparts.[165] The generals who had remained in France during the Wars of Religion were often unfamiliar with the rapidly evolving mechanics of large-scale, infantry-intensive warfare, having spent decades engaging in shadowy struggles for territorial control or denial and conducting mounted raids against nearby opponents. Others had chosen to pursue military careers in exile, with all the attendant variations in training, tactics, and doctrine. During France’s period of civil turmoil, Huguenot lords had often left to fight alongside the Dutch, while Catholic aristocrats had sometimes served under the imperial banner in the Hungarian Marches or alongside co-religionist forces elsewhere on the continent.[166] The sheer variety of the military lessons gleaned by France’s warrior class, both resident and expatriate, during those tumultuous decades could, in some ways, be viewed as a strategic asset. The different terrains and adversaries confronted by Louis XIII’s armies in their continent-spanning operations — from the waterlogged plains of the Low Countries to the craggy defiles of Alpine Italy or Switzerland — certainly called for a mixture of strategies and for different forms of force structure. In other instances, however, Richelieu was clearly at pains to find enough commanders with the kind of experience needed for the most important theater of operations — the northeastern frontier. This was not only where Madrid chose to concentrate most of its elite units, it was also where the nature of the terrain (as evidenced during the Habsburg advance to Corbie in 1636) made large-scale enemy encroachments both most likely and difficult to counter. Inevitably, there were fierce debates in Paris over the distribution of finite military resources and the use of the handful of talented generals, as well as over how to prioritize the different military theaters.[167] The northeastern front was often privileged to the detriment of other contested areas, such as Italy or the Valtelline, where — despite Henri de Rohan’s consummate military skill — the French expeditionary force eventually dissolved once the slow stream of funding and provisions sputtered to a halt.[168] Having enumerated the multitudinous difficulties that the Bourbon monarchy had to contend with during this period, it is necessary to stress two facts. First, despite all of these challenges — whether in command and control, logistics, or domestic stability — the French war effort was somehow maintained.[169] Second, perhaps most importantly, France’s organizational frailties and deficiencies were hardly unique. Across Europe, chief ministers and private secretaries grappled with a similar set of challenges as the small and overburdened bureaucracies they oversaw groaned under the pressure of resourcing and coordinating protracted military operations waged on an unprecedented scale across multiple theaters.[170] Spain’s Count-Duke Olivares was no exception to this rule, and in fact faced some far more serious problems of his own. Like Richelieu, the volcanic Spaniard had to navigate the treacherous world of court politics with its webs of patronage and cronyism. And just like his French nemesis, Olivares groused about the dearth of qualified commanders and the unreliability of his allies, and was often in a wretched mental state, overworked, depressed, and plagued with insomnia. Indeed, he often appeared on the verge of buckling under the mental weight of coordinating a multifront campaign across a far larger and less geographically cohesive space than that confronted by Richelieu.[171] However, whereas his French rival could increasingly rely on the expansion of domestic taxation to offset some of the exorbitant costs of military operations, Olivares remained heavily dependent on the steady flow of wealth — primarily silver — from Spain’s overseas colonies.[172] This revenue progressively dwindled as the yield of South American silver mines slowly declined and Spanish treasure fleets found themselves mercilessly hounded across the seven seas by increasingly powerful naval opponents, particularly the Dutch. The latter had made substantial inroads in Brazil and the West Indies and Spain’s transatlantic trade routes were now perpetually at risk. Dutch gains in Brazil, and Spain’s inability to protect Lisbon’s possessions from their encroachments, had the added effect of further aggravating Philip IV’s Portuguese subjects, who were already resentful over their heightened levels of financial contribution to the Spanish Empire’s collective defense.[173] [quote id="9"] Spain’s system of “composite” monarchy, whereby Philip IV ruled from the Castilian heartland over a union of different territories with unique local traditions and varying levels of autonomy, was a constant source of frustration for Olivares — and of competitive advantage for Richelieu.[174] Despite the Spanish chief minister’s zeal for internal consolidation, he faced an uphill battle in his campaign to more evenly apportion the cost of the war effort across Spain’s non-Castilian dominions. His attempts to reform and expand taxation and his plans for a “union of arms,” which proposed the creation of a reserve force of 140,000 men more equitably financed and recruited across Spanish territories, provoked widespread dissatisfaction in Catalonia and Portugal.[175] Richelieu and his agents gleefully kept tabs on the diffusion of such sentiments and cultivated the hope that — galvanized by the pressures of war — they would eventually grow into full-fledged secessionist movements. Both chief ministers were fully cognizant of the inadequacies of their respective state bureaucracies for the prosecution of such an onerous and large-scale war of attrition. Spain’s attempt to force France into a negotiated settlement by delivering a knock-out blow in the early stages of the war had floundered, and, as a result, Olivares now pinned his hopes on Richelieu either being forcibly ousted from power or succumbing to one of his many illnesses. This was a perfectly rational calculation. After all, the French were war-weary and Richelieu was deeply unpopular, was riddled with various ailments from crippling migraines to weeping abscesses, and had an occasionally fraught relationship with his royal patron. Moreover, were he to fall from grace, it was reasonable to assume that he and his accompanying network of politiques would be replaced with a power structure far more amenable to Spain’s interests and world vision.[176] Unfortunately for Olivares, the cardinal possessed both an uncanny gift for political survival and a robust counter-intelligence apparatus. As the war dragged on with no sign of resolution, the Spanish chief minister became increasingly desperate, covertly sponsoring a number of French schemes to remove the cardinal and feverishly discussing elaborate plots for his assassination.[177] Richelieu, for his part, continued to bet on Spain’s eventual dislocation and on its inability to weather the steady onslaughts from a more concentrated and populous country such as France. In the event, history smiled on the cardinal, who won his strategic wager. On the military front, French armies and proxies finally began to make some progress, making inroads into both Flanders and Imperial German territory. Joint Habsburg military operations became ever rarer as the Holy Roman Empire focused the bulk of its forces against the Swedes. In 1637, the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II died and was replaced by his son, Ferdinand III, a man with a greater appetite for compromise and a new willingness to shed the formalized military alliance with Spain in favor of conflict resolution.[178] Richelieu’s fledgling navy also proved its worth, playing an important ancillary role in support of southward-facing land campaigns and winning a series of small but significant maritime skirmishes in the Mediterranean and along the Spanish coastline.[179] A new generation of talented generals — such as Louis II of Bourbon (later known as Le Grand Condé) and Henri de la Tour d’Auvergne, Viscount of Turenne — came of age, and French forces consolidated their control over Artois and portions of Northern Italy as well as Alsace and Lorraine. A cordon of military outposts was established across the upper Rhine and the southern Roussillon was occupied.[180] Most importantly, in 1640 Spain was finally engulfed by its internal tensions — as Richelieu had predicted — with both Catalonia and Portugal rebelling against their Castilian overlords and allying with France. In Catalonia, the ringleaders of the popular revolt opportunistically invoked ancient treaties from the time of Charlemagne and swore allegiance to Louis XIII, who promptly dispatched troops to garrison his new protectorate. Spain only succeeded in recapturing the renegade province twelve years later in 1652. In the case of Portugal, however, the divorce proved more permanent — after decades of bitter struggle, the Portuguese obtained their full independence in 1668. These developments almost fatally impeded the Spanish war effort. Cursing the fickleness of his crimson-garbed foe, a broken Olivares lamented the fact that Madrid was now “reduced to a new war inside Spain which is already costing millions, at a time when we already find ourselves in terrible straits.”[181] As Sir Richard Lodge later noted, events had
undergone a startling change since 1636. In that year the Spaniards had been victors on French soil, and their advance had excited a panic in the French capital. In 1640 France was not only secure against invasion, but its frontier had been advanced in the east, in the north, and in the south, and its great rival, Spain, was threatened with imminent dissolution. The connection with the Netherlands was already destroyed, and the French fleet in the Mediterranean made communication with Italy difficult and dangerous. In the peninsula itself two provinces were in open revolt, and one of them seemed likely to become a part of France.[182]
From then on — and although Spain would continue to wage war on its neighbor for almost two more decades — the strategic pendulum began to swing ever more strongly in France’s direction. Three years later, in 1643, the French army crushed a large Spanish force at the battle of Rocroi, in northeastern France, earning a spectacular and resounding victory.[183] Richelieu, however, was no longer there to see it. Exhausted and emaciated, he had finally succumbed to one of his many afflictions a few months prior, on a wintry day in December 1642. In the weeks leading up to Richelieu’s death, the king paid his longstanding adviser a final visit. Surrounded by a gaggle of nervous physicians, coughing up blood, and struggling to speak between fits of hacking coughs, the cardinal leaned toward his monarch and engaged in a final defense of his policies.[184] Whispering that he knew his days were numbered, he confided that he could comfort himself with the knowledge that he had left the “kingdom in the highest degree of glory and reputation it has ever been, and all [the king’s] enemies cast down and humiliated.”[185] Legend has it that a few days later, as he received his final rites, the statesman was asked whether he wished to forgive any of his numerous enemies. The cardinal responded that there was nothing and nobody to forgive. After all, he personally had never had any true enemies — other, of course, than those of the state.[186]

Assessing Richelieu's Grand Strategy

The Embodiment of Prudentia? In the introductory chapter to his Testament Politique, which he entitled “General Statement of the Royal Program,” Richelieu provides a succinct overview of the kingdom’s state of affairs when he was elevated to the rank of chief minister in 1624. Addressing himself directly to the king, he delivers a grim diagnosis of France’s former fragility in the following terms:
When Your Majesty resolved to admit me both to your council and to an important place in your confidence for the direction of your affairs, I may say that the Huguenots shared the state with you; that the nobles conducted themselves as if they were not your subjects, and the most powerful governors of the provinces as if they were sovereign in their offices. (…) I may further say that foreign alliances were scorned, private interests being preferred to those of the public, and in a word, the dignity of the royal majesty was so disparaged, and so different from what it should be, because of the misdeeds of those who conducted your affairs, that it was almost impossible to recognize it.[187]
Thereupon, he continues,
I dared to promise you, with assurance, that you would soon find remedies for the disorders in your state, and that your prudence, your courage, and the benediction of God would give a new aspect to this realm. I promised Your Majesty to employ all my industry and all the authority which it would please you to give me to ruin the Huguenot party, to abase the pride of the nobles, to bring all your subjects back to their duty, and to restore your reputation among foreign nations to the station it ought to occupy. In the broadest outline, Sire, these have been the matters with which Your Majesty’s reign has thus far been concluded. I would consider them most happily concluded if they were followed by an era of repose during which you could introduce into your realm a wealth of benefits of all types.[188]
This has generally been viewed as a frank and cogent encapsulation — “a broad outline” in the cardinal’s own words — of Richelieu’s agenda and his desire to address his country’s challenges in a neatly sequential fashion, first, by consolidating the monarchy’s domestic power, and, second, by restoring its primacy and reputation abroad. In one of his missives to Father Joseph, he provided a tripartite structure for this combination of internal and external balancing, noting that upon taking office “three things” had “entered his mind”:
First to ruin the Huguenots and render the king absolute in his state; second, to abase the House of Austria [by which he meant the Habsburgs with both their dynastic branches]; and third to discharge the French people of heavy subsidies and taxes.[189]
It is interesting to note that in both cases, he was intent on alleviating the French people’s economic suffering once it was clear that France had regained its international position. This once again runs counter to the notion that he was completely insensitive to the plight of common folk. More importantly for the purposes of this study, however, Richelieu’s writings indicate that over the course of his 18 years as chief minister his day-to-day policy decisions were being made under a clear, overarching intellectual framework for restoring French grandeur, a set of “action-oriented principles” prioritizing and connecting “threats to an overarching vision of the state’s role in the world” — in other words, a grand strategy.[190] At a time when the very notion of grand strategy is viewed with a certain skepticism, with many dismissing the concept as woolly and ethereal, or as an artificial and retrospective reordering of messy policy processes (“randomness parading as design”), Richelieu’s experience reminds us that, in some cases, statesmen do operate under the guidance of a clear long-term vision.[191] Naturally, the pursuit of Richelieu’s three-part agenda was not as smooth and linear as his self-promotional Testament Politique, written in his twilight years, would suggest. As one historian notes, “rather than being a precisely ordered chronological agenda, there was a great deal of moving back and forth.”[192] Strategy, as Sir Lawrence Freedman reminds us, is as much a matter of process as of design and this process “evolves through a series of states, each not quite as anticipated or hoped for, requiring a reappraisal and modification of the original strategy.”[193] Whether in terms of Richelieu’s financial or military initiatives, there was a fair amount of ad-hocism and improvisation. This was due, in large part, to the manifold bureaucratic limitations of the early modern French state — but not only. Decision-making in 17th-century Europe unfolded within a very distinct and elaborate constellation of pre-existing networks of aristocratic clientelism. Richelieu was certainly adept at playing the game of patronage politics, but this relentless flow of intrigue also consumed a lot of his time and energy and rendered a purely rationalized and meritocratic approach to government almost impossible. As we have seen, these socio-cultural constraints also adversely affected France’s military performance, most notably in the early years of la guerre ouverte with the Habsburgs. Important domestic reforms, such as the prohibition of dueling, were often unevenly applied, suspended, or even abandoned for temporary expediency, particularly if they triggered excessive degrees of aristocratic opposition. At the same time, as one of the greatest French historians of the period reminds us, the greatness of certain leaders depends largely “on the quality of their intelligence and their effectiveness in the conditions of their epoch.”[194] If one is to adopt this more measured and discriminating mode of evaluation, it hardly seems controversial to state that Richelieu was a singularly talented statesman and that, despite the occasionally inconsistent, incomplete, or spasmodic nature of his individual initiatives, he demonstrated a remarkable “continuity in the realization of his general aims.”[195] [quote id="10"] The chief minister was the first to recognize that any successful grand strategy must possess a degree of plasticity and that security managers should preserve the ability to adapt to sudden changes in circumstances. As contemporary scholars have noted, grand strategy “exists in a world of flux” and “constant change and adaptation must be its companions if it is to succeed.”[196] “At best,” suggests one historian, it can provide an “intellectual reference point” for dealing with evolving challenges and “a process by which dedicated policy makers can seek to bring their day-to-day actions into better alignments with their country’s enduring interests.”[197] Richelieu was perfectly cognizant of these enduring truths and in his writings consistently and eloquently stressed the need to adhere to a political wisdom structured around compromise and adaptability — prudence in the classical sense — when advancing a country’s interests. Any quest for policy perfection or moral purity when conducting affairs of state thus ran the risk of backfiring; seeking to adhere to overly formalized rules, theories, or schools of thoughts was profoundly misguided. The best rule when taking important decisions, he quipped, was precisely “to have no general rule.”[198] Within large and rambunctious societies, major domestic reforms should be undertaken with care and with an eye both to the limitations of the state to enact immediate change and to the potential for societal unrest that could result from their forcible imposition. Thus,
it is sometimes a matter of prudence to water down remedies to make them more effective; and orders that conform more to reason, because sometimes they are not well suited to the capacities of those called upon to execute them.[199]
In one particularly revealing analogy, Richelieu observed that
An architect who, by the excellence of his craft, rectifies the defects of an ancient building and who, without demolishing it, restores it to a tolerable symmetry, merits far more praise than the one who ruins it to erect a new and seemingly perfect edifice.[200]
Richelieu’s interpretation of the concept of prudence should not be equated, however, with the modern interpretation of the word, i.e., caution and a penchant for ponderousness or watchful inactivity. In some cases, it was certainly necessary to bide one’s time, husband one’s resources, and build up one’s strength. Other situations, however, called for decisive action, and for a measure of boldness and alacrity.[201] The soundness of such actions — and their eventual success — was directly tied to the validity and coherence of France’s long-term planning, for,
experience shows that, if one foresees from far away the designs to be undertaken, one can act with speed when the moment comes to execute them.[202]
The first approach, he claimed, had paid rich dividends during the period of guerre couverte, from 1624 to 1635, and the king, he crowed, had “demonstrated a singular prudence,” by “occupying all the forces of the enemies of his state with those of his allies,” and by putting his hand “on his purse and not on his sword.”[203] The second approach had proved necessary after the battle of Nördlingen, when it became clear that France would need to come directly to the aid of its allies “when they no longer appeared capable of surviving alone.” France chose to launch a multifront war, thus preempting and confounding Spain’s own plans to deliver a knock-out blow. Dissipating their neighbor’s strategic attention and resources had played a fundamental role in France’s success, noted Richelieu:
Pursuing such simultaneous attacks in such a variety of places—something that even the Romans and Ottomans never accomplished—would no doubt seem to many people to be of great temerity and imprudence. And yet, while it is proof of your power, it is also strong proof of your judgment, as it was necessary to focus the attention of your enemies in all places so they could be invincible in none.[204]
To what degree are these self-congratulatory statements justified? If one peruses the commentaries of his foreign contemporaries, who often admired and despised him in equal measure, the answer is quite a bit. Shortly after having received news of Richelieu’s death, a soon-to-be disgraced Olivares penned a memorandum that directly attributed “the acute situation in which we (Spain) now find ourselves” to the machinations of his hated rival, noting that under the latter’s leadership,
France against all right and reason has attacked us on every front, and has stripped Your Majesty of entire kingdoms in Spain by resorting to hideous treachery, and has provoked such a universal convulsion that the possibility of salvaging even a portion has generally been considered very slight.[205]
Even some of Richelieu’s harshest critics have been at pains to deny that the country he diligently served over the course of so many years was territorially larger, institutionally more robust, and militarily more powerful than when he came into office. As Olivares lamented, the cardinal’s policies had undoubtedly accelerated the process of Spanish decline.[206] By the mid-1600s, third-party observers, such as the English politician Algernon Sidney, were already writing that
The vast power of Spain that within these thirty years made the world tremble, is now like a carcass without blood and spirits, so that everyone expects the dissolution of it.[207]
France’s subsidization of Spain’s many foes had bled Madrid dry, its alliance with Portugal had fractured the Iberian Peninsula, and Richelieu’s careful nurturing of his cherished fleet meant that France was now a maritime power to be reckoned with. The chief minister’s many initiatives on the cultural front, from the creation of the Académie Française to the foundation of the Imprimerie Royale, revitalized French soft power and buttressed the aspirational self-image of its elites. Richelieu not only set the stage for future French military dominance, he also — through his various propaganda efforts and promotion of politique writings that stressed trans-confessional patriotism and unity — arguably laid the ideational cement for the more modern and missionary form of French nationalism that would erupt in the late 18th century. As international relations theorists have noted, a country’s strategic adjustment to evolving geopolitical circumstances is not merely the result of “shifts in the pattern of interests and power,” or in the structure of their political institutions, but also hinges upon evolutions in how that country’s leaders “visualize their world, their society’s mission in that world, and the relationship between military power and political ends.”[208] Richelieu’s vision for French foreign policy — with France playing a leading and arbitral role in a Europe of pacified nation-states whose relations are more defined by secular than confessional interests — is one that has endured and that, one could argue, endures in the Elysée Palace to this day. All of this, of course, came at a heavy price, a price disproportionately borne by France’s peasantry that suffered year after year of famine and privation. Years of subsidized warfare may have proven more cost-effective in terms of blood and treasure than total war, but it remained onerous and was only made possible by the imposition of crushing levels of taxation. It may well be, as the great 19th-century historian Lord Acton reluctantly posited, that European kingdoms such as France needed to traverse a period of repressive absolutism before attaining the internal coherence within which modern liberalism could flourish.[209] This does not render any of the more brutally authoritarian aspects of the thoughts of 17th-century statesmen such as Richelieu any less distasteful or painful to a modern reader. Some historians have viewed the series of revolts of La Fronde, which ravaged France from 1648 to 1653, as a direct result — and backlash against — the more oppressive aspects of Richelieu’s absolutist reforms. It is only fair, notes Elliott, to recognize that “The Fronde, as much as the France of Louis XIV, is the legacy of Richelieu.”[210] [quote id="11"] Once again, however, France’s grand strategy under the reign of Louis XIII — who deserves his own share of credit for his kingdom’s reforms and foreign policy triu