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

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

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…

More Significance than Value: Explaining Developments in the Sino-Japanese Contest Over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands

More Significance than Value: Explaining Developments in the Sino-Japanese Contest Over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands

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?…

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

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Raison d’Etat: Richelieu’s Grand Strategy During the Thirty Years’ War

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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…

How to Think About Nuclear Crises

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Rethinking the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons and American Grand Strategy

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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

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

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…

The Purposes of Arms Control

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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

What Is Grand Strategy? Sweeping a Conceptual Minefield

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…

Restraining an Ally: Israel, the United States, and Iran’s Nuclear Program, 2011–2012

Restraining an Ally: Israel, the United States, and Iran’s Nuclear Program, 2011–2012

In asymmetric alliances, a superior state provides security to a weaker ally, who in exchange surrenders its autonomy to its stronger protector. But what happens when the weaker state’s vital interests clash with its stronger ally’s preferences? In 2011…

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                    [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 ʻAbu 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] => 2019-11-06 13:26:33 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-11-06 18:26:33 [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] => ) [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] => ) ) [1] => 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] => 2019-10-11 10:20:05 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-10-11 14:20:05 [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] => ) [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] => ) ) [2] => 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] => 2019-10-03 11:13:03 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-10-03 15:13:03 [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] => ) [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 not extending 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] => ) ) [3] => 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. 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[141] David Vines, “The BRI and RCEP: Ensuring Cooperation in the Liberalisation of Trade in Asia,” Economic and Political Studies 6, no. 3, (2018): 345,; Gregory T. Chin, “True Revisionist: China and the Global Monetary System,” in, China’s Global Engagement: Cooperation, Competition and Influence in the 21st Century, ed. Jacques Deslisles and Avery Goldstein (Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2017), 47. [142] Chin, “True Revisionist,” 51–52, 58, 46–47; John D. Ciorciari, “China’s Influence in Asian Monetary Policy Affairs,” in, Rising China’s Influence in Developing Asia, 234. [143] Gal Luft, “The Anti-Dollar Awakening Could Be Ruder and Sooner than Most Economists Predict,” CNBC, Aug. 27, 2018, [144] Jingdong Yuan, “Beijing’s Institutional-Balancing Strategies: Rationales, Implementation and Efficacy,” Australian Journal of International Affairs 72, no. 2 (2018): 119, [145] Stuenkel, Post-Modern World, 150. [146] Luft, “The Anti-Dollar Awakening”; Gregory Chin, “China’s Rising Monetary Power,” in, The Great Wall of Money: Power and Politics in China’s International Monetary Relations, ed. Eric Helleiner and Jonathan Kirshner (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014), 203. [147] Michael Mastanduno, “System Maker and Privilege Taker: U.S. Power and the International Political Economy,” World Politics 61, no. 1 (January 2009): 121–54,; Arvind Subramanian, Eclipse: Living in the Shadow of China’s Economic Dominance (Washington DC: Peterson Institute for International Economics, 2011), 55; Eric Helleiner and Jonathan Kirshner, “The Politics of China’s International Monetary Relations,” in, The Great Wall of Money, 5. [148] Christopher Layne, The Peace of Illusions: American Grand Strategy from 1940 to the Present (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006), 47; Geir Lundestad, Empire by Integration: The United States and European Integration, 1945-1997 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998); Chalmers A. Johnson, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2000), 27; Mastanduno, “System Maker:” 131, 146; Luft, “The Anti-Dollar Awakening.” [149] Carnes Lord, “China and Maritime Transformations,” in, China Goes to Sea: Maritime Transformation in Comparative Historical Perspective, ed. Andrew S. Erickson, Lyle J. Goldstein, and Carnes Lord, (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2009), 429. [150] Andrew S. Erickson, “Power vs. Distance: China’s Global Maritime Interests and Investments in the Far Seas,” in, Strategic Asia 2019: China’s Expanding Strategic Ambitions, ed. Ashley J. 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[154] Fuad Shahbazov, “Will the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor Be a Gateway to Central Asia?” The Diplomat, May 25, 2017,; “Central Asia’s Economic Evolution from Russia to China,” Stratfor, April 5, 2018,; on the Central Asian leaders’ ability to navigate great powers interests, see Alexander Cooley, Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012). [155] Calder, Super Continent, 154–55, 287. [156] Ghiasy and Zhou, “The Silk Road Economic Belt,” x, 39–41. [157] Bobo Lo, A Wary Embrace: What the Russia-China Relationship Means for the World (Docklands, Victoria: Penguin Random House Australia, 2017), 130; Zhengyu, “Toward ‘Land’ or Toward ‘Sea’”; Lord, “China and Maritime Transformations,” 445. [158] Alexander Gabuev, “Why Russia and China Are Strengthening Security Ties,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Sept. 24, 2018,; Chris Miller, “The New Cold War’s Warm Friends: Why Chinese and Russian Détente May be Here to Stay,” Foreign Policy, March 1, 2019, [159] Øystein Tunsjø, The Return of Bipolarity in World Politics: China, the United States and Geostructural Realism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018), 16; Samir Tata, “Deconstructing China’s Energy Security Strategy,” The Diplomat, Jan. 14, 2017, [160] Kent E. Calder, The New Continentalism: Energy and Twenty-First Century Eurasian Geopolitics (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012). [161] Noemi M. 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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 triumphs — should be judged in accordance with the characteristics and specificities of the era.[211] At a time when all European rulers brutally repressed their subjects, and the lay, democratic nation-state was not even a glimmer on the historical horizon, would France’s peasants “have gained very much by remaining the subjects of a weakened realm,” delivered, yet again, to the rapaciousness of feuding warlords and foreign powers?[212] With regard to the practice of French statecraft, in particular, there is little doubt that the achievements of the Louis XIII and Richelieu “duumvirate” were remarkable. Indeed, they appear all the more so when juxtaposed with the unilateral, hubristic, and ultimately self-defeating policies of Louis XIII’s successor, Louis XIV. The Inexorability of Hubris? As if to emphasize one last time the entangled nature of their complex relationship, Louis XIII followed Richelieu to the grave only a few months after the cardinal’s passing. Thereupon followed an extended period during which — Louis XIV not having yet reached maturity — Anne of Austria ruled as regent of France and Cardinal Jules Mazarin served as chief minister. Personally selected by Richelieu as his successor, Mazarin proved to be a wise choice — at least with regard to the conduct of foreign policy.[213] While his heavy-handed approach to domestic affairs may have helped stoke the resentment which eventually led to La Fronde, his practice of diplomacy was largely in continuity with Richelieu’s and demonstrated a keen sense of prudence along with a shrewd appreciation for the virtues of multilateralism.[214] During the tortuous negotiations leading up to the Peace of Westphalia, Mazarin paid close attention to the interests and views of France’s weaker allies and ensured that his country’s commitments were respected. In this, he
demonstrated that alliances between strong and weak players can work best when the former operates as sponsor of the latter rather than treating them as dispensable junior partners.[215]
Unfortunately, this sagacious brand of statecraft did not survive Mazarin’s death in 1661. In the years that followed, a young, unfettered and gloire-obsessed Louis XIV began to pursue an increasingly reckless and expansionist foreign policy. Drawing on the immense resources of a country at the zenith of its power, the Sun King launched a series of bloody wars of conquest. Over the course of his long reign, he massively increased the size of France’s armed forces, heightened internal repression, and — with the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 — reprised royal persecution of the Protestant minority. This was not only ruinous to France’s civil society and economy, with the mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of Huguenots overseas, but also immensely damaging to its international prestige.[216] Louis XIV’s military expansionism and general disdain for the interests of France’s allies resulted in the country’s isolation, its eventual bankruptcy, and the formation of a series of European coalitions designed to contest French dominance. The term raison d’état was now increasingly associated with French arrogance and assertiveness rather than with prudence and circumspection.[217] It is no doubt revealing that when the first edition of Richelieu’s Testament Politique was released, several decades after the statesman’s death and at the height of Louis XIV’s reign, it was from the press of a French Protestant living in exile in Amsterdam. The posthumous publication of the cardinal’s recollections and ruminations was intended to serve a didactic purpose, by highlighting the differences between the more enlightened attitudes toward religious tolerance and foreign policy that had prevailed under his tenure, and the rank chauvinism that had come to characterize the rule of Louis XIV.[218] Foreign commentators expressed their concern and bewilderment over France’s sudden strategic metamorphosis, and the same accusations that Richelieu and the politiques had once levied at Madrid — of its pretensions of hegemony and universal monarchy — were now directed toward Versailles.[219] John Lynn notes that France’s increased disdain for its allies was closely tied to its own ascendancy on the continent, which led Louis XIV to see France as “powerful enough to fight alone if it had to,” which, in turn, made him “unwilling to accommodate the interests and outlooks of others.”[220] This raises an important question, notes one historian:
[A]t what point, theoretically speaking, does an ascending hegemon cross the threshold from being a Westphalian guarantor of a general peace in Christendom to become something else, a predatory monarchia universalis or,  perhaps, a would-be “imperial power”?[221]
More broadly, are dominant states condemned to periods of self-defeating hubris? Some contemporary political scientists have suggested, for instance, that American grand strategy is locked in a repeating cycle, oscillating between eras of isolation and international engagement, with periods of damaging unilateralism or more constructive internationalism in between.[222] Is prudence therefore both period-dependent and a function of relative weakness (or the fear of becoming the weaker party)? Was French strategic competence under Richelieu largely a result of such perceptions of weakness? Does primacy and the absence of serious peer competitors systematically breed complacency over time, ultimately leading to hubris?[223] If so, how can a nation either mitigate or preempt such a natural tendency? Fully answering such complex questions is beyond the remit of this study. One remedial action, however, might be to follow the guidance of early Baroque theorists of statecraft such as Botero, and to pay closer attention both to the lessons of history and to the trials and tribulations of historical statesmen such as Richelieu. Tsar Peter the Great clearly shared this opinion. While riding through the streets of Paris on an official state visit in 1717, he suddenly called his carriage to a clattering halt, and requested to make a stop at the chapel of La Sorbonne. After standing a moment in respectful silence before the great marble sarcophagus, the Russian Tsar is reported to have suddenly exclaimed,
Great man, if you were alive today, I would shortly give you half my empire on condition you would teach me to govern the other half![224]
  Iskander Rehman is the Senior Fellow for International Relations at the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy, and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. The author would like to thank TNSR’s editorial team, three anonymous reviewers, and the gracious staff of the diplomatic archives of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in La Courneuve, and the French National Archives, in Paris. Research for this article was made possible, in part, through the support of the Office of Net Assessment, Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense, U.S. Department of Defense.   Image: National Gallery [post_title] => Raison d’Etat: Richelieu's Grand Strategy During the Thirty Years’ War [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => closed [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => raison-detat-richelieus-grand-strategy-during-the-thirty-years-war [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2019-09-12 17:41:36 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-09-12 21:41:36 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw [lead] => 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 by generations of historians, political philosophers, novelists, and biographers. The polarizing figure 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. This article focuses on this last aspect of Richelieu’s life and legacy: his conception and practice of great power competition. What philosophy of power and statecraft underpinned the cardinal’s approach to counter-hegemonic balancing? To what extent was Richelieu truly successful, and what insights can contemporary security managers derive from his policies and actions? Drawing on both primary and secondary literature, this essay engages in a detailed and interdisciplinary study of Richelieu’s grand strategy during the Thirty Years’ War. [pubinfo] => [issue] => Vol 2, Iss 3 [quotes] => Array ( [0] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => Richelieu was raised in a country rent by confessional divisions, wracked with penury and famine, and haunted by the specter of its own decline. ) [1] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => 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. ) [2] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => 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. ) [3] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => 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... ) [4] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => 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... ) [5] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => 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. ) [6] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => 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. ) [7] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => 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. ) [8] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => Unfortunately for Olivares, the cardinal possessed both an uncanny gift for political survival and a robust counter-intelligence apparatus.  ) [9] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => 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... ) [10] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => Richelieu’s vision for French foreign one that has endured, and that, one could argue, endures in the Elysée Palace to this day. ) ) [style] => scholarly [type] => Scholarly [style_label] => The Scholar [download] => Array ( [title] => PDF Download [file] => 1817 ) [authors] => Array ( [0] => 172 ) [endnotes] => Array ( [title] => Endnotes [endnotes] => [1] Léon Gabriel Toraude, Les Tribulations Posthumes de la Tête de Richelieu (Paris: Vigot Frères, 1928), 6. [2] See Alexandra Stara, The Museum of French Monuments 1795-1816: Killing Art to Make History (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2013), 52–53. [3] For two excellent overviews of how Richelieu has been viewed over the centuries, see Robert Knecht, “Cardinal Richelieu: Hero or Villain?” History Today 53, no. 3 (2003): 10-17,; and Joseph Bergin, “Three Faces of Richelieu: A Historiographical Essay,” French History 23, no. 4 (2009): 517–36, [4] For example, see Voltaire, Le Siècle de Louis XIV (Paris: Folio, 2015 Edition), chap. 2; Victor Hugo, Marion DeLorme (Paris: Editions Broché, 2012 Edition); Alfred de Vigny, Cinq-Mars (Paris: Folio, 1980 Edition); and Hilaire Belloc, Richelieu: A Study (New York: Garden City Publishing, 1929). [5] This is the view partially taken, for example, by Etienne Thuau in Raison d’Etat et Pensée Politique à l’Epoque de Richelieu (Paris: Armand Colin, 1966). On the “Jacobin legend” of Richelieu, which was particularly prevalent in 19th century French historiography, see Marie-Catherine Souleyreau, Richelieu ou la Quête d’Europe (Paris: Flammarion, 2008), 11. [6] Jörg Wollenberg, Richelieu: Staatsräson und Kircheninteresse: Zur Legitimation der Politik des Kardinalpremier (Bielfeld: Pfeffersche Buchhandlung, 1977). [7] Henry Kissinger, World Order: Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History (New York: Random House, 2014), 20. [8] As Francis Gavin has noted, “An understanding of the past doesn’t just reveal how things relate over time; history can also expose ‘horizontal’ connections over space and in depth. … Good horizontal historical work can reveal the complex interconnections and trade-offs that permeate most foreign policies.” Francis J. Gavin, Nuclear Statecraft: History and Strategy in America’s Atomic Age (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press), 14. For a compelling discussion of the importance of historical analysis in the field of security studies, see Hal Brands and William Inboden, “Wisdom Without Tears: Statecraft and the Uses of History,” Journal of Strategic Studies 41, no. 3 (2018): 1–31, [9] As one well-known scholar of the period has noted, “the strengthening of the state within its borders he [Richelieu] believed necessary not only to discipline the French and channel their energies into the most profitable pursuits, but also to provide the indispensable material support of hostilities against the Habsburgs.” See William Farr Church, Richelieu and Reason of State (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1972), 302. [10] While there has been a debate among historians over whether the battle of Rocroi truly constituted a “decisive battle,” there is no doubt that the French victory over Spain was viewed by both nations’ leaderships as something of a turning point in the competition. See, for example, Fernando González de León, The Road to Rocroi: Class, Culture, and Command in the Spanish Army of Flanders 1567-1659 (Leiden, NL: Brill, 2009). [11] Philippe Ariès, Les Temps de l’Histoire (Paris: Plon, 1954), 298. [12] This point is made by Etienne Thuau, when commenting on 17th-century French theorists of raison d’état more broadly. According to Thuau, this body of thought was too composite in its origins, elastic in its definitions, and action-oriented to constitute what we would now call an “intellectual system.” See Etienne Thuau, Raison d’Etat et Pensée Politique à l’Epoque de Richelieu (Paris: Armand Colin, 1966), 411–21. [13] Alfred A. Franklin, La Sorbonne, Ses Origines, Sa Bibliothèque, Les Débuts de l’Imprimerie à Paris, et la Succession de Richelieu d’Apres les Documents Inédits, 2nd Ed. (Paris: L. Willem, 1875), 151–71. [14] Richelieu, Testament Politique, 2nd Ed. (Paris: Perrin, 2017), 185. On the importance attached to the writings of Tacitus and Cicero in 16th- and early 17th-century France, see J.H.M. Salmon, “Cicero and Tacitus in Sixteenth-Century France,” The American Historical Review 85, no. 2 (1980): 307–31, [15] As one recent academic study of leaders’ decision-making notes, early life experiences matter “in part because they form a mental Rolodex that both citizens and leaders turn to when making strategic decisions in the future.” See “Introduction,” in Michael C. Horowitz, Allan C. Stam, and Cali M. Ellis, Why Leaders Fight (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015). For an excellent study of the importance of leaders’ individual threat perceptions and personalized belief systems more broadly, see Elizabeth Saunders, Leaders at War: How Presidents Shape Military Interventions (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011). [16] Carl J. Burkhardt, Richelieu: His Rise to Power (New York: Vintage Books, 1964), 162. [17] On France’s wars of religion and their effects on the French economy and society, see Nicolas Le Roux, Les Guerres de Religion 1559-1629 (Paris: Editions Belin, 2011). [18] Roland Mousnier, L’Homme Rouge ou la Vie du Cardinal de Richelieu (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1992), 28. [19] This vicious vendetta is memorably described in Eleanor C. Price, Cardinal De Richelieu (New York: McBride, Nast and Company, 1912), 5. [20] Roland Mousnier, L’Homme Rouge, 24. [21] As Jean-Vincent Blanchard notes, this was somewhat unusual, as many of Henri III’s paladins remained reluctant to swear allegiance to their new king prior to his official conversion to Catholicism in 1593. See, Jean-Vincent Blanchard, Eminence: Cardinal Richelieu and the Rise of France (New York: Walker Publishing, 2011), 12. [22] Richelieu had initially been on track for a military career, but this training was cut short when one of his elder brothers, Alphonse, refused to take up the bishopric of Luçon as planned, deciding instead to become a Carthusian monk. The responsibility for the bishopric then fell on the shoulders of the younger sibling, Armand. [23] François de Clary, Philippiques, Contre les Bulles et Autres Pratiques de la Faction d’Espagne (Tours, 1592). Author’s translation of the French. [24] de Clary, Philippiques, Contre les Bulles et Autres Pratiques. [25] The League had first emerged in 1576 as a grouping of reactionary Catholic nobles in favor of a more oppressive religious policy. Over time, some leaguers had become increasingly radical and hostile to the French crown, welcoming aid from antagonistic foreign powers such as Spain and — in a few noteworthy cases — openly advocating regicide. On the ideology of the Catholic League, see Frederic J. Baumgartner, Radical Reactionaries: The Political Thought of the French Catholic League (Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1975); and Jean-Marie Constant, La Ligue (Paris: Fayard, 1996). [26] For a good overview of the French wars of religion, see Robert Jean Knecht, The French Religious Wars: 1562-1598 (Oxford, UK: Osprey Publishing, 2002). See also, James B. Woods, “The Impact of the Wars of Religion: A View of France in 1581,” Sixteenth Century Journal 15, no. 2 (Summer 1984): 131–68, [27] The French historian Michel Cassan has described how in the wake of the assassination French Protestant and Catholic communities, fearful of another descent into chaos and violence, preemptively renewed their “confessional coexistence pacts” in order to preserve stability. See, Michel Cassan, La Grande Peur de 1610: Les Français et l’Assassinat de Henri IV (Paris: Champ Vallon, 2010). [28] See the magisterial work of the French historian Colette Beaune in Naissance de la Nation France (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1985). On late medieval, and early modern manifestations of patriotism more broadly, see Joseph R. Strayer, On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1970). [29] The French diplomat Jacques Bongars’ compilation in 1611 of a number of historic chronicles of the Crusades under the title “Gesta Dei per Francos,” (God’s Deeds Through the Franks) proved particularly influential in reinvigorating the notion of the French as God’s chosen people. [30] See, Myriam Yardeni, La Conscience Nationale en France Pendant les Guerres de Religion (Paris: Editions Nauwelaerts, 1971), 32–37. It is worth noting that Richelieu also alludes to France’s demographic superiority over Spain as providing it with an edge in any long-term competition. See, for example, Richelieu, Testament Politique, 268. [31] On Gallicanism as a political ideology, see Jotham Parsons, The Church in the Republic: Gallicanism and Political Ideology in Renaissance France (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2004), 185–223. [32] As historians such as Marc Bloch have noted, this concept of sacred kingship took root at the intersection of two traditions: the philosophy of the French monarchy, which was defended by theorists such as Jean Bodin who viewed the king as the sole guarantor of unity and enforcer of sovereignty over an otherwise divided nation, and the religion of the French monarchy, which drew on folk traditions and village mysticism in a predominantly rural and deeply superstitious country. See, Marc Bloch, Les Rois Thaumaturges: Etude sur le Caractère Surnaturel Attribué à la Puissance Royale, Particulièrement en France et en Angleterre (Paris: Gallimard, 1983 Ed.); and Julian H. Franklin, Jean Bodin and the Rise of Absolutist Theory (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009). [33] See, E.C. Caldwell, “The Hundred Years’ War and National Identity,” in Inscribing the Hundred Years’ War in French and English Cultures, ed. D.N. Baker (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000), 237–65; and Paul Cohen, “In Search of the Trojan Origins of the French: The Uses of History in the Elevation of the Vernacular in Early Modern France,” in Fantasies of Troy: Classical Tales and the Social Imaginary in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, ed. Alan Shephard and Stephen D. Powell (Toronto: Center for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, 2004), 63–81. [34] On China’s revisionist instrumentalization of its imperial history, see Howard French, Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power (New York: Vintage Books, 2017). [35] This hegemonic ambition was most notoriously laid out by the Dominican friar Tommaso Campanella in his 1600 treatise, A Discourse Touching the Spanish Monarchy: Laying Down Directions and Practices Whereby the King of Spain May Attain a Universal Monarchy. For a detailed analysis of Spanish writings on universal monarchy, see Anthony Pagden, Spanish Imperialism and the Political Imagination: Studies in European and Spanish-American Social and Political Theory 1513-1830 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990), 37–65. [36] On the strength of anti-Spanish sentiment, which often went hand in hand with a desire for greater French unity, see Alain Tallon, Conscience Nationale et Sentiment Religieux en France au XVIème Siècle (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2009), 56–58; and Yardeni, La Conscience Nationale en France. [37] Seigneur de Brantôme, Oeuvres Complètes Tome III (Paris: Editions Hachette, 2013 Ed.), 615–16. Author’s translation from the French. [38] See, Anne-Marie Cocula, “Des Héros Sans Gloire: Les Grands Capitaines des Guerres de Religion Vus par Brantôme,” Nouvelle Revue du XVIème Siècle 12, no. 1 (1994): 79–90,; Arlette Jouanna, Ordre Social, Mythes et Hiérarchies dans la France du XVIème Siècle (Paris: Hachette, 1977); and Nicolas Le Roux, “Honneur et Fidélité: Les Dilemmes de l’Obéissance Nobiliaire au Temps des Troubles de Religion,” Nouvelle Revue du XVIème Siècle 22, no. 1 (2004): 127–46, [39] See for example, Richelieu, Testament Politique, 268–69. [40] As the German historian Friedrich Meinecke wrote in the 1920s, the Florentine’s provocative reflections on ethics and statecraft constituted “a sword which was plunged into the flank of the body politic of Western humanity, causing it to shriek and rear up.” See, Friedrich Meinecke, Machiavellianism: The Doctrine of Raison d’Etat and Its Place in Modern History (New York: Routledge, 2017), 49. [41] Following Henri IV’s assassination, his wife Marie de Medici had ruled as regent for a decade before her son Louis XIII came of age. She and her Italian adviser Concino Concini were deeply unpopular and had been frequently accused of “Machiavellianism”i.e., corrupt and devious behavior by a hostile and xenophobic French populace. See, Henry Heller, Anti-Italianism in Sixteenth Century France (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003). [42] See, Michel de Montaigne, Essais Tome 2 (Paris: Folio, 2009 Ed.), 157. Author’s translation from the French. On the rise of Tacitism, see Alexandra Gadja, “Tacitus and Political Thought in Early Modern Europe, c.1530-c.1640,” in The Cambridge Companion to Tacitus, ed. A.J. Woodman (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 253–69. [43] Adrianna E. Bakos, “Qui Nescit Dissimulare, Nescit Regnare: Louis XI and Raison D’Etat During the Reign of Louis XIII,” Journal of the History of Ideas 52, no. 3 (1991): 399–416, Slowly but surely, Tacitus came to be viewed less as a diagnostician of the decay of civil liberties under the Roman Principate, and more as the father of prudence, and the “patron of state vigilance.” For one such example of Tacitist writing in 17th-century France, see Rodolphe Le Maistre, who famously described Tacitus as the “oracle of princes” in Le Tibère Français ou les Six Premiers Livres des Annales de Cornelius Tacitus (Paris: Robert Estienne, 1616). [44] See, Gerhard Oestrich, Neostoicism and the Early Modern State (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1982); Leonine Zanta, La Renaissance du Stoicisme au XVIème Siècle (London: Forgotten Books, 2018 Edition); and Raymond Lebegue, “La Littérature Française et les Guerres de Religion,” The French Review 23, no. 3 (1950): 205–13, [45] Oestrich, Neostoicism and the Early Modern State, 29. Mark Bannister notes that French neo-stoic writings argued “in favor of a much more active and patriotic response to the onslaughts of fate than would have been advocated by the (classically stoic) ancients.” See, Mark Bannister, “Heroic Hierarchies: Classic Models for Panegyrics in Seventeenth-Century France,” International Journal of the Classical Tradition 8, no. 1 (Summer 2001): 38–59,, and Anthony Levi, French Moralists: The Theory of the Passions 1585-1649 (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1964). [46] For an excellent overview of this intellectual current, see Robert Bireley, The Counter-Reformation Prince: Anti-Machiavellianism or Catholic Statecraft in Early Modern Europe (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1990). Granted, the laborious efforts to define precisely which ethical violations were justifiable in service to the state occasionally veered into casuistry. In some instances, theorists clearly struggled to establish neat categories or “guides” of justifiable departures from Christian morality. For some of the more famous efforts at establishing such behavioral guides, see Justus Lipsius, Six Books on Politics or Civil Doctrine (Arnhem, 1647); Scipione Ammirato, Discourses on Cornelius Tacitus (Florence, 1594); and “Lettre du Seigneur de Silhon a Monsieur l’Eveque de Nantes,” in Recueil de Lettres Nouvelles, ed. N.Faret (Paris: 1627). [47] Church, Richelieu and Reason of State, 44. [48] Church, Richelieu and Reason of State, 44. [49] Thinkers such as François de Gravelles argued that the monarchical system of government was “approved by reason, and confirmed by nature,” and pointed to the hierarchical structure of various animal societies such as bee hives, which most naturalists believed at the time was centered around a king, rather than a queen, bee. See, François de Gravelles, Politiques Royales (Lyon, 1596), 117. Author’s translation from the French. [50] The concept of reason, or what the cardinal sometimes referred to as the “natural light of reason,” was at the heart of his political thought. Françoise Hildesheimer notes, for example, that the word “reason” features 173 times in the Testament Politique. See, Françoise Hildesheimer, “Le Testament Politique de Richelieu ou le Règne Terrestre de la Raison,” Annuaire-Bulletin de la Société de l’Histoire de France (Paris: Editions de Boccard, 1994): 17-34, [51] Jean de Silhon, quoted in F.E. Sutcliffe, Guez de Balzac et Son Temps: Littérature et Politique (Paris: A.G. Nizet, 1959), 231. Author’s translation from the French. [52] Armand Jean du Plessis, Cardinal Duc de Richelieu, Lettres, Instructions Diplomatiques du Cardinal de Richelieu Vol. III (Paris: Avenel, 1853 Ed.), 665–66. Author’s translation from the French. [53] For a seminal discussion of the concept of “mysteries of state” and its ties to absolutist ideology, see Ernst H. Kantorowciz, “Mysteries of State: An Absolutist Concept and Its Late Mediaeval Origins,” Harvard Theological Review 48, no. 1 (January 1955): 65–91, [54] “All political thinkers agree that if the common people were too comfortable, it would be impossible to hold them to the dictates of their duty (...)They must be compared to mules which, being accustomed to burdens, are spoiled by long rest more than work. But as this work should be more moderate and the burdens on these animals proportionate to their strength, so it is with regard to taxes on the common people. If they are not moderate, even though they might be useful to the public, they would still be unjust.” Richelieu, Testament Politique, 253–54. Author’s translation from the French. [55] Léopold Lacour, Richelieu Dramaturge et Ses Collaborateurs: Les Imbroglios Romanesques, Les Pièces Politiques (Paris: Ollendorf, 1926), 144–52. [56] Edward W. Najam, “‘Europe’: Richelieu’s Blueprint for Unity and Peace,” Studies in Philology 53, no. 1 (January 1956): 25–34, [57] Jean Desmarets, Europe: Comédie Héroïque (Paris: Editions LeGras, 1643), Act III, Scene 2. Author’s translation from the French. [58] Per Maurseth, “Balance-of-Power Thinking from the Renaissance to the French Revolution,” Journal of Peace Research 1, no. 2 (1964): 120–36, [59] See, Jörg Wollenberg, “Richelieu et le Système Européen de Sécurité Collective,” Dix-septième Siècle 1, no. 210 (2010): 99–112; Gaston Zeller, “Le Principe d’Equilibre dans la Politique Internationale Avant 1789,” Revue Historique 215, no. 1 (1956): 25–37; and Hermann Weber, “Une Bonne Paix: Richelieu’s Foreign Policy and the Peace of Christendom,” in Richelieu and His Age, ed. Joseph Bergin and Laurence Brockliss (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 45–71. [60] Church, Richelieu and Reason of State, 297. [61] See, for example, Fritz Dickmann, “Rechtsgedanke und Machtpolitik bei Richelieu. Studien an Neuendeckten Quellen,” Historische Zeitschrift, no. 196 (1963): 265–319; and Klaus Malettke, “French Foreign Policy and the European States System in the Era of Richelieu and Mazarin,” in The Transformation of European Politics, 1763-1848: Episode or Model in Modern History? ed. Peter Kruger and Paul W. Schroeder (Munster: Lit Verlag, 2002), 29–45. [62] Other illustrious contemporaries of Richelieu, such as Sir Francis Bacon in England, were arguably equally sophisticated in their discussion of balance-of-power politics. See, in particular, his essay “Of Empire,” published in 1612 and expanded in 1625, available online at . As David Hume was to note a century and a half later, statesmen have always operated with such principles in mind, for the “maxim of preserving the balance of power is founded … on common sense and obvious reasoning.” David Hume, Essays Moral, Political and Literary Vol.1 (London: T.H. Green, 1882 Ed.), 348–56. [63] David J. Sturdy, Richelieu and Mazarin: A Study in Statesmanship (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 63. [64] See, Aldous Huxley, Grey Eminence (London: Vintage Books, 2005), 108. [65] See, Bireley, The Counter-Reformation Prince, 238–39. The ancient historian Polybius, with his focus on anacylosis (the life cycles of systems of government), pragmatiké historia (political and military history), and the study of historical parallels, was held in especially high esteem. For a recent discussion of the legacy of Polybian thought and its continued relevance, see Iskander Rehman, “Polybius, Applied History, and Grand Strategy in an Interstitial Age,” War on the Rocks, March 29, 2019, [66] Giovanni Botero, The Reason of State (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 37. [67] Sycophantic artists often drew analogies between Richelieu and the Roman general Scipio Africanus, whether in works of art or in popular theater productions. See, for example Richelieu protégé Desmarets’ play Scipio, written while France was at a military low point in its war with Spain. Jean Desmarets de Saint-Sorlin, Scipion: Tragi-Comédie (Paris: H. Le Gras, 1639); and Jean Puget de la Serre, Le Portrait de Scipion l’Africain ou l’Image de la Gloire et de la Vertu Représentée au Naturel dans Celle de Monseigneur le Cardinal Duc de Richelieu (Bordeaux, 1641). [68] Quoted in Carl Jacob Buckhardt, Richelieu and His Age: Power Politics and the Cardinal’s Age (London: Allen & Unwin, 1971), 110. [69] James G. Lacey, ed., Enduring Strategic Rivalries (Arlington, VA: Institute for Defense Analyses, 2014), 1–16, Kenneth Boulding famously referred to this as the “loss of strength gradient.” See, Kenneth Boulding, Conflict and Defense: A General Theory (New York: Harper, 1962), 244–47. For a broader historical discussion of the risks of “force dispersal” that go hand in hand with overly rapid imperial expansion, see Michael Mann, The Sources of Social Power Volume I: A History of Power from the Beginning to AD 1760 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 140–43. [70] For a seminal study of this logistical lifeline, see Geoffrey Parker, The Army of Flanders and the Spanish Road: 1567-1659 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004). [71] Richelieu, Testament Politique, 406. Author’s translation from the French. [72] J.H. Elliott, Richelieu and Olivares (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984). [73] Elliott, Richelieu and Olivares, 119–20. [74] Peter H. Wilson, The Thirty Years War: Europe’s Tragedy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 362. [75] On Richelieu’s views on maritime trade and commercial capitalism, see Henri Hauser, La Pensée et l’Action Economiques du Cardinal Richelieu (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1944). [76] As the statesman was to note in the Testament Politique, one of the motivations behind developing France’s naval might had been to compel Spain to redirect its finite flows of manpower and resources into the defense of its coastline, thus weakening its capacity to “trouble its neighbors to the same degree as it has done thus far.” Richelieu, Testament Politique, 291. Author’s translation of the French. For Richelieu’s force-structure goals, which included a fleet of “at least 30 good warships,” see “Memoire touchant la Marine, envoyé à M. Ie Garde des Sceaux, November 18, 1626,” in Papiers de Richelieu, ed. Pierre Grillon (Paris: Pedone, 1977), I, 531. [77] For an excellent and nuanced examination of the successes and failures of Richelieu’s naval endeavors, see Alan James, The Navy and Government in Early Modern France: 1572-1661 (London: The Royal Historical Society, 2004). [78] James, The Navy and Government in Early Modern France, 243. On the broader difficulties faced by countries such as France, which — due to the nature of their geography — have consistently had to balance between both continental and maritime threat perceptions, see James Pritchard, “France: Maritime Empire, Continental Commitment,” in China Goes to Sea: Maritime Transformation in Comparative Historical Perspective, ed. Andrew S. Erickson et al. (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2009), 123–45. [79] The prince-electors, or “electors,” were the most powerful rulers of the sprawling patchwork of principalities and ecclesiastical territories that composed the Holy Roman Empire. Together, they belonged to the Council of Electors within the Imperial Diet, or Reichstag, and were charged with electing the “King of the Romans,” or Holy Roman Emperor. [80] See, for example, the Discours des Princes et Etats de la Chrétienté plus Considérables à la France, Selon les Diverses Qualités et Conditions, authored by an anonymous member of Richelieu’s entourage, and which — in its intellectual subtlety and granular knowledge of the European security environment — seems, according to Meinecke, to almost be describing “the action of a delicate piece of clockwork, and, on the basis of the nature, the strength and relative positioning of its springs, to demonstrate the inevitability and certain quality of its oscillations.” Meinecke, Machiavellianism, 159. For a good overview of the discipline of net assessment, see Stephen Peter Rosen, “Net Assessment as an Analytical Concept,” in On Not Confusing Ourselves: Essays on National Security in Honor of Albert and Roberta Wohlstetter, ed. Andrew W. Marshall et al. (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1991), 283–300. [81] As one colorful adage went, it was considered “sometimes better to let a child go snotty than to tear off its nose.” Quoted in R.J. Knecht, Richelieu (New York: Routledge, 2013), 170. On Richelieu’s policy of religious toleration during his time as bishop of Luçon, see l’abbé L. Lacroix, Richelieu à Luçon, Sa Jeunesse, Son Episcopat (Paris: Letouzey et Ané, 1890), 85–90. [82] See, David Parker, La Rochelle and the French Monarchy: Conflict and Order in Seventeenth Century France (London: Royal Historical Society, 1980), 15–20. [83] For an excellent overview of the ideological challenge posed by Calvinist republicanism, see Arthur Herman, “The Huguenot Republic and Antirepublicanism in Seventeenth-Century France,” Journal of the History of Ideas 53, no. 2 (1992): 249–69, [84] On the storied career of the Duke of Rohan, see Jack Alden Clarke, Huguenot Warrior: The Life and Times of Henri de Rohan 1579-1638 (Berlin: Springer Science, 1966). [85] See, Orest Ranum, Artisans of Glory: Writers and Historical Thought in Seventeenth-Century France (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980), 183–85. [86] See, Church, Richelieu and Reason of State, 179. [87] Richard Herr, “Honor Versus Absolutism: Richelieu’s Fight Against Dueling,” Journal of Modern History 27, no. 3 (1955): 281–85, [88] “Duels,” he later grumbled, “had become so commonplace in France that the streets of the town were being used as fields of combat, and since the day was not long enough to encompass their madness, men fought one another by star and torch light.” Quoted by Burckhardt, Richelieu and His Age—Volume III: Power Politics and the Cardinal’s Death (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1971), 57. [89] Pascal Broist et al., Croiser le Fer: Violence et Culture de l’Epée dans la France Moderne (Paris: Seyssel, 2002). Commenting on this obsessive focus on peer recognition, David Parrott observes that “the extent to which the (French) nobility in the seventeenth century still accepted and judged one another in terms of a traditional warrior culture should not be underestimated.” David Parrott, “Richelieu, the Grands, and the French Army,” in Richelieu and His Age, ed. Bergin and Brockliss, 146. [90] John A. Lynn, Battle: A History of Combat and Culture (New York: Perseus Books, 2008), 143. [91] On Richelieu’s complex rapport with the value system of the French nobility, see Orest Ranum, “Richelieu and the Great Nobility: Some Aspects of Early Modern Political Motives,” French Historical Studies 3, no. 2 (Autumn 1963): 184–204, [92] See for instance his letter to the Duke of Hallwin in Letters of the Cardinal Duke de Richelieu Great Minister of State to Lewis XIII of France Faithfully Translated from the Original, Vol. II, Letter XXV, June 04, 1635 (London: A. Roper, A. Bosville and T. Leigh, 1698). [93] Richelieu, Testament Politique, 347. Author’s translation from the French. The cardinal could be an exacting taskmaster, demanding a continuous flow of reports from his spies and diplomats and on occasion asking them to fine-tune their behavior in accordance with the personality traits of their foreign interlocutors. Olivares, for example, was known to be of a singularly choleric disposition. Richelieu therefore advised his ambassador to do everything he could to irritate the thin-skinned Spaniard, in the hope that he would accidentally betray his intentions in a fit of anger. This particular ploy is mentioned by Richelieu in his memoirs. See, “Mémoires du Cardinal de Richelieu Livre XXIII,” in Collection des Mémoires Relatifs à l’Histoire de France Depuis l’Avènement de Henri IV Jusqu’à la Paix de Paris, ed. M. Petiot (Paris: Foucault, 1823), 222. [94] Henri de Rohan, De L’Intérêt des Princes et Etats de la Chrétienté (Paris: 1634), 105–06. Author’s translation from the French. [95] John C. Rule, “The Enduring Rivalry of France and Spain 1462-1700,” in Great Power Rivalries, ed. William R. Thompson (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999), 31–60. [96] The Treaty of Monzon did, however, sour France’s relations with its northern Italian allies, such as Venice, as it was discreetly negotiated over their heads. In that sense, one could argue that it constituted something of “an inauspicious beginning” in international affairs. For “inauspicious beginning,” see Sturdy, Richelieu and Mazarin, 40. [97] On the complex rules governing the resolution of dynastic disputes in the Reichsitalien (the Italian territories falling under the sovereign jurisdiction of the Holy Roman Empire), see Karl O. von Aretin, Das Reich: Friedensordnung und Europaisches Gleichgewicht, 1648-1806 (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta Verlag, 1986), 80–140. [98] The drivers behind each power’s decision to intervene and “self-entangle” in the Mantuan succession crisis were multiple and complex. For more on the various drivers and ramifications of the Mantuan crisis, see David Parrott, “A Prince Souverain and the French Crown: Charles de Nevers,” in Royal and Republican Sovereignty in Early Modern Europe. Essays in Honor of Professor Ragnhild Hatton, ed. G. Gibbs et al. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 149–88; and R.A. Stradling, “Prelude to Disaster; The Precipitation of the War of Mantuan Succession, 1627-29,” The Historical Journal 33, no. 4 (December 1990): 769–85, [99] Spain was frustrated by the tardiness of imperial support, whereas the Holy Roman Empire felt uncomfortably pressured into military action. For a good overview of these tensions, see J.H. Elliott, The Count-Duke of Olivares: The Statesman in an Age of Decline (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986), 337–86. [100] The Mantuan War severely strained Spanish financial resources, costing more than 10 million escudos. See Peter H. Wilson, The Thirty Years War: Europe’s Tragedy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 458. As J.H. Elliott notes, “Flanders or Italy was an old Spanish dilemma,” and Spain clearly lacked the resources to pursue operations in both the Netherlands and Italy simultaneously. See, Elliott, Richelieu and Olivares, 101. For a more granular overview of the military costs and tactics of the conflict see Thomas F. Arnold, “Gonzaga Fortifications and the Mantuan Succession Crisis of 1613-1631,” Mediterranean Studies, no. 4 (1994): 113–30, [101] The means by which Richelieu acquired this fortress were particularly devious. Pretending to give it up during the negotiations settling the Mantuan succession, Richelieu ordered a task force of French soldiers concealed in the subterranean levels of the castle to rapidly neutralize the Savoyard garrison as soon as imperial forces left the vicinity. The Savoyards were then discreetly pressured into permanently ceding the fortress to France. See, Gregory Hanlon, Italy 1636: Cemetery of Armies (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2016), 24. [102] David Parrott, “The Mantuan Succession Crisis, 1627–31: A Sovereignty Dispute in Early Modern Europe,” English Historical Review 112, no. 445 (1997): 65, [103] Richelieu, Testament Politique, chap. IV. These comments resemble, to a certain degree, Carl Von Clausewitz’s later observations in On War on the inherent fragility of coalitions. For a good overview of Clausewitz’s approach to alliances and foreign policy, see Hugh Smith, “The Womb of War: Clausewitz and International Politics,” Review of International Studies 16, no. 1 (January 1990): 39–58, [104] Most notably via the signing of the secret treaty of Fontainebleau, which lasted from 1631 to 1639, and which stipulated that each party would agree not to attack each other or lend assistance to each other’s enemies. On Franco-Bavarian diplomacy during this phase of the Thirty Years’ War see Robert Bireley, Maximilian Von Bayern, Adam Contzen S.J. und die GegenReformation in Deutschland 1624-1635 (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1975). [105] See, Père Joseph, "Mémoire au Conseil du Roi sur L’Etat des Affaires d’Allemagne, Janvier 1631," cited in G. Fagniez, “La Mission du Père Joseph à Ratisbonne 1630,” Revue Historique 27, no. 1 (1885): 38–67. [106] See, Toby Osborne, Dynasty and Diplomacy in the Court of Savoy: Political Culture and the Thirty Years’ War (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007). [107] As Carl J. Burckhardt notes, at one time “every person who was in disfavor with the French government and acted against French interests seemed to be welcome in the neighboring state of Lorraine.” See, Burckhardt, Richelieu and His Age, 22. [108] Charles IV was later to renege on his abdication but remained the duke in exile until 1661. [109] Richelieu, Testament Politique, 239. Author’s translation from the French. [110] These particular diplomatic efforts are clearly summarized in B.F. Porshnev, Muscovy and Sweden in the Thirty Years’ War 1630-1635 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 4–8. [111] The difficulties and frustrations Richelieu faced in terms of alliance management are superbly laid out in Wollenberg, Richelieu, chap. 3. [112] On the timeless challenges inherent to the sponsor-proxy and patron-client relationship, see Chris Loveman, “Assessing the Phenomenon of Proxy Intervention,” Conflict, Security and Development 2, no. 3 (2002): 29–48,; Walter C. Ladwig III, The Forgotten Front: Patron-Client Relationships in Counter-Insurgency (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2017); and Daniel Byman, “Why States Are Turning to Proxy Intervention,” National Interest, Aug. 26, 2018, [113] For an excellent overview of the Richelieu-Gustavus Adolphus relationship see Lauritz Weibull, “Gustave-Adolphe et Richelieu,” Revue Historique 174, no. 2 (1934): 216–29, [114] See, Michael Roberts, Gustavus Adolphus 1626-1632 (London: Longmans, Greens and Co., 1958), 467. [115] Surrounded by armed sentinels, and shadowed by a burly bodyguard who accompanied him even into his private chambers, the cardinal lived under the perennial fear that he might be viciously stabbed in his slumber or torn apart by a bomb surreptitiously placed under his carriage seat. At the back of his mind, there was no doubt always the cautionary tale of Concino Concini, the queen mother’s former favorite, whose murder Louis XIII had sanctioned in 1617, and whose mangled remains Richelieu had witnessed being borne across the Pont Neuf on a roaring mob’s pikes. See Jean-Vincent Blanchard, Eminence: Cardinal Richelieu and the Rise of France (New York: Walker and Company, 2011), 82. For a good summary of the events leading up to Concino Concini’s brutal murder, see Sharon Kettering, Power and Reputation at the Court of Louis XIII: The Career of Charles D’Albert, Duc de Luynes 1578-1621 (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2008), 63–89. [116] Ranum, “Richelieu and the Great Nobility.” [117] See, Church, Richelieu and Reason of State, 202; and George Pages, “Autour du ‘Grand Orage’. Richelieu et Marillag: Deux Politiques,” Revue Historique 179, no. 1 (1937): 63–97, [118] See, Roland Mousnier, Fureurs Paysannes: Les Paysans dans les Révoltes du XVIIème Siècle (Paris: Calmann-Levy, 1967); and George Mongredien, La Journée des Dupes (Paris: Gallimard, 1961), 35. [119] See, Lauro Martines, Furies: War in Europe 1450-1700 (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2013), 253. [120] This point is made in Mongredien, La Journée des Dupes, 34. [121] On these battles for influence, see Julian Swann, Exile, Imprisonment or Death: The Politics of Disgrace in Bourbon France (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 345-346; and Robert Bireley, The Jesuits and the Thirty Years War: Kings, Courts and Confessors (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 190–96. [122] As Jeffrey Sawyer has noted, these political pamphlets were produced at an astonishing rate, with one inventory of the French national library listing close to 3,500 titles from the reign of Louis XIII alone. See, Jeffrey K. Sawyer, Printed Poison: Pamphlet Propaganda, Faction Politics, and the Public Sphere in Early Seventeenth Century France (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 1. See also Sharon Kettering, “Political Pamphlets in Early Seventeenth-Century France: The Propaganda War Between Louis XIII and his Mother, 1619–20,” The Sixteenth Century Journal 42, no. 4 (2011): 963–80,; and Helene Duccini, Faire Voir, Faire Croire: L’Opinion Publique Sous Louis XIII (Paris: Champ Vallon, 2003). [123] For a classic study of this literary lobby, see Maximin Deloche, Autour de la Plume de Richelieu (Paris: Société Française d’Imprimerie et de Librairie, 1920). For “politico-literary strike force,” see Marc Fumaroli, “Richelieu Patron of the Arts,” in Richelieu: Art and Power, ed. Hilliard Todd Goldfarb (Montreal: The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 2002), 35. [124] Close to the queen mother, Mathieu de Morgues was initially an ally and collaborator of Richelieu before becoming his most ferocious critic in the years following the Day of the Dupes. On Matthieu de Morgues’ career and political thought, see Seung-Hwi Lim, “Mathieu de Morgues, Bon Français ou Bon Catholique?” Dix-Septième Siècle 213, no. 4 (January 2001): 655–72, [125] Jean de Silhon, De l’Immortalité de l’Ame (Paris: 1634). [126] Critiques of the Spanish treatment of native Americans was a leitmotiv in French writings at the time. In the early 17th century, France pursued a more humane (albeit deeply paternalistic) policy of “francization” — or assimilation — in its American colonies, seeking to comingle colonial and native peoples as a means of adding demographic weight to the sparsely populated new French territories. Interestingly, Richelieu was a strong proponent of this relatively enlightened approach. See, for instance, Saliha Belmessous, “Assimilation and Racialism in Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century French Colonial Policy,” American Historical Review 110, no. 2 (April 2005): 322–49, [127] Jérémie Ferrier, "Le Catholique d’Etat ou Discours Politique des Alliances du Roi Très Chrétien Contre les Calomnies des Ennemis de son Etat," in Recueil de Diverses Pièces Pour Servir à l’Histoire, ed. Paul Hay du Chastelet (Paris: 1635); and Jean-Louis Guez de Balzac, Le Prince (Paris: 1631). [128] Indeed, “if one were to put all the gold on one side, and the blood of the Indians from which it is drawn on the other, the blood would still weigh more than the gold.” Ferrier, Le Catholique d’Etat. [129] "Discours sur la Légitimité d’une Alliance avec les Hérétiques et les Infidèles,” in Mémoires du Cardinal de Richelieu, Tome V (Annexe) (Paris: Edition de la Société de l’Histoire de France, 1921), 283–88. In defense of France’s Protestant partnerships, politique pamphleteers also drew on biblical precedents such as King David’s alliance with the Philistines. [130] Ferrier, Le Catholique d’Etat. There is a vibrant debate — and voluminous attendant literature — in contemporary political science on the importance to be attached to the pursuit and/or defense of credibility and reputation in foreign policy. Even a cursory reading of the writings and correspondence of early modern statesmen such as Olivares and Richelieu makes it clear, however, that — at least in their eyes — there was no debate to be had. Indeed, the quest for prestige, credibility, and respect on the international stage verged on the obsessive and was woven into the strategic DNA of 17th-century Europe’s highly personalized monarchical powers. For a recent discussion of the abiding importance of reputation in international politics, see Alex Weisiger and Keren Yarhi-Milo, “Revisiting Reputation: How Past Actions Matter in International Politics,” International Organization 69, no. 2 (Spring 2015): 473–95, [131] As Maxime Préaud notes, Richelieu felt that it “was time to give Paris, and France, publications whose quality of presentation would be up to Antwerp’s standards, whether it was typography or book decoration.” He even went so far as to encourage the French ambassador to the Hague to engage in industrial espionage by stealing the formula for the typographic ink used in the Netherlands. See, Maxime Préaud, “L’Imprimerie Royale and Cardinal Richelieu,” in Richelieu: Art and Power, 201. [132] Dickmann, “Rechtsgedanke und Machtpolitik bei Richelieu.” [133] As J.H. Elliott notes, the effects of that battle had rippled throughout Europe, and had provided “an impressive reaffirmation of Spanish power at a time when many were beginning to wonder if it had not gone into eclipse.” Elliott, The Count-Duke of Olivares, 482. [134] R.A. Stradling, Spain’s Struggle for Europe 1598-1668 (London, UK: The Hambledon Press, 1994), 117. [135] Once blades were drawn, the Spanish chief minister insisted, rapidity was of the essence: “Everything must begin at once, for unless they are attacked vigorously, nothing can prevent the French from becoming masters of the world, and without any risks to themselves.” Quoted in R.A. Stradling, “Olivares and the Origins of the Franco-Spanish War, 1627-1635,” English Historical Review 101, no. 398 (1986): 90, [136] James B. Wood, The King’s Army: Warfare, Soldiers and Society During the Wars of Religion in France 1562-76 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 58–59. [137] John A. Lynn, Giant of the Grand Siècle: The French Army 1610-1715 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 41. [138] Lynn, Giant of the Grand Siècle, 43. [139] Some contemporary scholars have expressed reservations over the higher figures unconditionally accepted by former generations of historians, with David Parrott noting that due to desertion rates, seasonal recruitment variations, and the general tendency by government ministers to occasionally inflate the paper strength of units, “attempts to fix upon a figure for the size of the (French) army” should be seen as “arbitrary selections of temporary high-points,” as early 17th-century armies were “institutions whose size and composition fluctuated continually.” See, David Parrott, Richelieu’s Army: War, Government and Society in France, 1624-1642 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 178–79. Nevertheless, even if one takes such expressions of academic caution into account, there is little doubt that although the surge in French troop strength may not have equaled “the extreme estimates of some historians,” it still constituted “a quantum leap upward.” John A. Lynn, Giant of the Grand Siècle, 56. For two additional and differing perspectives on French troop numbers, see Sturdy, Richelieu and Mazarin, 58; and Wilson, The Thirty Years War, 557. [140] Lynn, Giant of the Grand Siècle, 56. [141] Elliott, The Count-Duke of Olivares, 482, 490–92. [142] See, Randall Lesaffer, “Defensive Warfare, Prevention and Hegemony. The Justifications for the Franco-Spanish War of 1635 (Part I),” Journal of the History of International Law 8, no. 1 (December 2006): 92, [143] See, Lettre du Roi, Ecrite à Monseigneur le Duc de Mont-Bazon (...) Contenant les Justes Causes que Sa Majesté a Eues de Déclarer la Guerre au Roi D’Espagne (Paris: 1635). Available online at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France: [144] According to some accounts, it was Ferdinand II’s own, more pro-Spanish son (then the king of Hungary) who finally convinced him to declare war on France. See, Robert S.J. Bireley, Religion and Politics in the Age of the Counterreformation: Emperor Ferdinand II, William Lamormaini, S.J., and the Formation of the Imperial Policy (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981), 227. [145] See, Jonathan I. Israel, Spain, The Low Countries and the Struggle for World Supremacy 1585-1713 (London: The Hambledon Press, 1997), 77. [146] Visiting the dispirited cardinal in his plush bedchambers, the coarse-robed monk exhorted him to action in the service of France, warning him that his present weakness was not only unseemly but also ungodly and would only further “excite the wrath of God and inflame his vengeance.” Quoted in Blanchard, Eminence: Cardinal Richelieu and the Rise of France, 163. [147] Elliott, The Count-Duke of Olivares, 522. [148] Elliott, The Count-Duke of Olivares, 506. [149] Parrott, Richelieu’s Army. [150] See, Caitlin Talmadge, The Dictator’s Army: Battlefield Effectiveness in Authoritarian Regimes (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015). See also James T. Quinlavan, “Coup-Proofing: Its Practice and Consequences in the Middle East,” International Security 24, no. 2 (Fall 1999): 131–65, [151] For a seminal discussion of the politics of patronage, see Sharon Kettering, Patrons, Brokers, and Clients in Seventeenth Century France (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1986). The fact that successful state-building often rests on the outcome of complex — and sometimes violent — negotiations between entrenched elites is something that has also been explored in the contemporary security studies literature. See, for example, Jacqueline L. Hazelton, “The ‘Heart and Minds’ Fallacy: Violence, Coercion, and Success in Counterinsurgency Warfare,” International Security 42, no. 1 (Summer 2017): 80–113, [152] These dynamics are detailed at length in Parrott, “Richelieu, the Grands, and the French Army,” 135–73. [153] See, David Parrott, The Business of War: Military Enterprise and Military Revolution in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012). [154] See, Douglas Clark Baxter, Servants of the Sword: French Intendants of the Army 1630-1670 (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1976). [155] An excellent overview of the role of the intendants in this centralization process is provided in Richard Bonney, Political Change in France Under Richelieu and Mazarin: 1624-1661 (London, UK: Oxford University Press, 1978). [156] Parrott, Richelieu’s Army, 439. [157] Parrott, Richelieu’s Army, 434–504. [158] Perhaps the best overview of these challenges is provided in Guy Rowlands, “Moving Mars: The Logistical Geography of Louis XIV’s France,” French History 25, no. 4 (2011): 492–514, Rowlands’ article delves into military logistics at a slightly later period, but the difficulties he lays out were arguably even more pronounced during Louis XIII’s reign. [159] Quoted in Parrott, Richelieu’s Army, 95, in the original French. Author’s translation. [160] Richard Bonney, “Louis XIII, Richelieu, and the Royal Finances,” in Richelieu and His Age, ed. Bergin and Brockliss, 106. [161] See, Ronald G. Asch, The Thirty Years War: The Holy Roman Empire and Europe 1618-1648 (New York: Palgrave, 1997), 172; and Wilson, The Thirty Years War, 558. [162] See, Madeline Foisil, La Révolte des Nu-Pieds et Les Révoltes Normandes de 1639 (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1970). These uprisings were often supported by local nobles, who sometimes even put their castles at the disposal of the croquants. See, J.H.M. Salmon, “Venality of Office and Popular Sedition in Seventeenth-Century France. A Review of a Controversy,” Past and Present, no. 37 (1967): 21­–43, [163] See, Victor L. Tapie, La France de Louis XIII et de Richelieu (Paris: Flammarion, 1967), 296–332. [164] Thomas Munck, Seventeenth Century Europe: State, Conflict and Social Order in Europe 1598-1700 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 51. [165] Parrott, Richelieu’s Army, 32–40. [166] Parrott, Richelieu’s Army, 32–40. [167] An excellent discussion of these debates over theater prioritization is provided in David Parrott, “Richelieu, Mazarin and Italy (1635-59): Statesmanship in Context,” in Secretaries and Statecraft in the Early Modern World, ed. Paul M. Dover (Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press, 2016), 155–76. [168] See, Clarke, Huguenot Warrior, 197–215. [169] As Peter Wilson notes, “the French monarchy might have lurched … from one financial crisis to the next, but at least it kept moving forward. The famously centrally appointed intendants, were clearly not impartial agents of royal absolutism as once thought, yet they did ensure money reached the treasury, troops were paid, and warships equipped. French troops remained ill-disciplined, but they did not mutiny like Sweden’s German army.” See, Wilson, The Thirty Years War, 559. [170] See, J.H. Elliott and L.W.S. Brockliss, eds., The World of the Favorite (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998); and Dover, Secretaries and Statecraft in the Early Modern World. [171] Elliott, The Count-Duke of Olivares, 286. [172] For a good overview of 17th-century Spain’s growing economic fragilities and the decline in the value of transatlantic trade, see Dennis O. Flynn, “Fiscal Crisis and the Decline of Spain (Castile),” Journal of Economic History 42, no. 1 (March 1982): 139–47, [173] See, Ronald G. Asch, The Thirty Years War, 150. [174] On early modern Spain’s system of composite monarchy, see H.G. Koenigsberger, “Monarchies and Parliaments in Early Modern Europe: Dominium Regale or Dominium Politicum et Regale,” Theory and Society 5, no. 2 (March 1978): 191–217,; and J.H. Elliott, “A Europe of Composite Monarchies,” Past and Present, no. 137 (November 1992): 48–71, [175] See, Colin Pendrill, Spain 1474-1700: The Triumphs and Tribulations of Empire (Oxford, UK: Heinemann Educational Publishers, 2002), 137. [176] See, Stradling, “Olivares and the Origins of the Franco-Spanish War.” [177] See, Elliott, The Count-Duke of Olivares, 606–07. [178] See, Lothar Höbelt, Ferdinand III (1608–1657): Friedenskaiser wider Willen (Vienna: Aries Verag, 2008). [179] James, The Navy and Government in Early Modern France, 77–91. [180] For David Sturdy, by the time Richelieu died, in 1642, it can be stated in “objective terms,” that “France’s frontiers were more secure than for many decades.” See, Sturdy, Richelieu and Mazarin, 64. [181] Elliott, The Count-Duke of Olivares, 596. [182] Richard Lodge, The Life of Cardinal Richelieu (New York: A.L. Burt Company, 1903), 224. [183] Russell Weigley notes that France’s victory at Rocroi (which was largely enabled by its much improved cavalry) by “no means signaled the end of its (France’s) difficulties in finding an adequate infantry, but this triumph of gendarmes, good fortune, and superior generalship nevertheless began the process of translating France’s potential ability to profit from the Thirty Years War into military actuality.” See, Russell F. Weigley, The Age of Battles: The Quest for Decisive Warfare from Breitenfeld to Waterloo (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), 42. [184] Most historians believe Richelieu succumbed to pleurisy. [185] Quoted in Jean-Christian Petitfils, Louis XIII: Tome II (Paris: Perrin, 2008), chap. XIII. [186] “Je n’ai jamais eu d’autres ennemis que ceux de l’Etat,” quoted in G. D’Avenel, Richelieu et la Monarchie Absolue, Vol. 3 (Paris: Broche, 2011), 89. [187] Richelieu, Testament Politique, 40–44. [188] Richelieu, Testament Politique, 40–44. [189] Cited in A. Lloyd Moote, Louis XIII: The Just (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 177. [190] This oft-cited definition of grand strategy (and one of the more workable and succinct) is provided in Barry R. Posen and Andrew L. Ross, “Competing Visions for U.S. Grand Strategy,” International Security 21, no. 3 (Winter 1996–97): 3, [191] For a recent sampling of such skeptical views see Ionet Popescu, Emergent Strategy and Grand Strategy (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017); and Simon Riech and Peter Dombrowksi, The End of Grand Strategy: U.S. Maritime Operations in the Twenty-First Century (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2018). For “randomness parading as design,” see Steve Yetiv, The Absence of Grand Strategy: The United States in the Persian Gulf: 1972-2005 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015), 197. On the importance of certain exceptional individuals in shaping grand strategy, see Daniel L. Byman and Kenneth M. Pollack, “Let Us Now Praise Great Men: Bringing the Statesman Back In,” International Security 25, no. 4 (Spring 2001): 107–46, [192] Moote, Louis XIII: The Just, 178. [193] Lawrence Freedman, Strategy: A History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), xi. For an excellent recent overview of the academic literature on grand strategy, see Rebecca Friedman Lissner, “What Is Grand Strategy? Sweeping a Conceptual Minefield,” Texas National Security Review 2, no. 1 (November 2018), [194] Victor L. Tapié, “The Legacy of Richelieu,” in The Impact of Absolutism in France: National Experience Under Richelieu, Mazarin, and Louis XIV, ed. William F. Church (London: John Wiley & Sons, 1969), 59. [195] Burckhardt, Richelieu and His Age, 54. [196] Williamson Murray et al., The Shaping of Grand Strategy: Policy, Diplomacy and War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 11. [197] Hal Brands, What Good is Grand Strategy? Power and Purpose in American Statecraft from Harry S. Truman to George W. Bush (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014), 190. [198] “La meilleure règle qu’on puisse avoir en ce choix est souvent de n’en avoir point de générale." Quoted in Guy Thuillier, “Maximes d’Etat du Cardinal de Richelieu," La Revue Administrative 9, no. 53 (September-October 1956): 482, [199] Richelieu, Testament Politique, 141. [200] Richelieu, Testament Politique, 139. [201] In this, Richelieu was echoing many of the writings of other 17th-century theorists of prudence, and figures such as the Spaniard Baltasar Gracian, who pointed to the Augustan motto festina lente — or “make haste slowly” — to later argue that “diligence carries out quickly what intelligence carries out slowly.” See, Baltasar Gracian, The Pocket Oracle and Art of Prudence (London: Penguin Classics, 2011), 53. [202]Quoted in Elliott, Richelieu and Olivares, 155. Richelieu also memorably put emphasis on the occasional need for rapid decisiveness in his famous 1629 memorandum to the king, noting that “Men do not create opportunities but are given them; they do not order time but possess only a small part of it, the present, which is but an almost imperceptible point as opposed to the vast extent of the limitless future. To achieve their ends, men must move quickly and in good time; they must make haste among immediate, transitory things.” Mémoires du Cardinal de Richelieu, Vol. IX (Paris: Honore Champion, 1929), 20–22. [203] Richelieu, Testament Politique, 66. [204] Richelieu, Testament Politique, 67. [205] Quoted in Elliott, Richelieu and Olivares, 154. [206] For Geoffrey Parker, by their continued funding of Spain’s Protestant adversaries, in the Low Countries in particular, “It was not the Dutch who destroyed the Spanish Empire, but the French. The Low Countries’ Wars resembled a weakening hold which, when long applied, debilitates a wrestler so that he submits more easily to a new attack from a different quarter.” Parker, The Army of Flanders and the Spanish Road, 221. [207] See, Algernon Sidney, Court Maxims (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 78. [208] Edward Rhodes, “Constructing Power: Cultural Transformation and Strategic Adjustment in the 1890s,” in The Politics of Strategic Adjustment: Ideas, Institutions, Interests, ed. Peter Trubowitz et al. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 29. See also the seminal work, Richard Rosecrance and Arthur A. Stein, eds., The Domestic Bases of Grand Strategy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993). [209] Lord Acton, Essays on Freedom and Power (Boston, MA: 1949), 58–88. [210] Elliott, Richelieu and Olivares, 171. [211] Moote, Louis XIII: The Just; and Petitfils, Louis XIII: Tomes I et II (Paris: Perrin, 2008). [212] Victor L. Tapié, “The Legacy of Richelieu,” 55. [213] The loyal Father Joseph, who would have otherwise taken on this position, died in 1638. [214] This does not mean, however, that there were not subtle differences between both men’s approaches. For example, Mazarin was more expansionist in Italy, Alsace, and the Netherlands. That being said, there was a broad continuity in both cardinals’ policies, particularly with regard to their vision of France’s arbitral role and the attention devoted to alliance management. See, Sturdy, Richelieu and Mazarin; Geoffrey Treasure, Mazarin: The Crisis of Absolutism in France (New York: Routledge, 1997), 233–61; and Charles Derek Croxton, Peacemaking in Early Modern Europe: Cardinal Mazarin and the Congress of Westphalia, 1643-48 (Selingsgrove, PA: Susquehanna University Press, 1999). [215] John A. Lynn II, “The Grand Strategy of the Grand Siècle: Learning from the Wars of Louis XIV,” in The Shaping of Grand Strategy, 51. [216] See, Janine Garrisson, L’Edit de Nantes et sa Révocation: Histoire d’une Intolérance (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1985). [217] One of the more penetrating critiques of Louis XIV’s policies was famously provided by the Archbishop Fénelon, who dismissed the cynical instrumentalization of theories of raison d’état to abet crudely hegemonic ambitions. See, Fénelon, Lettre à Louis XIV et Autres Ecrits Politiques (Paris: Omnia, 2011), 30–35. [218] Joseph Bergin thus notes that “praising Richelieu’s skills (prudence, foresight, etc.) could be (…) used to contrast favorably Richelieu’s dealings with the Huguenots to the brutal and futile policies of Louis XIV.” Bergin, “Three Faces of Richelieu,” 523. [219] See, David Saunders, “Hegemon History: Pufendorf’s Shifting Perspectives on France and French Power,” in War, the State and International Law in Seventeenth Century Europe, ed. Olaf Asbach and Peter Schröder (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010), 211–31. [220] Lynn, “The Grand Strategy of the Grand Siècle,” 50. [221] Saunders, “Hegemon History,” 228. [222] See, for instance, Christopher Hemmer, American Pendulum: Recurring Debates in U.S. Grand Strategy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015). Robert Osgood made a similar observation in the 1980s, when he lamented what he perceived as being a U.S. “pattern of oscillation,” which “misled adversaries, unsettled friends, and dissipated national energy in erratic spurts.” See, Robert E. Osgood, “American Grand Strategy: Patterns, Problems, and Prescriptions,” Naval War College Review 36, no. 5 (1983): 5–17. [223] For a recent sampling of such discussions as applied to the American context, see Michael Clarke and Anthony Ricketts, “U.S. Grand Strategy and National Security: The Dilemmas of Primacy, Decline and Denial,” Australian Journal of International Affairs 71, no. 5 (2017): 479–98,; Hal Brands and Eric Edelman, The Crisis of American Military Primacy and the Search for Strategic Solvency (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2017),; and Michael J. Mazarr, “The World Has Passed the Old Grand Strategies By,” War on the Rocks, Oct. 5, 2016, [224] Roland Mousnier, “Histoire et Mythe,” in Richelieu, ed. Antoine Adam et al. (Paris: Hachette, 1972), 246. ) [contents] => Array ( [title] => [contents] => ) ) [5] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 1273 [post_author] => 262 [post_date] => 2019-02-28 06:00:51 [post_date_gmt] => 2019-02-28 11:00:51 [post_content] => A crowd gathered on the shores of Beirut’s Green Beach on Feb. 26, 1984 to watch as the last company of U.S. Marines departed from Lebanon. Remnants of a 1,800-strong peacekeeping mission, the Marines had arrived 18 months earlier to help restore stability and encourage the withdrawal of Israeli and Syrian forces from the country. The Reagan administration maintained that the peacekeepers’ presence was vital to national reconciliation and ending Lebanon’s civil war, and their operations had steadily expanded as the security situation in the country deteriorated. Then, on Oct. 23, 1983, a suicide bomber affiliated with a pro-Iranian Shia faction detonated his truck within the Marine barracks at Beirut International Airport, killing 241 Americans.[1] The memory of the attack hung over the troops four months later, and their redeployment was widely seen as a retreat. “No more wounded, no more killed,” one gunnery sergeant explained to a New York Times reporter, summarizing the prevailing sentiment. “All these people want us to do is go home.”[2] Nearly three decades later, the image of the withdrawing marines has been fixed in the minds of academics, policymakers, and the general public alike as an integral element of the popular refrain that U.S. foreign policy is constrained by an extreme sensitivity to casualties.[3] Like the Nixon administration in Vietnam and the Clinton administration in Somalia, the argument goes, the Reagan administration was driven from Lebanon because policymakers feared the political repercussions of mounting losses. More generally, scholars still differ over whether the withdrawal was a shrewd political calculation designed to safeguard the president’s re-election chances, an impulsive reaction to a human tragedy, or a strategic course correction that foreshadowed Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger’s eponymous doctrine on the use of force. But they all agree, as Israeli historian Benny Morris writes, that the “massive loss of life … instantly broke Washington’s resolve.”[4] Yet, these conventional arguments cannot explain the timing or the character of the U.S. departure from Lebanon. In fact, they obscure more than illuminate how policymakers responded to an unanticipated high-casualty event. Drawing upon newly accessible government records, this article argues that the Beirut barracks bombing did not, as is widely believed, precipitate a decision to withdraw. Although the attack strengthened a pre-existing movement for withdrawal, it did the same for a second, more influential faction within the administration that pushed successfully for an expansion and hardening of U.S. military involvement in Lebanon even as popular and congressional opposition to the intervention mounted. Ultimately, only the collapse of the Lebanese national army in early February 1984 — an event unrelated to the October truck attack — compelled Ronald Reagan to accept the mission’s failure and order the marines to redeploy. Our findings imply that policymakers’ responses to casualties are conditioned by their existing theories about an operation’s probability of success or failure. We find that individual policymakers who already opposed the U.S. intervention in Lebanon interpreted the violence of the barracks attack as evidence for their previously established views on the feasibility (or infeasibility) of the peacekeeping mission. Similarly, the attack hardened the position of intervention advocates, who continued to push for an expansion in U.S. military involvement despite the mounting human and political danger. In both instances, public attitudes toward the intervention did not determine policymakers’ support for expanding, maintaining, or terminating the peacekeeping mission. We therefore conclude that the barracks bombing was not the determining factor in the U.S. withdrawal from Lebanon as many have presumed. Rather than lend clarity about the appropriate course of action, the bombing heightened divisions within the administration as policymakers integrated the attack into their pre-existing but competing theories of success (or failure) of the Lebanon mission. This article addresses two related questions: First, why did the United States withdraw from Lebanon? Second, and more broadly, how did policymakers use new information from Beirut in decisions about expanding, maintaining, or terminating the intervention? The opening two sections briefly survey the literature on the relationship between casualties, public opinion, and U.S. foreign policy, highlighting how elite decision-makers weigh public pressure and interpret new information from the field when considering withdrawal from limited military interventions. The third section details alternative explanations for the U.S. response to the barracks bombing. Next, we outline the counterfactual method we employ to identify, construct, and assess alternative causal pathways for explaining the withdrawal. A brief history of the U.S. military withdrawal from Lebanon constitutes the fifth section, followed by a counterfactual assessment to test our theory and assess American decision-makers’ calculations between the October 1983 bombing and the Marines’ departure in February 1984. Finally, the conclusion returns to the question of why the Reagan administration terminated the peacekeeping mission and considers the implications this case has on popular, scholarly, and policy debates about military withdrawals.

Weighing the “Bodybag Effect”[5]

The history of the Reagan administration’s intervention in Lebanon has played a fundamental role in shaping popular and academic attitudes toward the effect that casualties have had on U.S. foreign policy and the role of public opinion in crafting that policy. The barracks bombing was the U.S. military’s first major casualty event since the end of the Vietnam War, and for some it played into a growing literature highlighting the public’s power to curtail military commitments when confronted with evidence of growing human costs.[6] Weinberger’s 1984 announcement of a new military doctrine defining, among other criteria, the need for “reasonable assurances” of public support for future interventions seemed to provide additional confirmation of this thesis. Media and academic discourses about Lebanon conform closely with the theory that the barracks bombing catalyzed the Marines’ departure.[7] Three decades later, Beirut remains a popular case study of the effects of casualties on U.S. foreign policy, contributing to a vast literature that frames public opinion as the “essential domino” in decisions to maintain, expand, or terminate military interventions.[8] In one camp, scholars have expanded upon John Mueller’s landmark theory of a reflexive and casualty-sensitive American electorate, contending that popular support for an intervention declines — and the risk of political backlash grows — as the costs of an intervention accumulate.[9] Conversely, a second school of thought emphasizes the public’s capacity to make rational calculations and weigh the costs of an intervention against its perceived strategic importance and the odds of success. Informed by the United States’ post-Cold War humanitarian operations and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, this literature suggests that a variety of contextual factors, including the type of operation, elite framing of the conflict, and the perceived probability of victory, help inform the public’s tolerance for casualties and provide opportunities for decision-makers to sustain costly interventions under certain circumstances.[10] [quote id="1"] Both views are united, however, by the common position that popular attitudes function as a strong brake on the use of force.[11] If the public is willing to punish elected leaders for the costs of a military intervention, the argument goes, U.S. presidential administrations can be expected, once presented with evidence of declining popular support, to terminate interventions in hopes of avoiding an electoral backlash. The Beirut example has emerged as a common demonstration of this dynamic. Researchers have seized upon the fact that the Reagan administration announced its withdrawal shortly after the president formally declared his intention to run for re-election. Yet, the complete history of the U.S. experience in Lebanon challenges both of these public opinion models. Closer analysis of public and White House polling data reveals that national attitudes did not decline uniformly in response to the barracks attack. To the contrary, support for the U.S. intervention in Lebanon grew in the wake of the bombing and continued to fluctuate over the intervention’s remaining four months. Even as public attitudes soured over the winter of 1983–84, the decline in support was neither as precipitous as is commonly argued nor as influential. Indeed, when the White House announced its decision to withdraw in early February 1984, public support for the intervention was “not significantly different from what it was in early October 1983, before the truck bombing occurred.”[12] Moreover, the Reagan administration continued to expand and harden U.S. military involvement in Lebanon for several months after the tragedy, even as the perceived danger of future losses increased. Rather than distance himself from a growing political liability — as both the reflexive and rational public models anticipate a savvy political leader would do — the president vociferously defended the intervention both in public and private. And even as the announcement of his re-election campaign neared, and despite worsening poll numbers, Reagan continued to tie himself to the imbroglio.

Weighing a Strategic Course Correction

A second popular interpretation of the withdrawal from Lebanon upholds the case as a rare example of prudent course correction. Skeptical of the peacekeeping mission, those subscribing to this explanation argue that the bombing forced Reagan to acknowledge that the costs of maintaining the intervention outweighed the anticipated benefits. Avoiding the temptation to double down on a losing mission, the president chose to cut his losses and terminate the mission before additional American lives were lost.[13] This view hews closely to theoretical arguments within the literature on bargaining models of war, especially notions of Bayesian updating.[14] Such updating occurs when rational political actors combine new information from the field with prior expectations to adjust their outlooks on the future. In the context of a military operation, positive information like a battlefield success might encourage policymakers, governments, or populations to expand their political objectives or to adjust their strategy to seek desired ends more efficiently. If new information suggests that an adversary is stronger than expected or that the costs of success are higher than anticipated — a devastating attack on one’s military forces, for example — decision-makers should narrow their objectives and begin seeking an end to the operation. These calculations depend largely on the actor’s prior assessments; even the most damning information from the battlefield may only slowly overcome deeply held expectations that events will ultimately work out as originally anticipated.[15] Nonetheless, a Bayesian perspective suggests that new negative information from the field should reliably and consistently degrade expectations for, and thus approaches to, an intervention. At first glance, this framework provides an appealingly simple explanation for the Reagan administration’s behavior in the wake of the Beirut barracks bombing: Since the cost of the intervention — namely, the loss of 241 Americans — and the expectation of future attacks exceeded the benefits of maintaining the mission, withdrawal was consequently in order. A surprise injection of negative information from the field precipitated careful strategic reassessment. Yet, a closer examination of the Reagan administration’s deliberations reveals that policymakers did not uniformly interpret the attack and update their expectations as the Bayesian model might predict. Instead, officials retreated into their pre-established camps and offered two diverging understandings of the tragedy’s significance. Opponents of the U.S. military intervention, notably Defense Secretary Weinberger and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John W. Vessey Jr., seized upon the Marine losses as a confirmation of their prior belief that U.S. objectives in Lebanon could not be achieved at an acceptable cost. Most interestingly, however, advocates of the intervention drew the inverse conclusion, construing the bloodshed as evidence that the U.S. military presence was vital to preserving hopes for a negotiated settlement to the Lebanese civil war. President Reagan, Secretary of State George Shultz, and National Security Adviser Robert “Bud” McFarlane each upheld the bombing as an additional reason to maintain — or even expand — U.S. involvement in the country and reassert Washington’s resolve.[16] Reagan reassured the American people that “The multinational force was attacked precisely because it is … accomplishing its mission.”[17] If neither pressure from a casualty-adverse public nor reflexive strategic reassessment explains the Reagan administration’s reaction to the bombing and the decision-making surrounding the ultimate withdrawal, what does?

Theories of Success, Theories of Failure

The divergent interpretations of the bombing were largely conditioned on policymakers’ previous beliefs regarding the efficacy and value of the U.S. intervention in Lebanon. We call these views their “theory of success” or “theory of failure.” We use theory of success and theory of failure in reference to the causal logic underpinning why a particular action is expected to lead, or not lead, to a desired political objective.[18] Beliefs of this kind animate each facet of policymakers’ deliberations — including definition of priorities, assessment of risk, and evaluation of potential instruments of power — by providing a unifying framework to bind specific decisions to more general political aims.[19] Functionally, theories of success determine the shape of action, providing the sinew connecting a government’s efforts with its goals. In the case of the U.S. intervention in Lebanon, policymakers’ established theories of success or failure informed their immediate reaction to the barracks bombing and their policy recommendations in the months that followed. Unlike in pure Bayesian models, the attack produced a range of interpretations among decision-makers because this new information was filtered through the lens of their prior views. Those who supported the intervention and believed that the United States could still achieve its aims viewed the attack as further evidence of the need to maintain or expand the peacekeeping mission. Conversely, those who opposed the deployment of U.S. forces to Lebanon saw the casualties as confirmation of the intervention’s futility and as an additional reason to disengage. Everyone agreed the bombing was a tragedy, but not everyone took the attack as evidence that the United States had faced a setback calling its mission into question. Indeed, by providing added evidence for their preferred courses of action, and thereby deepening the fractures within the administration, the bombings increased the “stickiness,” or durability, of policymakers’ theories of success (or impending failure). Thus, the outcome of the Reagan administration’s deliberations in the months after the barracks bombing was not pre-ordained by the scale of the losses or expectations of domestic political backlash. It was, however, increasingly influenced by theories U.S. leaders already held about the mission. A counterfactual analysis of the events leading to the U.S. military withdrawal from Lebanon reveals an alternative explanation for the administration’s ultimate decision to disengage from the country. Until the very end, optimists like Reagan and Shultz maintained their conviction that the Marine presence would help bring stability to the troubled region, even as the security situation in Lebanon deteriorated and negotiations faltered. Only in early February 1984, when a series of local crises threatened and ultimately overwhelmed the Lebanese Armed Forces, did the Cabinet finally form the consensus necessary to persuade Reagan to order the redeployment. The collapse of the Lebanese forces provided conclusive evidence that the president’s theory of success, which posited that the Lebanese government could, with sufficient U.S. support, reassert control without a wider American ground presence, was no longer viable. What occurred was not a thoughtful withdrawal or a maneuver to placate domestic electoral pressures in the face of disconfirming evidence. Rather, confronted with the decision to either terminate or massively escalate U.S. involvement, Reagan finally conceded defeat.

A Counterfactual History

To assess the effect that the Marine barracks bombing had on U.S. policy in Lebanon, we combine historical analysis of the Reagan administration’s internal deliberations with counterfactual examination of three inflection points that occurred between the Oct. 23, 1983, attack and the Feb. 7, 1984, decision to terminate the peacekeeping mission. Once derided by historians and political scientists alike, counterfactual analysis offers a powerful qualitative tool to test theories of causality.[20] Because it challenges researchers to envision alternative unrealized futures, counterfactual analysis also illuminates flaws in established narratives and provides a safeguard against confirmation bias, making it a valuable method to re-evaluate the popular Lebanese example. By comparing possible outcomes against actual events, we seek to “weigh” the bombing’s significance as a driver of U.S. decision-making and to judge the effect of public opinion and rational strategic reassessment on the administration’s decision-making. To control against indefensible extrapolations, we draw upon multiple related analytical frameworks.[21] We blend inductive historical and theory-guided analysis to “describe, explain, interpret, [and] understand a single case as an end in itself.”[22] We employ theory as a guide to identify causal pathways and to help select likely or feasible counterfactual scenarios. Deep analysis of the historical record is also necessary to identify potential turning points, assess realistic alternatives, and weigh the probability of potential consequences. As a historically-minded political scientist and a historian versed in political theory, we aim to conduct an interdisciplinary study that draws equally from both traditions. [quote id="2"] Toward this end, we conducted archival work to build a rich case study of decision-making with regard to Lebanon between October 1983 and February 1984.[23] Declassified government records, oral histories, memoirs, and contemporary news reporting allowed us to reconstruct the Reagan administration’s internal debates and to trace changes in that debate across time.[24] By carefully following a causal chain from origin to outcome, we can identify policymakers’ assumptions, isolate points of contention, and delineate a range of alternative outcomes that were possible at the time.[25] Tracing the decision-making process this way serves as a check against common cognitive distortions like hindsight bias, or the tendency to see past occurrences as obvious and the future as predictable. It also forms a foundation from which to build realistic alternatives.[26] In identifying turning points during this period for counterfactual comparison, we prioritized instances in which: (1) the Reagan administration engaged in a high-level debate over whether to expand, contract, or terminate the peacekeeping mission in Lebanon; (2) the ultimate outcome was contingent on specific, isolatable variables (e.g., the presence of an individual or the occurrence of an event); and (3) an alternative could be extrapolated with minimal speculation. To avoid what historian Francis Gavin has termed the “fallacy of focusing on the last out,” we also selected examples from across the four-month period in question.[27] Broadening our temporal lens allows us to account for fluctuations over time, to consider cumulative effects, and to build a rich causal narrative that accounts for individual learning, the dynamics of decision-making, and the “stickiness” of theories of success or failure over time. Three moments satisfied our criteria. First, the October 23 bombing, which required many things to go right for the attackers, including acquiring the explosives and securing a determined suicide bomber, and many to go wrong for the United States and its allies, namely, an overabundance of intelligence and the inability to interdict the truck.[28] Second, the botched December 3 raid against Syrian targets that led to the death of one American pilot and the capture of a second. And third, the mass defection of the Lebanese Armed Forces in February 1984, an outcome contingent on the success of a risky anti-government offensive. In evaluating each example, we define a clear counterfactual antecedent (e.g., the Lebanese forces did not collapse), a set of hypothesized consequences (e.g., the U.S. decision to stay), and a causal path (e.g., because the Lebanese government remained stable, American officials could still argue for supporting it).[29]

Withdrawing from Lebanon, a Brief History

Lebanon forced its way onto the Reagan administration’s agenda in April 1981, when a confrontation between Israeli-backed Christian militants and Syrian deterrent forces stationed in the Bekaa Valley nearly provoked a fifth Arab-Israeli war. To avert a regional conflict, the president dispatched career diplomat Philip Habib to broker a new framework delineating Syrian, Palestinian, and Israeli zones of operations in Lebanon. Habib’s tireless mediation succeeded in defusing a series of confrontations over the next 16 months. Nevertheless, Israeli preparations for a major ground offensive continued despite U.S. protests.[30] On June 6, 1982, the long-planned Israeli invasion began. Within one week, the Israel Defense Forces had laid siege to Beirut in an effort to evict and destroy the Palestine Liberation Organization and thereby secure Israel’s northern border region. After inconclusive negotiations, the Reagan administration announced in July of that year that the president had agreed, in principle, to deploy U.S. marines to Lebanon. In August, the first contingent disembarked in Beirut as part of the Multinational Force tasked with overseeing the evacuation of Palestinian and Syrian fighters from the city.[31] Despite the ferocity of the fighting in Lebanon, the congressional reaction to Reagan’s commitment of U.S. forces was mixed. Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker expressed private reservations, and the House Foreign Affairs Committee convened an emergency session to review the administration’s proposal.[32] The White House averted more sustained opposition, however, by insisting on its intent to comply with the provisions of the War Powers Act. Under the terms of the Lebanese government’s invitation, U.S. forces were authorized to participate on a “limited and temporary basis” not to exceed 30 days, and they were equipped with unloaded weapons consistent with a non-combat mission. “I want to emphasize that there is no intention or expectation that U.S. Armed Forces will become involved in hostilities,” Reagan wrote to Congress, underscoring that Habib had secured guarantees from all armed parties in the city.[33] The first marines arrived ashore on Aug. 24, 1982. The Palestine Liberation Organization evacuation was completed quickly and without incident, and on September 8 — nearly two weeks before the mission’s scheduled end — the Pentagon announced the Marines’ early departure. They sailed from Lebanon two days later under banners reading “Mission Accomplished Farewell.”[34] Their withdrawal proved premature. Within days, President-Elect Bashir Gemayel, leader of Lebanon’s far-right Christian Phalange militia, was assassinated and the Israel Defense Forces re-entered Beirut, where they allowed Maronite fighters to massacre hundreds of Palestinian refugees.[35] Horrified by the carnage, and eager to dispel accusations of U.S. complicity, Reagan ordered the Marines to return to Beirut as part of a reconstituted multinational force tasked with three expanded political objectives: (1) to facilitate the withdrawal of Syrian and Israeli forces from Lebanon; (2) to strengthen the Lebanese national army; and (3) to assist the central government’s efforts to restore stability.[36] Over the next year, Reagan authorized gradual expansions in the Marine mission even as negotiations for the withdrawal of foreign forces stalled and efforts to strengthen the Lebanese Armed Forces faltered.[37] Determined to dispel the memory of Vietnam, and confident in what he saw as America’s unique obligation to promote peace abroad, Reagan envisioned the troops playing an indispensable role in promoting a lasting peace in Lebanon. His convictions were encouraged by optimistic assessments from Shultz, his secretary of state, and National Security Adviser William Clark. Reagan approved Lebanese government requests to expand the Marines’ patrol zone and launch an ambitious military modernization program over the fall of 1982.[38] By January 1983, the marines could be seen serving alongside Lebanese soldiers at observation posts and checkpoints throughout the capital.[39] These new responsibilities chipped away at U.S. claims of neutrality in the country’s civil war, eroding Lebanese popular support for the peacekeeping presence and bringing American diplomats and marines into the crosshairs. Attacks on the Multinational Force ticked upward in February and March, compelling the Marines to tighten coordination with Lebanese government forces.[40] On April 17, 1983, Shia militants supported by both Iran and Syria detonated a car bomb outside the U.S. embassy in Beirut, killing 58.[41] The attack precipitated a final push to secure an Israeli-Lebanese withdrawal arrangement, but the resulting written agreement was stymied by Syrian opposition.[42] Denouncing the continued U.S. presence, Syria increased its support for Druze and Shia factions in the mountainous Shouf District overlooking Beirut, intensifying a simmering standoff over Phalange encroachment.[43] As the fighting spread over the summer, attacks on Americans spiked. From August 4 to September 7, clashes killed four marines and wounded another 28, more than a threefold increase in total casualties over the previous 10-month period.[44] A series of pitched confrontations in September between the Lebanese Armed Forces and militias in the mountains prompted expansions to the rules of engagement for U.S. forces, which now directly supported the government of Lebanon with artillery and naval fire.[45] [quote id="3"] By the fall of 1983, progress toward all three U.S. objectives in Lebanon had stalled. Congress authorized an 18-month extension to the Marines’ mandate in September, but public attitudes toward the already-unpopular intervention declined as the security situation worsened — by mid-September only 17 percent of adult Americans favored continued U.S. participation.[46] Intelligence analysts cautioned that the opportunity for a negotiated withdrawal of foreign forces had passed and that Lebanon’s de facto partition was all but inevitable. “All the indicators are now moving the wrong way on our policy commitment,” CIA analyst Graham Fuller warned the agency’s deputy director, John McMahon. “We must be ready to face the fact that we have reached the end of the road.”[47] Policymakers recognized that they had arrived at a decision point, but they disagreed bitterly over how, or whether, a continued U.S. military presence could accelerate a negotiated settlement in Lebanon. In one camp, Defense Secretary Weinberger and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Vessey, who had opposed the decision to deploy the Marines a year earlier, pushed Reagan to draw down the U.S. presence, arguing that the administration’s initial theory of success was, by now, strategically bankrupt. The intensifying conflict, they argued, demonstrated the mission’s futility and increased the odds of a miscalculation or confrontation that might alienate Arab opinion and strain the U.S. military’s limited resources in the region.[48] “Our whole policy, including the MNF presence and the buildup of the [Lebanese Armed Forces], was premised on achieving a diplomatic success. … Absent this, there was no military action that could succeed, unless we declared war and tried to force the occupying troops out of Lebanon,” Weinberger later wrote. “Our position was becoming increasingly dangerous, and was in fact useless.”[49] Yet Secretary of State Shultz, National Security Adviser Clark, and Bud McFarlane, who replaced Clark in early October 1983, contended that the administration’s objectives remained within reach. This camp expressed confidence in America’s capacity to promote peace in Lebanon, and espoused a theory of success in which the peacekeepers’ presence would bolster confidence in the Lebanese government, encourage Israeli and Syrian concessions, and accelerate the process of national reconciliation. Appealing to Reagan’s fear that his predecessors, cowed by the U.S. failure in Vietnam, had neglected American alliances and undermined the country’s reputation, they upheld Lebanon as a litmus test for American power in the world. The conflict, this camp argued in memoranda and private conversations, was both a “historic opportunity” to secure America’s position in a strategic region and a gamble that placed U.S. “credibility as a great power [at] stake.”[50] The world was watching to see what the United States would do when tested, and Shultz, Clark, and McFarlane urged the president to deploy additional marines as part of an expanded mission to support the Lebanese Armed Forces in reasserting government control beyond the capital.[51] The impasse deepened the administration’s internal fractures, and the debate stretched on without resolution into October. As governor of California and later as president, Reagan frequently demonstrated a willingness to cut his political losses and reverse course on a range of domestic matters, a strategy that his advisers described as “damage limitation” and that commentators viewed as a signature “tactical realism.”[52] He worried about escalating the crisis, and he listened to Weinberger’s warnings. Yet Shultz, Clark, and McFarlane’s arguments appealed to the president’s deeply held conviction that diplomacy worked best when backed by demonstrations of strength. Reagan still believed that the United States could secure a negotiated withdrawal of Syrian and Israeli forces from Lebanon, and he continued to view the Marine presence as an important symbol of American staying power. But Reagan was characteristically disinclined to mediate between his advisers, and he deferred the question of whether to augment the peacekeeping mission during repeated National Security Planning Group meetings in early October.[53] As a result, the national security leaders were already deeply divided over Lebanon when news of the barracks bombing reached Washington. The Marine Barracks Bombing — Oct. 23, 1983 Early on the morning of Oct. 23, 1983, Marine sentries stationed at Beirut International Airport observed a yellow Mercedes truck circling a public parking lot south of their compound. The Marines had suffered an unusual spate of casualties over the previous two weeks, and the sentries had been instructed to watch for suspicious vehicles. But there had been so many warnings — and the details were so sparse — that the guards dismissed the circling truck until, at 6:22 a.m., the driver picked up speed and turned toward the compound. As the marines scrambled to load their weapons, the driver maneuvered past the guard post and crashed into the barracks building, where he detonated the truck’s explosive load. The blast leveled the structure, killing 241 Americans.[54] The attack shocked the Reagan administration. McFarlane, a week into his new role as national security adviser, recalled that the president was stricken by early reports of American casualties. But Reagan’s grief was soon replaced by anger. “Those sons of bitches,” he swore as the first reports of casualties trickled back to Washington. “Let’s find a way to go after them.”[55] Within days, the intelligence community had gathered conclusive evidence of Syrian and Iranian culpability, including intercepted communications and an eye witness who shadowed the explosive-laden truck after it left the Iranian embassy in Beirut.[56] “If there ever was a 24-karat gold document, this was it,” a participant close to the process recalled. “This was not something from the third cousin of the fourth wife of Muhammed the taxicab driver.”[57] But while McFarlane, Shultz, and the National Security Council staff pressed for rapid reprisals to deter further attacks,[58] Weinberger and Vessey urged the president to defer a decision until after a scheduled trip to East Asia in early November.[59] If advocates of the Multinational Force viewed the bombing as evidence of the need for a peacekeeping force in Lebanon, the Department of Defense interpreted the attack as further confirmation that the Marines’ objectives were unattainable and feared that a confrontation might drag the Marines deeper into a quagmire. Dismissing the intelligence linking Syria and Iran to the attack, Weinberger and Vessey insisted that there was still insufficient evidence to justify military action.[60] Emboldened, the defense secretary renewed his campaign to persuade the president to bring the marines home.[61] In retrospect, these officials’ reactions to the Beirut bombing were emblematic of a pattern of behavior that persisted over the course of the Marine mission in Lebanon. Rather than re-evaluate their positions, policymakers instead sought to fit the new information into their pre-established theories of the intervention’s viability. New information often served to reinforce their arguments, worsening divisions within the administration and decreasing the possibility of compromise or consensus. When reports from the field did not conform with their prior expectations, Weinberger and others disputed the news and doubled down on their already established positions. The defense secretary eventually succeeded in persuading Reagan to defer a decision on retaliation until he returned to Washington in mid-November. Yet, the president’s confidence in the Marines’ mission in Lebanon deepened in the days after the bombing. In conversations with his advisers and public statements, Reagan underscored the importance of maintaining the course, cautioning his advisers that adversaries were watching the administration’s next steps.[62] Within days, he approved a series of presidential directives reasserting the importance of a U.S. military presence in Lebanon and modifying the Marines’ rules of engagement to allow U.S. forces to support Lebanese Armed Forces operations outside Beirut, including positions “in danger of being overrun by hostile forces.”[63] Notably, these directives were based on drafts circulated in advance of the October 23 bombing and were signed after only minor corrections.[64] In addition, he dispatched Marine Commandant P.X. Kelley to assess efforts to fortify American positions and evaluate whether additional security measures were needed.[65] With these actions, Reagan demonstrated his intention to maintain the U.S. presence in Lebanon, regardless of the risks. “What the President did not want to do, above all, was … to be seen as running away,” recalled McFarlane. “To the contrary, the barracks bombing seemed to strengthen his resolve to stay.”[66] [quote id="4"] Reagan was not alone in this view. Neither Shultz nor McFarlane wavered in his support for the intervention, and both pushed the president to demonstrate his continued commitment to the cause.[67] Even the president’s political advisers, typically sensitive to partisan winds, urged continuity. “Stability in the Middle East — and progress toward peace there — is vital to world peace,” Edwin Meese III, one of the president’s closest confidants, wrote to Reagan the day after the bombing, reiterating the president’s concern that the U.S. commitment to Lebanon had become a litmus test of America’s reliability as an ally. “If we are driven out of Lebanon, the radicals, the rejectionists, the violent will have won,” he warned, suggesting that a failure of resolve would be interpreted as a green light to challenge U.S. interests elsewhere.[68] Shultz echoed Meese’s warning in nearly identical terms during briefings on Capitol Hill, adding that “the presence of our Marines has been a crucial pillar of the structure of stability that is needed to make a political solution possible.”[69] Implicit in both arguments was an understanding that the attack threatened to derail the administration’s broader effort to establish a reputation for resolve, one manifested in the figure of the marines themselves.[70] The documentary evidence reveals that concern for public attitudes played almost no role in decision-makers’ arguments for retaliation or the president’s decision to defer military action. Official deliberations, whether during National Security Council meetings or in written memoranda, concentrated on the continued prospect of success and the effects that both retaliation and withdrawal could have on U.S. credibility abroad. In fact, Reagan dismissed media speculation that the bombing would harm his political future as the work of “whining” journalists, suggesting it was a ploy to retaliate for the Defense Department’s decision to limit access to Grenada, where U.S. troops had landed on October 25. “The press is trying to give this the Vietnam treatment but don’t think the people will buy it,” he wrote in his diary.[71] To the contrary, Reagan believed that the American public would support the Marines’ mission if they understood its global importance and were presented with evidence that progress was being made. “We must show that the cause was worth dying for,” he insisted to his advisers.[72] A presidential directive elaborated on this logic, forecasting that the appearance of passivity — particularly during an election season — would undermine American security interests and encourage foreign adversaries by signaling that the administration was vulnerable at home.[73] To avert this outcome, Reagan hand-drafted an address, televised on Oct. 27, 1983, making the case for continuing the peacekeeping mission.[74] Staring straight into the camera, he rebuffed accusations that his administration lacked a coherent strategy and emphasized his confidence in the prospects for success, insisting that the goal of a stable and secure Lebanon remained within reach so long as the “physical presence of the marines lends support to both the Lebanese government and its army.” The efforts of the Multinational Force had already moved Lebanon a step closer to stability and order, he argued, claiming that “with our assistance and training” the Lebanese government had “set up its own army … able to hold the lines and maintain the defensive perimeter around Beirut.”[75] Yet, Reagan did more than seek to justify his administration’s past actions. He also used the speech to outline a powerful argument for expanding the U.S. role in Lebanon, a process laid out in a classified directive he signed the next day.[76] Emphasizing the Middle East’s strategic importance, he described Lebanon as the fulcrum of his administration’s efforts to roll back Soviet influence, preserve and expand the Middle East peace process, and restore American credibility abroad. The crisis in Lebanon, he argued, reflected a broader, global struggle to rebuild American power and persuade the country’s enemies that the United States remained willing to use force despite its humiliation in Vietnam. “If terrorism and intimidation succeed … [i]t won’t just be Lebanon sentenced to a future of chaos,” he warned. The strength of the United States rested, he argued, in its willingness and ability to assume the risks inherent to promoting stability. “We’re not somewhere else in the world protecting someone else’s interests; we’re there protecting our own,” he cautioned.[77] Reagan’s gamble paid off. The president’s address produced, in his words, a “complete turnaround” in popular attitudes, and Republican National Committee polling showed general support for the administration’s efforts in Lebanon lasting through early November.[78] The administration’s favored pollster, Richard Wirthlin, emphasized the upward trend, noting that surveys indicated two-thirds of the electorate agreed that “Americans should not be driven out of Lebanon.” These surveys also showed that the U.S. public was in “strong agreement” with the president’s assertion “that the U.S. peacekeeping force in Lebanon was attacked precisely because it was doing its job” and generally supported a long-term U.S. role in Lebanon. Although “the vast majority of the electorate express concern that the situation in Lebanon might plunge the U.S. into another Vietnam, there is also a strong feeling that the outcome there is important to the defense interests of the United States,” Wirthlin’s report concluded, affirming Reagan’s impulse. “The idea of yielding to terrorist action is offensive to the American public, even to save American lives,” it added.[79] Notably, White House confidence in the administration’s ability to either shape or withstand changes in public attitudes held even as media speculation intensified in November over the Lebanon imbroglio’s potential effect on the president’s re-election chances. White House staffers chafed, for instance, at a November 30 Washington Post article conjecturing that mounting political pressure would force an early withdrawal, dismissing the suggestion in a Senior Staff Action Items List as not only “inaccurate” but also “harmful to our policy objectives.”[80] That neither Weinberger nor other Defense Department officials emphasized the danger of declining popular support in their arguments against the intervention provides additional evidence that this factor held little sway over the White House deliberations. The most serious outstanding question was whether and how the United States would strike back. A Botched Raid — Dec. 3, 1983 Little serious discussion of withdrawing from Beirut occurred in the days and weeks after the barracks attack. Instead, attention remained focused on whether to retaliate against the perpetrators of the bombing who had been linked to Iranian bases in the Bekaa Valley. Deliberations resumed on November 14, when Reagan returned to Washington from a lengthy trip to East Asia. Over the next two days, he and his advisers debated the wisdom of launching a joint operation with the French against two Iranian installations linked to the attack. The administration was divided along familiar lines: Shultz and McFarlane, now backed by Director of Central Intelligence William Casey, urged the president to order a strike, arguing that retaliation was the only way to protect the negotiating process and deter future attacks. However, Weinberger, worried that further escalation might trap the Marines in Lebanon, dug in his heels. Stressing the danger of collateral damage that could erode local support for the peacekeeping mission and imperil U.S. diplomats and servicemembers in the country, he persuaded Reagan to defer his decision for two more days.[81] On November 16, Reagan and his advisers gathered to make a decision. What exactly happened in this meeting remains mired in controversy. Some participants later claimed that Reagan approved a joint strike with the French, only to have his order ignored by his defiant defense secretary. For his part, Weinberger maintained that Reagan either never issued an order or retracted it in a private call later that evening.[82] Whatever the reason for U.S. inaction, the French decision to act alone on the morning of November 16 resolved the administration’s internal debate. With its intended targets destroyed, and without alternative locations to strike, the Defense Department canceled its reprisal plans in favor of defensive initiatives to mitigate future attacks and prepare the Lebanese Armed Forces for an eventual transfer of responsibility.[83] [quote id="5"] Scholars have seized on the U.S. failure to retaliate as evidence that the Reagan administration was already preparing to draw down operations. Indeed, Weinberger and Vessey redoubled their campaign to withdraw the Marines in the wake of the French strike and urged the president to reverse his decision to authorize more permissive rules of engagement.[84] But analysis of the Reagan administration’s decision-making in November reveals that this encouragement was not indicative of a wider policy shift. Buoyed by optimistic assessments from Shultz and McFarlane, who continued to advocate for an assertive U.S. presence in Lebanon, the president overruled his military advisers and signed a second directive reiterating the importance of “aggressive self-defense.”[85] Anticipating future casualties, he also ordered the Defense Department to “develop target data and arrangements” to facilitate “a future attack on short notice against suitable targets” and authorized new defensive measures to harden the Marines’ position.[86] “I happen to believe taking out a few batteries might give [the Syrians] pause to think,” he remarked in a diary entry on Dec. 1, 1983.[87] The president, sticking with his long-held theory of success, was confident that a demonstration of resolve would promote progress in Lebanon. Reagan’s words were tested only two days later, when a Syrian anti-aircraft unit fired at U.S. reconnaissance planes over eastern Lebanon.[88] It was not the first Syrian attempt to target U.S. aircraft — a similar incident on November 10 had prompted Weinberger to assure the media that such events were not “unusual or surprising”[89] — but this incident coincided with the president’s approval of new rules of engagement authorizing the Marines to practice “vigorous self-defense.”[90] A plan for rapid retaliation was therefore ready when news of the attempted downing reached the president. Without any of the hesitation that had characterized his earlier deliberations, Reagan, frustrated by the Syrians’ continued intransigence and determined to demonstrate America’s commitment to Lebanon, wasted little time ordering the Defense Department to plan and execute a retaliatory airstrike.[91] The president, Secretary of the Navy John Lehman later explained, was certain that the United States “would kick the shit out of the Syrians.”[92] Early the next morning, 28 bombers took off from the U.S.S. Kennedy and U.S.S. Independence with orders to strike three Syrian sites near Beirut, including a surface-to-air missile installation, an ammunition depot, and a radar system. The mission was straightforward, but a combination of miscommunications, technical challenges, and human errors caused the operation to go awry. Aided by Soviet surveillance, Syrian forces quickly identified, tracked, and fired on the U.S. planes, destroying two aircraft and killing one pilot. A second pilot, Lt. Robert Goodman Jr., was captured and detained by the Syrians for nearly a month, until the Rev. Jesse Jackson, an outspoken critic of the Reagan administration, flew to Damascus to negotiate his release.[93] The operation was an unequivocal failure. As Defense Intelligence Agency analysts summarized, “the damage inflicted by the airstrikes probably will not cause the Syrians to alter their present policies” on withdrawal and is “unlikely to deter Syria and its Lebanese allies from attacking US reconnaissance aircraft and marine positions.”[94] McFarlane had stuck to his theory of success during the weeks of deliberation after the barracks bombing, but the failed December raid forced him to re-evaluate his support for the Marine mission. The national security adviser’s endorsement of the U.S. intervention had been premised on his confidence that the United States could, with sufficient application of military pressure, force Syria to make concessions for the simple reason that Damascus could not afford a direct confrontation. McFarlane recognized that the Defense Department’s opposition precluded any possibility of a larger military operation, but he had held out hope that targeted reprisals, with their implicit threat of escalation, might serve as a reasonable alternative.[95] Meanwhile, reconciliation negotiations among Lebanon’s diverse factions had stalled, threatening to spark a new bout of major fighting that was likely to overwhelm the already strained Lebanese army and reverse the limited gains painstakingly made over the previous year. “There were three loci of that strategy,” he concluded, “and in each one we appeared to be failing.”[96] McFarlane’s reversal broke the deadlock and provided the Defense Department with an opportunity to initiate an interagency discussion of possible withdrawal options. Throughout December, an interagency working group prepared a detailed plan of action to transition authority to the Lebanese government and gradually draw down the U.S. military presence. The proposal envisioned an accelerated training program to expand the Lebanese Armed Forces’ area of operations and allow the Marines to move to more defensible positions along the southern border, where they would operate under expanded rules of engagement and continue to respond aggressively to any threats to their presence. With the enticement of an American withdrawal — the working group decided against setting a strict deadline — and the threat of a long-term U.S.-Israeli presence in Lebanon, U.S. negotiators hoped to extract concessions from the Syrians and secure at least some of Washington’s objectives.[97] These preparations for an incremental drawdown in U.S. military involvement coincided with a decline in public support for the peacekeeping mission. The “comfortable margin of approval” Reagan had secured with his October address winnowed over time, and by December 12 campaign pollsters began to warn of “a sharp reduction in the number of Americans who approve of the job the President is doing in Lebanon.” The downward trend mirrored a simultaneous “dramatic shift” in public approval of the president’s handling of foreign affairs, with a majority of Americans reporting for the first time that they disapproved of his response to the Beirut barracks bombing.[98] Sensing an opportunity, Reagan’s political challengers seized on the failed raid as evidence that the administration was driving the United States toward war. Reagan looked “trigger-happy and reckless,” according to Sen. Alan Cranston, one of five Democratic Party challengers.[99] Yet, neither McFarlane’s reversal nor the turn in public opinion compelled Reagan to change course. Although the president intended to launch his re-election campaign shortly after the new year, he appeared unfazed by the prospect of an electoral backlash. Just as he had in the immediate aftermath of the barracks bombing, Reagan dismissed public criticism of his administration’s policy as slander by a hostile press corps, and he insisted that the United States had an obligation to maintain its peacekeeping efforts until internal stability was established and the withdrawal of foreign forces secured.[100] He had great faith in the psychological power of the Marine presence and still believed that a few well-placed shells from the U.S.S. New Jersey’s 16-inch guns would force a political resolution.[101] In short, his theory of success remained unchanged. The president’s confidence in his chosen path in Lebanon was sustained by optimistic assessments from Shultz, who maintained that U.S. objectives were viable and that congressional and public support for the intervention could be secured through concerted outreach. Reagan and Shultz had grown closer over the fall, and the president took to meeting privately with his secretary of state to discuss each week’s events. Although they discussed a range of topics, Shultz’s advice followed a general theme: the need to stay firm and demonstrate American mettle. Even as Syrian opposition hardened and factional fighting around Beirut intensified, Shultz maintained that the United States could achieve its objectives if it persevered and presented a unified, unyielding front.[102] Reagan agreed. “We see pretty much eye to eye on our problems in Lebanon,” he noted in his diary.[103] Thus, while the Defense Department prepared plans for withdrawal, the president continued to authorize plans to harden and expand U.S. involvement in Lebanon. On Dec. 5, 1983 — just a day after the failed air raid — Reagan overruled, for a second time, his military advisers’ recommendations and signed a presidential directive explicitly reaffirming his decision to modify the rules of engagement for the deployed marines. This time, he stipulated that the Marines be provided naval surface and tactical air support to carry out “vigorous self-defense” against either the source of enemy fire or “discrete military targets in unpopulated areas which are organizationally associated with the firing units.”[104] To reassure European partners, he dispatched Shultz to Brussels a few days later with a message affirming America’s commitment to Lebanon and orders to discuss plans to strengthen the peacekeeping mission’s support for the Lebanese government.[105] U.S. forces would remain in the country, despite the danger, until a political resolution was reached or “there was such a collapse of order that it was absolutely certain no solution to the problem” in Lebanon would be reached, he told reporters later in the month. He remained confident, however, that success was possible, adding that “we’re making more progress than appears on the surface.”[106] The Deterioration of the Lebanese Armed Forces: Feb. 4–7, 1984 The fractures within the Reagan administration deepened in December and January. “There seem to be at least two opposing hypotheses about how we are doing,” one National Security Council staffer wrote, summarizing the prevailing sentiment.
One is optimistic in flavor; it assumes that things are naturally falling into place and that with a little perseverance we will be able to achieve our broad objectives. … The other is fundamentally pessimistic, assuming that the situation continues to be structured unfavorably, and that the most that we can hope for is an implicit set of understandings between Israel and Syria … and a face-saving way to get out of Lebanon.[107]
Indeed, evidence that the administration’s efforts were failing continued to accumulate. On December 23, the CIA published a Special National Intelligence Estimate summarizing the intelligence community’s assessment of the quandary. “Despite recent air attacks and naval gunfire on Syrian positions,” the report noted, “Syria appears unwilling to back down.” Although the State Department theorized that robust American action would inspire political progress, the report argued that Syrian President Hafez Assad appeared confident that he could “afford to pay a higher price than either the United States or Israel” and predicted that he would respond to any effort to expand U.S. involvement with a new round of terrorist attacks. Worse still, the intelligence estimate forecast that further U.S. reprisals would exacerbate Lebanon’s confessional polarization, opening new opportunities for Syria to exploit local grievances against the government and quickening the country’s partition.[108] The report concluded that a continued U.S. military presence could only worsen the crisis, not resolve it.[109] The same day the CIA published its intelligence estimate, an independent Defense Department investigation released its findings from a two-month inquiry into the October barracks bombing.[110] The Long Commission, named for its chairman, Adm. Robert Long, identified systemic failures across the command chain but concluded that the tragedy was a direct result of the peacekeepers’ mandate.[111] Weinberger, who had requested the investigation in part to bolster his arguments for withdrawal, seized upon its conclusions as further evidence of the mission’s futility.[112] As he explained in a letter to Reagan summarizing the findings, the investigation confirmed “the near impossibility of carrying out the assigned mission without risking such a catastrophe.”[113] The administration’s best option, he insisted, would be to withdraw. The commission was one more tool the secretary of defense used to propagate his theory of failure regarding Lebanon, though its report offered few details about how and when a withdrawal should take place even as it questioned the wisdom of the deployment. [quote id="6"] Weinberger’s message was soon amplified on Capitol Hill, where congressional critics of the intervention seized on the Long Commission’s findings as evidence that Reagan was driving the United States toward war with Syria.[114] Even once-sympathetic leaders, such as Charles H. Percy, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and House Speaker Tip O’Neill, who had helped the White House avert a War Powers Act debate over the Marines’ deployment, returned home for the holiday recess to find constituents angry and confused about the purpose of the Marines’ mission. Although Congress would not resume session until January 24, allies on the Hill cautioned that the Democratic leadership was already preparing to reopen the War Powers debate.[115] All the while, popular support for the intervention continued to plummet. The media reported extensively on the Long Commission’s findings and the administration’s infighting, compounding the sense that the White House had stumbled into a quagmire.[116] Approval of the president’s overall performance in Lebanon sank 10 points over four weeks, dropping to 33 percent by January 30. For the first time since the Marines’ deployment 18 months earlier, a White House-commissioned poll found a majority of Americans favored “an immediate withdrawal of all U.S. forces” over the status quo.[117] Yet, none of these things — not the intelligence community’s dreary assessment, the Long Commission report, or the popular and congressional uproar — persuaded Reagan to change course.[118] Three days after the Long Commission report was released, the president convened a news conference to silence rumors that his administration was preparing to leave Lebanon. “If there is to be blame, it properly rests here in this office and with this president,” he told reporters, putting his reputation on the line. But he refused to second-guess the value of the Marine presence, chiding naysayers for not realizing the “problem … will not disappear if we run from it.” Reiterating the message he had espoused in the days after the bombing, he asked the American public to allow the marines time to complete their mission, which had already, he stressed, helped to protect the Lebanese government, strengthen its army, and “lay the foundation for a future peace.” It would be hard, he acknowledged, but America’s goals in Lebanon were worth the cost.[119] This was more than savvy political rhetoric. Reagan’s public statements were consistent with his long-held theory of the mission and his personal conviction that the crisis presented a test of American resolve. His political aides, worried that a congressional standoff might harm the president’s re-election campaign, implored Reagan to distance himself from the operation. By late January, White House Chief of Staff James Baker, who previously had supported the decision to intervene, had gone so far as to urge the president to disengage the United States from the messy conflict.[120] But Reagan was determined to see the mission through. Encouraged by optimistic reports from his new special envoy to the Middle East, Donald Rumsfeld, and conversations with Shultz, the president resolved to buy time for the ongoing negotiations to succeed.[121] Reagan also recognized, however, that he could no longer ignore the criticism mounting on Capitol Hill. To stave off a War Powers Act debate, he dispatched senior officials to build support for an open-ended U.S. military role in Lebanon, following a political strategy first employed in the wake of the October bombing. Throughout January, McFarlane, Shultz, Undersecretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, and even Reagan himself met with leading members of both houses of Congress to stress the importance of the Marines’ mission and push back against calls for a precipitous withdrawal.[122] Their efforts were persuasive: As House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel told reporters after one session, he was “satisfied with what I have heard today that what we’re doing is the right thing.”[123] Reagan had won other tough congressional battles, and he saw no reason why a reasonable compromise could not be secured. To further assuage congressional concerns, and to refute allegations that the administration planned to deploy U.S. troops indefinitely, Reagan directed Shultz, Weinberger, and Vessey on January 26 to prepare a timetable for the phased drawdown of the marines deployed in Lebanon. Six days later, he signed a national security directive approving, in principle, preparations to replace the Marines with a smaller, more mobile anti-terrorist force operating under more permissive rules of engagement. Paired with an accelerated military modernization program for the Lebanese Armed Forces, the residual force was intended to demonstrate U.S. staying power and maintain the administration’s ability to strike at Syrian or surrogate forces as needed. To further enhance the safety of the marines in the interim, the directive granted U.S. naval forces the authority to provide gunfire and air support against any units conducting a hostile attack on U.S. or Multinational Force personnel and facilities, stretching the definition of self-defense.[124] Still, the president was not ready to abandon his goals in Lebanon. Shultz continued to stress the dangers of a premature withdrawal, warning that the United States would send the wrong message to adversaries if it cut and ran. Reagan agreed, and he instructed Rumsfeld to fly to Beirut for consultations, insisting the drawdown plan could not be implemented unless the Lebanese government approved.[125] Determined to maintain the administration’s flexibility to defend U.S. interests in Lebanon by force if the need arose, the White House continued to fight a House resolution calling for withdrawal. Meanwhile, the State Department and National Security Council staff explored a range of options to increase pressure on Syria and improve U.S. targeting abilities.[126] Looking back on the February 1 decision to approve, in principle, a smaller replacement force, Rumsfeld compared the administration’s options to those of a pilot of a damaged plane: “We could either crash land with a precipitous withdrawal or gradually reduce our presence in a controlled landing.”[127] In this, the intervention’s advocates were aided by an inadvertent gift from the Joint Chiefs of Staff who, for reasons that remain unclear, dallied in preparing timetables for withdrawal, even as Weinberger urged them to set a deadline for the Marines’ immediate departure.[128] Against this backdrop, Reagan’s request for withdrawal options appears to have been part of a political strategy designed to preserve the administration’s maneuverability by pre-empting a congressional effort to impose a strict deadline for the Marines’ departure. In comments to the media, Reagan continued to resist calls to set a timeline, claiming that the Marines would remain in Lebanon until the withdrawal of foreign forces had been secured and the Lebanese government proved capable of maintaining security independently. “As long as there is a chance for peace, the mission remains the same,” he snapped at reporters on February 2, just days after announcing his re-election campaign. His critics “may be willing to surrender, but I’m not.”[129] Just as Reagan announced his intention to stay in Lebanon, the National Salvation Front, a coalition of anti-government militias, launched a coordinated assault on Lebanese army positions in and around Beirut.[130] By February 3, the coalition had seized control of Beirut’s southern district and made significant gains in the capital’s eastern and center sectors. That day, Nabih Berri, leader of the Amal militia, called on all Muslim leaders to resign from the government and for all nationalist soldiers in the Lebanese Armed Forces to abandon their posts. Others had issued similar calls to little avail, but the message was now underscored by the country’s heaviest fighting since 1976. An entire brigade deserted at once, allowing Shia and Druze militias to occupy West Beirut. Soon after, the militias seized the finance ministry and national radio station, wresting control from the few remaining government units. As the militias advanced, desertion rates skyrocketed. Within a week, the Lebanese army was shattered.[131] After months of debate, the collapse of the Lebanese army provided decisive evidence that the U.S. strategy in Lebanon had failed. The reconstruction of the Lebanese Armed Forces had formed the foundation of the Reagan administration’s strategy since September 1982, and its collapse provided critics of the intervention with concrete evidence that U.S. objectives in Lebanon were no longer viable. Amid reports of escalating fighting, McFarlane convened a meeting of the National Security Policy Group on February 7 to discuss the prospect of a complete and rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces. The conversation was dominated by the intervention’s critics. Shultz, now the Multinational Force’s lone advocate in the Cabinet, was in Grenada, and Reagan, his attention now focused on his re-election campaign, was stumping through the Southwest. Undersecretary of State Eagleburger fought a losing battle to keep the Marines in Beirut, but he was overruled quickly by Weinberger and Vice President George H.W. Bush, who chaired the session in the president’s absence. An early supporter of the intervention, Bush had been affected deeply by the October bombing.[132] He visited the marines shortly after the attack, an experience he described as “one of [the] most difficult and emotional assignments” of his long career. He returned to Washington convinced that future attacks were likely, that the Lebanese government was unable or unwilling to manage the problems ahead, and that a plan for the withdrawal of U.S. forces was needed urgently.[133] Sensitive to the limitations of his office, Bush usually demurred from intervening in other Cabinet members’ debates, but he now backed Weinberger’s recommendation to disengage. That afternoon, he called Reagan to report that all except the State Department believed the Marines should redeploy from Lebanon.[134] [quote id="7"] The collapse of the Lebanese Armed Forces cast the president’s options in a new light. Without a local partner, Reagan’s preferred strategy of gradual, incremental pressure paired with an accelerated training program was no longer feasible. He was left with only two options: a massive expansion of the U.S. ground commitment in Lebanon, a prospect that would shatter the illusion that the Marines were neutral in the civil conflict and provoke a grueling fight with Congress over presidential war powers, or a rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces. Even in the best of circumstances, Reagan, wary of repeating the errors of Vietnam, had little stomach for the first option. Now, after months of resistance, he bowed to his advisers’ apparent consensus and agreed to bring the marines home.[135] Preparations for a complete and rapid disengagement were completed quickly. On February 9, the Marines began to evacuate support elements and equipment from the Beirut airport, and the final withdrawal commenced on February 18. At 6 a.m. on Feb. 26, 1984, control of the Marines’ final position was turned over to the Lebanese Armed Forces.[136] The next day, administration officials announced that the United States would no longer play an active role in efforts to promote political reconciliation in Lebanon. An announcement soon followed that military equipment deliveries would be suspended.[137] Eighteen months after it had started, and four months after the deadly truck bombing, the U.S. intervention in Lebanon ended, its aims unmet.

Three Counterfactuals

This new history of the final months of the U.S. intervention in Lebanon reveals that Reagan’s faith in the Marines’ mission was remarkably resilient. Even as public attitudes toward the intervention soured — and the announcement of his re-election campaign neared — the president continued to support proposals for an open-ended U.S. military presence in Lebanon. Bolstered by optimistic assessments from Shultz and others, Reagan retained trust in his established theory of success: that U.S. troops would stabilize the country, revitalize the central government, and bring a peaceful resolution to the Lebanese conflict. Even as U.S. public and congressional support waivered, Reagan remained confident in his ability to sustain the operation, and he dismissed signs of a future political backlash as media manipulation. Only in February 1984, when the collapse of the Lebanese government and the disintegration of its armed forces made clear that success was unlikely, did Reagan ultimately relent to the Defense Department’s pressure to withdraw. In short, the outcome of the Reagan administration’s deliberations in the months following the barracks bombing was in no way preordained by the scale of the Marines’ losses or expectations of political backlash. Indeed, the barracks bombing may have had the immediate counterintuitive effect of hardening the president’s resolve. Consider what might have unfolded had the Marine sentries disabled the truck before it reached the gates of the barracks, or if the detonator had failed. What if the driver, confronted with certain death, had instead driven away? The similarities between the policymakers’ deliberations before and after the bombing suggest that the Reagan administration likely would have defaulted to maintaining the status quo. For weeks before the attack, Reagan’s foreign policy team had grappled with the question of whether to sustain the Marine mission in Lebanon or withdraw forces offshore. Just as they were after the bombing, senior officials had been divided into two factions: One, led by Shultz and McFarlane, advocated expanding the Marines’ responsibilities; and a second, led by Weinberger and Vessey, pushed for rapid disengagement. They presented contradictory assessments of the situation and the prospects for success. Their arguments before the bombing differed little from their arguments in the wake of the attack: While the State Department, worried about Syria’s assertiveness, pushed for limited strikes to encourage concessions and establish clear “red lines,” the Defense Department remained fundamentally pessimistic about prospects for a negotiated settlement. The National Security Policy Group failed to reach consensus at meetings on October 14 and 18, and preparations for a third session to review the rules of engagement were underway when the barracks were attacked.[138] Had the third meeting occurred, and had the bombing not taken place, the discussion likely would have remained gridlocked. Weinberger and Vessey still would have opposed the mission as unsustainable, while the rest of the president’s senior national security aides would have continued pushing for an expansion. In the absence of a cataclysm like the Beirut barracks bombing, Reagan would probably have continued to postpone a decision on whether to expand or terminate the U.S. intervention. While he remained committed, in principle, to achieving America’s objectives in Lebanon, the president was preoccupied in October by preparations for a U.S. invasion of Grenada and heightened tensions with the Soviet Union.[139] Reagan’s distaste for mediating between his advisers, particularly over issues unrelated to U.S.-Soviet relations, is well recorded. Moreover, he had already avoided repeated efforts to redefine the U.S. mission in Lebanon despite sustained pressure from his closest advisers. Indeed, the president had approved only two significant modifications in the Marines’ posture over the mission’s first 13 months: the first, in April 1982, was implemented in the wake of the deadly embassy bombing, and the second, in September 1983, came only after McFarlane submitted dire reports (mocked by other officials as a “Sky is Falling” approach) suggesting the imminent collapse of the Lebanese government. Rather than precipitating a withdrawal, the October 23 bombing may have had the unexpected consequence of hardening the U.S. military presence in Lebanon. By heightening the Multinational Force’s perceived significance — and magnifying the perceived credibility costs of withdrawal — the attack dramatized Shultz and McFarlane’s warnings and convinced Reagan of the need to demonstrate resolve. Indeed, the bombing, in which an unknown assailant killed sleeping peacekeepers, played into Reagan’s theory of the conflict as a test of U.S. ability and willingness to promote peace, and it deepened his conviction that his administration had both a moral and a strategic imperative to act. In an alternative scenario in which the bombing failed, the president’s waning interest may have sapped his resistance to Defense Department proposals to dial down U.S. operations incrementally. A similar dynamic had allowed Weinberger to order the Marines’ premature withdrawal in September 1982. Having succeeded in this tactic before, the defense secretary likely would have attempted it again as the deployment faded against the backdrop of success in Grenada and an upcoming election campaign. This possibility challenges the notion that the bombing catalyzed a decision to terminate the American mission, and it suggests that U.S. losses may have compelled the intervention’s established advocates to accept a higher risk of future casualties. Consider a second counterfactual: Would a more successful (and less costly) raid in December have altered the timing or character of the U.S. withdrawal? At minimum, such an operation would have confirmed America’s presumed air superiority, strengthened Shultz’s hand in the event of future reprisals, and offered temporary encouragement to Reagan. Had it succeeded in coercing Syria to suspend its harassment of U.S. forces, as past punishments had, it may also have delayed McFarlane’s defection. As a demonstration of American military might, it may also have rallied the public and bolstered support for the intervention, thereby mitigating, or even reversing, the December polling results. On the other hand, a successful operation might have strengthened Weinberger and Vessey’s arguments against expanding the Marines’ ground presence by demonstrating that offshore naval assets offered a sufficient deterrent against Syrian obstructionism. The raid may, therefore, have provided the Defense Department with additional evidence that the administration could redeploy the Marines offshore at little reputational cost. Ultimately, a successful air raid is unlikely to have changed the trajectory of U.S. policy toward Lebanon significantly. It may have sustained McFarlane’s support, but it would not have altered the overall balance of opinion within the administration, where senior officials were wedded to their established theories of the mission’s success. Yet, this counterfactual does highlight how the negative repercussions of the botched raid were insufficient on their own to compel the withdrawal of the Marines. That dubious credit belongs to another event. Finally, imagine what might have occurred if the Lebanese Armed Forces had repelled the February offensive. By that point, U.S. policymakers harbored few illusions about the Lebanese Armed Forces’ strength, which was weakened by endemic corruption, virulent sectarian divisions, and poor leadership and training. Nevertheless, Reagan and Shultz had held out hope that, with sufficient U.S. support, it might still serve as a stabilizing force. Looking back years later, U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Robert Dillon stressed that “the Army was one of the few places where there was still cooperation between Maronites, Shiites, Sunnis, Druze, Greek Catholics and others,” even if the balance of power was misaligned. With sufficient training and better leadership, U.S. officials hoped, the Lebanese military could overcome its internal divisions and serve as a beacon for national reconciliation.[140] [quote id="8"] Two scenarios are therefore conceivable. In the first, Reagan, reluctant to abandon a partner that he had, only days earlier, publicly pledged to support, might have expanded U.S. assistance to the Lebanese Armed Forces, just as he had in previous instances when he feared they were nearing exhaustion. In September 1983, for instance, he authorized the use of U.S. naval gunfire in support of embattled Lebanese units fighting in the Shouf, and noted the army’s resurgence with pride in his nightly diary entries.[141] So long as there appeared to be a viable ally on the ground, Reagan believed his objectives were feasible and progress was being made, albeit incrementally. And so long as a semblance of a central government apparatus remained, he retained hope that the United States might promote national reconciliation without incurring direct responsibility for the resolution of the Lebanese factions’ grievances. Alternatively, the intensity of the fighting in February might have persuaded the president that the Marines were, as Weinberger and Vessey had long argued, ill-equipped to implement their mission in an increasingly hostile environment. Yet, even if the National Salvation Front offensive had compelled Reagan to consider withdrawal, the Lebanese Armed Forces’ success in repelling the attackers would have bolstered McFarlane’s plan to taper operations gradually. Such an event would have dramatized advocates’ claims that the Marines were indispensable to the goal of stabilizing Lebanon and appealed to the president’s desire to kick the “Vietnam Syndrome” and demonstrate the value and reliability of partnering with the United States.[142] Confronted with a choice between rapid disengagement and a phased transfer of responsibility, Shultz and Eagleburger would have thrown their support behind the national security adviser, establishing a majority opinion that Reagan would have been unlikely to refute. In this scenario, the U.S. departure from Lebanon would have stretched into the spring and been paired with an accelerated training effort to prepare the Lebanese Armed Forces to assume the Marines’ former positions. The timing and character of the withdrawal would have been quite different. Of course, none of these possibilities came to pass and therefore we cannot know for certain what this alternative history may have yielded. Nonetheless, analysis of the historical record provides strong evidence to reconsider the causal link between the Marine barracks bombing and the ultimate U.S. departure from Lebanon. Instead, the record suggests that the loss of a viable local partner was the true motivation for the ultimate decision to leave Beirut. 


This new history of the U.S. military withdrawal from Lebanon challenges the common emphasis on casualties as the determining factor in American decisions to correct course or terminate military interventions. Contrary to established narratives, neither the October 1983 truck bombing nor the perceived fluctuations in public attitudes toward the peacekeeping mission in Lebanon were significant factors in the Reagan administration’s decisions of whether, when, or how to end the peacekeeping mission. The loss of 241 marines heightened policymakers’ perceptions of the human and political costs of a continued military presence in Lebanon, but it also deepened divisions within the administration over future U.S. involvement in the country. In particular, the attack emboldened those who opposed the effort, most notably Defense Secretary Weinberger and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Vessey, who interpreted the bloodshed as evidence of the mission’s futility. Yet, their attempts to disengage the United States from Lebanon were blocked by the intervention’s erstwhile advocates, in particular Secretary of State Shultz and National Security Adviser McFarlane, who saw the violence as further evidence of the importance of the Marine presence. Confronted with a divided Cabinet, Reagan chose to maintain, harden, and even, at times, expand U.S. military involvement, decisions that were in line with his prior views about the efficacy and significance of the peacekeeping mission. In other words, the bombing caused two parties in the administration to double down on their pre-existing theories of success or failure in Lebanon. The implications of this corrective should not be exaggerated. The Reagan administration’s experience cannot prescribe future decisions, and it cannot alone disprove the role of domestic political pressure in other cases of U.S. intervention. Moreover, the limited character of the Lebanese intervention, which involved a relatively small number of U.S. forces, likely informed public and congressional attitudes toward government decision-making. Future research is needed to determine whether public opinion may play a greater role in influencing the timing and character of a decision to terminate missions that involve larger troop deployments or more sustained operations. Nonetheless, by highlighting the tendency of scholars to over-emphasize the effects of public opinion in this popular case study, this new history may also be relevant to other lines of inquiry in the literature on peacekeeping and war termination, the efficacy of limited interventions, and elite views of public opinion. For instance, the new evidence of policymakers’ divergent reactions to the Beirut barracks bombing suggests a need to modify Bayesian learning models to better reflect the empirical record of individual and group decision-making. Our findings indicate that such modifications may be found in the literature on anchoring, motivated, and attribution biases.[143] Bringing these strands of research together may yield a more comprehensive theory about how entrenched values, beliefs, and psychological traits inform elite learning and decision-making during military interventions.[144] Additionally, the Lebanon example may inform policymakers’ efforts to manage future crises by promoting systematic questions for probing the progress of an intervention and processing new information from the field. Such questions may be essential at a time when the increasing frequency of sub-state conflicts may spur additional U.S. force commitments.[145] In particular, this history demonstrates the importance of bringing assumptions about how and why a military intervention is likely to proceed to the fore; articulating clear theories of success; and developing processes to test, update, and revise these theories over time. Policymakers must define early on, and clearly, what success or failure looks like and identify demonstrable metrics that align with the ultimate political goals of an intervention. Conversely, leaders must also consider what information from the field, if it were to appear, would indicate that the political objectives cannot be met. Integrating these considerations into contingency and operational planning would, in turn, aid policymakers’ ability to evaluate new information and help to structure analysis of an intervention’s execution, especially if revisited frequently over the course of a military deployment. The U.S. government does have tools for probing assumptions and evaluating change over time. But answering the questions above requires more than designating a red team or devil’s advocate, tactics often implemented in government but ones that are frequently ineffective due to an air of defeatism, bureaucratic isolation, or Peter and the Wolf-like disregard.[146] To promote clearer thinking will require encouraging the next generation of foreign policy professionals to develop the analytical skills and historical sensibility to wield established tools more effectively.[147] As the United States confronts the prospect of future intervention scenarios, there is an urgent need to rethink how to train the next generation of policymakers to better challenge assumptions during debates, to process information during crises, and to think systematically about policy consequences. A careful study of the U.S. experience withdrawing from Lebanon offers a modest step toward this ambitious goal.   Acknowledgements: The authors would like to thank the Johns Hopkins University–SAIS Kissinger Center, the Boston International Security Graduate Conference, and the Middle East Studies Association for their kind invitations to present earlier versions of this project. Our colleagues at each event offered invaluable feedback. In particular, we benefited from insightful comments from James Benkowski, Alex Bick, Hal Brands, Chris Crosbie, John Gans, Frank Gavin, Julie Garey, Jeffrey Karam, Akram Khater, Alice Pannier, Sarah Parkinson, Elizabeth Saunders, and James Wilson, as well as two anonymous reviewers and the editorial team at TNSR.   Alexandra T. Evans is a postdoctoral fellow with the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin. She received her PhD in history at the University of Virginia in 2018. A. Bradley Potter is a PhD candidate at Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and a predoctoral research fellow in the International Security Program at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs in the Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government.   Image: Marine Corps. [post_title] => When Do Leaders Change Course? Theories of Success and the American Withdrawal from Beirut, 1983–1984 [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => when-do-leaders-change-course-theories-of-success-and-the-american-withdrawal-from-beirut-1983-1984 [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2019-07-23 06:24:52 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-07-23 10:24:52 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw [lead] => 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 October 1983 barracks bombing precipitated the American withdrawal from Beirut. Rather than encouraging a consensus around the need to terminate the mission, the significant casualties strengthened senior leaders’ determination to stay the course and deepened the divisions within the Reagan administration. Ultimately, only the collapse of the Lebanese national army in early February 1984 — an event unrelated to the October truck attack — forced the intervention’s advocates to adjust their expectations for the mission’s success and compelled Ronald Reagan to order the Marines’ redeployment. By demonstrating the durability of established theories of success and their effect on the interpretation of new information, this history of the Reagan administration’s deliberations over the winter of 1983–84 provides insight into presidential decision-making and contributes to our understanding of elite support for costly but limited U.S. military interventions. [pubinfo] => [issue] => Vol 2, Iss 2 [quotes] => Array ( [0] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => Closer analysis of public and White House polling data reveals that national attitudes did not decline uniformly in response to the barracks attack.  ) [1] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => Everyone agreed the bombing was a tragedy, but not everyone took the attack as evidence that the United States had faced a setback calling its mission into question.  ) [2] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => Determined to dispel the memory of Vietnam, and confident in what he saw as America’s unique obligation to promote peace abroad, Reagan envisioned the troops playing an indispensable role in promoting a lasting peace in Lebanon.  ) [3] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => Rather than re-evaluate their positions, policymakers instead sought to fit the new information into their pre-established theories of the intervention’s viability. ) [4] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => The president, sticking with his long-held theory of success, was confident that a demonstration of resolve would promote progress in Lebanon. ) [5] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => Yet, none of these things — not the intelligence community’s dreary assessment, the Long Commission report, or the popular and congressional uproar — persuaded Reagan to change course. ) [6] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => After months of debate, the collapse of the Lebanese army provided decisive evidence that the U.S. strategy in Lebanon had failed. ) [7] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => So long as there appeared to be a viable ally on the ground, Reagan believed his objectives were feasible and progress was being made, albeit incrementally. ) ) [style] => scholarly [type] => Scholarly [style_label] => The Scholar [download] => Array ( [title] => PDF Download [file] => 1468 ) [authors] => Array ( [0] => 262 [1] => 263 ) [endnotes] => Array ( [title] => Endnotes [endnotes] => [1] A near-simultaneous attack on the French military headquarters in Beirut would bring the day’s death toll to 299. For a description of the attack, see: Benis M. Frank, U.S. Marines in Lebanon, 19821984 (Washington, DC: History & Museums Division, U.S. Marine Corps, 1987), 1–3, 93–96; Timothy J. Geraghty, Peacekeepers at War: Beirut 1983The Marine Commander Tells His Story (Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2012), 91–95. [2] Michael Kennedy, “U.S. Shelves New Aid for Lebanon: Last Marines Leave Beirut for Safety of Ships,” Feb. 27, 1984, Los Angeles Times. [3] Surveying the literature on U.S. casualty sensitivity, Louis Klarevas notes that the concept of public opinion as the “‘essential domino’ of American foreign policy took on a more permanent and overt cast” after the U.S. withdrawal from Lebanon. See: “The ‘Essential Domino’ of Military Operations: American Public Opinion and the Use of Force,” International Studies Perspectives 3, no. 4 (2002): 418–19, [4] Benny Morris, Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 18812001, Reprint (New York: Vintage, 2001), 552. See also: Charles F. Brower IV, “Stranger in a Dangerous Land: Reagan and Lebanon, 1981–1984,” in Reagan and the World: Leadership and National Security 1981–1989, ed. Bradley Lynn Coleman and Kyle Longley (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2017), 238, 256–87; David C. Brooks, “Cutting Losses: Ending Limited Interventions,” Parameters 43, no. 3 (Autumn 2013): 102–03,; Gail E.S. Yoshitani, Reagan on War: A Reappraisal of the Weinberger Doctrine, 19801984 (Texas A&M University Press, 2011); Robert Timberg, The Nightingale’s Song (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998), 342–44; H.W. Brands, Into the Labyrinth: The United States and the Middle East, 1945–1993 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994); Robert J. Lieber, “The Middle East,” in Looking Back on the Reagan Presidency, ed. Larry Berman (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), 50–70; Andrew J. Bacevich, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History (New York: Random House, 2016), 73–75. For domestic political explanations, see: William B. Quandt, Peace Process: American Diplomacy and the Arab-Israeli Conflict Since 1967, 3rd ed. (Brookings Institution Press and University of California Press, 2005), 259; Peter L. Hahn, Crisis and Crossfire: The United States and the Middle East Since 1945 (Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2005), 80; William B. Quandt, “Reagan’s Lebanon Policy: Trial and Error,” Middle East Journal 38, no. 2 (Spring 1984): 237–54, This argument was disseminated widely at the time as well. See: Francis X. Clines, “James Baker: Calling Reagan’s Re-Election Moves,” March 20, 1984, New York Times. Douglas Kriner’s work is a rare exception in that he acknowledges the administration’s intention to expand, rather than retract, U.S. involvement in the wake of the bombing. See: Douglas L. Kriner, After the Rubicon: Congress, Presidents, and the Politics of Waging War (University of Chicago Press, 2010), 193–231. [5] Lawrence Freedman, “Victims and Victors: Reflections on the Kosovo War,” Review of International Studies 26, no. 3 (2000): 338, [6] John E. Mueller, “Trends in Popular Support for the Wars in Korea and Vietnam,” American Political Science Review 65, no. 2 (June 1971): 358–75,; Mueller, War, Presidents and Public Opinion (New York: Wiley, 1973); Jeffrey Milstein, “The Vietnam War from the 1968 Tet Offensive to the 1970 Cambodian Invasion,” in Mathematical Approaches to Politics, ed. H.R. Alker Jr., K.W. Deutsch, and A.H. Stoetzel (New York: Elsevier Scientific, 1973); Klarevas, “The ‘Essential Domino’ of Military Operations,” 418–19.
[7] For recent illustrative examples in the public discourse, see: Peter Beinart, “Think Again: Ronald Reagan,” Foreign Policy, June 7, 2010, https://; Micah Zenko, “When Reagan Cut and Run,” Foreign Policy, Feb. 7, 2014, https://; Anthony Elghossain, “The Unlearned Lessons of the Beirut Barracks Bombing,” New Republic, Nov. 7, 2018,
[8] Klarevas, “The ‘Essential Domino’ of Military Operations,” 418–19. [9] See, for instance: Edward N. Luttwak, “Where Are the Great Powers?” Foreign Affairs 73, no. 4 (July/August 1994): 23–28,; “Toward Post-Heroic Warfare,” Foreign Affairs 74, no. 3, (May/June 1995): 109–22,; and “A Post-Heroic Military Policy: The New Season of Bellicosity,” Foreign Affairs 75, no. 4 (July/August 1996): 33–