Over at the Wall Street Journal this week current 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, my former U.S. Naval War College colleague and current dean at the George C. Marshall Center, Andrew Michta, blames a “crisis of disbelief” for keeping the West from mounting a concerted effort to face down aggression in Ukraine and deter it in the Pacific. The West, he says, boasts substantial material advantages over malefactors like China and Russia. But it has squandered its advantages by failing to take the challenge from its antagonists seriously.
You can have all the latent military might in the world yet come up short because you don’t resolve to translate it into working forces bestriding the field. Materially outmatched yet impassioned competitors can come out on top because they make full use of meager resources. That may be the West’s predicament today.
Andrew’s ruminations on disbelief conjure a number of thoughts from the masters of diplomacy and strategy. An odd couple, the French soldier David Galula and the American statesman-scholar Henry Kissinger, spotlight the nature of the challenge. Galula, a veteran of the French-Algerian War of 1954-1962 and an authority on counterinsurgent warfare, observes that an incumbent political regime finds it hard to meet the challenge of a “cold revolutionary war.” By that he means that political leaders, by and large, are reluctant to crush movements that might turn out to be legitimate, loyal opposition. Constitutional restraints and public sentiment fetter what they can do. And so forth.
In other words, an insurgent movement in the making enjoys the initiative before it takes up arms. It can organize, amass manpower and resources, and chip away at the incumbent regime’s legitimacy through propaganda and other political means. Meanwhile the regime stands idle unless and until it obtains incontrovertible proof that its opponent means to topple the government by force. Galula’s cold revolutionary war within a nation-state has much in common with China’s (and, until the invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s) “gray-zone” strategy, which subverts the regional or world order while abjuring the overt use of firepower. Small wonder China’s Asian neighbors and the keepers of the international order haven’t yet sorted out an effective counterstrategy.
They don’t want to unduly provoke Beijing, much as Galula’s incumbent regime exercises forbearance despite a potentially mortal challenge to its authority.
Henry Kissinger makes much the same point Galula does, presenting one of his customary grand observations about the nature of politics. He opines that a society’s overseers suffer from a blind spot toward revolutionaries. They simply cannot bring themselves to believe anyone would want to sweep away a political order the overseers regard as legitimate. I call this the “Oh, you’re serious?” effect. Michta’s culture of disbelief seems not to be confined to the West in the twenty-first century. It’s a universal problem plaguing guardians of any established order.
The Xi Jinpings and Vladimir Putins of the world delight in the psychological dynamics of strategic competition, but Kissinger has a tart warning for them as well. If custodians of the established order have a blind spot, revolutionaries have one of their own: they assume they can overthrow the status quo while retaining its best features. Seldom is that the case. Xi’s Chinese Communist Party is trying to do away with a liberal order of trade and commerce that allowed China to enrich itself and to rise to diplomatic and military eminence. That seems perverse and self-defeating—but, it seems, Beijing has succumbed to its own culture of disbelief.
If Kissinger is right, disbelief eggs on aggressors, encouraging ever more reckless attacks on the system, while sowing paralysis among the liberal order’s defenders. Human nature being what it is, it could take a massive shock to jolt defenders out of their false consciousness.
You’d think the Ukraine war would have applied a shock of sufficient voltage, but Michta doubts it. He reports that Eastern European NATO powers such as the Baltics and Poland take the Russia challenge seriously. As they should; they’re on the frontlines, and they know from grim experience what direct or indirect rule from Moscow is like. They have taken the lead in supporting Ukraine, joined by offshore NATO powers—chiefly Great Britain and the United States. Continental European powers not on the frontlines have dawdled by contrast.
Disbelief stubbornly persists when aggression remains well over the horizon, and thus abstract from daily life.
Michta attributes Europe’s culture of disbelief—and its baneful effects on martial fortitude—to “decades of post-Cold War globalist dogma.” He doesn’t mention political scientist Francis Fukuyama by name, but he alludes to the virulent form of “end-of-history” thinking that swept the West following the Cold War. Fukuyama, of course, published an influential article and book leveling a modest claim, namely that all forms of rule had now been tested and that experience had vindicated liberal democracy as the best. History had ended in that limited sense. But the larger culture seized on the idea that armed strife had come to an end with the Soviet Union’s demise. War was no more; globalized trade and commerce were the future.
History really had ended.
Gauzy, triumphalist memories of the Cold War’s denouement are now an entrenched culture—Michta’s culture of disbelief. If he has it right, not even a full-blown invasion of a European nation has been enough to dispel the “Oh, you’re serious?” effect postulated by Galula and Kissinger. Nor has the bile spewing out of Beijing following Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit to Taiwan, nor the Chinese ballistic missiles raining into waters near that beleaguered island.
If one outright invasion and threats of another aren’t enough to rouse the West, what will?
A 1945 Contributing Editor writing in his own capacity, Dr. James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.” The views voiced here are his alone. Holmes also blogs at the Naval Diplomat.