IR Folks from Times Past

IR Folks from Times Past

Saturday, November 30, 2013

To Win or Not to Lose

“Perhaps the supreme alternative, on the level of strategy,” writes Raymond Aron, is “to win or not to lose.” The observation appears in Aron’s magisterial study, Peace and War: A Theory of International Relations, first published in French in 1962 and in English translation in 1966.[1]

Aron [1905-1983] was a distinguished French intellectual, historian, commentator, and sociologist, of whom more below. In this extract, Aron discusses a wide range of historical episodes in developing the dimensions of this “supreme alternative,” but most of his examples are drawn from the wars of the twentieth century. Even at the time of composition, the relevance of the strategic history of the two world wars (1914-18 and 1939-45) was problematic. In his Memoirs, Aron describes as “obvious to everyone” the particular characteristics of the utterly novel international scene that had arisen after the end of the Second World War, and in the shadow of which Peace and War was drafted. These included “a world concert rather than a European concert; dispossession of the former great powers, notably the Europeans; a distinction between the superpowers and all the others; a rivalry between the two superpowers and the two halves of Europe that was both ideological and political; the improbability of global war because of the existence of nuclear weapons.”[2] 

The Cold War now seems distant, as does the world of “bipolarity” it evokes; of much greater interest today are Aron’s reflections on the strategic predicaments presented by "subversive” or “colonial” wars. France, defeated in Indochina in 1954, was still engaged in its war in Algeria when Aron was writing Peace and War, and Aron’s analysis of the dilemmas of his native country was acute. It is also very familiar, resembling U.S. strategic dilemmas in the wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan. (Article length: 2600 words)
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Perhaps the supreme alternative, on the level of strategy, is "to win or not to lose." A strategy can aim at decisively conquering the enemy's armed forces in order to dictate the terms of a victorious peace to the disarmed enemy. But when the relation of forces excludes such an eventuality, the war leaders can still propose not to lose, by discouraging the superior coalition's intention of conquering.
German authors like Hans Delbriick have found the ideal example of such a strategy in the Seven Years' War [1756-1763]. Frederick II [of Prussia] nursed no illusions of conquering the Austro-Russian army, but he counted on holding out long enough for his adversaries' morale to disintegrate, and for the Alliance to fall apart. We know how the death of [Elizabeth, Empress of Russia, in early 1762, succeded by Peter III, a great admirer of the king of Prussia] actually provoked a reversal of Russian policy. The recollection of this piece of luck was so deeply engraved in the German memory that Goebbels, learning of Roosevelt's death [in 1945], believed that the miracle of Frederick II would be repeated: was not the alliance between the United States and the Soviet Union still more contrary to nature than that of St. Petersburg and Vienna?
Other, more immediate examples will illustrate the problem's lasting nature. Given the relation of forces, what must be the strategist's goal? This was the basic question, by 1915-16, that divided German generals and statesmen. Were the Central Powers to choose as their goal a victory that would permit them to dictate the clauses of the peace treaty? Or, given the superiority of forces that the Allies were acquiring, should the Central Powers renounce victory and limit their ambitions to a compromise peace based on the recognition by each side of its incapacity to prevail over the other decisively?
Contrary to what most Frenchmen believed, the Verdun offensive, in the framework of General von Falkenhayn's strategy, aimed at wearing down, rather than defeating, the French army. The German command intended to weaken the latter until, by the spring and summer of 1916, it would be incapable of any major undertaking. Unconcerned about the west, the German army could take the offensive in the east and score successes there which would convince the Allies to come to terms, even if they were not obliged to.
The Successor group, Hindenburg-Ludendorff, chose, on the contrary, the other alternative. Until the spring of 1918 the German armies tried to force the decision. Russia had been put hors de combat in 1917; American troops were flowing into Europe; the balance of forces, still favorable at the beginning of 1918, was becoming increasingly unfavorable. The German general staff tried to win before the intervention of a still intact American army with inexhaustible forces. Historians and theoreticians (in particular Hans Delbriick) have speculated whether such a strategy of destruction didn't, by 1917, constitute an error. Shouldn't the generals have economized their means, limited the German losses in order to hold out as long as possible in the hope that the Allies would weary of the struggle and be content with a negotiated peace? Renouncing the effort to force a decision, strategy would have tried, by defensive successes, to convince the enemy as well to renounce his ambition of victory.
Another more striking example of this dialectic of victory and non-defeat is that of Japan in 1941. How could the Japanese Empire, engaged for years in an endless war against China, launch itself into the assault of every European position in southeast Asia, simultaneously challenging Great Britain and the United States, when it produced scarcely seven million tons of steel a year and the United States was producing over ten times as much? What calculation of the war leaders was responsible for this extravagant venture?
The calculation was as follows: by the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese fleet would gain several months' control of the seas, extending at least as far as Australia. Infantry and air force could conquer the Philippines, Malaya, Indonesia, and perhaps the American outposts of the Pacific, such as Guam. Controlling an enormous area rich in stockpiles of raw materials, Japan would be in a position to organize and prepare her defense. None of the highest-ranking generals or admirals conceived of Japanese troops entering Washington and dictating an unconditional peace following a total victory over the United States. The Japanese leaders who took the responsibility of launching the war intended to resist the American counteroffensive long enough to exhaust the enemy will to be victorious (which, they believed, must be weak, since the United States was a democracy).
The calculation turned out to be doubly false: in four years American submarines and planes destroyed virtually the entire Japanese commercial fleet. The latter was already basically defeated even before American bombs set fire to the Japanese cities and Roosevelt purchased Soviet participation in the war (though he should have been ready to purchase Soviet abstention). The calculation was no less false with regard to psychology. Democracies often cultivate pacifist ideologies: they are not always pacifist. In any case, once enraged, the Americans struck hard: the attack on Pearl Harbor gave the Japanese fleet a temporary mastery of Asian waters, but it made United States renunciation of victory very unlikely. The success of the military calculation during the first phase excluded the success of the psychological calculation regarding the final phase. Not that a better strategy was available to the Japanese leaders: none could reasonably promise victory in a showdown between adversaries so unequal.
The hope of winning by attrition assumes another meaning in the case of revolution or subversive wars. Insurrections are launched by minorities or by mobs without consideration of the "relation of forces." Usually the rebels have no chance on paper. Those in power command the army, the police: how can men without organization and without arms prevail? For that matter, if the government obtains the obedience of its servants, they do not prevail. But the Parisian rioters in 1830 and 1848 won because neither the soldiers of the regular army nor, in 1848, the garde nationale seemed determined to fight and because, abandoned by part of the political elite, the sovereigns themselves lost their courage, quickly abdicated, and went into exile. . . . Let us avoid mythologies. Bare-handed rebels are irresistible when those in power cannot or will not defend themselves. The Russian armies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries effectively restored order in Warsaw and in Budapest.
The wars known today as "subversive," for instance that of a population in a colonial regime against the European power, are intermediary between civil and foreign wars. . . . We bring together the problem raised by these subversive wars with that which confronts the strategist who must establish his plan of war because the rebel and the traditional leader must both deal with the alternative: to win or not to lose. Yet there is a difference: in 1916, in 1917, even in 1918 the supreme commanders on either side nursed hopes of destroying the enemy's power to resist. Nivelle in the spring of 1917 and Ludendorff in the spring of 1918 counted on forcing the decision by a direct offensive. Both dreamed of an annihilating victory in the Napoleonic style—a victory inaccessible to the efforts of both camps until the end of the war, the attrition of one side, and the reinforcement of the other by American forces deciding the outcome. In the case of a subversive war in which one side controls administration and police, assures order, and mobilizes regular armies, the disproportion of forces is such that only one of the belligerents can dream of a total military success. The conservative party has the desire to conquer, the rebel party the desire not to let itself be eliminated or exterminated. Here again we find the typical dissymmetry: one side wants to win, the other not to lose.
But this dissymmetry, which formally resembles that of the Seven Years' War (Frederick II against an overpowering coalition), has, fundamentally, an entirely different meaning. Frederick hoped to obtain a compromise peace on the day his adversaries recognized, if not the impossibility of beating him, at least the cost and the time victory would have demanded. Not having been defeated, the King of Prussia was in relative terms a victor: he would keep his previous conquests, and his prestige would be increased in proportion to his heroism. Not having been victorious, the coalition of the traditional great powers admitted the newcomer on a basis of equality. But if the rebellious side—the Neo-Destour, the Istiqlal—is not eliminated, but seizes power and obtains independence, it has won a total victory in political terms, since it has achieved its objective, the nation's independence, and since the protecting or colonial power has ultimately abandoned the authority it had arrogated to itself. In this case it would be enough for the rebel side not to lose militarily in order to gain politically. But why does the conservative party accept its defeat politically without having been defeated militarily? Why must it win decisively by eliminating the rebellion if it wants not to lose?
To understand the political outcome of a struggle that is indecisive in military terms, we must recall another dissymmetry of the parties in a colonial conflict. The nationalists who demand the independence of their nation (which has or has not existed in the past, which lives or does not live in the hearts of the people) are more impassioned than the governing powers of the colonial state. At least in our times they believe in the sanctity of their cause more than their adversaries believe in the legitimacy of their domination. Sixty years ago the Frenchman no more doubted France's mission civilisatrice than the Englishman questioned the "white man's burden." Today the Frenchman doubts that he has the moral right to refuse the populations of Africa and Asia a patrie (which cannot be France), even if this patrie is only a dream, even if it should prove to be incapable of any authentic independence.
This dissymmetry is confirmed by the change in the colonial balance-sheet. To administer a territory today is to assume responsibility for its development. Most often, this responsibility costs more than the enlarging of the market or the exploitation of natural resources brings in. It is hardly surprising that the conservative party eventually wearies of paying the price of pacification and of investments for the benefit of the very populations that oppose it. A formally total defeat (the rebel side has finally won the sovereignty it sought) is not necessarily experienced as such by the ex-colonial power.
The apparent simplicity of the stake—independence or not—conceals the complexity of the situation. If the independence of the protectorate or the colony were considered by the imperial state as an absolute evil, an irremediable defeat, we should return to the elementary friend-enemy duality. The nationalist—Tunisian, Moroccan, Algerian—would be the enemy, not occasional or even permanent, . . . but rather the absolute enemy, the one with whom no reconciliation is possible, whose very existence is an aggression, and who consequently must be exterminated. Delenda est Carthago: the formula is that of absolute hostility, the hostility of Rome and Carthage; . . . If Algeria were to have remained definitively French, the nationalists seeking an independent Algeria would have had to be pitilessly eliminated. If millions of Moslems were to become French in the middle of the twentieth century, they would have had to be prevented even from dreaming of an Algerian nation, and made to forget the witnesses "who got themselves murdered."
Perhaps some Frenchmen would have preferred this to be the case: reality is less logical, more human. The colonial power conceives of various ways to retreat, whose consequences are not identical; some of these ways are in the long run preferable to maintenance by force. The interests of the metropolitan country will be more or less preserved depending on which men wield power in the ex-colony, promoted to the rank of an independent state. Henceforth the imperial power is not in conflict with a single, clearly defined enemy, the nationalist; it must choose, delimit its enemy. In Indo-China, Western strategy should and probably could have held the Communist nationalist to be the enemy, but not the nationalist who was hostile or simply indifferent to communism. Such a decision would have implied that France did not regard the independence of the Associated States as fundamentally contrary to her interests. France would have had more opportunities of winning the war by separating Communists and nationalists, granting the latter's chief demands. But to the officers thinking in terms of empire, this so-called rational strategy would have seemed sheer idiocy.
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While Peace and War did not displace Hans J. Morgenthau’s Politics Among Nations from atop the pecking order of IR theory in the early Cold War, it always seemed to me the superior work. Of course, the thing is gargantuan, coming in at just under 800 pages of rather small print, and thus impossible for undergraduate instruction. In his Memoirs, Aron dismisses the objection that it was too difficult—it was just real long, he says—and he is defensive about his relative inattention to transnational and economic forces. Though Leo Strauss, in a private letter to Aron, called it “the best book on the subject,” few American professors, Aron notes ruefully, seemed to like it—“many of them remarked only on its defects or lacunae.”[3] It was often, unfairly, dismissed as journalism—a word denoting inferior powers of ratiocination in many precincts of academe. So, too, the American science of international politics was moving in a positivist and behavioralist direction not hospitable to Aron’s pluralist methodology. One suspects that few graduate students in IR would have it today among their assigned readings. Yet many of Aron’s analyses remain surprisingly fresh and cogent, as the above extract suggests.
Here's an even better pic from Wikipedia:

[1] Raymond Aron, Peace and War: A Theory of International Relations. Translated from the French by Richard Howard and Annette Baker Fox (New York: Doubleday, 1966). Daniel Mahoney and Brian C. Anderson brought out a new edition, published by Transaction, in 2003. The extract is from pages 30-35 of the paperback edition published by Praeger in 1967.
[2]Raymond Aron, Memoirs: Fifty Years of Political Reflection. Translated by George Holoch. Foreward by Henry A. Kissinger (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1990), pp. 302-304.
[3] Ibid. The first photograph above is from the 1962 French edition published by Calmann-Levy in Paris, Paix et Guerre entre les nations.