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The best books on War and Foreign Policy

recommended by John David Lewis

Duke University professor choose fives books on war and foreign policy and says that neoconservative veneration of nationalism leads to a foreign policy of perpetual war overseas

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Tell me about your first book, Rise of the Roman Empire by Polybius.

The ancient writer Polybius narrates Rome’s rise to dominance over the Mediterranean within a 53-year period, an achievement that he calls unprecedented. He is very concerned with the causes of war. He thinks that war and foreign policy events have definite causes, and he presents a method to understand those causes. For example, he sees Hannibal’s attack on Italy as caused by Hannibal’s ambitious moral character, which was incited to action by the unfair conditions imposed by Rome after the First Punic War. Now I don’t think that Polybius is right about this. It is Hannibal’s ideas and those of his supporters that led to war, not his character. He thought that he could get glory for himself and his city through war, while avenging the earlier mistreatment by Rome: that was the real cause of this 20-year disaster. So the foreign policy of Carthage was led by this man’s ideas and the actions that followed from them. The warrior ideas that dominated both Rome and Carthage made war inevitable, even though Polybius does not quite see the cause this way.

Do you think he is one of the first people to pin down a theory about the causes of war?

Yes, he’s one of the first people to really lay out a method of approaching the causes of war. For example, were I to ask what caused World War II, some people would say Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939. But Polybius would say no, that was the start of the war. The cause of the war has to be prior to that. So he lays out proximate causes as well as deeper, longstanding causes. Given this perspective, the cause of World War II would have to be something like Germany’s acceptance of a sacrificial war of conquest as a means to national aggrandisement, and their willingness to follow a dictator into such destruction. In other words, the ideas held by the Germans were the truest causes of the war. The attack on Poland would be the beginning of the war, and a consequence of the earlier causes.

Let’s move on to your next book, Neoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea by C Bradley Thompson and Yaron Brook.

This book focuses deeply on the ideas behind one of the most important political movements of modern day – neoconservatism. Like all of the books I have chosen here, the concern is for how ideas affect human action, and how ideas will lead them to make certain wilful decisions. What Thompson and Brook do is to dissect neoconservatism in terms of its fundamental ideological source, and to trace out the consequences of those ideas.

This book ties the neoconservatives to Professor Leo Strauss, a professor at the University of Chicago. It takes his ideas apart layer by layer, shows their connection to neoconservatism, and exposes the true meaning of the neoconservative movement. The nature of this movement is not pretty.

This is a very complex issue so I will name one important factor here: the idea, drawn from Strauss, that there are certain truths available only to an intellectual or political elite (the esoteric meaning of a text), and that these truths must be presented to average people in terms they can grasp (the exoteric meaning of a text). Therefore if you read an ancient text such as Plato’s Republic with Straussian premises, it never quite means exactly what it says. Its real meaning is only available to these elites. When applied to political governance, these elites have a right to lie to the population if this is the way to get them to do what the all-knowing elites want. Thompson and Brook decimate this movement intellectually. They show how the neoconservative veneration of nationalism leads to a foreign policy of perpetual war overseas, through the sacrifice of the population to the ‘nation’.

Your third book is Winning the Unwinnable War by Elan Journo.

Journo has promoted a controversial thesis. He says that America has crippled itself in the war against terrorism by a failure to forthrightly identify its enemies, and to defend itself against them. He says this stems from altruism, which values others over self, which leads to the idea that America must not defeat enemies but rather bow down and appease them. He maintains that the war against terrorism is not unwinnable. The first step toward victory would be to name the enemy for what it is: Islamic Totalitarianism, a movement that aims to impose sharia [Islamic law] over a subjugated population. This failure to name the enemy has hamstrung the United States, and led us into an overseas war that is approaching a decade in length, and for which we see no end.

What do you think of his theory?

I think he is fundamentally correct. When I look at the history of World War II, I see that leaders such as Roosevelt and Churchill named the enemy as the adherents of Nazism and fascism in Germany and Japan. We have statements from Roosevelt which say (paraphrasing), ‘The people of Germany must understand that they have been involved in a conspiracy to subjugate and enslave others.’ These leaders pursued total victory over these enemies without compromise or appeasement. The results over two generations speak for themselves.

What stops America from pursing the same tactics today?

What stops American leaders is a certain sense of inferiority, drawn from multiculturalism and political correctness. American leaders are unwilling to accept that because the Taliban in Afghanistan forced women to live in seclusion, allowed them to go into public only with full body coverings, and shot them in the back of the head if they did not obey, the Taliban system is morally inferior to the West. Many Americans and Western Europeans are unwilling to state the fact that their systems are superior to such ruthless dictatorships and their supporters. Therefore, they are unwilling to pursue victory over these dictatorships should they threaten us. Multiculturalism sees us all as equal, and therefore makes it impossible to pursue victory.

But that kind of total defeat of a regime like the Taliban is difficult in that many of the people living in Afghanistan still support them. Ten years on, America and the West are losing the hearts and minds of the local people.

If they do support the Taliban, then they are the enemies of the US and should be treated as such. But where did this ‘hearts and minds’ stuff come from? When has such a strategy ever worked? In Vietnam? One does not win hearts and minds during a war: one defeats the enemy, or one is defeated by that enemy.

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The government of Afghanistan has recently announced its intention to bring the Taliban into the government. Meanwhile our Afghani allies, who suffered under the Taliban and fought with us against the Taliban, are standing in opposition to this policy. Are the Americans going to abandon those allies in order to appease their enemies? Whose hearts and minds will be won with this strategy?

Do you think this is happening because America and its allies weren’t decisive enough when they invaded Afghanistan and Iraq?

Yes, but I don’t think we ever should have invaded Afghanistan or Iraq. Iraq was a secular dictator that did not represent the essence of the threat against the West, and was in fact restraining Iran. The biggest effect of the invasion of Iraq has been to empower Iran to rise into a nuclear power. Iran could not beat Iraq in eight years of war. We defeated Saddam Hussein’s regime in three weeks – which shows how powerful America is and how weak Iran is. But the result of overthrowing Saddam Hussein has been to remove Iran’s closest regional competitor and to empower Iran to rise to a nuclear power. So I would not have engaged in either of those wars. I think they were misguided and misdirected.

Your fourth book is A Foreign Policy of Self Interest: A Moral Ideal for America by Peter Schwartz.

This book is also about the ideas at the foundation of foreign policy. It establishes a broad framework for an alternative to the problems that Journo finds in his book. What Schwartz maintains is that a foreign policy, like a domestic policy, should be based solely on the self-interest of the nation involved. This is another controversial point of view. But this idea needs to be understood before it is criticised.

I think that his take is fundamentally correct, but to grasp what he is saying requires a new understanding of what self-interest and egoism mean. They do not mean rapaciously attacking others. This is not a way to live a happy productive life for a rational human being, and it is no way for a nation to prosper. Self-interest properly understood would mean engaging voluntarily with people through mutual production and trade, not attacking them for loot.

Schwartz says the only morally self-interested purpose of a government is to protect its citizen’s rights and their freedom. Therefore the only moral purpose of the military is to defend the lives and rights of its citizens. From this point of view America would rarely engage in foreign wars. It would not see its position as being the policemen of the world with some kind of moral obligation to attack any dictatorship overseas on behalf of foreign peoples. America would aim only to defend American lives. Every nation in the world could easily avoid war with the US by not posing a threat to Americans.

When America did have to fight it would be against a clearly named enemy. The goal of the war would be to win as quickly as possible. Winning a war quickly may be brutal but it is far better than having a war go on for ten or 20 years, in which entire generations are brought up under terror and slaughter.

Your final book is John W Dower’s Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II.

This is a key study in the effects on the Japanese of the defeat of Japan by the United States in World War II. It shows the actual effects of a ruthless military victory magnanimously enforced by the victor over a defeated nation, and the beneficial consequences that followed for millions of people. The fundamental reason for this success is the shift in the ideas held by the Japanese people. In all the five books I have chosen the role of ideas is essential to the workings of foreign policy and war.

The key is education. Since 1890 Japan’s schools had been under the control of a military clique. They had indoctrinated children in worship of the emperor, sacrifice to the nation, and dying in battle. These ideas were drilled into their minds as moral ideals. Such indoctrination was ended under the Allied occupation. Knowledge came to be seen not as something revealed by a higher authority, but rather something which you have accepted by your own judgment. This was a difficult process for many. Dower reveals the anguish children and adults went through in thinking about the world in this new way. But the result was an end to mass sacrifice in war and the rejection of a military clique which had ruled Japan for several generations. Under American guidance the Japanese established a constitution and a society that institutionalised individual rights and peace. The new constitution explicitly upholds individual rights and repudiates war as a tool of foreign policy.

In your own book, Nothing Less than Victory: Decisive Wars and the Lessons of History, you have examined some of these ideas. What is your attitude towards how wars are started?

My basic thesis is that wars begin when human beings choose to fight. Now the nature of that decision is very complicated: it has individual, social, and political levels. It is certainly the case that the average German in 1939 was trapped in a regime that he could not control. But it is also true that most of these Germans voted for Hitler, and could have risen up and overthrown him had they wanted to. As a society, however, they decided to follow him into war. This is the basic nature of a decision for war, taken on a social level.

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Wars begin when two factors are in place. The first factor is the will to fight, whether in a country or a political group with political goals. For example, the Islamist groups that are waging terror wars today clearly have the will to attack. But they don’t have the second factor, which is the capacity to wage an attack. This would mean the possession of an army or effective weapons. Terrorists don’t have the capacity to drop a nuclear bomb on New York, which Bin Laden would have done if he had had one, so they crashed hijacked airliners into the Twin Towers instead. They expressed their will in this way because they had no greater capacity to attack. They are now creating such a capacity, in the nuclear program of Iran, which is also the product of their will to attack.

Consequently a war must be directed at the enemy’s will to fight. To fight a war effectively you must understand clearly what an enemy’s motivations are. In my book I take seven examples from history and demonstrate how victory over the will to fight in an enemy has led to long-term peace between former enemies. For example, Carthage waged decades of war against Rome over 60 years, until it was defeated by Rome in the Second Punic War. Given magnanimous terms of surrender, Carthage was willing to live in peace with Rome. This peace lasted for two generations, until the Romans broke it.

August 2, 2010

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John David Lewis

John David Lewis

Dr John David Lewis is Associate Professor in the Philosophy, Politics and Economics Programme at Duke University, North Carolina. He is also an Anthem Fellow for Objectivist Scholarship, a Senior Research Scholar at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center, Bowling Green State University, and a consulting editor for The Objective Standard. He is the author of Nothing Less than Victory: Decisive Wars and the Lessons of History.

John David Lewis

John David Lewis

Dr John David Lewis is Associate Professor in the Philosophy, Politics and Economics Programme at Duke University, North Carolina. He is also an Anthem Fellow for Objectivist Scholarship, a Senior Research Scholar at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center, Bowling Green State University, and a consulting editor for The Objective Standard. He is the author of Nothing Less than Victory: Decisive Wars and the Lessons of History.