How America can survive and even prosper in the 21st Century – part I

Summary:  This is a chapter a series about America’s grand strategy; see links at the end for the full series to date. Here is part one of a two-part sketch of how America can survive – even prosper – in an age where 4th generation warfare (4GW) is the dominant mode of war.


This is a slightly revised version of an article published 19 March 2007, inspired by Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife – CounterInsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam by John Nagl (Lieutenant Colonel, US Army). This takes Nagl’s insights and runs in a different direction to describe the the geopolitical challenge facing America. The next chapter describes a solution.


  1. Zugzwang (from the German “compulsion to move”)
  2. A spectre is haunting Europe … and the entire world
  3. America as a global menace
  4. Who is playing offense? Who is playing defense?
  5. Is a successful defense possible against American culture?
  6. Who is at fault? Us or them?
  7. The military dimension of this conflict
  8. Acknowledgement
  9. For more information

(1)  Zugzwang (from the German “compulsion to move”)

In chess, a zugzwang means that you believe that all moves weaken your position. In the middle of a game, zugzwang typically occurs only in a player’s mind. It results from a lack of imagination, an inability to break free from his or her patterns of perception and analysis.

Without using this term, 4GW experts often describe American foreign policy as a zugzwang. They paint a grim picture of America’s geo-political situation, largely due to our self-destructive behavior. Fortunately there are brighter ways to see the world. To find a better path we should go back to T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, that powerful handbook for insurgents written during the Arab Revolt of WWI.

“The Turks were stupid; the Germans behind them dogmatical. They would believe that rebellion was absolute, like war, and deal with it on the analogy of war. Analogy in human things was fudge, anyhow; and war upon rebellion was messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife.”

With the clarity of hindsight, in Iraq we too have been stupid and dogmatical. We have dealt with the Iraq insurgency “on the analogy of war.” But what of the next line?

“… war upon rebellion was messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife.”

Imagine seeing a person trying such a thing. How pitiful a sight, watching the poor fool spilling most of each attempt … his joy at the tiny morsel gained from each swallow.

Does America have so few strategic options that we must, in effect, attempt to eat soup with a knife? Lawrence wrote this about his experience waging a successful insurgency. We take it as advice to try harder when fighting insurgencies in foreign lands, to use greater force, to expend great ingenuity and effort. Nagl writes about transforming our military into a learning institution capable of defeating foreign insurgencies.  All those are well and good, but in my opinion go down the wrong road.

This ignores the simple truth of Lawrence’s insight: “You cannot eat soup with a knife. To try is crazy. You must first change the conditions of the problem.”

You have a knife and a bowl of soup. But what’s the context? Can you change the conditions of the problem? No cheating, just expand the rule set so that you too have a chance to win.

Do you have access to a freezer? Perhaps it is cold outside. Put your knife in the soup. Freeze the soup. In a few hours enjoy your soup “popsicle.”

Is there an eatable thickening agent available? You can use powder or meal made from a grain, nut, or vegetable root (e.g. flour, cornstarch, oatmeal). Arrowroot, gelatin products, or pudding might also work. Or make your own. For example, find a starchy vegetable (e.g., cattail pollen). It might require grating or grinding (e.g., potatoes, cattail roots). Dump it in the soup, stir until thickened, take your knife in hand, and enjoy.

This is an analogy, and analogies are foolish nonsense – but even nonsense can stimulate creativity, and our sensible doctrines have gotten us into serious trouble in the Middle East. How does Lawrence’s insight help us see a different way to survive – or even win – in an age when 4GW is the dominant mode of warfare?

The key is not to learn to fight foreign insurgencies (COIN), but to develop a grand strategy that makes it unnecessary to fight foreign insurgencies.  Let us take a fresh look at our world.

(2)  A spectre is haunting Europe … and the entire world

There is another perspective, different than the conventional one that has terrorized American so much that we have swollen the power of our government and invaded the Middle East. America is the aggressor. The rest of the world is on the defensive. America is winning.

Since WWII, a form of destruction has overshadowed the peoples of the world, more powerful than anything ever before seen in history. Apocalyptic, a tool of total annihilation, one that nobody trusts America to use with restraint or wisdom. Nor should we show restraint, for its fullest use can blot out our enemies — leaving little behind for anyone but historians. A few nations have tried to build defenses. Although possible in theory, most experts consider such efforts a waste of money and effort.

American culture appears destined to sweep across the globe, destroying all other cultures. We are like the Borg (from Star Trek).

  1. The world watches our movies and listens to our music.
  2. Our values are “human rights”, which become the universal standard before which all must genuflect.
  3. Our political system, which we call “democracy”, becomes the sole legitimate form, to which even tyrants must pay tribute via sham elections.
  4. Nations must adopt our economic system, which we call “capitalism”; the alternative is autarky and poverty.

Some, like Charles Allen (author of God’s Terrorists: the Wahhabi Cult and The Hidden Roots of Modern Jihad) blame Hollywood and the Left for the enmity many Moslems feel towards us. In this view America has polluted the world with its combination of degeneracy, pornography, and radical feminism – and Jihad is a natural if regrettable response to this.

Perhaps the conflict is more fundamental. Perhaps western culture, which America has refined to peak intensity, threatens other cultures. In Silicon Valley they speak of “mindspace.” America exports our culture to fill the minds of the world’s children. In a forthcoming book Martin van Creveld describes this as “colonizing the future.” We are colonizing the future, everybody’s future.

European nations colonized the world, with results that will echo for centuries. The resulting wars dominated the 20th century, fought by Europeans to obtain colonies and everybody else to free themselves. The 21st century might see equally vicious wars as other peoples fight to decolonize the future.

(3)  America as a global menace

Some societies can adapt, absorbing elements of our culture but retaining their essential soul. For most, including many societies recently thrown from pre-technological forms into the modern world, cultural extinction may be the only option. Extinction is, of course, the fate of most cultures as it for most species. The Hittites, the Scythians, the Etruscans are only memories. It’s a nearly endless roll of societies that made some contributions, large or small, to humanity’s store of knowledge and art … only to fade away.

To many foreigners American culture is a virulent and lethal virus, attacking at their most vulnerable point: their children. We act like the Pied Piper, stealing away their young by offering a different vision of life’s highest values. To gays we say come out of the closet. To women we say throw off the shackles of male domination. To atheists, heretics, and agnostics we say glory in your independence of thought. To all we offer sexual freedom, liberation from the domination of their elders, and opportunities to obtain wealth in non-traditional ways.

Consider the difference between the roles of women in western states vs., for example, Saudi Arabia. Western women are full citizens: voting, owning property, choosing not just their husbands but even their sexual partners. Saudi women, although also full citizens and entitled to own property and businesses, must, for example, be escorted by a close male relative in order to travel abroad; they inherit at half the portion of their male siblings; and they find their testimony as worth only half that of any man.

Even more powerful than our ideology, our technology “defeats” biology by freeing gender from sex. Control of contraception for both men and women, especially women, is devastating for cultures based on highly differentiated gender roles – as is true of many cultures in the Middle East. .

The impact of western culture on Islam was clearly foreseen by Sayyid Qutb, Egyptian intellectual and Islamist (1906 – 1966) when studying in 1949 at the University of Northern Colorado at Greeley, Colorado.  Established as a utopian community in 1870, the city proudly maintained in the 1940’s the moral rigour, temperance, and civil-mindedness that were the hallmarks of its founding fathers. Greeley’s highly touted civic virtue, however, made very little impression on Qutb. In his mind, the inhabitants of Greeley, far from representing a kinder and gentler population of Americans, carried within themselves the same moral flaws of materialism and degeneracy that were characteristic of Occidental civilization in general.

He recounted how he once attended a church dance and was scandalized by the occasion’s “seductive atmosphere”. As Qutb wrote, “the dancing intensified,” and the “hall swarmed with legs”. … Qutb’s American writings are laced with such anecdotes, which reveal a strong concern with moral issues, especially concerning matters of sexuality.

— “Sayyid Qutb in America,” ISIM Review, newsletter of the International Institute for the Study of Islam, March 2001 (PDF here)

We should not expect the members, let alone the elites, of other societies to like the challenges we inadvertently force upon them. After all, most Americans despise some aspects of our culture. Nor will the elites of other lands obligingly and quietly die to ease their societies’ adoption of western ways, as did King Mongkut of Siam in the 1951 musical The King and I, by Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Many nations oppose this American “virus”, each in its own way. The French government legislates to de-Americanize their language and support their native arts. The Canadian government erects barriers to American media. The Chinese government censors the Internet. Some fundamentalist Islamic leaders declare jihad.  The difference between French legal actions and Islamic fatwas is that the latter exacerbate a millennial-long, often violent, conflict between Christianity and Islam and give it renewed appeal and intensity to Muslims.

(4)  Who is playing offense? Who is playing defense?

This perspective helps us understand an otherwise puzzling aspect of the current geo-political situation: who is playing offense and who defense?  From one perspective, Islamic jihadis have suddenly decided to retake their lost lands, such as Spain, and declare war on the Great Satan (i.e., America, or perhaps western civilization). Why attack now, and why attack us? These have been the subject of fascinating and often fevered speculation, mostly without much evidence or even logic.

Ideologically, Salafism is to Jihadism what Marxism is to Leninism, even though psychologically, the jihadist disease appears closer to Nazism (i.e., pathological fear of, rather than faith in, modernity, along with virulent anti-Semitism). Just as the communist project of yesterday was summed up by the proverbial slogan “the Soviets, plus electricity,” the jihadist project today is best captured by “the sha’ria, plus WMD.” Like the Communist International, the Salafist International has its Bolsheviks and its Mensheviks, its Bernsteins and its Kautskys, and even its Leninesque What Is to Be Done? (Qutb’s Milestones).

As for the debates over what priority to give to the “far enemy” vs. the “near enemy,” they are but the equivalent of yesterday’s clashes between Trotskyite partisans of “permanent revolution” and Stalinist supporters of “socialism in one country.”

— Tony Corn, “World War IV as Fourth-Generation Warfare“, Policy Review, January 2006

A simpler explanation is that Islamic societies, like those of so many other societies, feel threatened by American culture. However the contrast – and therefore the danger – is greater for them than, for example, the French. Their need to respond is equally evident, as the instinct for self-preservation is both ubiquitous in practice and enshrined in the law of nations. Whether America’s cultural “aggression” is deliberate or inadvertent is not relevant to those defending against it.

Let’s check this conclusion by another line of logic. One objective of modern war – that is, of the past few centuries – is to gain the moral high ground, usually by portraying the other side as the aggressor. This has proved decisive in wars from the American Revolution to the USSR-Afghanistan War. Popular sympathy usually goes to the defender, as most nations are more likely to be defenders than attackers.

In today’s global community what nation consistently appears among the most disliked and the most likely to disturb the global peace? America.

(5)  Is a successful defense possible against American culture?

Probably not, for three reasons.

  1. Ideas and technology have always spread irresistibly. Cultures that have walled themselves off, such as China did for centuries, suffered from it.
  2. Globalization makes all borders porous. Travel and trade allow cultural contagions to spread rapidly across the globe.
  3. Modern communications technology allows the first two factors to change cultures in years instead of over generations.

(6)  Who is at fault? Us or them?

Please consult a priest or philosopher for answers to such questions. This author only discusses what was, what is, and what might be.

(7)  The military dimension of this conflict

We couple an offensive cultural strategy with an equally offensive military strategy. Although labeled “defensive”, we maintain a chain of approximately 737 bases encircling the world plus a massive military force that intervenes in foreign lands every decade or so. Our actions speak louder than our words. Those not on friendly terms with us might find this combination threatening.

As is so often the case in history, this conflict is structural. We will not change ourselves to suit others. It’s our culture and their problem. So what do we do? What should we be doing, playing offense or defense?

Both. Neither. The terms are meaningless, except as generalities. Worse, they imply that we compete against everyone else. If so, what is the prize? Who cares? After all, what does it mean to “win” the clash of civilizations”? The Soviet Union was a global menace for several generations, spreading communism and revolution over the globe – until it collapsed.

Disciple Caine: Master, do we seek victory in contention?
Master Kan: Seek rather not to contend.
Disciple Caine: But shall we not then be defeated?
Master Kan: We know that where there is no contention, there is neither defeat nor victory. The supple willow does not contend against the storm, yet it survives.
— From episode #1 of the television show “Kung Fu” (1972)

Our goal should be to make this the best possible America, safe and secure. Success at this will come as we build momentum through imagination, initiative, and effective execution. We need to make time our ally, so we can prosper through the tumultuous transitional years ahead. There is no perfect security in this world, only in the next. Let’s arrange things so that our enemies, not us, look with fear on the coming of each new year.

Athens held a winning position similar to ours, and threw it away in an imprudent war.

Actually, we do know one important, big thing about the Classical Greek world that Thucydides did not know … There is a deep, powerful sense in which time was on the side of Athens and its empire. Each decade that the war between Sparta and Athens remained cold rather than hot was a decade for metics and immigrants to the Geek world to think whether they wanted to live in Spartan-allied oligarchies dominated by a closed guild of landowners, or in Athenian-allied places where the (male, citizen) demos ruled and where there was much more growth, commerce, trade, and opportunity.

Each decade that the war between Sparta and Athens remained cold rather than hot was a decade for rich Spartiates to marry the daughters of other rich Spartiates, and for poor Spartiates to find that they could no longer afford the Spartan lifestyle and so drop out of the citizen body — and of the main line of battle. By 350 Sparta could — this is a guess — put only one-fifth as many professional hoplite soldiers into the line of battle as it could have two centuries before. A policy of postponing the showdown — even if one of “apparently limitless forbearance” — was a policy of greatly increasing the relative strength of the Athenian side.

— “History as Tragedy: The Peloponnesian War“, Brad DeLong, Professor of Economic at Berkeley

The US government borrows vast sums each year from foreign governments to sustain our trillion-dollar military apparatus. A great nation’s wealth, thoughtlessly thrown away without considering alternative strategies, which might achieve security at a cost we can afford.

The next chapter considers what we can do, on the basis of this reasoning.

(8)  Acknowledgement

The opening of this chapter was inspired by John A. Nagl, whose innovative book How to Eat Soup With a Knife re-introduced T. E. Lawrence into modern discussions of counterinsurgency warfare. This is a must-read for anyone interested in the dynamics of the Iraq War.

(9)  For more information

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp interest these days:

There are few comprehensive proposals for a grand strategy for America in the literature of either the “Revolution in Military Affairs” or of 4th Generation War. This series presents an alternative to Thomas P.M. Barnett’s” Pax Americana” vision. It is based on, and in a sense starts from, William Lind’s “Strategic Defense Initiative” originally published in The American Conservative, 22 November 2004.

Posts about grand strategy and national security:

  1. The Myth of Grand Strategy , 31 January 2006
  2. America’s Most Dangerous Enemy , 1 March 2006
  3. Why We Lose at 4GW , 4 January 2007
  4. America takes another step towards the “Long War” , 24 July 2007
  5. One step beyond Lind: What is America’s geopolitical strategy? , 28 October 2007
  6. ABCDs for today: About Blitzkrieg, COIN, and Diplomacy , 21 February 2008
  7. How America can survive and even prosper in the 21st Century – part I , 19 March 2007; revised 7 June 2008
  8. How America can survive and even prosper in the 21st Century – part II , 14 June 2008
  9. America’s grand strategy: lessons from our past , 30 June 2008  – chapter 1 in a series of notes
  10. America’s grand strategy, now in shambles , 2 July 2008 — chapter 3
  11. America’s grand strategy, insanity at work , 7 July 2008 — chapter 4
  12. Justifying the use of force, a key to success in 4GW , 8 July 2008 – chapter 5
  13. The world seen through the lens of 4GW (this gives a clearer picture) , (10 July 2008 — chapter 8
  14. Thoughts on fixing America’s national security apparatus , 11 August 2008
  15. The King of Brobdingnag comments on America’s grand strategy, 18 November 2008




6 thoughts on “How America can survive and even prosper in the 21st Century – part I”

  1. Thank you for starting with Lawrence and Nagel. Most people who spout off about insurgencies only seem to recognize Mao’s contributions, when most of his basic ideas were straight out of Seven Pillars. This, coupled with T.E. Lawrence’s discussion of the Middle East and the difficulties to be found there seem somewhat prophetic nowadays.

    Also, the analogy of changing the constitution of the liquid by thickening it is interesting (even if analogies are useless, or even dangerous to use), especially since some Air Force general used the same knife quote in a briefing, but instead talked about pounding two knives into a shape to simulate a spoon (which seems a way to destroy a perfectly good knife). I’m curious to see your grand strategy, and I have the feeling, to paraphrase Boyd that you could screw up and come up with a better strategy.

    Fabius Maximus replies: That is a fascinating connection, Lawrence to Mao. It is amazing how insights travel and evolve around the world.

  2. Duncan Kinder

    Re: Zugzwang (from the German “compulsion to move”).

    The great theorist on zugzwang was the chess master Aron Nimzowitch. Nimzowitch was, among other things, famed for his Immortal Zunzwang Game. From Jace D’s World Wide Web Site:

    Aron Niemzowitsch was a great chess player. His invention of the Hypermodern Chess Theory revolutionized chess…. His chess ideas changed forever how chess is played at the highest levels. Now, even the highest rated Chess Grandmasters in the world use Niemzowitsch’s chess ideas found in his book, My System. My System is written in a poetic and dramatic style that can even be enjoyed by non-chess players.

    The main strategies that Niemzowitsch came up with are
    (1) instead of occupying the critical center squares with pawns and/or pieces, to attack them from far away with knights or fianchettoed bishops,
    (2) to blockade isolated pawns with knights
    (3) Over-protection.
    These three ideas were so radical at the time that only a few chess players took them seriously.

    Niemzowitsch’s most famous game was against Samisch, and is called the Immortal Zugzwang Game. Zugzwang is when the opponent has to make a move, and every move loses. It is the greatest coup in chess. It is a German word and is pronounced “Tsutsvonk”. Niemzowitsch’s finest victory came in Karlsbad in 1929 ahead of Capablanca, Spielmann, Rubinstein, Vidmar and Euwe.

    As Edward Winter (chess historian) stated:

    Just as sacrifices are attractive because possession of material is usually an advantage, the appeal of Zugzwang is that possession of the move is almost invariably desirable. Difficult to define and translate, Zugzwang is, in all its possible forms, easy to enjoy. As the prize-winning Gerald Abrahams suggested on page 38 of Brilliance in Chess (London, 1977), ‘of all chess situations, Zugzwang is the one most likely to stimulate mirth’.

  3. “One minute decides the outcome of a battle, one hour the success of a campaign, one day the fate of empires.”: Aleksandr Vasilyevich Suvorov

    “Money is expensive during the war. Human life is more expensive. Time is the most expensive.”: unsourced, attributed to Suvorov

    Time may still be on the side of the American Empire. For many of Her ideals still attract a majority of the populace in other lands, offering an alternative lifestyle from the ones they cuurently possess. Perhaps if Fortune would smile on Her peoples and bless Her with CinCs who are NOT careerists, a positive outcome may present itself…
    Fabius Maximus replies: None of the challenges facing us are greater than those we have dealt with in the past. We just need to have some wisdom and work together.

  4. “The US government borrows vast sums each year from foreign governments to sustain our trillion-dollar military apparatus”
    Only about 10% true, where 10% is about the portion of Fed gov’t spending going to the military-industrial complex. The biggest portion, like the biggest long term threat, is borrowing for current entitlement consumption — of Other People’s Money. (Of course, if the trillion USD of today held by foreigners is devalued 10% per year through inflation, the real value is halved in only 6 years. When will China float its currency?)

    Your restatement of the US/ Western cultural offensive was great:
    America is the aggressor. The rest of the world is on the defensive. America is winning.

    (In music, the British Beatles / Rock is non-American Western)
    I have noticed that there are many David & Goliath type myths, where the small and weak are always the more righteous (Frodo, Harry Potter, etc). There are no myths of the strong, good, but imperfect King fighting with great difficulty against the weak and wicked. I’m sure that both Arabs and Muslims have their own righteous weak victorious against Great Satan myths (it would be good to know more about them, perhaps. More on the Koran…)

    Who is at fault?
    From all anti-American / most Bush-bashers POV, it is America. For not being perfect (by contradictory personal criteria of the particular hater), yet being too strong.

    I have no doubt that, as long as America really doesn’t try to colonize Iraq, its democracy values will “win”. What I see missing in the above analysis is the important focus in Iraq on “who”, as in named persons, will be getting American support to win, or, perhaps more relevant, who will NOT be allowed to win, like Sadr.

    The Big Base drama in Iraq will likely allow America to get half of the 300% they asked for, and allow the Iraqi politicians to claim political victory in standing up to the Americans. Of course, maybe the US only gets 10% of the 300% they ask for…

  5. If you want insight into what is really happening in Amerika, read “Rise of the Fourth Reich” by Jim Marrs. It is a haunting yet true look into the hostile takeover of American politics and corporate culture since WWII.

  6. RB : I’ve read a few chapters of Orson Scott Card’s “Empire”. A scary glimpse into a possible future…

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