Gavin E L Hall

Is the American Century Over?

Nye, J. (2014) Is the American Century Over? Cambridge: Polity Press

Joe Nye continues to place great emphasis on the merits of soft power in this analysis of the American Century. For the experience reader of Nye there is not a lot new in the book. Indeed the core argument could flippantly be summarised as No, 3-D Chess, and Soft Power. However, if you are looking for something easy to read and digest on a two hour train journey then this could well be the book for you.

Nye begins by exploring what is meant by the term ‘American Century’. The focus is on where the century should start and a variety temporal markers are discussed, which range from the dawn of the 20th Century up to the turn of the millennium. A spoiler would be unfair but, in light of our brief three point summary in the opening paragraph, you can safely assume that Nye envisages the American Century beginning towards the later end of the time frame.

The focus of the book then turns to the core of the argument which centres on whether the United States is in decline, the indicator of the ending of the American Century. Nye draws important distinctions between relative and absolute decline, and whilst he concludes that it maybe a fair summary that the United States is experiencing some form of relative decline the overall effect will have no bearing on its ability to project power and influence.

Power is attributed via three areas, military, economic and soft. Nye envisages no scenarios in which American military power will decline sufficiently that its place as the dominant global power will be threatened. He dismisses the use of purchasing power parity (PPP) as a useful measurement for assessing state power. Conveniently this is the metric which has seen China overtake the United States. Instead Nye focusses on the sophistication and greater depth of the United States economy and the fact that the US Dollar is the world’s reserve currency.

The core element of Nye’s thesis throughout his academic career has been the importance of soft power, even in its most intangible and unrealised form. He argues that soft power forms and important part of his interconnected 3-D Chess matrix, with military and economic all having an effect and influence upon each other.

Whilst the book primarily focusses on China as the challenger to America, sections are also dedicated to India, Brazil and Japan. Nye does concede that a European bloc, a federal one state European union, could compete with the United States, but that this is unlikely to be realised.

Consideration is given to the emerging global trends, especially the diffusion of power (see
The Future Declassified Review). However, he highlights an overly fearful United States that ’overreacts to terrorist attacks by closing inwards and thus cutting itself off from the strength it obtains from openness’ (p. 115-116) as a potential scenario that could precipitate decline. For Nye, this would mean a loss of soft power as well as the cost in blood (military) and treasure (economic).

It will be sometime before we enter a post-American world.

Deciphering Sun Tzu - How to Read The Art of War

Yuen, D. (2014) Deciphering Sun Tzu: How to Read The Art of War. London: Hurst


“As yin and yang are at once interconnected, interpenetrating, and interdependent in an uninterrupted manner, the polarity of the situation essentially rests in them (or the yin-yang continuum).” (p. 16)

Whenever an individual undergoes a new experience there is a point that is known as the light bulb moment. This occurs when the individual moves from participating in an experience to understanding the experience. In other words, a richer and deeper involvement is gained post-light bulb moment. It is likely that reading
Deciphering Sun Tzu: How to Read the Art of War by Derek Yuen is very much a light bulb moment for commentators on Western strategic thought, as the quote at the start of this review highlights the secret of the Chinese dialectical system and why it is predisposed to strategic thinking.

For unfamiliar readers, Sun Tzu was a Chinese military general who lived in the era of 550 BC to 500 BC in what is referred to as the Spring and Autumn period (722 to 481 BC) and immediately prior to the Warring States Period (481BC to 403 BC). He was one of several strategic commentators of the time, yet his military treatise
The Art of War remains the most influential. Traditionally it is viewed in terms of the 13 Chapters, however, there is evidence that more chapters existed and today’s publications include subsequent writings, letters and other musings. Chairman Mao credited The Art of War as being central to his securing of power.

Yuen divides
Deciphering Sun Tzu into six chapters that can be further subdivided into three distinct arguments. Chapters 1 to 3 focus on placing Sun Tzu within its appropriate context; to gain a true understanding of Chinese strategic culture we must also understand “language, culture, history, and philosophy” (p.13). Chapters 4 and 5 explore the traditional Western perspective for examining Sun Tzu and argue that there is little distinctive difference betweenThe Art of War and Carl von Clausewitz’s On War. Chapter 6 explores China’s strategic cultural paradigm to provide a critique of Western understandings of Chinese strategic thought. This review will focus on each segment in turn.

On the surface,
Deciphering Sun Tzu appears to be such a new piece of work that comparison and analysis is tricky. The strategic literature is well defined. Not since Martin van Creveld’s On Future War has there been a serious attempt to break the stranglehold of the Clausewitzian Trinity on Western strategic thinking. However, the philosophical segment of the book is arguably the most important.

The only way to truly understand the intricacies and subtleties of
The Art of War is to be able to place the book within its proper context. Only with understanding Chinese strategic culture can the true value of The Art of War be fully grasped.

This is not a new argument, or indeed one distinct to Sun Tzu. The chances are that the reader will be aware of some Clausewitzian maxims and may have read
On War. Indeed, this is the problem, as the Howard & Paret version , which is dominant in the West, demonstrates a free approach to translation and reinforces the dominant focus on war as a political instrument to suit our present nuclear weapons-led world. A change in the context of which a book is read and understood, and subtle changes in the language, can distinctly alter the message being received.

Chapters 4 and 5 focus on the notion that Clausewitz and Sun Tzu are not mutually incompatible but rather that a synthesis can be used to enhance overall strategic understanding. Yuen is particularly influenced by Basil Liddell Hart’s
The Strategy Indirect Approach, and John Boyd, who sadly never published his manuscripts but whose OODA (Observation, Orientation, Decision, Action) Loop is well known. Yuen focuses on these two authors as their ideas on warfare can be viewed through a Sun Tzu lens without too much alteration or re-modelling. The same does not hold true of the wider strategic commentators in the West. Therefore, Sun Tzu and Clausewitz may have a degree of synthesis within certain conditions and situations; however, the argument that they are not distinctly different cannot be said to be conclusive.

Does the West fully appreciate and understand the intricacies of Sun Tzu? Probably not. For example, Sir Lawrence Freedman denotes five pages out of six hundred out to Sun Tzu in
Strategy: A History. Does this actually matter?

Yuen is clearly attempting to influence Western decision-makers to have a deeper, more considerate, understanding of the Chinese position on a given range of issues. The basic premise is that China is an important global power and its ideas must be taken seriously as it transforms into a hegemonic position. The problem for the West is that if Chinese holistic approach to strategic culture is not understood along the lines Yuen highlights then it will not realise it is even in a confrontation, or how to compete, until the outcome has already been decided.

Deciphering Sun Tzu is primarily geared to the experienced strategic commentator as knowledge is needed to grasp some of the subtleties of the argument put forward. However, an inexperienced reader on the subject would still be able to gain the importance of understanding different culture and perspectives in which something is written, but they may lack the depth of knowledge specifically targeted in the book.

If you are still curious about whether to pick up and read this book, then the words of Sun Tzu himself should help you to decide:
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”


As an aside, for anyone that wants the best translations (most accurate) of On War and The Art of War together in one book then you should purchase The Book of War.

This article was originally published on 20th January 2015 by LSE Review of Books

The Future Declassified

Burrows, M. (2014) The Future, Declassified: Megatrends That Will Undo the World Unless We Take Action. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

“We live in an era of profound change. The status quo is not an option.” (p. 13)

The two opening sentences of the book set the tone for Burrow’s argument in
The Future Declassified and provide a neat summary of the core underpinnings of the text. However, the author does frequently point out that whilst some threats may occur as a result of this change it is not yet time for the doomsayers to break open their champagne equivalent. The outcome of the timeless struggle between good and evil will be decided by how the United States, the world’s righteous hegemon, responds to the challenges posed by this new world. And action is required now.

The book is essentially a presentation of the
Global Trends 2030 report and is heavily geared towards influencing American policy. However, this book appears to be aimed at bringing the report findings to a wider audience to generate pressure for change by gaining traction. As a result the book is split into three bite-sized chunks for mass digestion, with specific sections of society able to identify each part. How the world is changing (Megatrends), what will affect the world in the future (Game Changers), and what could happen (Alternative Worlds).

The significant trend, presented, is the empowerment of individuals and the wide-ranging implications that can be enthused from such a notion. Though Burrow’s does posit that the implications for the state and security are not necessarily negative he argues the diffusion of power will alter our current understanding of national government and multilateral organisations, especially the United Nations. The likely beneficiaries of new power are Greek style city-states and regions. Think David Cameron’s speech in the wake of the Scottish referendum stating his ambition “
to empower our great cities”.

In the second and third sections the focus shifts towards fictional ‘what if scenarios’, which will no doubt have a popular audience amongst the hyperbole seekers. The central problem is that the United States has under-performed in the post-Cold War era and has missed a number of opportunities by not planning adequately for the future. The significance of the structural changes taking place in the world could be better understood. Burrow’s states that the world has moved from the G7 in 1991 to the G20 today which is characterised by a growth in the overall number of the middle class, but represents a decline, in percentage terms, in the developed world of the global middle class population. The past has primarily involved the developed world as the main consumers of goods, i.e. spending money, whilst the goods being consumed have been built in the developing world. As the BRICs countries establish and grow their middle class how will this affect the availability of resources and supplies in the developed world? Would prices go up due to increased demand? Would this result in a net decrease in wealth effectively making the middle class poorer?

The potential for solving these problems and the more important question as to how the United States can better manage its future planning are more elusive. The short-term nature of government planning is highlighted and one assumes that the electoral cycle must be a new phenomenon in American politics. Furthermore, that the lack of vision and depth in planning is exacerbated by the increase in global competition. The worst scenario of all is the irreparable harm to global development from the United States losing its hegemonic position. This could be averted if the United States enhances its future planning and identifies the important role of technology in shaping our world, the ‘megatrends’. This is not a new concept but a revisiting of Heidegger’s assertion that ‘the essence of technology is not technological’. In short Burrow’s is arguing for a rebalancing of the subject/object relationship between human and machine.

When considering any form of analysis a degree of scepticism on the quality of the argument being presented occurs when the participants feel it necessary to state their former affiliation. The implication is that you should listen to them for whom they are not what they are saying and thereby the argument being presented is not able to stand up to outside rigour. Although Matthew Burrow’s, former counsellor National Intelligence Council (NIC) does fall into this category, as seems to be the trend in American Intelligence circles, the quality of the book is not undermined and the underlying message is important to be understood properly.

Although this book is based on the
Global Trends 2030 report and as such of limited utility to anyone familiar with the report, especially American policy makers, and that the focus of The Future Declassified is unashamedly American-centric, the first part does have a significant place in the literature. It presents the core changes that are affecting how the globalised world is developing in our technological-driven era. It fulfils a similar function to Christopher Coker’s The Future of War but on a broader geo-political scale. Though whether the core assumption that the world is better off with United States hegemony, as an innovative society that is central to democracy, is dubious at best it remains hard to argue that the United States does not need to shift its thinking and approaches in this new technologically driven era.

The Future Declassified is an argument for leadership through this era of change. After all that is what great powers do.


This article was originally published on 30th October 2014 by
LSE Review of Books

Government or governance - The Challenge of Liberia

Lowenkopf, M. (1995) 'Liberia: Putting the State Back Together'. in Hartman, I. (ed.) Collapsed States: The Disintegration and Restoration of Legitimate Authority. London: Lynne Rienner
Lloyd, R. (2006) ‘Rebuilding the Liberian State’.
Current History 105 (691), 229-233.
Reno, W. (1999)
Warlord Politics and African States. London: Lynne Reinner

The three texts for review provide important insight into the discussions surrounding how best to proceed with the post-conflict reconstruction in weak states, with particular reference to Liberia. In the case of Lloyd this is written after the United Nations intervention in 2003, so it is arguably a more reflective piece, in terms of the overall picture, than the others (2006). Lowenkopf, in particular, is writing during the height of the brutality of Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) and his various opponents. Though even with this in mind, his arguments in favour of local empowerment for the benefit of civic society play an important role in how post-conflict sub-Saharan African states operate today (1995). Meanwhile, Reno is writing during the Taylor’s legitimate sovereignty, and his work forms more of an explanation as to how and why power operates within weak states (1999).

Post-conflict reconstruction is a hotly debated topic, not in the sense of whether it is needed, but more fundamentally in how it can best be delivered. Traditionally Western donor states have pursued their own notion of what a state should look like, and tried to impose this onto a culture and society that historically has not been receptive to it (Jackson 1990). On the other hand is the Neopatrimonial viewpoint, which arguably represents the reality of how governance in sub-Saharan Africa actually operates in the post-Cold War world (Braton and Van De Walle 1997). This review will focus on the strands of this debate in reference to Liberia, via the arguments put forward in the three texts. The challenge was perhaps best summed up by The Financial Times when it described Liberia as ‘more criminal empire than government’ (2003).

In a post-conflict situation the fundamental questions as to who does this empowering and who will share power, and who will ultimately maintain the legitimacy symbols of the nation and state need to be addressed (Lowenkopf 1995). On the surface the argument appears to be a straight divide between Reno putting forward an argument based from Max Weber’s patrimonial governance, whereby the right to rule rests with the individual not the office (Weber 1968). Lowenkopf and Lloyd pursue the more Western centric notion of the state, where it is the state apparatus and bureaucracy providing the right to rule, though they do disagree on how to best rebuild the state. However, as they are looked at in more depth the distinctions between the lines of thought invoke a less constrained analysis, as the reality is much more akin to the melting pot that is reality.

Reno argues that the most important factor in the control of power within weak-states is the control of markets, and he goes onto develop this notion using four case studies, Sierra Leone, Congo, Nigeria and Liberia. He argues that the pursuance of warlord politics is a rational response to the unsustainability of very weak states, bought on by patronage politics (Reno 1999). This can be seen in the very origin of the conflict in Liberia. President Tolbert had essentially spent the 1970s acting as a classic neopatrimonial ruler, dispensing his patronage to bolster the Americo-Liberian elite (Braton and Van De Walle 1997). A degree of consternation built up over time, especially after the economic downturn of 1973 which led to a decline in the resources available for patronage, and subsequently political influence. This meant that the dominance of the regime suffered, which to Reno cements his position that the key to power originates from control of the markets (1999). Furthermore, one of the factors in the decline of the ability of a state to function comes from the patronage abuse that has bloated the bureaucracy to such a degree that it is no longer economically sustainable (Braton and Van De Walle 1997).

Lowenkopf puts forward the case for the traditional state institutions, which he argues comes from a good solid basis of social order and economy that enables the political system to flourish and thus serve the needs of the people (1995). He is arguing that local people will be able to rebuild the state from the bottom up if given the opportunity, establishing strong foundations of civic society. This seems like an overly idealistic notion, as the people of Liberia are largely displaced and have their basic needs, food and water, to attend to as a matter of importance. That being said Lowenkopf does highlight some areas that have been successful, such as the Special Emergency Life Food (SELF) which operates distributing food in Monrovia. Furthermore, they have also managed to transcend the conflict and help people on all sides by providing technical assistance to Liberians United for Self Help (LUSH) that operates in NPFL territory (Lowenkopf 1995). This would appear to give some credence to the argument, however, it could be that is an example of people doing what needs to be done rather than the forerunner to a grandiose state-building project as the people, in general, are unlikely to be outwardly thinking about macro politics as to them which particular type of “ruler” they have, be it warlord, President, or other system the reality is they expect corruption so it makes little real difference to the man on the street as to who is being called leader at any given time.

Lloyd sees the solution in terms of the Government being democratic and transparent, in order to have the confidence of the people, and from this maintain the ability to provide security (2006). Indeed it is the provision of security that he sees as the most important factor. It can be argued that this is an extension of the state maintains the monopoly of violence definition put forward by Max Weber. Following this through Lloyd is really arguing for the development of the traditional Western interpretation of the apparatus of state (2006). This comes across an archaic argument, as it is detached from the reality of the people’s experiences on the ground. If we look at policing in Liberia, for example, it is clear that the Police – as an institution of state and expression of the sovereignty of the state - simply do not exist in the same manner as we would perceive them through our Western eyes. The reality is much more akin to Lowenkopf’s notion of empowering the local populous to rebuild civic society from the ground up (Baker 2009 & 2010). This highlights the problems faced when trying to undertake post-conflict reconstruction, the end objective may well be agreed upon but the path to achievement is much less predetermined.

It should be realised that the importance of control of markets cannot be underestimated as every market that is under one sphere of influence is denied to the opponent, thus exacerbating the effect of that market on political influence even more (Reno 1999). Thus the fundamental basis of power in a warlord environment, and their key concern, is the maintenance of control of the markets. This is no different to colonial methods of doing business with the local strongman, and the concepts of Afrique utile and Afrique inutile, where in the modern context the key to power is the dominance of the Afrique utile sphere (Jackson 1990). Therefore, the use of patronage to keep supporters, and more so potential enemies, friendly to the warlord’s cause is the only real course of action available. This means that the state is kept weakened as it consolidates the warlord’s power base to do so. In other words, weak states become a self-fulfilling cyclic paradigm. This can be seen in the cases of Tolbert and Doe, both lacked sufficient capital to exercise the necessary patronage in order to appease their enemies. The fact that Taylor as an Americo-Liberian, the elite Doe had ousted, was able to led a successful coup against Doe, goes to illustrate just how weak Doe’s position had become in terms of his access to markets and political patronage (Reno 1999).

The distinction between the texts is not as definitive as first appears. Lloyd advocates in his conclusion that the solution to Liberia is to embark on revitalising the state towards democracy, yet he accepts that the patronage and utilisation of resource gain to benefit the Mano and Gio tribes as being a factor in the maintenance of Taylor’s power, and also via his overreach into Sierra Leone and Guinean markets his ultimate demise (Lloyd 2006). This clearly benefits Reno’s position and it can be argued that if the predisposition for power rests with the control of markets then how to alter the paradigm in favour of a state with both de jure and de facto sovereignty becomes of pressing importance. Indeed we see the markets, specifically the diamond trade, being of such over-riding importance that it was not only Taylor exploiting the markets, but also the Economic Community of West African States Ceasefire Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) forces, as well as other rebels (Atkinson 1997). Indeed there is evidence of business deals and collusion over the markets between the antagonists, specifically NPFL and ECOMOG (Reno 1996). Furthermore, Taylor was actually able to operate and run without either de facto or de jure sovereignty, and as such didn’t have access to the organs of state for traditional patronage and support, so it is important to understand that he is not fulfilling the modern neopatrimonial mould, but rather the original patrimonial concept (Reno 1999).

To move this on a stage further, if we follow Lowenkopf’s position through then it is mutually exclusive to Reno’s position, in terms of ultimate power. Lowenkopf would contend that the control of the markets is a factor, yet in his blueprint they are under the auspices of the state, and therefore by definition not subject to the influences of warlord politics, with ultimate power resting with society (1995). If we look at Liberia, up until Taylor is elected President in 1997, Lowenkopf’s assertion cannot stand up to scrutiny, as there is a of complete abstinence of statehood until Taylor eventually secures de facto sovereignty via the election, which on the surface appears to be free and fair, though the reality is one of little real choice for the suffering people of Liberia (Harris 1999). Reno attributes this to the control Taylor secured over the key diamond and timber industries, and as such his election can largely be seen as one of self-interest for the population, both in terms of economic self-benefit but also self-preservation (1996 & 1999). For Lowenkopf’s ideology to hold true then it becomes clear that the warlord system of Reno, needs to be overhauled entirely before reconstruction can begin (1995). To give an indication of scale, in 1995 diamond and gold exports were worth an estimated $300-$500 million (Atkinson 1997). Consider that against the GDP per person of Liberia, $1,269 in 1980 decreasing to $163 in 2005 and you have an idea of just how effective Reno’s assertion on the importance of controlling the markets to enable political patronage is (United Nations 2006). Therefore it is argued that,
‘The economic and political incentives for faction and government members to pursue illegal activities outweigh any incentives to work for peace or democracy’ (Atkinson 1997: 26).

This highlights the core problem facing post-conflict reconstruction, it has to be in someone’s interest or the chances of it arising are minimal. If we look to Reno then the argument is that if control of the markets can be incorporated into a peaceful solution, without impugning one side or the other then peace becomes of benefit (1999). Turning to Lowenkopf then the idea becomes one of rebuilding the state as an institution from the ground up, by engaging the populous on a local level to aid the cohesion of civil society (1995). Lloyd puts forward the notion that the rebuilding process comes from the top down, with an effective leadership that is backed by the main actors within the state, and is able to operate on a transparent democratic level (2006).

All three of the texts looked at for this review find their arguments as part of the matrix that makes up the post-conflict reconstruction of Liberia, therefore, they help to provide a greater depth of knowledge for not only understanding the cause and conduct of conflict but also provide the answers to the rebuilding process. Indeed the Africa Governance Initiative argues that with the reconstruction process underway since 2003 with the backing of the United Nations, and ultimately the election of President Johnson-Sirleaf 2006, Liberia is on the road to recovery, with $16billion invested over the past 5 years and annual growth around the 7% it can be said that Liberia is looking firmly towards the future, with government and people as partners in the endeavour (2011).


List of References
Africa Governance Initiative (2011)
Liberian President: Government and People are Partners in Progress [online] available from http://www.tonyblairoffice.org/africa/news-entry/liberian- president-government-and-people-are-partners-in-progress [09 Nov 2012]
Atkinson, P. (1997)
The War Economy in Liberia: A Political Analysis London: Overseas Development Institute
Baker, B. (2009) ‘A Policing Partnership for post-war Africa? Lessons from Liberia and Southern Sudan’.
Policing and Society 19(4), 372-389
Baker, B. (2010) ‘Resource Constraint and policy in Liberia’s post-conflict policing’.
Police Practice and Research 11(3), 184-196
Braton, B. and Van De Walle, N. (1997)
Democratic Experiments in Africa: Regime Transitions in Comparative Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Harris, D. (1999) ‘From ‘Warlord’ to ‘Democratic’ President: How Charles Taylor won the 1997 Liberian Elections’
Journal of Modern African Studies 37 (3), 431-455
Jackson, R. (1990)
Quasi-States: Sovereignty, International Relations, and the Third World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Lloyd, R. (2006) ‘Rebuilding the Liberian State’.
Current History 105 (691), 229-233
Lowenkopf, M. (1995) ‘Liberia: Putting the State Back Together’. in
Collapsed States: The Disintegration and Restoration of Legitimate Authority. Ed. by Zartman, I. London: Lynne Rienner
Reno, W. (1999)
Warlord Politics and African States. London: Lynne Rienner
Reno, W. (1996) ‘Business of War in Liberia’.
Current History 95 (601), 211-215
The Financial Times (2003)
A State of Collapse: Liberia is the Main Obstacle to West African Security. 27 June
United Nations (2006)
Liberia: Development Challenges Top Agenda as the Nation Recovers from Years of Civil Strife [online] available from http://www.un.org/events/tenstories/06/story.asp?storyID=2100 [09 Nov 2012]
Weber, M. (1968)
Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology Volume 2. New York: Bedminster Press