John Quincy Adams — The Grand Strategist

John Quincy Adams, the 6th president of the United States. Image: J.C. Tichenor/Wikimedia

This article was originally published by the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) on 7 May, 2015.

Who knew that John Quincy Adams (1767-1848) was so interesting? Or that he was probably the most sleep deprived and crankiest U.S. President ever to live in the White House?  Or that he wrote in a journal  every day — totaling some 17,000 pages and 51 volumes — since he was twelve until the day he died on the floor of Congress in 1848?

The word “fascinating” doesn’t begin to describe this man. But unfortunately for John Quincy Adams, his father has seemed to eclipse him in many ways.  David McCullough’s wonderful biography of John Adams, which was turned into a popular HBO series, cemented the founding father’s stature in the collective American conscience.  Thus, many of us only know John Quincy as a sequel, a trivial pursuit question: “Which eighteenth-century U.S. President had a son who also became a U.S. President?”  It is always, it seems, this way with sequels.  They never quite measure up in our minds and in our hearts.

Solving the ‘Rise’ Dilemma: How the Chinese Silk Road Initiative Could Challenge the United States

Symbolic image of a clash between the US and China. Image: Iecs/Wikimedia

On March 28, China’s National Development and Reform Commission and Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Trade presented the first national action plan to promote the “One Belt, One Road” initiative (一带一路, Yīdài yīlù). This initiative has become the economic and diplomatic priority of Chinese President Xi Jinping since the presentation of two complementary projects in late 2013: a “Silk Road Economic Belt” throughout the Eurasian continent, and a “21st century Maritime Silk Road”, connecting the South China Sea to the Mediterranean Sea. These initiatives aim to boost economic integration on the Eurasian continent and its peripheral seas through the construction of an infrastructure network. Beijing has been pursuing this goal through the creation of an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which has been joined by 56 countries including France and Germany, recently announced investments worth $46 billion to build a China–Pakistan Economic Corridor bypassing the Strait of Malacca, and the creation of a $40 billion Silk Road Fund.

The Right Stuff in Foreign Policy

President Barack Obama ponders a question during an interview.

Some critics complain that US President Barack Obama campaigned on inspirational rhetoric and an ambition to “bend the arc of history,” but then turned out to be a transactional and pragmatic leader once in office. In this respect, however, Obama is hardly unique.

Many leaders change their objectives and style over the course of their careers. One of the great transformational leaders in history, Otto von Bismarck, became largely incremental and status quo-oriented after achieving the unification of Germany under Prussian direction. Likewise, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s foreign-policy objectives and style were modest and incremental in his first presidential term, but became transformational in 1938 when he decided that Adolf Hitler represented an existential threat.

A New Bipolarity, or Just Different Cultures?

Image by batintherain/Flickr.

Michael Wesley comes with a thoughtprovoking idea: bipolarity is back, but it is not between old or new major powers or alliances, but rather between two communities of states – the Atlantic one which includes the Americas, Europe and Africa on the one hand, and Asia on the other. While the idea doesn’t convince me, it is certainly worth debating. Let me put a few question marks to it.

I guess what Michael really describes is not a ‘polarity’ of any sort (there are no poles in his picture), but rather a division between (or simply the coexistence of) different political-strategic cultures. And here, regardless of the details, he has a point.

Different ‘conceptions of how the world works’ are prevalent in different parts of the world, and they are indeed too relevant to ignore, both analytically and in practical terms. Political and strategic cultures impact on the way states deal with disputes, with issues of war and peace, and on how they cooperate or don’t cooperate with others. There are certainly important differences here between, say, the US and Japan.

An Impediment to Global Governance – Strategic Culture

Image: shutterstock

In today’s discussion of global interdependence, we highlight a common weakness of those who advocate increased global governance – e.g., the belief that the cluster of values and beliefs that support the concept are universal and not culturally bound. This is of course not true – any attempts at formal global governance must reflect the principle of socio-political subsidiarity if it is to succeed. But in embracing the principle of maximum local control, the seed of collective governance’s destruction, or at least its diminished strength, is at hand. One reason is that the localism represented by subsidiarity is not necessarily compatible with global governance, and the reason for that might be a nation-state’s strategic culture.

According to the political scientist Jack Snyder, strategic culture “refers to a nation’s traditions, values, attitudes, patterns of behavior, habits, symbols, achievements and particular ways of adapting to the environment and solving problems with respect to the threat or use of force.” Alastair Johnston, in turn, defines strategic culture as a “system of symbols…which acts to establish pervasive and long-lasting strategic preferences by formulating concepts of the role and efficacy of military force in interstate political affairs, and by clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the strategic preferences seem uniquely realistic and efficacious.” These definitions are a big improvement over their less “scientific” forefathers – i.e., the 19th century, Social Darwinist notion of “national character.” Ardant du Picq, for example, noted in his infamous “Battle Studies” (one of the founding texts of the 19th century European military Cult of the Offensive) that the French military historically had no choice but to be offensively-minded. After all, the typical Frenchman was too skittish, nervous, glory hungry, and “Latin” to ever prefer defensive over offensive warfare. (Never mind the Maginot Line.) This type of stereotyping was quite common in the late-19th and early 20th century, but its crudity and caricaturing of nations and peoples soon caused it to lapse into disfavor. The typical Japanese soldier, if we recall, was often portrayed as a robot, an ape or as lice in virulent WWII propaganda, which was nothing if not the ungainly child of earlier “national character” parents. So, it’s interesting to see how the concept of strategic culture has dubious roots, got sanitized over time and yet gained explanatory power in the process. National obsessions and myths do remain an impediment to transnational governance.