Edward Luttwak Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Strategy: Conversation with Edward Luttwak, Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Georgetown University; by Harry Kreisler, March 10, 1987

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War Strategy in a Democracy

A problem that I keep hearing in what you're saying is one of democratic accountability. The realm of strategy has its own rules and, if you look at the ideal form, its [own] logic. Often it seems to be incompatible with the normal way of doing things. When we have democratic accountability, we wind up doing a lot of things in the wrong way. What is the answer there? We're not going to put our military off to one side and let it do whatever it wants. Is this the task of political leadership, to integrate these two realms?

First of all, not all the military does reflect the logic of strategy. I was merely pointing out that somewhere among the inertness of the military tradition is a lot of unconscious and unacknowledged logic.

But, to address your question, the problem is much more severe when we don't look at all this technical stuff but look at the level of high statecraft, grand strategy if you like. There we have a very severe problem. I'll give you a very straightforward and familiar example of it: in the question of détente. In the 1970s, we had détente with the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union wanted to improve relations, for all kinds of reasons. But one reason was that the alternative of war was foreclosed. The Soviet leaders, whether peaceful or not peaceful, looking at us, would say, "The United States is very strong; we can't easily defeat them. Now we have a choice: do we try to extend cooperation and get technology and capital from them, or do we remain very nasty with them and don't?" So they went on the path of détente. That meant that American leaders had to stand up and say two things: "I'm a great president, I have improved relations with the Soviet Union and we're now very friendly. Look at me, here is me hugging Brezhnev. This is my wife hugging Mrs. Brezhnev." And then they had to turn around and say, "But you know, by the logic of strategy, the reason that we have good relations is because we are strong and could hit them. And the reason they want to have good relations is because we are strong. And therefore, my dear citizens, after you finish applauding me for my ability to hug and kiss Brezhnev, the next thing you have to do, you have to fund me."

Now, we have the problem with Gorbachev in a more acute form. Mikail Gorbachev is now smiling and so on because, in the range of his choices, one choice he does not have is to launch an attack and win a splendid and easy victory. So, here you have an acute problem.

But when you get to the more technical stuff, I think the institutions we have enable us to bridge the logic if we want to. If a military man goes before Congress and says, "Sir, this is the Manpower Subcommittee and you notice that we have a lot of units under strength, at the same time we have a lot of people not assigned to units, milling around depots. The reason, sir, is because, although we recognize that it would be much more efficient to assign everybody instantly, the fact is that we're trying to preserve the cohesion of these units, and their sense of togetherness, because that's something we consider very important."

Congressmen understand that. Congressmen would instantly appreciate it with regard to that one issue, that the common sense logic that you should not have both a factory undermanned and workers on the payroll that are not working does not apply to this case. So I believe we have the institutions, the specific institutions like congressional committees and so on, that can sit down and focus at least on these subjects, where we can bridge this logic if the military themselves consciously understand it, which they mostly don't do. But to the extent that they can understand it, they can literally present it, we can bridge the gap.

It's much more difficult at the higher political level with regard to the broader issues, where strategy requires you to behave always in a contradictory way. If you want to be friendly with the Soviet Union, you have to be strong. If you find yourself in a position of weakness, you, yourself, are compelled to ruin relations with Moscow in order to create an atmosphere of hostility which enables you to have the strength for the sake of being able to have a détente afterwards.

What exactly is the problem here? Is it that our political leaders haven't been courageous enough to engage in the political education that requires them to say, "We have to negotiate and reach agreements, on the one hand, but at the same time, we have to arm?" Are they afraid to do that? Or they just haven't been smart enough? What is the problem?

I think that they have recoiled before the complexity of communicating these things. Although the specific example I gave you, which is the relationship between détente and so on, eventually -- once we engaged ourselves for long enough and went round this round-about time and time again -- this idea did penetrate. It could be argued that our leaders could have avoided a lot of troubles by, in fact, engaging in more education and be willing to confront the complexity of the question.

The logic of strategy [may not always be] relevant. In our relations with Canada, for example, the logic of strategy is not relevant. If we are going to be very smart and conflictual and out-maneuvering of the Canadians, we would not be doing good for ourselves, we'd be doing harm. What we want to have between us and Canada is precisely not strategy. The logic of common sense applies; that is, we want to have a creative, cooperative relationship. We don't want to score point over Canadians.

Insofar as one is dealing with, let's say, the Soviet Union, there too, we don't want to apply just the logic of strategy. We want to, if we can, build cooperative relations, and we have in some areas. The air - sea rescue in the Bering Straits, we don't ask ourselves how we can score points but we do the best we can to rescue people and to help them rescue us and vice versa. But clearly, strategy occupies a substantial part of the territory of U.S. - Soviet relations. Fundamentally, to the extent that strategy is present, we always ought to be contradictory. That's hard to do because in each case it requires explanations across this gulf that exists between one logic and the other.

So maybe we haven't been blessed with presidents who can deal with the complexity of moving from one realm to the other, because the strategic realm is clearly different from their domestic realm, or, as you just suggested, with the realm of dealing with allies.

With allies too, there are always undertones of strategy. But it is not an accident. It's not just a personal issue that we are not being blessed with presidents. We manufacture politicians who are responsive to our society. As you suggest, in fact, our process evolves people who can operate according to the logic of common sense. And yet, once they get out there and have to bat for the country in the international arena, common sense is only right for them insfar as they are dealing with cooperative issues, which we may have even with the Soviet Union. To the extent that they are involved with conflictual, adversarial relations, their whole preparation, through the domestic process, has been the wrong one.

You may contrast, if you wish, with the preparation that a Communist Party leader receives. In order to make it up through the ranks of the Communist Party, the politician has to engage in what we may call a protracted guerilla war. He has to find little allies, fight off against other cliques, embarrass them, surprise them, maneuver the opposing clique into being responsible for agriculture when the harvest is bad.

All of this is done in secrecy, which is very warlike. In peacetime, secrecy is a great drag, and inefficient in every possible way, you avoid it of course, you wan to inform people, you advertise, send memos around. In the Communist Party, they operate exclusively in secrecy. The internal politics of the inner party are always a secret. Secondly, surprise and deception are very important. For one clique to move against the other, they have to maneuver in a really agile sense.

By the time they get to the top and they sit in the Politburo, they know about information as propaganda, they know about secrecy. They've lived in it all their lives. They know about maneuver. So, I would say that the training the Communist Party gives is a much worse training for the sake of successfully managing a civilian society to become more prosperous, but it's just the right training you need for politics as war. That is, politics with a high strategic content.

It's interesting in that regard that the Soviet leaders have not, generally, been very good at dealing either with their domestic problems or with their allies such as they are. But very successful externally. After all, they're a big superpower with just over half the economic base we have, with really a very small fraction of the economic base of the United States and all its allies.

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