Saturday, April 29, 2006

# Posted 7:51 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

CIVIL WAR ON OXBLOG! It's been a good long time the contributors to this website have engaged amongst themselves in the sort of knock-down, drag-out intellectual warfare that was once relatively common. However, now that I have been provoked by Dr. Porter's high praise for a certain book about Chinese military strategy, I must respond with forceful criticism. (NB: I have also appended the following remarks as a comment to Dr. Porter's original post.)
Personally, I am very surprised that a historian such as Dr. Porter would take Iain Johnston's book about Chinese grand strategy even remotely seriously.

For those who haven't read the book, the core of Johnston's argument is that Chinese strategic culture rests on a foundation of seven classic tests which recommend what Westerners might recognize as a "realist" approach to grand strategy.

As I see it, the critical weakness of Johnston's argument is that he simply assumes that these seven classic texts had a fixed meaning and influence on Chinese culture over the course of centuries and even millenia.

As a historian of religion, Dr. Porter certainly knows that foundational texts in the West have been subject to radically different interpretations, not just over the course of centuries, but at the very same moment in time. For example, is there any consensus at all about the meaning of the Bible?

As a historian of war, Dr. Porter probably knows that the foundational text of Western military strategy, Clausewitz's "On War", had its meaning twisted by the author's fellow Germans not long after his death. Tragically, a clear understanding of Clausewitz might have halted German aggression and spared Europe the horrors of the Great War.

In the final analysis, I believe that Johnston, in spite of his prodigous research and impressive command of ancient Chinese, falls prey to the wholesale reductionism that has plagued modern political sceince.

Historians tend to resist reductive assertions that a certain culture is, in toto, either "realist" or "idealist" or anything else. Cultures are conflicted things, with different currents constantly rising and falling in influence.

Historians also tend to resist reductive assertions that a single aspect of culture, e.g. "classic" texts, can explain the whole. As pointed out above, texts are open to numerous interpretations (a point not to be confused with the post-modern dogma that texts have no meaning at all.)

And if you will permit me to generalize about historians one more time, I will suggest that most of them would resist any effort to reduce a great power's strategic behavior to the influence of its culture. Although culture is powerful, economic interests, perceptions of threat and numerous other factors shape strategic thinking.
And now for a response from Dr. Porter?

UPDATE: I should point out that the entire text of Johnston's book can be searched via Google. However, you will need to establish a login and password before being able to search.
(5) opinions -- Add your opinion

I've been saying Porter is insane for quite some time.....perhaps I should create my own blog....Portermustgo.com....
Just like the MSM's version, false tho' it may be, of China's economic powers, so do I see the fears for China's long term, not short, strategic plans as will 'o the wisps.
Especially after reading Eberstad's great Policy Review essay; "Growing Old the Hard Way: China, Russia, India"
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