Friday, April 28, 2006

# Posted 5:10 PM by Patrick Porter  

A MIGHTY FINE BOOK: I strongly recommend Alastair Iain Johnston's study of strategic cultures and Chinese Grand Strategy, which I am rereading.

It asks whether there are identifiable persistent patterns in the way statecraft in China viewed the role of war, defined its adversaries and threats, and ordered its strategic preferences. It takes as its case study the history of the Ming dynasty's decisions and decision-making process in relation to the Mongols.

Its a very rigorous book, notable in particular for trying to ensure that his argument is closely defined enough to be falsifiable. Its fantastic actually. Strongly recommend it.
(4) opinions -- Add your opinion

Porter, love, so much better. You are so cute when you don't have to make little jar-jar jokes or suck off Churchill. Loves......I'll be going now.
Anonymous...your waste of space on this blog is shameful. Your commentary hardly rises above the level of gonorrhea-ridden ejaculate. (I just stooped...didn't I? Oh well, fuck it. This guy's a jizzhead.)

Save yourself the carpal tunnel, and other interested readers the disgust, until you can lay something on us that might actually coincide with your toilet humor imperiousness.
what sort of froggie name is Alhazredeliot? Your response makes me ill. You have a perverted mind, you Iranian goat-lover.
OK people, let's keep it clean. Dr. Porter has a thick skin and won't think twice about those who bravely taunt him from behind the veil of anonymity.

Now let's get down to matters of substance. Personally, I am very surprised that a historian such as Dr. Porter would take 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...
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