By Lucio Caracciolo
The United States of America is an Empire of Three Empires. The first is the state’s core spread across the North American continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The second is the West – a trophy conquered in World War II, that conjoins North America and Atlantic Europe to the US magnet while variously extending to Oceania, Japan, South Korea and the minor Asias for strategic, economic, and institutional affinities (liberal democracy plus rule of law). The third is metaphysical: the mission that God has entrusted to the chosen ‘altruistic community’ – the ‘unselfish commonwealth’ sung in 1916 by Woodrow Wilson, President and priest of the outgoing America – to redeem humanity from its sins. Together, they innervate the entire planet and circumterrestrial space in all physical, virtual, and spiritual dimensions. These three empires do not exclude a fourth: the immensity of the cosmos, towards which the ambitions of uninhibited pioneers connected to imperial agencies are directed.
The American empire has no parallel in universal history. No other is known that is endowed with the four special characteristics that together conspire to profile its geopolitical constellation: informality, inclusiveness, extraordinary military and economic potency, and limitlessness. The only exception is probably Ancient Rome, the Founding Father’s point of reference, that was capable of dressing its empire as a republic – the masterpiece of its own founding father Octavian Augustus – but contained in mobile limes (Latin for “boundaries”). This constraint does not apply to America, as it prevails on Earth because it is dominant over the seas of the World Ocean, a circuit that by definition cannot be delimited. Thalassocracy either is global or does not exist at all.
Of the US charisms, the first is decisive: informality. The United States is an empire, but does not declare to be one. Not so much because it arose from the rebellion of colonists no longer ready to tolerate the English pulling their reins – the narrative supporting current national American pedagogy which is being challenged by the geopolitically correct, for whom the heroes of the revolution were none other than gangs of racist slavers. The rejection of the forma imperii stems from the sacredness of the individual. Americans view themselves as a collective centred on the freedom of the individual. Not on the religion of empire, still less on its management, which is the privilege of the lowest strategic caste and the exuberant military apparatus. Institutions are constitutionally intended to serve the individual, and are therefore multiple and in a permanent virtual conflict that in times of crisis explodes into real conflict. Over time, these institutions have become elephantine and self-referential.
The archetypal American remains the pioneer who abandons land and family history to rediscover himself free and innocent in the boundless continent that Providence kept intact for him, at the disposal of his life project. Were it not for the detachment that homo americanus feels for politics, he would have to admit to himself he’s a born anarchist, with the rifle at his feet to protect himself from the intrusions of the little State that participating in a community obliges him to interact with. The tension between public power and the free individual is the hallmark of the American miracle and its recurring crises. These are violent crises because they are not mediated by a shared political culture – unless, that is, one considers apolitics as a political culture.
This supreme entity feels that its life is in danger. Not just because of classic territorial overexposure, an occupational disease of empires. Nor so much because of the threat of challengers, none of which – China included – comes close to America in even one of the four decisive parameters. No. The danger is the possibility of core meltdown. Inside the United States of America the temperature rises until it erodes moral, social, and institutional bindings. It assails and tears apart the human factor, the Alpha and the Omega of living together. Excited by the asocial media, the apocalyptic impulses imprinted in the American genome by the Protestant fundamentalism of the nation’s origins and replicated in the current nihilist drift, undermine the inland empire. A latter-day literature flourishes, obsessively harping on the civil war on the horizon if not even already in progress.
America doubts that it is still America. Trumpists are certain it is not. Make America Great Again means Make America America Again.
When the nation that does not want to be an empire stops recognising itself as one, it is on its way to losing itself and its world. The crisis of the first empire assails the second empire – including us, Italy, its loving province – and obscures the brand. The empire is not indispensable to the nation. But the nation is indispensable to the empire. Without the brand, both perish.
Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has been a means in search of an end. The enormous power of the means implies a supreme purpose: the Americanisation of the world. For the sake of the world and America. End of story. But the opposite is taking place. Americans no longer exude missionary energy and are too busy putting their own house in order to claim to be the harbingers of a Pax Americana Universalis. The rest of humanity – more than 96% of the species – does not envy the US as used to be the rule at the end of the last century, when you would scratch the anti-American and discover the fanatic of the American way of life.
The stars-and-stripes climate marks low internal pressure for lack of external pressure. The result is a loosening of ties of all kinds, from family to State to ‘friends and allies’. The basis and consequence of the crisis is cultural decline, which when translated into geopolitics becomes strategic uncertainty. The drift gets fuelled by the fragmentation of the apparatus and vice versa. Is it an infectious spiral? In the absence of shared purpose – like preventing the Reds from entering my home and subverting my life – the ties between and within communities and institutions are broken, from the universities, corrupted by political correctness, to the State a.k.a. the Federal Government, dominated by technocrats who are specialists of minimal details but disinterested in the objectives of the system in which they roam like infertile worker bees. There is an infallible way to distinguish a group of experts from a team engaged in a collective project: the product of the group of experts is worth less than the sum of its parts, whereas that of the team more.
Even the Deep State has lost count of the hyper-specialist imperial agencies and sub-agencies, visible or covert, in fierce opposition to the other actors in an archipelago that defies cartography. To say nothing of the Armed Forces, the imperial resource of first and last resort, demoralised by twenty years of lost ‘wars on terror’, the equivalent of blind fist-pumping.
The diagnosis is simple: there’s no Enemy who can destroy you at any moment, who forces you to gather your forces and set a course. Previously projected outwards, the violence that distinguishes the average American is now unleashed in and against the body of the nation. The emergency therapy adopted so far is to minimise exposure to war. An operation begun in 2007 under Bush Jr. via the realisation of how senseless the Iraqi adventure was, continued under Obama and Trump, completed by Biden and culminating in the withdrawal from Afghanistan (read backwards, a formidable operation to rearm the Taliban with the tools abandoned by the fleeing G.I.s). But America is not Costa Rica. Something must be done with its tremendous economic, technological, and military potential before that potential turns against it. For example, America could give purpose to the techies, experts in almost nothing and oblivious to almost everything.
Once upon a time, there was the Office of Net Assessment (ONA). And there was Andrew W. Marshall, alias Yoda, its legendary boss for 42 years (1973-2015). He lived in a modest office on the third floor of Circle A, at the intersection of corridors 9 and 10, a three-minute walk from the Secretary of Defence’s office, to which he reported directly. It overlooked the central courtyard – Ground Zero in “Pentagonese” – because it was estimated that in the event of war a Russian missile would vitrify the snack bar. On the armoured door there’s no sign, just the initials 3A932 and the button admitting to the quarry of knowledge. Inside, among classified documents and piles of books on the most varied subjects piled up on tables reduced to shelves, there would never be more than 17 people, many of them young. In the lair of Yoda – ‘The Boss’ to his people – there were no computers, although outside the office he happened to give a hand to Herman Kahn struggling with Monte Carlo simulations of the atomic bomb. When asked, the laconic Marshall would reply, when he couldn’t help himself: ‘I never get on the Net’. Then, when in a good mood, he would add that technology prevents one from grasping the political rationale for war. Marshall mastered high mathematics and Bayesian statistical inference. Perhaps that is why he used as little of it as possible.
The Office of Net Assessment still exists, even if someone in the Pentagon and its environs is thinking of closing it down. It is headed by James H. Baker, holder of a first degree in electrical engineering who evolved into a strategic analysis expert in contact with the Armed Forces top brass. Baker does not hail from among Marshall’s acolytes, the St. Andrew’s Prep. And it shows. He is a technician and therefore prepared. Some, even in Congress, accuse him of deviating from the precepts of Yoda to focus on urgent errands. Tactics. Yes, but what is – what was – net assessment?
If we had directed this question at Yoda he would have glowered at us with his unblinking blue eyes that could have belonged to his grandfather. To one of his fresh co-workers, who asked him if they weren’t doing geopolitics, he replied: ‘Shut up. And work’. Net assessment is not definable, not even translatable into other languages. It extracts the net profit (the assessment) from the gross profit (the data). Its neatness, or purity, also lies in independence from bureaucracy and military and political power. The net assessor, according to Marshall, ‘thinks totally outside the Pentagon box’ for the direct profit of the Secretary of Defence, to whom he reports. In fact, ONA documents are covered by secrecy, except in rare cases. Marshall did not accept recommendations from the powerful on which subjects to study ‘because they corrupt the analysis’ – or if he did accept them, he did not admit it. The analyst’s task is to diagnose problems, not to provide solutions. Better a relevant question well posed than grandiose answers to irrelevant questions. The field of investigation of the Marshall canon is what the late Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, an admirer of Yoda, christened ‘unknown unknowns’. That is to say, all that we don’t know we don’t know.
The principles, moral before professional, of the net assessor are as follows.
First and decisive. Net assessment is relational, not self-referential. You cannot be your own net assessor. The goal is the comparison of the overall strength ratio, not just a military comparison, between you and your opponent. Strive to think with your head and feel with your heart. For the first ten years of the Marshall administration, the opponent was the Soviet Union, from the mid-1980s onwards, China. (Incidentally, it does not appear that his successor regards the Chinese danger as occupying centre stage). In war games, the defender is the blue team (US), the attacker is red (USSR or China). Marshall did not limit himself to following the book, to the incurably quantitative war games, but integrated suggestions and qualitative approaches from the most diverse disciplines, above all history, into the analysis. The serious analyst works by induction not deduction. He is sceptical and reserved (Marshall: ‘There is no limit to the good you can do if you do not care who the good is attributed to’). He assesses the intangibles, which as such are immeasurable. The net assessor dislikes mathematical supercomputer models because they fit the data to the expected outcome and neglect irrational variables. As one of Marshall’s scholars puts it: ‘There seem to be two kinds of people in the world: those who build mathematical models, and those who focus on the world. The two groups usually don’t talk to each other. Each plays to a different audience. The modeler gains status by impressing other modelers and giving talks at professional societies. Those who focus on the world usually don’t go to such meetings. (…) In place of modeling complex and thinking simple, net assessment tries to model simple and think complex.’
Second. One looks far ahead. The seeds of the subject matter being analysed are traced in the long-term historical flow and traced back over a 30-year span from the present day. In the forever-provisional analysis, one jumps back 20 years and fathom the horizon 5 to 10 years in the future, sometimes more. The devil lies in the tyranny of the immediate: the prescription demanded by the powerful, overwhelmed by the need to solve a rebus in the blink of an eye. Marshall scrutinised long – backwards and forwards – because he was concerned with strategy, not tactics. He would even give his boys, some very young, two or three years to build a report based on a what-if scenario, an analysis of what might happen given certain conditions and related variables.
Third. The final product is never definitive. It must reduce and interpret the amount of source data, either from agencies in fierce conflict with each other or from private contacts selected by Yoda. Marshall disliked the CIA and intelligence in general, and with some exceptions detested economists. Spies and economists had in common, among other things, an overestimation of the USSR. Kissinger, who added diplomats to the two aforementioned categories, suggested in 1972 to President Nixon – who extended his contempt to the political-media establishment – to call Marshall to head the new office in order to have an overall analysis, cleansed of the myopic and incoherent overhang expectorated by the plethoric technocracies stuck in institutional self-interest.
Marshall’s precepts do not seem to have taken root in American strategic thinking, let alone practice. He himself, in recent years, deprecated the waste of resources on useless wars, from Afghanistan to Iraq, at the expense of focusing on the strategic threat, China. The trouble is that relational net assessment only works when there is the Enemy, not with the Evil Queen’s mirror on the wall. The Marshall method presupposes bipolarity. It expired in 1991 and cannot be reinvented. This is confirmed by Big War, which exalts the asymmetry of the United States-China-Russia triangle, three unequal giants all grappling with the fragility of their domestic assets and therefore unwilling to play for the highest stakes in the third and triangular world war.
The Empire of the Three Empires remains ahead of its supposed rivals. It is by no means doomed to disintegration. As long as it establishes a hierarchy: save the first empire by demarcating the second and muting the third. And follow Plato’s advice: ‘Allow the State to increase so far as is consistent with unity; that, I think, is the proper limit.’
(translated by Mark A. Sammut Sassi)