ON-Lion Letter

"Good strategy requires a sound understanding of one's rivals," begins a January essay by Jakub Grygiel for The American Interest.  "A rival in any walk of life is, in a sense, an interlocutor.  To engage him effectively in debate one must understand his speech and reasoning patterns.  Without that knowledge, conversation is at best pointless, at worst self-defeating.  So it is in strategy.  It is futile to engage in competition with a rival power without having at least an inkling about his thoughts, fears, and desires.

"The modern Western penchant for trusting in the equal rationality of all suggests otherwise," he continues in "Know Thy Enemy."  "According to this conceit, there is no reason to plumb the nature of an enemy's thinking because it is no different in essence from one's own.  But this is wrong.  A rival's response to one's strategy is not predictable as a simply rational and universal reaction that can be generalized and grasped with relative ease.  Rival states or groups respond to similar actions in different ways based on their culture, worldview, history, and the proclivities of their leaders.  Good strategy, as Bernard Brodie once put it, 'presupposes good anthropology and good sociology.'"

Grygiel is the George H. W. Bush Senior Associate Professor of International Relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and a Bradley Fellowship Program faculty nominator.  He is also a senior fellow in the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, which is substantially supported by The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee, and a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis.

"One of the earliest examples we have of 'good anthropology' -- or rather, of being able to put oneself in the mind of the enemy -- is in a 5th-century BCE Greek tragedy, The Persians, written by Aeschylus," Grygiel continues.  "This drama recounts the moment when the Persian court and queen learn of Emperor Xerxes's defeat by the Greeks in the 480 BCE naval battle near Salamis. ...  It ends with the arrival of the Persian king himself, in rags and with few men left, lamenting his enormous loss 'in triple banks of oars' -- a reference to the fearsome Greek triremes.  The genius of the tragedy resides in part from the fact that it is told from the Persian perspective, with no Greek characters present.  It thus stands as a Greek assessment of the Persian enemy's mindset and political regime, and a brilliant one at that.

"[A] great power risks defeat when it lacks figures like Aeschylus, poets who can feel the enemy before they face him in battle," Grygiel concludes.  "Competition and war are not driven by mathematical equations but are a clash of minds and wills, fears and desires, often only loosely connected to the material capabilities at hand.  In the geopolitical competitions that we are facing and are likely to face in the future, do we have our own Aeschyluses?"

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