Sarah Paine is a Professor of History and Strategy at the US Naval War College, as well as the author of several acclaimed books on Military History. This was an extraordinary podcast. Grateful to Dwarkesh Patel for reading Prof Sarah Paine’s books and interviewing her. Riveting exposition of military strategy or specifically grand strategy by Prof Paine, Grand Strategy is the coordination of all instruments of national power incl economic resources in pursuit of national objectives.  Fascinating explanation of how in WW1, all european powers, and in WW2, Japan, let go of grand strategy.

Her distinction between Maritime and Continental powers is fascinating. The canonical examples are Britain and Russia respectively.  She explains the two models of colonisation basis what kind of power you are. Fascinating explanation of why China is a continental power despite a large coastline (because its threats come via land).

She also details of some powerful mental models such as Death Ground (where you have no choice but to now fight to death), Half-court Tennis (where you do not factor in the opposition’s strategy into your game) etc. 

Really good podcast episode this. It is fun to hear these chats with scholars who are at the top of their game.


Grand Strategy

Sarah Paine: Grand strategy is the integration of all relevant instruments of national power in the pursuit of national objectives. If you think about modern governments in the West, they have cabinets and they sit before the president. Those cabinet portfolios represent the different instruments of national power. Can you imagine trying to run foreign policy without having those people at your table and coordinating? 

If you look at countries that have not coordinated all instruments, for instance, Japan in World War Two versus Japan during the prior period of the Meiji Restoration, by the time the Japanese got into World War Two, they were really prioritizing the Army and the Navy too, but the military was their main instrument of national power. They were not coordinating with civilians. They assassinated those people and got into deep, dark trouble. They didn’t listen to their finance minister who told them it was unaffordable. So yes, grand strategy is absolutely necessary. 

Look at World War I when they didn’t practice it and the civilians allowed the officers to make all decisions. Britain is a country that is maritime by geography but then they built a continental sized army. That is not Britain’s great strength in World War I. The victory in World War I was at the horrific cost of the beginning of the end of the British Empire. 

World War I has enormous consequences. All sides allowed their generals to make strategy. No one is doing grand strategy in World War I. It’s all about operational success, this is what we’re all going to do. And then the generals keep sending up waves and waves of young men up over the trenches. What do you think is going to happen to them if you send them over the trenches? This is how you get these horrific death rates. Hundreds of thousands in a battle. In our own day it’s inconceivable. 

You have a massive power vacuum because of that war. Not only does it upend Europe by getting rid of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the German Empire, the Russian Empire, but it puts two really pernicious ideologies on steroids. Fascists and communists. And that’s how you get all that evil 

Death Ground

Sarah Paine: A useful concept comes from the Samuel Griffith’ translation of Sun Tzu, which talks about death ground. What’s death ground? It’s when your enemy puts you on death ground, which means they’re going to kill you, and therefore, you have no choice but to fight, because if you don’t fight, you’re dead. And even if you fight, your odds are poor, but at least that’s the only way you’re going to get out. 

…The (Japanese) leadership had put themselves on death ground. Basically the problem for Tojo Hideki is that if he backs down on anything, he’s out of office and then he doesn’t know what happens after that. So he personally is on career death ground and he thinks, and we were planning to, that he would get executed at the end of the war. But the Japanese people eventually figured out that they weren’t on death ground. In fact, the Japanese people were so exhausted by the whole thing that the society shattered. 

Maritime vs Continental Empires

Sarah Paine: Russia is a classic continental empire. What it owns is contiguous. Britain’s empire was all about trade and having enough coaling stations around the world. That was initially what it was all about. You have coaling stations everywhere and then you want to get the trade through. And then what the British did is they trained barristers all over the world, barristers are lawyers. That lays the basis, not on purpose, of having international law where people who are eventually going to be running these independent countries have a legal training to use international law to their own kind of benefit. 

But anyway, Britain has this non-contiguous empire and after the war, it does not have the ability to hang on to them because of nationalism. Nationalism starts in the Napoleonic Wars. That’s what Napoleon leverages to create the mass of his armies because French people feel nationalism and it’s incredibly powerful. And nationalism has been spreading its way around the world ever since. Once you have nationalism, have fun hanging on to a non- contiguous empire because the locals are going to fight and resist. There won’t be commercial advantages because it’ll be too expensive to hang on. 

Britain, in most cases, did not fight to hang on to its empire. It left and negotiated its way out. Whereas France did the fight in Vietnam, which it lost, and the fight in Algeria, which it lost. The British didn’t do that. 

Dwarkesh: Why doesn’t China think like a continental power? They have a vast coastline where a lot of their wealth is around that coastline. As far back as the 15th century, you have these huge Navy’s. Wasn’t it Zheng He that had a bigger navy and far bigger ships than Columbus. 

Sarah: Having a continental location is not a choice, it’s a fact of geography. If you look at China, it has a huge land border. Sure, it’s got a huge coastline as well but historically, where have China’s national security threats come from? From the North, the Northwest. If you look where the passes are of people coming on in or down straight through Manchuria, etc. 

China, in order to maintain its empire and just dominate China itself along with keeping these other people out, has had to have a large standing army. When it has built a large navy like Zheng He, is when it’s got extra pocket change. If you have extra money then you can go do this. But if that changes and you have trouble with people on your borders, you’ve got to spend your money that way. 

It’s very difficult to have a world-class navy and a world-class army. If you think about Britain, it maintained the big navy and always had a tiny army until they ramped it up in World War One, which was the beginning of the end for them, as being the dominant power that they had been. 

Sarah: I gave the Marshall lecture that was published in General Military History. In it, I summarize my views on what the difference between a continental and maritime power is. And that’s one of my big career takeaways. It’s a fundamentally different way of looking at the world. 

Putin honestly looks at the world like, “If I control territory, that’s what makes me secure.” Maritime powers, start with Britain, which is, “Hey, mine’s secure if I can maximize money from commerce.” Because then I can buy a Navy and buy allies with armies and stuff. And then eventually this order of organizing trade by international law, and the Dutch Republic is instrumental in this with Hugo Grotius, who is the founding father of international law. They want to run transactions by law, et cetera. This is an international order that’s win-win. You join it, you get security. You have input on how it evolves because it’s a work in progress. 

Whereas this continental thing is negative sum. And you can see it in Ukraine. Putin wants more territory. Okay, he took Eastern Ukraine and he took Crimea in 2014. But it’s negative sum because he destroys whatever businesses had been being run in Donbass and he absolutely kills most of the tourist industry. And then you can look to today, it’s so negative sum in Ukraine. He is destroying wealth at a really rapid clip. It’s really a stupid way to run things. 

If the PRC tries to take Taiwan, it’s a continental view. Somehow they think more territory is going to improve their security. No, they’ll level it and they’ll hurt themselves. Whereas if they just ignore the Taiwan thing and say, “Oh, they’re so annoying, let them run their own place who wants them anyway.” and then trade with them, they’ll both make money. That’s my biggest career takeaway. 

Compounding of growth rates, and the importance of sanctions

Dwarkesh: The compounding is a very important point because Tyler Cowen has an example of this in one of his books: that if U.S. economic growth rates had been 1% lower every year from 1890 to the 20th century, the U.S. per capita GDP would be lower than that of Mexico’s. 

Sarah: This is how sanctions work. People look at sanctions and go, “Oh, they don’t work because you don’t make whoever’s annoying you change whatever they’re doing.” What they do is they suppress growth so that whoever’s annoying you over time, you’re stronger and they’re weaker. And the example of the impact of sanctions is compare North and South Korea. It’s powerful over several generations. 

Half-court tennis

Sarah: One of the things that I think Americans are particularly prone to is what I call half-court tennis. They study the world from their point of view. So they’re always focused on Team America. It’s like half-court tennis, they look only at their side of the court. Balls come from mysterious places. Some people get new rackets. Who knows where they come from? And then somehow I’m going to play this game. Think about people who love football in the States. They know about all the opposing teams and who’s strong and blah, blah, blah. Well, foreign policy, you need to understand the other side. It’s not just about me and it’s all about the interaction. 

Japan and Colonialism

Sarah: if you think of the Meiji Restoration, they colonized Taiwan and they colonized Korea. It was brutal in Korea because the Koreans resisted and then the Japanese got nasty. Taiwan was much less resistant. To this day, the Taiwanese do not have this bitterness about Japan that the Koreans do. 

I’m not going to deny that there wasn’t any brutality. There was brutality. But what the Japanese did when they moved into Korea and Taiwan is they set about creating infrastructure. They put in train lines. They set about educating people. Do they put them in the top positions? No, the top positions are for Japanese. But they do things like publish all kinds of magazines. Incredible numbers of technical journals about agronomy and things so that you have this incredible improvement of output because you’re spreading knowledge to the Taiwanese and to the Koreans. 

And because they do it from the bottom up, unlike the United States (in Philippines), they control the police force and the locality and from there all the way up so they really have local control 

Chiang Kai-shek, who’d been horribly corrupt in the mainland, he could not do land reform in the mainland. Why? Because that’s his officer corps. They will kill him. In Taiwan, he can definitely redistribute Taiwanese land. No problem there. He comes in with all the weaponry and redistributes the land. It gets bloody doing it. He offers the Taiwanese bonds. They think it’s going to be like the lousy bonds that he distributed on the mainland. Turns out those bonds were worth money. I don’t know how many years on that it was that people actually collected on their bonds for all of this. So the Japanese actually had many of the pieces for a really effective plan for economic development.