Q&A: David Berkey On Disruptive Strategies: The Military Campaigns Of Ascendant Powers And Their Rivals

Friday, February 5, 2021
Hoover Institution, Stanford University

by Jonathan Movroydis

In this interview, Research Fellow David Berkey discusses Disruptive Strategies: The Military Campaigns of Ascendant Powers and Their Rivals (Hoover Institution Press, 2021), a compilation of historical case studies that explores what happens when a rising power, like modern China, disrupts the predominance of a hegemon, like the United States. Disruptive Strategies is a production of Hoover’s Military History Working Group. This volume was edited by Berkey and includes a foreword by the working group’s chair, Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow Victor Davis Hanson.

Berkey offers insights from the volume’s essays, featuring renowned historians on topics such as the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta in the fifth century BCE; Rome’s conflict with Carthage in the Punic Wars of the third and second centuries BCE; the war between the Byzantine and Sasanid empires of the seventh century CE; and the military leadership qualities of Sweden’s Gustavus Adolphus and France’s Napoleon Bonaparte. Berkey also describes one author’s hypothetical scenario in which a skirmish between the United States and China escalates into war.

What is the genesis of Disruptive Strategies?

The book is the product of the Military History Working Group at Hoover, which was established by Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow Victor Davis Hanson and former Hoover director John Raisian back in 2012. The purpose of the working group is to apply the lessons of military history to contemporary policy challenges. The working group has always maintained that the study of military history, long a staple in history departments at colleges and universities across the country, has experienced a decline, both in the number of courses that are being taught as well as in the number of faculty who are dedicated to its study. The working group was intended to inform not only academics but also people within the echelons of military leadership and in the media.

The book itself was designed to show how a contemporary crisis that is facing the United States, namely a rising China, can be informed by historical case studies. We wanted to illustrate some examples from the past that showed how states could successfully, or as the case may be, unsuccessfully, grapple with a similar situation. The point here was not necessarily to be prescriptive in coming up with an answer to what the United States must do under the current circumstances, but rather it was to look at what historical factors might be important for us to consider.

The result of this study is that it became very clear that the number of possible examples to choose from was really extensive. As a historian, I think we can take comfort in the knowledge that the situation that we are in today is by no means unique and has been throughout history confronted by many different nations and states.

Is the central theme of Disruptive Strategies what Graham Allison calls the “Thucydides trap?”

Graham Allison from Harvard's Kennedy School wrote a very important book that examines what preemptive measures a hegemonic state might take to prevent the challenge to its supremacy by a rising power.

This is the story that is found in Thucydides’s account of the Peloponnesian War in the fifth century BCE. In Thucydides’s view, Sparta's fear of a rising Athens led it to declare war as a preemptive measure. Graham Allison questioned whether it will be inevitable that the United States, fearing the rise of China, might also preemptively go to war. In Allison’s account, he looked at historical studies that show under what circumstances states go to war.

Our focus is different. This is a book about military campaigns. The book provides examples that are all illustrative of states that had already made the decision to go to war. We look at what factors were important from a leadership perspective in bringing about a successful resolution to these conflicts.

The Peloponnesian War essay written by visiting fellow Paul Rahe explains how Athens and Sparta exploited each other’s weaknesses. What were their respective weaknesses?

During the Peloponnesian War, Athens, at the outset, had an extremely powerful navy dating back to the conclusion of the Persian Wars in the first quarter of the fifth century BCE. Athens had established an imperial base, which required tribute payments from allies for protection from incursions by the Persian empire. Over time, Thucydides notes, the character of this alliance changed, and there was no longer necessarily a Persian threat in the way that there had been at the outset of the century. As a result of the tributes, Athens acquired a tremendous amount of financial reserves, enabling it to further increase the size of its navy and also to undertake some of the great cultural programs for which Athens is still known and admired to this day.

In contrast, Sparta had for centuries been the predominant land power in the Greek world and it had a much more insular society, unlike the far more cosmopolitan Athenian empire. The Peloponnesian War pitted against each other these two states with very different visions of governance, very different forms of government, different strengths and weaknesses in military terms, and a different set of relationships with their allies.

While Sparta had a strong hoplite infantry, they lacked the naval forces and training to contest Athens at sea. In a similar way, Athens, which had established a great navy, had a much smaller and less capable land force. Again, as I said, the Peloponnesian War was really a conflict about different views of governance and relationships with allies, and from that perspective it is somewhat similar to what we're seeing in the world today with respect to the United States and China. These tensions were fueled also by innate differences between a democratic, Ionian, naval, cosmopolitan, and imperial Athens, and an oligarchical, Doric, infantry-centered, rural, and parochial Sparta.

One of the really decisive moments in the Peloponnesian War, and this is brought out in Paul Rahe's chapter, was the re-entrance of Persia into Greek politics. The Persian Empire began in the later stages of the conflict to re-engage diplomatically with Sparta and its allies by providing them with financial resources to construct a naval fleet. Therefore, for the first time, Sparta was able to contest Athens’s strength at sea. This development became a major turning point of the war.

In the essay written by visiting fellow Barry Strauss, he discusses how Rome overcame Carthage in the Punic Wars by marshaling armies of free citizens. Will you talk about why that was a key factor?

Rome had the tremendous human resources on the Italic Peninsula from which it was able to marshal a defense against Carthage. This is a particularly interesting study. Unlike some of the other examples of military campaigns that are found in this book, Barry Strauss looked at not just one specific military event, but rather three wars spread out over more than a century.

The first Punic War was a contest between Rome and Carthage over Sicily. Then in the second Punic War, under the leadership of Hannibal, Carthage invaded the Italic Peninsula. It was during that struggle that Rome was able to marshal not only its own citizens but also the other allied states in Italy that could contribute to the common defense against this external existential threat. This was a very important development for the Roman army, because it tipped the scales of the power balance in its favor and created a situation where it could combat a really remarkable general, Hannibal, and prevent the destruction of its empire in that campaign. Carthage was never able to assemble together the manpower of North Africa in the way that republican Rome had been able to unite much of Italy.

In Edward Luttwak’s essay, he illustrates a high-risk strategy used by Byzantine emperor Herakleios. Will you talk about his campaign against the Sasanid Empire and also the importance of taking calculated risks during military campaigns?

In this essay, Luttwak has taken in many ways the opposite approach than was taken by Paul Rahe and Barry Strauss, which is that he elected to look very closely at a single year of the Byzantine Empire in the seventh century. The Sasanid Empire had been a near-constant thorn in the side of the Byzantine Empire for centuries. When a new Sasanid emperor, Khosrow II, assumed power, what was a low-level conflict escalated into an attempt to push Sasanian forces all the way to Constantinople and overthrow the Byzantine Empire.

The Sasanids invaded the Byzantine Empire from multiple sides, including Egypt, Syria, the Anatolian Plateau, and up to Constantinople. In this situation, Herakleios, rather than trying to make some heroic defense from within the walls of Constantinople, elected instead to gamble by leading a counteroffensive toward the heart of the Sasanid Empire.

This was really an extraordinary move. In effect, Herakleios was able to take advantage of the fact that Sasanian forces were dispersed throughout the Byzantine Empire. He was also able to exploit military alliances that had been established in previous generations on the outskirts of the Sasanid Empire. This then led to the capture and plunder of various important cities within the heart of that empire and ultimately to the withdrawal of Sasanian forces from Byzantine territory.

Visiting fellow Andrew Roberts and Peter Mansoor talk about the genius of military leaders, respectively Napoleon Bonaparte of France and Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden. Will you talk about the importance of wise and bold leadership in campaigns and how to continue sound policy making after a great leader has left power?

It’s an important question. Part of this book deals with successful military campaigns and contributing factors such as systems of government, structures of alliances, and favorable balances of power. What's very different in the case of the chapters about Napoleon Bonaparte and Gustavus Adolphus is that they encompass crucial issues surrounding successful military leadership.

I think what's important here is, one, Napoleon’s education in military history and martial training were very important to his initial successes, including his first test as a commander during France’s 1796 campaign in Italy. Napoleon’s careful preparation for battle permitted his numerically smaller forces to achieve success by the use of speed and deception, thereby allowing his French forces to keep their opponents on their heels.

Two, in a military campaign that had been going on for some time during the Thirty Years’ War in the seventeenth century, Sweden’s Gustavus Adolphus was able to control large parts of continental Europe. What initially had been a campaign to protect Sweden gradually took on a different character under his leadership. Both of these examples show how military leaders through their genius, preparation, and influence with their soldiers were able to achieve success on the battlefield.

After Gustavus Adolphus died, a small and resource-strapped Sweden was no longer able to sustain its success in Europe. There are other examples that we could point to in ancient history when individual generals achieved great successes but, following their death or decline in political influence, their countries’ military campaigns fell apart.

I am thinking about Alexander the Great and his remarkable success extending Macedonian influence throughout vast stretches of the Persian Empire. After his death, Macedon’s power quickly fell apart in a struggle that involved numerous other successor monarchs who were all trying to maintain what Alexander had achieved. This is also the case with the Theban general Epaminondas. After the Battle of Mantinea in the middle of the fourth century BCE, a tactical Theban victory over Sparta that also resulted in the death of Epaminondas, the historical record shows that Epaminondas’s successors weren’t able to maintain Thebes’s hegemony in the Greek world. These studies certainly show that leadership is a very important factor in the success of military campaigns in trying either to promote a rising state’s power or to prevent a state from being overthrown. These cases are reminders that while great generals can lead smaller powers to historic victories, if there are not institutional support and sufficient manpower and resources for their agendas, such plans are often aborted on the deaths of such rare gifted leaders.

Payson J. Treat Distinguished Research Fellow Michael Auslin’s essay is about a hypothetical scenario of a Sino-American conflict. What lessons can be learned by a study that deals with the possible future instead of the past?

Misha’s essay is interesting in that it lays out, in great detail and accuracy, the current military assets of both the United States and China stationed in the Indo-Pacific region. He stresses the reality that when human beings, operating by air, sea, and land, are engaging with the forces of a competitor state, it is possible for accidents and misunderstandings to occur, which could then rapidly escalate to war. Given the havoc that a major war would bring to the nations of the Indo-Pacific—in addition to the damage to the international financial system and the unimaginable cost of a nuclear war between China and our nation—it is imperative to prevent such a war from occurring. The way to achieve that goal is by continuing to maintain our military and technological advantages, and to promote our leadership among allies in the region such as Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. Misha Auslin’s chapter is a cautionary tale about how the erosion of American power and influence might force to us to make concessions to China that would result in the loss of freedom and independence for the people of the Indo-Pacific, and damage our standing in the world.