National Security

What Makes a Great General?

FP contributors on Tom Ricks' new book.

This week, FP presents a running discussion of Best Defense blogger Tom Ricks' new book, The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today.

Tom's last two books were deeply reported examinations of the Iraq War. In The Generals, he casts a historical net and finds that the quality of military leadership has declined since the days of Eisenhower and Marshall, as the Army has increasingly failed to punish failure or reward ingenuity.

Initial reviews have been wildly positive. Here's what Publisher's Weekly -- which awarded Tom his own star -- had to say:

"[A] savvy study of leadership. Combining lucid historical analysis, acid-etched portraits of generals from 'troublesome blowhard' Douglas MacArthur to 'two-time loser' Tommy Franks, and shrewd postmortems of military failures and pointless slaughters such as My Lai, the author demonstrates how everything from strategic doctrine to personnel policies create a mediocre, rigid, morally derelict army leadership... Ricks presents an incisive, hard-hitting corrective to unthinking veneration of American military prowess."

We'd encourage you all to pick up the book, and stay tuned for this week's discussion, which will feature a terrific line-up of reviewers, including a few generals.

Thomas Donnelly: The quality of American generals is declining 

James M. Dubik: Does the Army's system produce the generals the nation needs?

Thomas Keaney: The military can't look to the past to answer today's questions.  

Jason Dempsey: The real problem with America's generals

Robert Killebrew: What would Marshall do?, and a response

Tom Ricks: A response to the book club

By Thomas Donnelly

Surely one of the reasons Barack Obama was reelected as president is that many Americans, and not least our political elites, remain war weary. Even Afghanistan, the "good" war, the "war of necessity," has faded from public consciousness. The one thing we seem to remember about it is that it's "on schedule" to end in 2014.

Similarly, our attention to men and women in uniform is fading. We still honor them at ballparks, let them board planes ahead of us -- sometimes even before the frequent-flying executives -- and are forever "thanking them for their service." But we're turning away, getting on with nation-building at home.

Tom Ricks' new book, The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today, is many things: a deeply considered and researched work of history, an excellent genealogy of the Army's general officer corps, and a well-told tale. In sum, there are a host of reasons to read the book, more than this short piece can limn or even suggest. But, taken as a whole, The Generals is first and foremost a powerful argument that as a nation and as a polity we should not allow the professional military to retreat behind the camouflage netting. Indeed, now more than ever, civilians ought to concern themselves with the "profession" of arms, and particularly what happens to the U.S. Army.

Like many other professions, the profession of arms involves a set of cultural beliefs handed down from generation to generation but molded by the quirks of strong, paradigmatic personalities. And Ricks lays this out well: the leaders of World War II begat those of Korea and Vietnam, who begat those of the modern All-Volunteer Force and Operation Desert Storm, who in turn begat those of the post-9/11 wars. The field- and company-grade officers of these wars are the future of our military, and the next decade will determine what kind of senior commanders they will be.

Ricks' central argument -- that the quality of Army generalship has declined through the years -- is one broadly shared by today's younger officers. "America's generals have failed to prepare our armed forces for war and advise civilian authorities on the application of force to achieve the aims of policy," wrote then- Lt. Col. Paul Yingling in a 2007 Armed Forces Journal article that became a lightning rod for the current debate.

If this charge is true, and I think it is, it is a problem of the first order. Proper civil-military relations are critical to our democracy, particularly one that is also a global power. We can't go back to the pre-imperial past that produced George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower. Thus Ricks' remedy for what ails us -- holding leaders accountable and relieving them when they fail -- strikes me as a necessary but not sufficient condition. There is also a systemic problem with an officer training, education, and selection model designed to produce competent tacticians but indifferent if not hostile to developing strategists. Our officers are much better in battle than at war.

It is said that amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics, and really smart guys, like Tom Ricks, talk personnel. If there were any justice in the worlds of publishing, politics, or policy, this book would outsell either of Ricks' Iraq books. It would also be a way to truly thank people in uniform for the sacrifices they make.        

Thomas Donnelly is the co-director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

By James M. Dubik

Tom Ricks's book, The Generals, raises important and challenging questions that deserve debate. In sum, he argues that the nation needs generals who lead campaigns that win wars and in peacetime generals who can prepare for the next war. Rick's assessment is that since WWII, Army generals have not done well enough in either category. But his arguments are sometimes too narrowly drawn.

Over simplified, the first argument is, if more generals were fired, as in World War II, we'd have better generals and win more wars. Underplayed are the critical role of the civil-military relationship and the impact of the kind of war being fought.

The success of senior wartime generals often depends upon the degree of openness and effectiveness in the civil military relationship. Rick's discussion of personalities and who should fire whom sometimes obscures this essential fact. Generalship occurs within the boundaries set by strategy and policy. In discourse with political leaders, generals can affect both, but the degree is often limited. Sometimes generals are inadequate; the same is true of political leaders. Both sides in this relationship must be respectful of the role and experience of the other; without it, the probability of wartime success diminishes. In the last decade, this relationship has had more downs than ups.

Additionally, success is relatively straightforward in conventional war, as is the use of military force as the means to that success -- so too is generalship. In our current wars, success is much less clear and the means to success necessarily includes both the use of military and non-military forces. Even well-used military forces are insufficient. Any assessment of the performance of America's non-military elements of power must conclude, with a few exceptions, that our non-military elements -- strategic through tactical -- have been wanting.

That leads to the second argument in which Ricks raises some fundamental questions: Does the Army's system produce the generals the nation needs? Does the Army's "incentive system" create too many risk-averse generals? Are Army generals overly focused on tactics and too rigid in applying doctrine? To what degree did transformation prepare the Army for today's wars? Are all, or some, Army generals too slow to learn and adapt? What's the relationship of tactical battlefield performance to success as a general? These questions are fundamental to the Army, for its training, education, and leader development programs produce colonels, and Army systems select the colonels who become generals and the generals who serve as senior leaders.

Questions like Ricks's have been percolating among the generations that make up the Army's officer corps -- even among those of us retired. All have opinions. A healthy organization is introspective, questions itself, and adapts from what it learns. In my view, the Army is such an organization.  Even so, The Generals provocative contents need serious debate, so that our military and civilian strategic leaders can better serve the nation, together. None will agree with everything in it, but all military professionals and civilians working in the national security arena should read Ricks' book.

Lt. Gen. James M. Dubik (ret.) is a senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of War.

By Thomas Keaney

Tom Ricks's book, The Generals, provides a sweeping look at American generalship -- Army generals almost exclusively -- done in the style that marked his earlier works. He names names, cites revealing anecdotes, and just as importantly analyzes the factors at work that shaped generations of these officers. It's a book sure to create controversy, as it details what Ricks sees as a depressing trend in levels of performance and accountability exhibited by American generals since World War II.

General George C. Marshall becomes Ricks's model for generalship, both for Marshall's dealings with the U.S. political leadership, mainly Franklin Roosevelt, and for culling the general officer ranks of the U.S. Army to rid the organization of non-performers or those who could not measure up in other ways. Marshall then serves as Ricks's touchstone through the book while showing in relief how following generations of general officers, even those trained in the World War II tradition, adopted lesser standards than Marshall and others like him. Wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan provide much fodder to support this analysis. And though correct, I think Ricks leans too heavily on the Marshall example to deal with military performance in subsequent conflicts. Marshal's example cannot provide the answers, since in many cases Marshall would not or could not know the questions. More factors have been at work.

Simply put, comparing the standards and procedures used in World War II in relieving generals of their commands is unfair to the later generations. One problem is with metrics. If the objective is getting quickly to Berlin or Baghdad, shortcomings or failures would tend to be evident, or at least easily measured. Not to excuse the military leadership involved, but in the wars since, for the most part linking objectives with performances has suffered from political uncertainties of what objectives were being sought on the one hand and a military leadership focused too much on operational issues on the other, a brew that came together in a continuing, if at times low level, civil-military conflict over ends and means. In that atmosphere, personal accountability is more diffuse, and suffers as a result. Ricks points out these clashes in rich detail. Standing out most markedly in this regard are the gaps in understanding and respect between the Johnson White House and both the Joint Chiefs and the military leadership in Vietnam, and between Washington and the theater in the Iraq War between 2003 and 2006. The account of the confused dialogue, or its absence, between theater and headquarters is must reading for anyone seeking to understand the depths of these conflicts.

For Ricks, General William DePuy comes off as both savior and villain: savior of the Army post-Vietnam in giving the force a renewed purpose and sense of itself; and villain through his orientation on operational matters to the virtual exclusion of rigorous strategic thinking in Army doctrine and education. As much as that affected the Army, it led to similar effects on the other services' leadership, curiously in the name of jointness.

The principles of operational art being advocated at the time by General DePuy and others perfectly addressed one aspect of the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols legislation -- the requirement to teach joint operations, the integration of all military forces fighting as a team. The immediate answer was to focus teaching at the operational level of war, specifically what was defined as the joint campaign plan.

While an excellent technique for harmonizing the capabilities of each of the military services, campaign planning almost by definition has a concentration on the operational and tactical levels of warfare and far less to the political context of the campaign itself. Thus, Army doctrine on operational art, as Ricks describes, can influence officer education in all the services. Unfortunately, many of the subsequent military operations in which the United States became engaged not only stretched the use of the term campaign but also called for integration not with military forces of other services but with civilian agencies or non-governmental organizations. This was new territory for military leaders.

The Generals ends with a prescription for what Marshall would do in these circumstances. Perhaps, but this generation may have access to better answers. Experience in Iraq an Afghanistan has shown that some generals "get it" more than others, but success in such circumstances came from actions of individual units, not as a theater-wide program. The next step must be a more general reorientation of military education to the strategic context, whether it involves counterinsurgency or air-sea battle.

Thomas Keaney is Associate Director Strategic Studies Program, The Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, and a former facultymember at the National War College.

By Jason Dempsey

A little over two years ago Gen. David Petraeus received the Irving Kristol Award from the American Enterprise Institute. Following the ceremony, columnist David Brooks went home and hand-stitched a "Mission Accomplished" banner for the general in the form of an op-ed in which he breathlessly declared that the military "[had] been transformed in the virtual flash of an eye" -- from its Big Army past to a more nimble and nuanced counterinsurgency force.

This victory dance was woefully premature, and other journalists should have seen it as a worrying sign. The military never did break past institutional inertia to fully embrace counterinsurgency. Yet the media, a profession that once decried the "5 O'Clock Follies" in Vietnam, has morphed in a generation into an overly deferential and only superficially informed body, willingly buying into pleasing narratives about the military that correspond little with reality.

Brooks, of course, was not alone in his treatment of the military. The default setting for reporters and the public alike for the past decade has been one of deference. Faced with exceedingly complex conflicts and a lack of clear goals and metrics by which to measure success, combined with a military establishment that is increasingly foreign to the average American, they have found it far easier to express support for the troops and move on with daily life than to try to actually understand what the troops do and where they might be falling short.

For these reasons we should welcome the work of Thomas Ricks, whose reach and timing may finally spur a rigorous and public discussion about the future of the U.S. armed forces. It is unfortunate that the discussion will be clouded with the unfolding details of the moral failures of some of the military's brightest stars, but if there is a silver lining to this tragedy, it may be a recognition that these men are human and that time is better spent on the finer details of personnel policy than in the risky world of hero worship.

To be sure, there are problems with Ricks's approach. The book sometimes reads as an uneven collection of war stories, loosely tied together with an argument over the merits of swiftly firing underperforming generals. This is an unfortunately thin reed for carrying the weight of a call for a comprehensive reassessment of military personnel policies. And in choosing this approach, Ricks ultimately misses the opportunity to directly address the fundamental dilemma in the military personnel system, which is that its operational and strategic leaders are drawn from a system in which tactical proficiency is the primary, and often only, focus of officers for the first 20 years of their careers. More importantly however, this book should spur us, military and civilian, to collectively address and integrate the lessons learned from these wars into the way we approach future conflicts.

For the generals in the first half of the book, tactical and operational proficiency were paramount. The tasks facing U.S. leaders in World War II and the Korean War were herculean, but fairly straightforward: defeat the Germans; halt the Chinese onslaught. A focus on previous experience and combat leadership therefore made sense. When Ricks criticizes the Army for sending leaders with little experience in front-line combat into Korea, the reader can only scratch his head in puzzlement at the Army's decisions.

The Vietnam War and the wars after, however, present a different story. Particularly in Vietnam, the path to victory was not always clear, and Ricks rightfully takes the Army to task for its reliance on "search and destroy" missions when a more nuanced and population-centric approach was called for. It is therefore puzzling that one of the criticisms of Gen. William Westmoreland is that he did not attend enough military schools. Given Ricks's well-known disdain for the Army's in-house education system, one is left wondering whether he really believes that more time at Fort Benning would have broadened Westmoreland's perspective on the war in Vietnam.

It is at this point in Ricks's book that a basic tension becomes clear. In the epilogue, Ricks highlights the need for generals who are better able to interact with the country's political leaders. He also wants "adaptive, flexible military leaders" better able to wade into an uncertain security environment and offer more nuanced solutions than "search and destroy." Unfortunately, there is a tension between this goal and the development of tactical proficiency.

Military leaders have not only not forgotten the lessons of Korea, but often remember these at the expense of all else. The Army is nothing if not tactically proficient, and the strength of Ricks's book is in highlighting how the combat effectiveness of the Army at the small-unit level has enabled a widespread tolerance for stalemate and the rudderless puttering that has often passed for strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Along with this strength, however, comes the primary weakness of Ricks's proposed solution. In not directly addressing the primacy of tactical proficiency at all levels of officers' professional development, Ricks's proposal that the Army could solve its problems with more frequent firings meets nicely with the definition of insanity. Firing a general unable to grasp the complexities of modern war at the strategic level is not likely to solve the problem when all of his or her possible replacements have spent their careers equally focused on tactics.

To be sure, the Army's singular focus on developing tactical expertise among its leaders is not the result of ill intent but rather the desire to keep soldiers alive. This concern for soldiers' lives is something that Army leaders and Ricks notably share, but so long as the purpose of the Army is to fight and win the country's wars, not merely survive them, tactical proficiency remains a necessary but not sufficient condition for success.

Acknowledging how and why the military has fallen short in moving beyond a focus on tactical proficiency is therefore necessary to improve the ability of the armed forces to appropriately serve the needs of the country. More importantly, we must acknowledge that there are valid arguments for the status quo and that to effectively rebut them one has to move beyond talk of individual heroes and villains to an understanding of the strengths, and inertia, of the Army's tactical focus on the way the country prepares, or fails to prepare, officers for modern war.

Ricks is correct to point out that a good portion of the Army has already moved past the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, at least intellectually. He also highlights how many senior leaders have recently declared that the Army needs to refocus on the basics, as if a lack of proficiency in small-unit tactics was somehow the primary factor undermining U.S. success in Iraq and Afghanistan. Such declarations, coming on the heels of over a decade of war with muddled results, should bring home the urgency with which a comprehensive discussion of the Army's future is needed and which this book will hopefully spur. These declarations should also highlight the need for greater participation from the public the Army serves. Institutions don't turn on a dime and rarely do they transform on their own, despite the wishes of pundits to the contrary.

Jason Dempsey is the author of Our Army: Soldiers, Politics and American Civil-Military Relations and is serving as a combat advisor in Afghanistan. The views presented here are his own.

By Robert Killebrew

When Tom let me read one of the early drafts of his book on generalship, I suggested that he end it with a retrospective on what General Marshall would have made of the current crop of generals and how they are handled by the Army. Here's my take:

First, I think General Marshall would be generally (no pun intended) pleased with the current crop; they are mainly younger, better educated, and in much better physical condition than the senior officers of his time. Marshall was all about youth in command -- in the only book he ever wrote, about his experiences in WWI, he singled out physical endurance as a vital prerequisite for high command -- along with a cheerful, optimistic outlook. In that, I think he would be pleased.

He would also be pleased, I think, at the survival of the Army's service schools -- which operate today in the same basic form as they did in his day. He would be a little puzzled, I think, at the large number of civilian and retired military in teaching positions, as teaching at a service school in his day was a real plum, and was a fertile ground for growing future commanders. The idea that the Army's elaborate training command would be undermanned, or forced to push off instructor duty on retired folks and civilians, would immediately raise his ire.

And here's where the story gets complicated. In Marshall's day, there was no clear "pathway to the stars" that officers competed for, or that the Army used to manage the force. Officers served where they were put, and were promoted (or not) based on their performance, not their career attainment -- Eisenhower served in a stateside training assignment in WWI, remember, and Bradley guarded tin mines in the American west. Marshall would be baffled by "good" career paths and "bad" paths, and by the elaborate personnel systems designed to specialize and select officers on any basis other than good performance. Ricks' suggestion that officers be given another chance after relief is only possible in a system like Marshall's, when the service was expanding and officers were generalists and picked on a best-qualified basis. Today, if an officer stumbles in the shrinking force, there are a dozen more as well-qualified to step into his or her shoes, which makes the Army's reluctance to dismiss senior officers more puzzling -- they are eminently replaceable.

Ricks is right that Army leaders have been overly reluctant to relieve poorly performing senior officers -- in fact, the most recent reliefs of senior officers has come from civilian leaders, a thing that Marshall would find an intolerable intrusion on his prerogatives and responsibility. In allowing the civilians to carry the axe, the military leadership has backed away from an essential, core responsibility.

This and other examples have convinced me that there is a greater gulf than just attitudes about relief between Marshall, the founder of the modern Army, and the force today. One example points to the gulf between our attitudes today and Marshall's stern code. Ricks and others in the academic community have made much of an Army lieutenant colonel who publicly excoriated the Army's leadership during the confused and bloody days of 2005-2007. Despite this, the officer in question was promoted to colonel and subsequently retired (we retired colonels think that's a successful military career). In Marshall's officer corps, though, institutional loyalty had a much higher value. There is a story that Patton, as a guest in Marshall's home, pressed overmuch for the promotion of a colonel who had criticized some facet of the Army's mobilization. Marshall laid his fork down and said, roughly, "General Patton, you are a guest in my home. But I speak now as the Chief of Staff. This colonel has ruined himself by criticizing the Army at this difficult time. He will never be promoted. Never speak of this to me again." If we want to return to an Army with sterner, higher standards, as Tom suggests, then we will have to buy the whole package of a sterner military code and higher, and more restrictive, standards of deportment and institutional loyalty.

Robert Killebrew is a retired military officer and a senior visiting fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

Tom Ricks responds

First, thanks to all who participated. I learned from these discussions. I agree with much of what they wrote, but of course here will focus on our points of disagreement.  

--I agree with Tom Donnelly that it would be good if Americans paid more attention to the competence of our senior military leaders. Unfortunately, as we have just seen, they seem to care more about the sex lives of our generals than the real lives of our soldiers. The real scandal of Iraq was not that the public over-valued David Petraeus, but that it tolerated his three failed predecessors. Apparently mediocrity is acceptable if it keeps its pants on.

--I like and admire retired Lt. Gen. James Dubik, but I disagree with his concluding paragraph on the health of our Army. I am especially worried by the state of its general officer corps. Yes, there are terrific officers like him (his first project since leaving active duty is getting a doctorate in philosophy, by the way) and H.R. McMaster. But there are not enough of them to form a critical mass. They remain outliers, often seen by more conventional officers as "50-pound brains" or even smartasses. I think the majority of Army generals are under-educated conformists who tend to veer toward risk-averse mediocrity, a tendency reinforced by the system of mindless rotation of commanders we have used in our recent wars.   

--Likewise, Tom Keaney is a fine fellow and an astute military analyst, but I think he is too quick to provide an alibi for today's generals. Yes, it is more difficult to recognize success in small, unpopular, messy wars like Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan than it was in World War II. Nonetheless, it is possible. Matthew Ridgway clearly turned around American fortunes in the Korean War, succeeding where other generals had failed. Creighton Abrams did better in Vietnam than William Westmoreland did, though perhaps not as much better as some people believe. David Petraeus succeeded in his mission in Iraq-he got us out of there-where his three predecessors had failed.

I think Keaney's sense that the world is just too hard lets off generals like Tommy Franks, who simply didn't understand his job. Yes, the civilians above him were badly mistaken. But Franks seemed to think it was a good idea to push al Qaeda from Afghanistan (a small, unstable Muslim nation) into Pakistan (a big, unstable Muslim nation with nuclear weapons). Franks also apparently believed that once he had taken the enemy's capital, he had won-when in fact, that is when the real wars began in both Afghanistan and Iraq. I would conclude from this and other mistakes that the Army had failed to prepare Franks to be a general.   

--Bob Killebrew has every right to invoke his own version of the ghost of George Marshall, especially because he was the guy several years ago who told me I should learn more about Marshall.

But when I interviewed Marshall's ghost, contrary to Killebrew's sense, Marshall was not at all pleased with the state of American generalship. Lots of little things puzzled and irked him. Yes, as Bob suspected, he didn't understand why the Army has neglected professional military education, which should be its crown jewel during peacetime. He also was shocked to see so many retired generals making a bundle in the defense industry, and also endorsing political candidates and using the name of their services while doing so. Both struck Marshal as abuses of the profession.

But what bothered him most, the old white-haired general said in a slow, steady, quiet voice, was the failure of four-star generals to carry out their roles in dealing with their civilian superiors. He was shocked by the failure of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to speak truth to power on several occasions, most notably during the Vietnam War and during the planning for the invasion of Iraq. Indeed, he almost lost his temper when discussing how Gen. Richard Myers allowed himself to be pushed around by Donald Rumseld. "How can you go to war without a strategic rationale?" he wondered. 

--Jason Dempsey, like many readers of the book, thinks that my emphasis on relief is too simple. The problem, he says, is rather that the entire Army general officers corps is overly focussed on tactical issues, and so if one small thinker were ousted, he simply would be replaced by another. (This is my interpretation of what Dempsey wrote, but not his words.) So, he believes, some other sort of remedy is necessary. I disagree. I think that a few well-placed, undisguised removals would encourage the others, as it did with the peers of Admiral Byng.

But where I think where Dempsey and I really part ways is in our assessment of the adaptiveness of others-that is, the raw material of our generals and their successors. I think that there are many intelligent, determined, ambitious Army officers who would get the message that the ability to think and adapt is valued by the institution, and is the route to generalship. A little accountability could go a long way.

In other words, relief should not be seen as an end in itself, but rather as one the two most basic tools of personnel management-hiring and firing. I say, reward success, punish failure, and promote the promising, and you will get more of the adaptive generals that our nation needs -- and our soldiers deserve.   


By Robert Killebrew

Tom's conversation with General Marshall was after mine, and I don't want to go back to the general -- patience has its limits. But I stand by what I wrote: in large terms, he was pleased that the current crop of American generals is younger, fitter, and better-educated than generals in his day.  As I said in the first post, Marshall was concerned with youth and fitness in senior officers, and while that may not seem like much to an academic, Marshall knew that the physical demands of war would eventually overwhelm a brainy but slobby officer. Don't overlook this point -- it's more important than it seems, as Marshall knew.

I do think that Tom overlooked a point about which he, I, and General Marshall are in complete agreement -- that generals in the early days of the Iraq-Afghan period hesitated to speak truth to power, and that -- by inaction -- they allowed politicians to intrude in what is rightfully the military leadership's responsibility. The most shameful example in recent history was the disgrace of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, over which the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Gen. Richard Myers, who had foreknowledge and took no action) should have resigned, and the Army commander on the ground, Lt. General Rick Sanchez, should have been fired very publicly. Instead, after some delay we reduced a National Guard brigadier to colonel and court-martialed a pregnant private first class. That, coming on top of General Tommy Franks' incompetence, was probably the nadir of American generalship.

General Marshall had little patience with trimmers; the heart and soul of officership is the acceptance of responsibility, and in that we should wait and see how the present crop of leaders -- the post-Franks generation, who were colonels when these wars started -- measures up. So far, the results are hopeful.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images


FP Book Club: Charles Kenny's Getting Better

An FP discussion on contributing editor Charles Kenny's new book: Are we winning the global war on human suffering?

For all of the violence, political instability, and environmental degradation in the modern world, FP Contributing Editor Charles Kenny believes that the story of human progress over the past half-century is, on balance, a happy one. In his new book Getting Better, Kenny argues that global development, the project of hauling the world's least fortunate billions out of poverty, is succeeding: Though not every country is there yet, most people are living healthier, more prosperous lives than their parents and grandparents. We gathered some of our favorite policy experts and journalists who know a thing or two about the subjects Kenny tackles in his book -- global poverty, economics, sustainability, and others -- to weigh in on his big idea: Is it true that world is becoming, bit by bit, a better place?

Jeni Klugman: People are healthier and more prosperous than they used to be. But are they freer?

Garett Jones: The success of development is transforming the world's politics, policies, and economies. Are we ready for it?

Bradford Plumer: Can things really be getting better for human beings if the planet they live on is getting worse?

Felix Salmon: Things really are getting better -- but we don't have the faintest idea why.

Charles Kenny: We may not know everything about how development works, but we know enough to get started.

Jeni Klugman: People are healthier and more prosperous than they used to be. But are they freer?

Hello everyone -- this week we'll be talking about Charles Kenny's new book, Getting Better: Why Global Development is Succeeding -- and How We Can Improve the World Even More. It's a subject of considerable interest to me -- since 2008 I have had the honor (and daunting task) of directing the Human Development Report, an annual publication of the UNDP since 1990 -- and Getting Better makes an important point about it: That the progress we've seen in global development over the past few decades is historically unprecedented, has happened faster in developing countries than in the more privileged parts of the world, and too often goes unrecognized amid the doom and gloom of the daily news. Kenny employs a whole range of examples to illustrate these major empirical findings in ways that make the story quite enthralling.

But Kenny is also quick to recognize that the picture is not all rose-colored, even while rejecting the conventional wisdom that development has failed. He has a whole chapter documenting the growing income disparities between the global rich and the global poor, noting that "the average rural Zambian will enjoy a lifetime income of about $10,000, compared to a lifetime income of around $4.5 million for the average resident of New York City." He also reminds us of the failed search for a silver bullet for human development. In some cases the state and public provisions have played a major role; in other places, the market has been more important. Some countries have decentralized approaches, while others have relied significant upon development assistance. 

Rather than being overwhelmed by the economic malaise surrounding thinking about the state of global development, however, Kenny calls instead for recognition that people the world over have seen massive improvements in quality of life relative to their parents, and, that in short, the world is a better place today than it was 60 years ago. He wraps things up with a discussion of the innovations, ideas, and institutions that have helped drive this progress and with a resounding call to policymakers that "income growth should not come at the cost of other elements of quality of life."

For the most part I agree with Kenny's story here -- in fact, we delivered a similar message in the UNDP's 2010 Human Development Report (HDR), where we highlighted the fact that the past 20 years have seen dramatic improvements in key aspects of many people's lives. Most people today are healthier, live longer, are more educated, and have greater access to goods and services than previous generations. And there has been progress in expanding people's power to select leaders and to hold them accountable.

But the HDR, too, suggests that progress has been varied and diverse. It may be that Kenny pays too little attention to this variability of experience -- average country performance has been impressive indeed, but there has been enormous diversity, and people in a few countries are actually worse off than 40 years ago in terms of the human development index (HDI), a composite measure of wellbeing based on education, health, and income.

Let's compare Benin and Zimbabwe, countries that started at similar levels of HDI in 1970. But while a baby born in Cotonou, Benin today can expect to live 62 years, a baby born in Harare can expect to live only 47.  We also see striking contrasts between China and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which started together, in terms of the HDI levels, in 1970.  The pay of an average worker in China grew nearly 2000 percent over the subsequent 40 years, while in DRC, the average worker in 2010 made just one quarter of his 1970 income -- a 75 percent decline! This suggests both that global forces have made progress more feasible for countries at all levels of development, but also that countries differ in whether, and how, they take advantage of the opportunities.

Even acknowledging, as Kenny points out, that some level of income growth has been reasonably widespread, it is hard to be optimistic about the reality that some poor countries have hardly grown at all, or about the fact that the fight against global income poverty has such a long way to go -- for instance, that a "poor Indian's income today is on par with English peasants' income 600 years ago."

But there are other aspects of the narrative that are much more optimistic, such as Kenny's finding that economic growth and human development do not always coincide. This means that rapid sustained economic growth (which for so many countries has continued to be elusive) is not necessarily a requirement for improvements in other areas of human wellbeing -- and that, in fact, "many of the services and treatments most necessary to increase quality of life are very cheap." One only has to compare the Top ten HDI movers in last year's HDR (see Chapter 2, which looks at changes in the composite index of education, health, and income) with the top ten in the Spence Commission's 2010 report on economic growth in the developing world to see that countries making great strides in non-income dimensions of human development are not always the same as those making the best progress in economic growth. In fact, only four of the Spence Commission's success stories make it into the HDR list. What this shows is that progress in health and education can drive success in improving people's lives even in the absence of growth.

While this overall progress in global development is worth celebrating, however, we do need to recognize that the sustainability of existing development paths is in question. The progress that has occurred in recent years has, of course, relied heavily on fossil fuels -- we now know that this is unsustainable. And although challenges remain in measuring sustainability, it's abundantly clear that as the world has become more prosperous it has also become less sustainable. How do we ensure continued and improved global progress follows a more sustainable path? That the needs of the future are not compromised by the way we are meeting our needs in the present?

Another less optimistic aspect of the picture, to which Kenny arguably pays too little attention, is that good things don't always come together -- in particular that it is possible for countries to excel in areas such as health and education, but at the same time to be unsustainable, undemocratic, and unequal. The Arab democracy paradox and the unprecedented spread of pro-democracy protests across the Arab world is a case in point. The progress of Arab countries in dimensions of human development is emphasised in the HDR. Five Middle Eastern and North African countries are among the top 10 in terms of improvements in the HDI -- including Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, with Egypt not far below -- with advances mainly due to significant improvements in health and education. Yet until very recently, at least, many governments in the region paid little more than lip service to the notions of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. This therefore raises the important question of how do we ensure global progress in terms of health, education, and living standards extend further, to encompass civil and political freedoms for all?

Jeni Klugman is the director and lead author of the United Nations Development Program's Human Development Report.

Garett Jones: The success of development is transforming the world's politics, policies, and economies. Are we ready for it?

The best things in life have always been free -- and in the modern age, we have ever more of the best things. This is true for those of us in information-economy-driven rich countries, as my George Mason colleague Tyler Cowen notes in Age of the Infovore. But as Charles Kenny demonstrates in his fantastic new book Getting Better, it's also true for developing countries -- even the poorest among them. In both cases, politicians, policymakers, and economists nod, say "good point," and move on: Yes, people are living longer, healthier, safer lives even in countries with awful economies; yes, the Internet makes it easy to enjoy global culture and social interaction at minimal cost. But so what? In fact, the implications of this shift for politics, policy, and economics are enormous -- and several areas are particularly worth addressing:

Politics. The fact that a decent, civilized life can now be acquired with a small income matters for the simple reason that a small income may be all that hundreds of millions of people will ever have. Kenny himself treats the low productivity of sub-Saharan Africa -- to which he devotes much of this book -- as a nearly insoluble puzzle; and in the rich world, the combination of technology-driven inequality and voluntary Infovore-driven downshifting could mean relatively low incomes for hundreds of millions in the rich countries.

Of course, living on $2,000 per year -- Kenny's tentative estimate of the minimum needed for "many elements of the good life" -- in a poor nation is a far different, far worse thing than sharing an apartment while waiting tables in a rich country. But for the political class, the similarities are more important than the differences. In both cases, citizens are moving up Maslow's hierarchy of needs, searching for meaning and community, forcing politicians into the conflict-laden culture wars that arise when citizens are no longer overly preoccupied with more basic wants. In both cases, the political class will find it difficult to generate much revenue on such a small tax base -- after all, most countries tax "necessities" relatively lightly, and evasion is easy when making such small purchases. And in both cases, the political class is controlled by technological forces they lack the expertise to understand. Low-income, modestly satisfied voters will present new political challenges that are still poorly understood.

Technology and teams. Technology, broadly defined, also plays a big role in Kenny's story of sub-Saharan African poverty. Kenny notes that many of the world's best ideas -- peace, education for women, public health care -- are genuine technologies that have spread to many of the world's poorest countries. These are technologies that cost little and generate little revenue directly, but that produce massive gains in long-run well-being.

Other technologies, however, have had a tougher time spreading to sub-Saharan Africa, most notably technologies that rely on team production. Kenny emphasizes this: he notes that the "inventory control systems and production management techniques" which generate so much productivity in the richest countries are little seen in the world's poorest. And as ever-more cutting-edge production relies on team efforts -- R&D is a corporate enterprise, and software, movies, and high finance are all team-driven -- this failure to transfer technology holds Africa back. Kenny has drawn attention to an important, understudied fact of underdevelopment: Business management matters.

Barriers to the Good Life. It's wonderful news that $2,000 per person might be enough to yield some version of a "good life." But for hundreds of millions of Africans, $2,000 per year is $1,500 more per year than they have.  

If the rich countries are going to continue to restrict African immigration -- a policy of geographic discrimination that causes vastly more economic damage than rich-country race and gender discrimination -- and if they don't want to transfer the half-trillion or so dollars per year it would cost to create a semblance of the good life within Africa, then a path to African economic decency will require higher African productivity. But massive emigration, greater transfers, and a productivity boom are all unlikely. So Africans will probably continue to build upon the same successes they have created in recent decades in health, education, infrastructure. In our bad-news-first world, these successes have received too little attention; let's hope that Kenny's book gives the pessimists pause. 

Garett Jones is BB&T professor for the study of capitalism at the Mercatus Center and a researcher at the Center for Study of Public Choice at George Mason University.

Bradford Plumer: Can things really be getting better for human beings if the planet they live on is getting worse?

Charles Kenny's terrific new book, Getting Better, covers a wide range of global development issues: public health, education, democracy -- it's all in there. And Kenny makes a convincing case that the quality of life in poorer countries has improved greatly over the years -- and will likely continue to improve -- even if incomes in those countries remain stubbornly difficult to lift. And yet, there's one topic that Kenny's book touches on only glancingly: the environment.

After all, ecologists have been warning us for some time now that the environmental picture is assuredly not getting better. We're consuming the Earth's natural resources at an unsustainable rate, and humanity's pushing up against some dangerous thresholds in the biosphere. We're pumping more and more carbon dioxide into the air. The planet's getting hotter. The oceans are acidifying. Forests are getting mowed down. Species are vanishing. Freshwater supplies are in peril. So, one might ask, isn't this a good indication that things are going to get worse? What happens when countries like Tuvalu are underwater or rainfall patterns in Africa are disrupted by climate change? Disaster, right?

Except it's not that simple -- and this brings us to a paradox that various ecological experts have been struggling with for some time (and a topic that dovetails nicely with Kenny's book). Last September, a team of researchers led by McGill's Ciara Raudsepp-Hearne published a paper in BioScience that took note of the "environmentalist's paradox." The paradox goes like this: By most standard measures, the planet's ecosystems have been in bad shape for awhile now -- and that's widely assumed to have unpleasant consequences for humanity, particularly for poorer nations. Yet, as Kenny notes, human well-being has never been better. Why is that?

One possible explanation, offered up by Raudsepp-Hearne and her colleagues, is that humanity isn't really better off. Maybe all the ongoing environmental degradation is making our lives miserable and we just haven't noticed it. For instance, natural disasters seem to be affecting more people than ever before. Yet, overall, this hypothesis is hard to take seriously -- Getting Better offers ample evidence that life is getting better.

A second potential explanation for the paradox, also noted in the BioScience paper, is that, as far as human well-being is concerned, advances in food production have greatly outweighed any of the ecological damage we've wrought. Think about the Green Revolution. Yes, modern-day farming has led to the spread of chemicals everywhere, and yes, we seem to be disrupting the planet's nitrogen cycle, and yes, humans have been depleting water tables-just read this piece on fears that a Dust Bowl may return to the southwestern United States once the Ogallala Aquifer runs dry. But the invention of artificial fertilizer and the development of high-yield crops have allowed the world to feed itself even as the global population has skyrocketed. As Kenny notes in Getting Better (and in a recent FP essay), technological innovation has so far allowed humanity to escape the dire consequences of population growth predicted by the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus and his modern intellectual heirs. And that, one could argue, is what matters most.

A third explanation for the paradox? Maybe technology has simply made us less dependent on our surrounding ecosystems than most environmentalists tend to assume. Indeed, as Kenny argues in his book, there's not much evidence that a country's level of development hinges on having a favorable (or unfavorable) climate. It could just be that humans are really good at overcoming environmental disadvantages. We've learned to grow more crops on less land. We know how to desalinate water. We can shelter ourselves from heat waves. After the British chopped down all their forests, they simply developed another energy source -- coal -- without missing a beat. So it's quite possible that technology will help us survive whatever future environmental apocalypses come our way.

On the other hand, it's also possible that future environmental problems will be qualitatively different from the ones we've faced so far. Do we really have the technology to adapt to, say, massive ocean acidification -- or the collapse of the world's fishing stocks? That's hardly a given. And that's why Raudsepp-Hearne and her co-authors floated a fourth hypothesis -- namely, that the worst effects of ecosystem degradation are yet to come. We've put a lot of carbon in the air, and it's taking awhile for that to translate into a few degrees (or more) worth of temperature rise, but once that comes, things will get worse.

Then there's a fifth explanation for the environmentalist's paradox, which gets discussed in Matthew Kahn's excellent book Climatopolis: How Our Cities Will Thrive In A Hotter Future. Kahn points out that climate change is going to be a big problem that will cause a lot of suffering and misery. But, in all likelihood, overall well-being will continue to improve -- in much the same way that, say, the Vietnam War caused a lot of death and destruction in Vietnam but had very little effect on the country's long-term growth rates. In other words, the observation that things are "getting better" overall can obscure a lot of nastiness at a micro level.

So that's the big question: Will global development keep improving if environmental degradation proceeds apace? What's fascinating about the BioScience paper I mentioned earlier is that there's a lot that researchers simply don't know about the relationship between ecosystem services and human well-being. For now, human existence keeps improving in real and meaningful ways. But is that always going to be the case?

Bradford Plumer is an associate editor of the New Republic.

Felix Salmon: Things really are getting better -- but we don't have the faintest idea why.

In his wonderful book Getting Better, Charles Kenny does indeed peg $2,000 a year as the amount necessary to have a relatively decent life. But it's a calculation which only works backwards: if you look at people with a relatively decent life, they tend to have at least $2,000 a year.

The same calculation doesn't, however, work forwards. If you walked around Africa with a truckload of envelopes filled with 20 $100 bills apiece and handed them out to every single person in every single country, the result would obviously be disaster: quality of life would go down, not up.

And there, in a nutshell, is the problem of development. When Garett Jones talks about "the half-trillion or so dollars per year it would cost to create a semblance of the good life within Africa," he makes it seem easy, as though we have the expertise and are lacking only in cash. Armed with a budget of $500 billion per year, we could turn Africa into a continent of happy, comfortable people checking off Millennium Development Goals on their way to school -- rather than, say, a vicious and bloody zone of rent-seeking politicians and warlords all trying to get their hands on as many of those billions as they could.

There's also the question of who "we" are. We're Foreign Policy readers, I guess: international policy wonks who know the difference between an MDB and an IFI. (Actually, can someone help me out on that one?) But one of the key messages of Kenny's book is that development is not well understood, even at places like his alma mater, the World Bank. It happens in places where you least expect it, and it doesn't happen -- indeed, sometimes things get worse -- in places where you put in the most effort and money.

So when Jeni Klugman ends her post by asking "the important question of how do we ensure global progress in terms of health, education, and living standards extend further, to encompass civil and political freedoms for all", she's biting off far more than anyone can chew: "We" can't "ensure" anything at all. Certain individuals and organizations can do their best in certain countries, and will mostly but not always do more good than harm -- not that it's easy or even possible to measure either with any accuracy.

As Bradford Plumer notes, the main thing we've learned in recent decades is just how much we don't know. There's an enormous amount of uncertainty involved in looking forwards, especially when it comes to the fundamental resources of food, energy, and water. As Matt Ridley writes in his book The Rational Optimist, we've generally done well to date, by dint of technological advances and by finding new energy resources to exploit. But at the same time there's no shortage of huge resource issues facing a growing world population that don't seem to have any answers at all.

Charles Kenny has as sophisticated an understanding of what causes development and what hobbles it of anybody I can think of. But one of the lessons I've taken from this book is simply that the world is getting better, that it has developed impressively, especially in recent decades, and that the reasons why are so incredibly complex that they're likely to remain largely intractable for the foreseeable future.

Planet Earth is the most complex system it is possible to imagine, with feedback loops and butterfly effects and myriad other indicia of unpredictability. We're seeing impressive improvements in the human condition in most if not all of the world, and the base case scenario is that we'll continue to see the same thing going forwards. Just don't ask me why: any answer is extremely likely to be both unhelpful and facile.

Felix Salmon is the finance blogger at Reuters.

Charles Kenny: We may not know everything about how development works, but we know enough to get started.

First off, my heartfelt thanks to the participants in this book club -- it is an honor to share this space with you and there has been an immense amount to think about in your posts. Second, apologies to all that I'll not even try to respond to everything that has been said -- there's too much to mull over. But a few thoughts and responses about the environment, the variation in global progress, and the role of money:

Jeni and Brad both argue that I don't spend enough time thinking about the global environment, and Felix raises the issue, too. That's surely true: Getting Better does suggest that neo-Malthusians might have a point -- certainly we seem to be using up fossil fuels, aquifers, metals, and even helium in a manner that we can't sustain. The book also notes that carbon dioxide output is one of the few "quality of life" indicators which really does track very closely with income growth. That, and the fact that doubling the incomes of the world's poorest 650 million would take the same amount of money as adding one percent to the incomes of the richest 650 million, suggests where the solution to our global environmental challenges rests: changing behaviors among rich people. Not least, we should be pricing carbon and water -- and helium -- to reflect their costs.

I am enough of an optimist, however, to think that even if we didn't respond to climate change, positive trends might well continue. That's based in part on the fact that even those economists like Nick Stern who are the strongest proponents of tackling green house gas emissions use models that suggest rapid income growth into the future even in the poorest countries. And in part it reflects recent studies like this May 2010 analysis in Nature which suggests the positive impact of malaria eradication efforts are considerably larger than the potential negative effects of climate change-induced malaria spread.

But that we might continue to see progress in human quality of life even the face of climate change, doesn't change the fact that we'd surely see a lot more if we tackled the greenhouse gas issue today. And we wouldn't lose so much natural beauty that we we'll never get back. I hope I'll spend chunks of my retirement in 25 years scuba diving with my daughters to see the real Nemo. Not so much if all of the coral has died off thanks to ocean acidification. So climate change and sustainability concerns more broadly are issues that I certainly didn't intend to downplay.

Brad and Jeni are also concerned that I downplay variation in outcomes -- "the observation that things are ‘getting better' overall can obscure a lot of nastiness at a micro level," as Brad writes. And Jeni adds that "good things don't always come together." There is variation in outcomes. The immense tragedy of AIDS, for example, is that it stalled (or worse) progress in health indicators for a number of countries in sub-Saharan Africa for over 15 years. Nonetheless, progress has been remarkably widespread. Even the areas worst hit by the AIDS epidemic have continued to see declining infant mortality, for example. Literacy has been going up everywhere -- even progress on democratization has reached every continent. And in that regard, I'd suggest there is another lesson from the Middle East and North Africa of late. Jeni argues that the last 30 years have shown you can have immense progress in education and health without moves towards democracy. I'd agree, but add that recent events suggest the caveat "for a while …"

Jeni and Garett also suggest that I downplay continued income divergence -- and the chapter on that ("The Bad News") is indeed one of the shortest in the book. That's in part because I don't think income matters as much as it used to -- a bunch of countries have seen negative growth over the past decades and have still racked up broad-based improvements in the quality of life. Nonetheless, people living on $1.25 a day need a lot more income. The good news here is that there are only 700 million of those people today, down from 1.9 billion in 1981. And even Africa has been seeing some fairly rapid growth over the last decade.

When it comes to the challenge of income poverty, Felix worries that "if you walked around Africa with a truckload of envelopes filled with 20 $100 bills apiece and handed them out to every single person in every single country, the result would obviously be disaster." Actually, I think that would be a great thing to do! It is called the helicopter drop in development effectiveness circles. Would we be better off just giving the money to intended beneficiaries rather than trying to build schools, roads or hospitals, or fund the technical assistance to set up a new regulator? I think available evidence suggests the answer to that question is "yes, sometimes." Look at all the material in the almost perfectly titled book Just Give Money to the Poor. (Almost perfectly titled because I wish Bob Geldof had been a co-author -- the book cover would be a brilliant place for the judicious use of his favorite expletive).

Of course I have to agree with Felix's broader point -- it takes more than money for broad-based development. That is, after all, a theme of the book. And again, at least in the case of income growth -- and probably broader institutional change as well -- it is clear that it involves an immensely complex and messy process about which we understand surprisingly little.

But I'd still argue with Felix about the broader point that we don't properly understand any of the causal chains behind the world getting better. Handwashing, or breast feeding, or the idea that you ought to send your daughters to school, or that the police shouldn't beat up peaceful protestors, are not terribly complex. I think the spread of these ideas has been hugely important to improvements in the quality of life. And even with regard to income, we do actually know of a pretty foolproof way to make people from poor countries far richer. Garett points it out: let them move to rich countries.

So, revisiting Getting Better's conclusions again after this discussion, I wish I'd hounded harder on rich countries about migration and the environment, and also made the proposal that "if you are worried about income, try throwing money at the problem." But of course I'd still want you to start by throwing money at my book. Thanks again to Felix, Jeni, Garett, and Brad.

Charles Kenny is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and a Schwartz fellow at the New America Foundation. "The Optimist," his column for, runs weekly.