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Take Me Back to Constantinople by Edward Luttwak
January 25, 2010 3:43 PM   Subscribe

Economic crisis, mounting national debt, excessive foreign commitments -- this is no way to run an empire. America needs serious strategic counseling. And fast. It has never been Rome, and to adopt its strategies no -- its ruthless expansion of empire, domination of foreign peoples, and bone-crushing brand of total war -- would only hasten America's decline. Better instead to look to the empire's eastern incarnation: Byzantium, which outlasted its Roman predecessor by eight centuries. It is the lessons of Byzantine grand strategy that America must rediscover today.
posted by jason's_planet (38 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
American politics are plenty Byzantine already.
posted by GuyZero at 3:48 PM on January 25, 2010


fwiw, this comes up ever 20 or so years. I laid out pretty much the same argument in '86, I know people talked about it in the 60's as well, and I have little doubt it was visted at other point sof national stress as well.

People have been saying "the world is ending" for an awful long time.
posted by edgeways at 3:55 PM on January 25, 2010


I was given to understand that I cannot go back to old Constantinople.
posted by weston at 3:55 PM on January 25, 2010 [14 favorites]


Instead, employ force in the smallest possible doses to help persuade the persuadable and harm those not yet amenable to persuasion.

In other words, the exact opposite of Clausewitz and Powell Doctrine. This is not a good thing, IMO. Because people make mistakes, this kind of thinking gets you stuck in Korea, Vietnam, Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc...
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:55 PM on January 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


But there is no urgency because as soon as one enemy is no more, another will surely take his place. All is constantly changing as rulers and nations rise and fall. Only the empire is eternal -- if, that is, it does not exhaust itself.

Nature abhors a vacuum, including a power vacuum on one side or the other.
posted by SirOmega at 3:58 PM on January 25, 2010


Because people make mistakes, this kind of thinking gets you stuck in Korea, Vietnam, Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc...
I. Avoid war by every possible means, in all possible circumstances, but always act as if war might start at any time.

IV. Replace the battle of attrition and occupation of countries with maneuver warfare -- lightning strikes and offensive raids to disrupt enemies, followed by rapid withdrawals.
posted by jason's_planet at 3:58 PM on January 25, 2010 [3 favorites]


As an aside, who does Luttwak work for?

he is...one who carries out field operations, extraditions, arrests, interrogations (never, he insists, using physical violence), military consulting and counterterrorism training for different agencies of the U.S., foreign governments and private interests. When we met, in February, the Drug Enforcement Agency was his latest client; Luttwak says he went to Colombia to help arrest and deliver a couple of Mexican drug runners wanted by the DEA.

He is one of those figures (think Michael Ledeen, Judith Miller, Wolfowitz, Kissinger, the recently passed Novak, etc.) whose Mandarin connections in the think-tank complex and admitted shadowy background as a spook/intelligence operative, make me skeptical that we can ever trust anything he says. We really don't know what's going on in Washington D.C.: there are too many people operating in the shadows.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 4:02 PM on January 25, 2010


When all you have to hammer with is the author of The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, every nail starts to look like an empire that should try to be more like Byzantium.

Christ, I'm no good at analogies ...
posted by barnacles at 4:02 PM on January 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


I know Joe Beese will hate me for this, but this sounds EXACTLY like the foreign policy right wingers accuse Obama of, and what I hope he sincerely plans to do.

Granted, he still has three more years to go without declaring war on Iran.
posted by mccarty.tim at 4:02 PM on January 25, 2010


VI. Subversion is the cheapest path to victory. So cheap, in fact, as compared with the costs and risks of battle, that it must always be attempted, even with the most seemingly irreconcilable enemies. Remember: Even religious fanatics can be bribed, as the Byzantines were some of the first to discover, because zealots can be quite creative in inventing religious justifications for betraying their own cause ("since the ultimate victory of Islam is inevitable anyway …").

Since what was the Byzantine Empire (minus Italy and Greece) is now largely Islamic, what does this mean? Also, why does this only addresses foreign policy in terms of wars and armies. How did the Byzantines deal with national debt?
posted by doctor_negative at 4:05 PM on January 25, 2010


If only the Americans would rise up and admit they are trying to dominate the world, it would be a refreshing turn of events.
posted by Vindaloo at 4:06 PM on January 25, 2010 [5 favorites]


no no no guys they've got it all wrong they need to listen to me because only i know which pre-industrial empire's experience is relevant to charting america's future course

(hint: they had horses!)
posted by mightygodking at 4:06 PM on January 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


This was an underwhelming article. I was hoping for "I studied Byzantium. Here are examples of events in its history that we can draw lessons from."

Instead, I got "I studied Byzantium. Here are some general aphorisms that pretty much anyone could have said, regardless of whether they have studied Byzantium or not."

I mean, it started out as if it were going to be great - there are known copies of actual Byzantine manuals on statecraft? Wow! Let's hear about them!

But no. Instead of hearing about them, we get "Don't fight, but be ready to fight."
posted by Flunkie at 4:07 PM on January 25, 2010 [3 favorites]


mccarty.tim: "I know Joe Beese will hate me for this, but this sounds EXACTLY like the foreign policy right wingers accuse Obama of, and what I hope he sincerely plans to do."

The only part of this article that reminded me of Obama - and that only indirectly - was:

Gather intelligence on the enemy and his mentality, and monitor his actions continuously.

There seemed to be an opportunity for a telecom immunity joke in there somewhere - but I couldn't find it.
posted by Joe Beese at 4:08 PM on January 25, 2010


IV. Replace the battle of attrition and occupation of countries with maneuver warfare -- lightning strikes and offensive raids to disrupt enemies, followed by rapid withdrawals.

Perhaps a small irony of this insight from the Eastern Empire is that it was created in the first place by the Romans taking precisely the opposite of this approach. Where the Romans attempted to set up buffer states, or settle for lesser strategic objectives, they tended to be unsuccessful.
posted by There's No I In Meme at 4:16 PM on January 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


Also, the article seems to strongly imply that Rome's fall is directly attributable to a failure of strategy, and therefore that America would do well to learn from its example. This is a bit of a simplification, and there are a number of other theories for the fall of Rome (and correspondingly, the Eastern Empire's survival.)
posted by There's No I In Meme at 4:24 PM on January 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


VIII. Decline into effete indolence, get rolled over by the Seljuks then toppled by the Ottamans, forlornly parading your faded icons around your supposedly impregnable walls.
Recently watched John Romer's excellent 1997 documentary series on Byzantium, which I heartily recommend.
posted by Abiezer at 4:32 PM on January 25, 2010


People have been saying "the world is ending" for an awful long time.

There's a big difference between religiously motivated claims that long-held End of the World prophecies are coming true in the here and now, and the empirical observation that our current economic/ecological systems are inherently unsustainable in the foreseeable future.

Rome didn't suddenly collapse in an apocalyptic End of the World.

But the Mayans really might have.

-
posted by General Tonic at 4:35 PM on January 25, 2010


VIII. Decline into effete indolence, get rolled over by the Seljuks then toppled by the Ottamans,

Well....

More like, fall prey to internal power struggles in which some of the parties decide to take on Turkic allies, assuming they can absorb these guys just as they had other tribal types in the past, and it works great at first until one day they wake up and found Ottomans on the European side of the Bosphorus and there are no other fellow Byzantines to fight.

(Didn't realize Romer had done Byzantines, and thanks for that. Mrs Jones quite liked his Testament.)

Also, Vegetus was not alone in Latin military theory. Vitruvius has quite a bit to say about siege warfare in his ten books of architecture. So also Frontinus, when he wasn't going on about water.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:04 PM on January 25, 2010


how did the Byzantines deal with national debt

I seem to recall they outsourced all their foreign trade to Genoa and Venice, for one thing. Short term solution, long term, not so much....

People have been saying "the world is ending" for an awful long time.

There's a big difference between religiously motivated claims that long-held End of the World prophecies are coming true in the here and now, and the empirical observation that our current economic/ecological systems are inherently unsustainable in the foreseeable future.


The British Empire survived upheavals and turnovers (economic and geopolitical) quite as serious as those we're going through now, not to mention the loss of the Atlantic colonies, and recovered from all of them until finally going down to disaster in the early 20th century.
There is a big difference between noting that there are crises apparent that must be dealt with and screaming "Fallen, Fallen!" Which is frankly what a great many of the folks predicting collapse are doing, in my opinion. Empires rise and fall, and sometimes they stumble only to rise again, renewed.
Moreover, one really shouldn't underestimate how much cultural conditioning related to religious images of the apocalypse can infect secular and perfectly rational concerns.
posted by AdamCSnider at 5:05 PM on January 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


More like, fall prey to internal power struggles...
Don't take my half-arsed version as any reflection on Romer's fantastic documentary - as per usual it mostly went in one ear and out the other with me beyond recalling it was very good.
posted by Abiezer at 5:11 PM on January 25, 2010


Perhaps a small irony of this insight from the Eastern Empire is that it was created in the first place by the Romans taking precisely the opposite of this approach.

So all of that fine and subtle diplomacy was built on a foundation of brutality, of smashing nations, enslaving the survivors and salting the earth afterward.

Good point.
posted by jason's_planet at 5:37 PM on January 25, 2010


HP LaserJet P10006: "We really don't know what's going on in Washington D.C.: there are too many people operating in the shadows."

Cool. That's been my impression, but I'm off in Canada. It's sort of like watching a seedy daytime drama written by Stanislaw Lem - it can be stylistically interesting if you've got the energy, but if you stop paying attention for too long you'll find a trout in your breakfast cereal.
posted by sneebler at 7:24 PM on January 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


Fortunately, the Byzantines are far easier to learn from than the Romans, who left virtually no written legacy of their strategy and tactics, just textual fragments and one bookish compilation by Vegetius, who knew little about statecraft or war.

um.....The Romans didn't write anything down......confused.
posted by aetg at 7:41 PM on January 25, 2010


there are known copies of actual Byzantine manuals on statecraft? Wow! Let's hear about them!

One written by an emperor, no less. I'm sure that's what Luttwack is mostly relying on here. There are a few more military manuals kicking around, but that's the only one I know of that deals with statecraft and diplomacy.

I seem to recall they outsourced all their foreign trade to Genoa and Venice, for one thing. Short term solution, long term, not so much....

Leading up to that was a race to see which emperor could debase the currency more, which really hurt their long-term economic prospects. Constantine's solidius was a known and trusted coin that was the symbol of the empire and its prosperity for 600 years, whereas the coins kicking around by the 11th century were pretty much junk painted gold.
posted by Copronymus at 8:05 PM on January 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


As a non-American, I can't decide if it's a good thing for America to discover the lessons of Byzantine grand strategy. Good luck, guys.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:19 PM on January 25, 2010


why, it's simple - you isolate the ruling class behind walls while eunuchs run the government, keep the populace entertained with games and fights between crips and bloods, i mean diiferent colored people, i mean greens and reds and allow the southern provinces to be overrun by fundamentalist dicks with swords, i mean assault rifles

hey, we're doing GREAT
posted by pyramid termite at 8:21 PM on January 25, 2010 [3 favorites]


I'm not sure the Byzantine empire overall can be considered a success worth modelling by any measure. It constantly in chaos, civil war, etc, and lost most of it's territory more than once and regained it when they happened to have competent leadership.

Examining how Justinian recovered from a disastrous start to his reign and was able to recapture the Italian peninsula would be interesting, for example
posted by empath at 9:34 PM on January 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


um.....The Romans didn't write anything down......confused.

The Romans wrote plenty, but on papyrus, which has pretty much all disintegrated on us.

The Byzantines, like their Western medieval counterparts, turned to parchment (animal skins) for their books, which are much more easily preserved.

Oddly enough our return to paper (and digital information) may distort our legacy to future historians.
posted by hiteleven at 9:37 PM on January 25, 2010


Examining how Justinian recovered from a disastrous start to his reign and was able to recapture the Italian peninsula would be interesting, for example

Most historians now view Justinian's reign as a disaster...the Italian campaigns were unnecessary and an enormous drain on resources. He ruled was based mostly on hubris...but hey, the Hagia Sophia is a beaut.
posted by hiteleven at 9:39 PM on January 25, 2010


I'm not sure the Byzantine empire overall can be considered a success worth modelling by any measure. It constantly in chaos, civil war, etc, and lost most of it's territory more than once and regained it when they happened to have competent leadership.

That's not really fair. The damn thing lasted more than a thousand years. Even leaving off the sad husk that came back into being after the 4th Crusade, we're still talking about nearly 900 years of being one of the most important states in Europe to fit all that chaos, civil war, and territory loss into. In the last 900 years, France has lost big chunks of its territory a bunch of times and managed to cram in 5 republics and 2 empires in addition to a handful of monarchies. A lot of the histories of the Empire tend to be depressing litanies of setbacks and defeats (thanks, Gibbon), occasionally buoyed by renaissances of various sorts, but I think the longevity of the Byzantine Empire demonstrates that something was working well enough that it survived and even prospered until the very bitter end.
posted by Copronymus at 11:59 PM on January 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


Has anyone considered the possibility of running the United States as a modern Republic?

I'm halfway through this course. It points out that the Roman Empire, Maurya Empire and Han Dynasty all thrived when military technology favoured large infantry armies. Centralized agricultural empires were able to field large infantry armies. That may be more responsible for their success than their moral virtues or long-term strategies.

Much later, cavalry became more important than infantry. That tended to decentralize power: outlying areas with lots of pasture could field cavalry forces capable of defeating large infantry armies. So centralized empires weren't very stable in that period.

So I'm not sure you can can really draw many non-trivial conclusions from looking at either the Roman or Byzantine empires, other than "use the most effective military technology of the day". It could be that neither the prolonged Roman wars of attrition, nor fast and mobile Byzantine cavalry, are particularly good models today.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 3:57 AM on January 26, 2010


I'm not sure you can can really draw many non-trivial conclusions from looking at either the Roman or Byzantine empires

Extend, embrace, grant citizenship, extinguish.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:31 AM on January 26, 2010


Well, if you take the "grant citizenship" thing: you can argue granting citizenship to be good or bad: just pick your time period. Right-wingers like to argue that letting Germanic barbarians into the late Roman Empire was what destroyed it; left-wingers like to argue that expanding citizenship in the Republic and early Empire helped it prosper.

That's the good thing about long histories: once you know what you want to be true, it's trivially easy to trawl through and find examples to back you up.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 5:35 AM on January 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


Don't take my half-arsed version as any reflection on Romer's fantastic documentary

Not a bit of it! In fact I put in a request for same at the local library just after signing off. I appreciated your making me aware of it.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:17 AM on January 26, 2010


....this may seem a remarkably basic question, but what exactly IS wrong with belonging to a "fallen empire"?

After all, the 20th Century witnessed the end of an empire itself -- but the aftermath doesn't seem to have been all that catastrophic. Not every empire ends with sacked villages and salted earth.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:07 PM on January 26, 2010


Well, aside from the millions and millions of people that died in Africa, the middle east and south Asia as the British withdrew.
posted by empath at 1:10 PM on January 26, 2010


Ah. Fair point.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:22 PM on January 26, 2010


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