View Blog History Unfolding: Styles of empire

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Styles of empire

Late in the 5th century B. C. E., Sparta and Athens, who had together defeated the Persians some decades earlier, were on the verge of war. The Athenians enjoyed a huge empire all over the Aegean, which they ruled with the help of democratic parties in their client states, while the Spartans led the Peloponnesian League, which included most of the states of southern Greece. In 431, three separate issues were coming to a head. On the west coast of Greece, Corinth, a Spartan ally, was trying to subdue Corcyra, which Athens had decided to support because Corcyra (today, Corfu) had a substantial navy. Close to Athens, Megara, strategically located on the isthmus between Athens and the Peloponnese, was involved in disputes with Athens that had led the Athenians to bar the Megarians from Athenian marketplaces--an ancient form of economic sanctions. And in Thrace, in the northwest, the aristocratic party of Potidea had revolted against the Athenian-allied democratic party, and had asked for an received some help from Sparta--a precedent which the Athenians wanted to nip in the bud. As Thucydides the Athenian reported years later, the Spartans held a Congress of their allies to decide whether to agree to Corinth's demand that they go war with Athens, and some Athenian businessmen who happened to be in Sparta were allowed to present their city's case. Here is some of what they said, as translated in the 19th century by Crawley (I would rather have quoted the Penguin translation by Rex Warner, but it is not on line.)

"Surely, Spartans, neither by the patriotism that we displayed
at that crisis, nor by the wisdom of our counsels, do we merit our
extreme unpopularity with the Greeks, not at least unpopularity
for our empire. That empire we acquired by no violent means, but
because you were unwilling to prosecute to its conclusion the war
against the barbarian, and because the allies attached themselves to
us and spontaneously asked us to assume the command. And the nature of
the case first compelled us to advance our empire to its present
height; fear being our principal motive, though honour and interest
afterwards came in. And at last, when almost all hated us, when some
had already revolted and had been subdued, when you had ceased to be
the friends that you once were, and had become objects of suspicion
and dislike, it appeared no longer safe to give up our empire;
especially as all who left us would fall to you. And no one can
quarrel with a people for making, in matters of tremendous risk, the
best provision that it can for its interest.
"You, at all events, Spartans, have used your supremacy to
settle the states in
Peloponnese as is agreeable to you. And if at the
period of which we were speaking you had persevered to the end of
the matter, and had incurred hatred in your command, we are sure
that you would have made yourselves just as galling to the allies, and
would have been forced to choose between a strong government and
danger to yourselves. It follows that it was not a very wonderful
action, or contrary to the common practice of mankind, if we did
accept an empire that was offered to us, and refused to give it up
under the pressure of three of the strongest motives, fear, honour,
and interest. And it was not we who set the example, for it has always
been law that the weaker should be subject to the stronger
. Besides,
we believed ourselves to be worthy of our position, and so you thought
us till now, when calculations of interest have made you take up the
cry of justice- a consideration which no one ever yet brought forward
to hinder his ambition when he had a chance of gaining anything by
might. And praise is due to all who, if not so superior to human
nature as to refuse dominion, yet respect justice more than their
position compels them to do."

We too have lived in an age of empires, but few if any of them, for many centuries, have dared to speak so frankly. Both Christianity and the Enlightenment have committed western man, at least, to some idea of the common good, which even the strong are supposed to work for--and thus the French under Napoleon, the various European powers in Africa in the nineteenth century, the Soviet Union in the twentieth, and the United States since the Second World War have never acknowledged such selfish motives, nor appealed to raw human emotion to justify their conduct. (The Nazis and the Japanese were certainly at least partial exceptions, and Hitler was particularly blunt, privately at least, in arguing that history was nothing but a Darwinistic struggle among peoples.) Are we in fact wiser than the Greeks? On the one hand, the theoretical commitment to the common good does strike me as an advance for civilization, but since it never wholly explains the behavior of powerful states (the Athenian delegates were surely right about that), it also leads to greater hypocrisy. Today, as I have pointed out, the United States government simply declares (as Condoleezza Rice did in 2003) that the world must coalesce behind American policy for the good of all, and President Bush insists that we are simply promoting freedom and democracy around the world. To many others around the world, however, things look very different. Many Muslim activists, moreover, have no even theoretical commitment to the common good, since they make no provision for the interests of heretics and unbelievers.

The specifics of our policies suggest that we, like the Athenians, are most interested in rewarding our friends and punishing our enemies--even when democracy turns out to put our enemies in power. The Hamas victory in Palestine has made us cling more tightly to Mahmoud Abbas, even though we cannot offer him anything more than the Israeli government is willing to give him. In Pakistan we are now frantically trying to balance our desire for democracy (which could easily have completely unintended consequences there, too) with our terror lest the Pakistani government and its nuclear arsenal fall into unfriendly hands. (Press reports over the last few days have said, first, that we are picking out possible new Pakistani leadership from within the Pakistani Army, and second, that we encouraged the return of Benazir Bhutto, which has triggered the state of emergency.) Meanwhile we still continue to refuse to accept the legitimacy of the Castro regime in Cuba--which has been in power for a mere 48 years--and which President Bush, in a speech at the State Department, openly invited the Cuban Army to overthrow. In Afghanistan six years of American occupation have not managed to prevent an impressive resurgence of the Taliban, which now rules parts of the countryside. In Iraq, 155,000 American troops (which will in the next year be reduced once again to about 130,000) have succeeded in reversing unfavorable security trends in Sunni areas, but only by taking on the traditional role of an imperial power, that is, by striking up alliances with local tribal elites. Meanwhile, the dollar during the Bush Administration has lost half its value, the price of oil has tripled, and our credit structure is cracking.

I have been noting here for weeks that the idea that the United States must get whatever it wants all around the world has not really been challenged by any of the major candidates. (Barack Obama has at least suggested we might talk to our enemies, but that is only a small step away.) This mindset has plagued us for about sixty years--the spread of Communism in Eastern Europe, the Communist victory in China, the Castro revolution, the fall of South Vietnam and the fall of the Shah, as well as numerous other setbacks, have struck far too many Americans as deviations from the natural order of things that should never have been allowed to happen (and which therefore have been blamed on treachery within the United States.) But the experiment of the last seven years proves, at least to me, that the United States cannot get whatever it wants, and that further attempts to do so will further erode our position. That has indeed been the fate of most previous empires, from the Athenians (whose catastrophe began with the expedition to Sicily, of which more later), to Napoleon, to the Germans in the twentieth century. We can perhaps take some encouragement that the British, our nearest relations politically and constitutionally, managed to give up their empire peacefully and without sacrificing their political and cultural legacy. But whether we can realistically assess our world position--which could still be one of leadership, if we can accept something less than complete hegemony--remains a very open question, and I am not particularly hopeful.


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