Thoughts on Thucydides – Book I, Part III
Nearly a century before the onset of the Peloponnesian War, on the other side of the planet, Sun Tzu wrote the scripts for The Art of War, including the famous admonishment to “know thy enemy, know thyself.” Unfortunately for the Athenians, the lesson had not yet transmitted very far from ancient China. At the very outset of the war, Athens committed three critical strategic miscalculations that would cripple the effective prosecution of the war.
On the eve of the Peloponnesian War, the Hellenic world was divided between the respective alliance systems of Athens and Sparta, a geopolitical remnant of the wars against the Persian Empire. The system was bipolar, but it was not “balanced” owing to the vastly different characters of the predominant powers. Athens had acquired a maritime empire that provided revenue and external sources of food, while Sparta remained an agrarian society centered on the Peloponnesus. And though Sparta was a famously martial society, in terms of policy it was surprisingly unwarlike, with no expansionist tendencies and an almost lethargic attitude toward external affairs. Sparta’s legendary warrior tradition was a means by which to organize society rather than an instrument of policy and conquest. In contrast, Athens was aggressive and enterprising, attributes probably reinforced by its reliance on its empire for tribute and provisions. The speech of the Corinthian envoys to the Spartan assembly succinctly compare the natures of the two city-states:
The Athenians are addicted to innovation, and their designs are characterized by swiftness alike in conception and execution; you have a genius for keeping what you have got, accompanied by a total want of invention, and when forced to act you never go far enough. Again, they are adventurous beyond their power, and daring beyond their judgment, and in danger they are sanguine; your wont is to attempt less than is justified by your power, to mistrust even what is sanctioned by your judgment, and to fancy that from danger there is no release (1.70).
In the language of neorealism, Sparta was a “status quo” power and Athens was an “aspiring hegemon.” However, a fragile peace endured thanks to the independence of a lesser power, Corcyra, from either of the two alliance systems.
If foreign warships intruded into American territorial waters near a critical and undefended military base, you might expect that reasonable countermeasures be taken, like shadowing the vessels with military aircraft, dispatching some troops to shore up the garrison, and summoning the ambassador of the offending state to demand an explanation. But this is 21st century America, where NASA’s primary mission is offering therapy to the Muslim world and international LGBT rights are considered a national security priority.
Nothing frustrates this Administration more than the intrusion of great power politics on its post-modern foreign policy agenda. Recently this was on display by President Obama’s reaction to the Russian intervention in Syria (“This is not some superpower chessboard contest”). Last month it was visible in the confused response to the PLAN’s Alaskan pleasure cruise.
Patrick O’Sullivan and Jesse Miller conclude a now-dated regional analysis of the Middle East with comments that still ring prescient:
Mackinder’s pivot was the region which the horsemen of the steppes swept out of under pressure of limited resources and internecine competition. The prize they most keenly sought lay in the region we have just delineated, now divided among the fragments of Islam, created by these riders from the plains. The source of instability now lies in the confusion of Islam. People who have been sheltered from changes in the west by the conservative, legalistic code of Islam now have to face accommodation with 400 years of technical, social and political evolution all at once. One possible reaction is to deny the morality of what has come to pass and retreat into the past as the Wahabis did and Khomeini would do. At the other extreme is a radical embracing of change in the fashion of Ataturk. Shah Reza Palavi attempted this but did not succeed. Whatever the ploys of government, the people will be caught in the quandary of going both ways at once, and social schizophrenia can lead to savage action and reaction. This imbalance, plus the presence of oil and Israel, turns this into the percussion cap of the world. (p 155)
The Geography of Warfare, published in 1983, is a collection of strategic and political musings by Patrick O’Sullivan (Professor of Geography at Florida State University) and Jesse W. Miller (Professor of Accounting at State University of New York). Like many other similarly themed books published around the same time, the book is a wide-ranging, searching work; a modest contribution to the strategic remooring that was just beginning to occur as America recovered from the post-Vietnam haze and responded to the perceived Soviet ascent.
Not quite so simple…
Their post-mortem analysis of the domino theory shows the value of remembering that strategy occurs in a physical plane and is still subject to geographic limitations:
Since there is no formal statement of the domino theory, in order to analyse its logical structure we can only examine the mechanics of the analogy. The elegant, rippling collapse of a row of dominoes derives from its artful arrangement in a state of unstable equilibrium so that any disturbance will be transmitted along the row. The pieces are endowed with potential energy by standing them on their ends so that each will strike the next as it falls. If a gap greater than the length of a piece separates two dominoes, the chain reaction ceases. The dominoes have three states: standing, falling and fallen. That ‘falling’ and ‘fallen’ equate with ‘going communist’ may satisfy the moral perspective of those who apply this theory. On the other hand they might have been disturbed that the fallen state was a stable equilibrium while standing was unstable. The red and white characterisation of politics implied by the analogy is not only naïve and insulting but also runs contrary to a geographical sense of uniqueness. It utterly fails to capture the significance of regional or national identity which daily we see dominating mankind’s sense of self and place.
The model treats of aggression from one end of the row as the potential energy of the first domino is translated to kinetic energy by an initial tap. It falls, registering a change to the same affiliation as the aggressor and, in so doing, imparts this character to the next domino as it strikes it down and so forth. What the necessities of similar size and appropriate spacing translate into in geographical terms is unclear. Obviously in order to land on the beaches of San Diego some very large dominoes would have to be stationed on the Philippines, Wake Island and Hawaii. The existence of a gap like the Pacific should quiet fears of the red menace wading ashore in California. In the proliferation of the theory’s use, oceans or intervening nations are obviously not seen as gaps containing the contagion, but can be conveniently erased. The nature of the contamination process is not made very clear by the analogy. ‘Knocked over’ is redolent of liquor stores rather than nations and hardly provides a rich enough description of the process to prescribe preventative action. ‘Propping up’ has been used to indicate one type of solution, but has proven difficult to translate into successful political, military and economic operations. ‘Knocking out’, the lateral displacement of one or more pieces to provide a fire-break to check the progress of the conflagration, does appeal to some military minds as a feasible action. (p. 100-1)