A book came out here in France in 2015 that attempted to make sense of our current geopolitical situation and to suggest policy prescriptions based on what the author called the ‘long cycles’ of history (History of the Coming Century by Philippe Fabry). It boiled down to comparing the US to ancient Rome, and modern Europe to ancient Greece just before the death of Republic and the birth of Empire – a comparison that many of us have considered and are familiar with. Based on these correspondences, the book advised European countries to continue the policy of a strong Europe and blind obedience to the US, since the US was poised to embark on a rise to global empire just as the Romans had been. European resistance to this preordained US dominance would only make the transition more painful just as Hellenic opposition to Rome did over 2,000 years ago. Of course the book goes to some length explaining why this comparison of the US with Rome is valid, but much of the similarity depends on the tautology that the US is, indeed, poised to dominate the known world. If we admit that the future is uncertain and US global dominance is not a fait accompli, however, a different model from ancient history suggests itself for the US; that of Athens during the Peloponnesian war.
The Hellenic world had united to repulse a Persian invasion in the early 5th century BC, so that by 479 BC when the Persians were defeated at Salamis, democracy was believed by many to be the ideal organising principle, and Athens was its exemplar. Like the USSR after World War II, however, Sparta’s oligarchic system didn’t fit the democratic narrative, so even though they contributed to Persia’s defeat, Sparta stood in ideological opposition to an Athenian empire that, after the Persian war, had grown militaristic, aggressive, and increasingly oppressive. Things came to a head nearly 50 years after Salamis when Sparta and her allies fought Athens and her allies in the Peloponnesian war which was to last nearly 30 years. For the first 10 years of this war, each side wore down the other so that by 421 BC a peace treaty was concluded between the exhausted parties.
It was during this cessation in hostilities that the Athenians took a decision which ended up costing them their empire. Encouraged by their renewed ability to wage war during the break and intoxicated by the potential for gain, the Athenians mounted an enormous military expedition to sail to Sicily and overcome Syracuse. Their reasoning was that with the additional money and resources of Sicily behind her, Athens could then renew hostilities with Sparta and have every hope for success. They began by attempting to push various Sicilian cities and tribes to revolt against Syracuse, and they managed to bring several over to their side. Once fighting started, however, Syracuse enlisted the aid of Sparta, and the Athenian expedition along with her allies were destroyed. Athens’ reputation as an invincible empire took a hit and never fully recovered.
The similarities between these events and the recent unexpected defeat of US-backed proxies in Aleppo by Syria with Russian aid provide an alternative long-cycle analogy, and the conclusions to be drawn from this comparison stand in direct contradiction to Fabry’s in his book. So while this long-cycle approach to interpreting current events is certainly seductive, selecting similar historical players in the analogy can lead to diametrically-opposed conclusions. In the end, our knowledge of history isn’t complete, reliable, or detailed enough for us to determine which historical analogy is most appropriate, so any conclusions we draw should be held as suspect. But even if they weren’t suspect should we follow them? Let’s say Fabry is correct, and the US is destined to build a world-spanning empire as preponderant as Rome was in the known world at the peak of her empire. Should Europe then take Fabry’s advice and act as America’s compliant, unquestioning ally? What if the US then began imprisoning and killing specific minorities for no reason?
We’ve run up here against the limits of realpolitik, and the only operating principle that allows us to move forward is our shared concept of right and wrong. The decisions that confront countries in this time of uncertain, shifting alliances will not admit to solutions from the head alone, but must be complemented by considerations of the heart. A shared morality must form the basis of international law, and every country must submit to that law’s authority. Today, morality is used by countries in cynical appeals to gain popular support for dubious actions on the world stage where true motivations are kept secret. Institutions responsible for making international law and seeing that it is enforced have been hopelessly compromised. Preventing future wars depends on reinvesting these institutions with the moral authority they were originally created to have. Countries can no longer assume that the US will forever play the role of global hegemon and make their plans accordingly. And by incorporating right and wrong into their decision-making process, cynical appeals to morality and coordination of media falsehoods become unnecessary. Of course, if countries began behaving in this way, Kissinger and Brzezinski would probably collapse in fits of apoplexy; but that would save the court costs of their war crimes trial.
Steve Cooper is an American ex-patriot living in the Dordogne in France.