Strategies, analogies and Luttwak

Edward Luttwak argues that the empire of Constantinople, not Rome, should inspire a rebirth of America grand strategy.

And as a cracking read, I would recommend his latest offering, The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire.

Once again, Luttwak is bound to provoke three overlapping audiences: those who don’t like the notion that America is an empire, those who think it is imperial but shouldn’t be, and ancient historians who don’t like interlopers (particularly ones in search of useful analogies).

But if we can’t plunder the history of the Roman empire(s) for divisive comparisons, where’s the fun?

Luttwak argued in his prequel (The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire, or GSRE) that the Romans made a number of major adjustments to postpone the collapse of their power, such as a military shift from a perimeter defence to one based on a more porous but flexible,  strategic reserve.

But here he has shifted a bit, now arguing that the reason the Eastern Empire endured long after its Western counterpart is that the Byzantines ‘got’ grand strategy and its subtle dynamics, whereas the Westerners largely didn’t. While both empires suffered from weaknesses, emergency spawned strategic thinking in Constantinople about dividing and containing enemies, paying off rivals, using indirect methods, campaigning much but fighting little. What’s more, the adroit strategists of the East wrote stuff down more often, and it is these texts that Luttwak plunders.

This raises again the question that his critics brought up with his earlier work – must strategy be named to be practised? Luttwak’s main evidence in GSRE was not textual but the observation of military behaviour, the archeological record and what it tells us about defence systems, forts and frontier management. Did the Westerners not generate as  many strategic texts because they weren’t thinking hard about how to match their resources to their goals? Or were they a bit busy fighting civil war after frontier raid after civil war, in a time that obliterated much of the historical record?

We tend to credit civilizations that produce strategic writing with being strategically minded (like the Ming Dynasty Chinese).  But what about folk who don’t write much down?

Luttwak’s ideas are fascinating as always, but I think he’s a little harsh on the Western Romans. The Westerners did manage to build and sustain an empire for a helluva long time. We know they bought foreigners off, or co-opted them. They did try to solve the problems of internal political conflict by creating ways in which power was transmitted. They also evolved a way of converting and integrating defeated enemies, and particularly their elites, into loyal Roman citizens. That’s not a bad way of marrying violence, politics and self-interest as a starter for ten. In the dying years, they also gave us Vegetius, one of the more influential Roman minds on the subject. The danger with Luttwak’s approach is that in rightfully turning our attention further East, he overdraws the notion of a wily, Eastern genius versus an unsubtle militaristic West, a classic theme in the history of Western self-criticism but also a little ahistorical.

What’s kind of interesting, and something I’m trying to research, is the whole history of the Rome-America analogy in the realm of strategic ideas. Luttwak is right that we have over-privileged the experience of the western empire in the debate. And goddam, he’s a great writer.

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7 thoughts on “Strategies, analogies and Luttwak

  1. Cincinnatus Jr. says:

    You said:

    “… What’s kind of interesting, and something I’m trying to research, is the whole history of the Rome-America analogy in the realm of strategic ideas. Luttwak is right that we have over-privileged the experience of the western empire in the debate. …”

    I hope you keep as a backdrop to your research what I consider an integral but oft ignored context for considering strategic or otherwise military-related issues in comparing and contrasting the (late) western-Roman experience with contemporary geo-political realities, especially of the US.

    This context is the social/ethical/spiritual/political developments (whether characterized as advancements or declines by differing perspectives) during the same periods both within and external to the respective “empires”. It seems to me that much of the “strategic” landscape is very much affected by these parallel aspects but regrettably much of the study of the former has been in vacuo.
    I very much look forward to the results of your research.

  2. Grant says:

    “he overdraws the notion of a wily, Eastern genius versus an unsubtle militaristic West”

    You see that everywhere. Literally everywhere. I recall some post on the Small Wars Journal blog arguing that somehow Tao or something of the sort contributed to a Chinese expertise at asymmetric war, this despite the fact that China’s been building up a conventional military for decades.

    More to the point, I notice not many people take notice of the empire building habits of the original Roman empire well before it split in two. Auxiliaries from the conquered (which is where we get the word), a unified way of building settlements, unified laws, roads. I would think that this should be of at least equal interest in the current world as strategic thinking.

  3. Patrick, I haven’t read Luttwak’s latest, but I’m curious – does he explore any theories of analogical reasoning? There’s quite a bit of it across the disciplines, employed in different ways by lawyers, historians, political scientists, sociologists, media theorists, cognitive linguists… just just wondering whether Luttwak gets into such analog heuristics in any way, shape or form (!).

  4. Patrick Porter says:

    Cincinnatus,

    yes indeed, the Rome analogy is a powerful one because it often ties in the ‘values’ question, which is pretty hard to keep out of the loaded notion of imperial decline.

    Grant,

    I agree. its a very resilient mythology, and you are absolutely right on point with the original empire thing.

    Hey Mike,

    actually in the book itself, he doesn’t get into too much explicit comparison of America Rome (though I haven’t read the whole thing yet), and no, there isn’t much in the way of theories of analogical reasoning (such as ‘Analogies at War’, etc).

    • Good call – Khong’s book was exactly what had crossed my mind in reading your post.

      On the one hand, it’s entirely possible to overthink and overtheorize the issue, and depending on the case study(ies) in question and the quality of the historical material that’s available, perhaps not entirely necessary or useful…

      On the other, I think analog heuristics (ie. analogies in their most straightforward sense, coupled with notions of metaphor, artefact, frames, etc.) offer some intriguing leverage for understanding like/unlike phenomena (ie. cross-cutting modes of warfare in relation to cross-cutting domains and sites of conflict (ie. states, urban environments, the web).

      The disconnects have been plaguing scholars and practitioners for the better part of two decades now. I’ve probably meandered way off topic, so just sayin’… anything that addresses problems of isomorphism in war has its place.

    • Patrick Porter says:

      absolutely, and as an historian of sorts who’s also into strategic studies, I’d agree that transhistorical comparisons must be made, despite the hazards involved.

      its doubly interesting with America, because those who hold that it is exceptional in some way as a great power tend to resist the exercise unless it is one of contrasts or unless it is to emphasise the republican nature of the US. whereas critics of American empire tend to focus on the Roman empire as a warning about America’s imperial character.

  5. Cincinattus Jr. says:

    Patrick:

    You said “those who hold that it is exceptional in some way as a great power tend to resist the exercise unless it is one of contrasts or unless it is to emphasise the republican nature of the US. whereas critics of American empire tend to focus on the Roman empire as a warning about America’s imperial character.”

    Given these choices, I suppose I hold an amalgamated view of the two. On the one hand, I think that it is historically and empirically true (not just that I “hold” such a view in the sense that it is a matter merely of emotional nationalism that seems in such disfavor in our so very enlightened “post-modern” world) that the United States has many exceptional attributes and accomplishments during its relatively short existence (I recognize that what these are and their relative “rank” is to some extent a matter of debate but nevertheless I think any objective assessment of the last 250-odd years will include at least a few examples of American exceptionalism).

    On the other, I think comparisons to the Roman experience (setting aside the “empire” aspect that I also think breaks down in large part when trying to argue that the US has pursued “empire” building in a fashion similar to the Romans) are apt in the sense that the ascendancy and dominance of Rome (and some other civilizations for that matter) were the function of a certain synergistic combination of various positive societal attributes (representative governance, sense of civic responsibility, social cohesion and the like) that are taken for granted at the peril of a people. If these qualities are not continually nurtured and reaffirmed individually and corporately (as sadly has eventually been the case in every previous example),the civilization eventually fails. It is this cautionary tale that is of great value in the study of the Roman experience IF sufficient numbers of Americans know of and understand its significance.

    This brings us back to where we are of course in that our “post modern” sophistication carries with it a rejection of higher values and fosters self absorption and a lack of personal responsibility with a concomitant increased expectation that the government will provide for our every need. In such an environment, any lessons from ancient Rome, with the exception perhaps of those who inhabit places like the KOW blog, are overwhelmed by the cacophony of more entertaining fare such as the ever-increasing number and inanity of “reality” television.

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