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.