(Warning! Long Historically-minded Post Ahead! Prepare for Boredom!)
Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times was writing a few days ago about the meagre coalition of the willing that Bush has managed to corral in to existence/obedience. Kristof is a frustrating writer - on some issues, he is excellent, such as Iran or the genocide in Darfur. Other times, he's a total nitwit. Needless to say, the difference between these two is whether I agree with him or not. Just kidding.
However, he went off on a tangent near the end of his latest column, (free login required) and wrote:
"Yet Athens became too full of itself. It forgot to apply its humanity beyond its own borders, it bullied its neighbors, and it scoffed at the rising anti-Athenianism. To outsiders, it came to epitomize not democracy, but arrogance. The great humanists of the ancient world could be bafflingly inhumane abroad, as at Melos, the My Lai of its day.<>
Athens's overweening military intervention abroad antagonized and alarmed its neighbors, eventually leading to its defeat in the Peloponnesian War. It's not so much that Athens was defeated - it betrayed its own wonderful values, alienated its neighbors and destroyed itself."
Now, the wonderful thing about the Peloponnesian War is that it's the kind of event everyone can read in to whatever they like. The horrible thing about the Peloponnesian war is, well, the same thing. However, Kristof is just plain wrong to say that Athens "destroyed itself" by betraying its values. Athens was quite soundly defeated by the Peloponnesians, thank you very much. This is not to say that there aren't lessons to be drawn from the experience of the Athenians, but they're not the kind of lessons that Kristoff, or any other American commentator is likely to enjoy.
It's worth doing a brief sketch of the Peloponnesian War before we go any further. During the Second Persian War, and after the Spartan sacrifice at Thermopylae, the Greeks were united under Spartan command of the Hellenic League. After the final land battle of Plataea in 479 BC, the Persians were defeated and driven from Greece. The Greek Navy (essentially the Athenians) meanwhile smashed the Persian fleet at the Battle of Mycale. After the Persian defeat, however, the war alliance quickly fell apart, as Athens and Sparta jostled for control of the Greek world. The first real schism came when Athens assumed direct control of it's navy, without the customary Spartan commanders who, after all, still nominally led the Hellenic League.
By 477 - only two years after the end of the Persian War! - the Athenians took their first step towards empire, when they founded the Delian League, which was essentially an aggressive alliance whose purpose was largely to extract revenge for the Persian invasions. To this end, member cities sent tribute to Athens in the form of either ships or straight money, and Athens commanded the fleet. Eventually, the league treasury was moved from Delos (hence the name of the Delian League) to Athens, which historians arbitrarily use to mark the end of the League and the beginning of the Athenian empire. Athens predictably grew wealthy off the league treasury, and very quickly began making enemies of the people it was supposed to be protecting. However, it was more or less able to retain its power over its own empire.
The problem for Athens arose from the existence of a counter-Athenian league, the Peloponnesian League led by Sparta. Two of Athens' biggest trading rivals, Corinth and Megara, were also members of the Peloponnesian League making a dangerous combination of military and commercial rivalry. The two camps had a brief confrontation around 460-445 BC, which actually stengthened Athens' hand in certain areas, but overall changed little. Neither side had achieved a decisive victory over the other, and none of the underlying disputes had been resolved. This is often called the "First" or "Undeclared" Peloponnesian War.
The war itself would begin in 432 BC, after a dispute over the tiny city-state of Epidamnus resulted in a diplomatic breakdown that neither side could resolve. By most accounts, the Spartan king wanted to avoid war if possible, but was commanded to go to war by what passed for Spartan democracy. Also, Sparta faced increasing pressure from its Corinthian and Megarian allies to deal with the Athenians once and for all. The first shots were fired, so to speak, when Thebes attacked Athens at Plataea, the same place where the Persian Wars had ended.
Without going in to the war in too much detail, a basic summary would be: Sparta had land power (and how!) but no navy. Athens had a navy, but no land power. Athens was totally dependent on imported food, so it required access to the port city of Piraeus. The Athenians secured their supply lines by building the Long Walls which essentially gave Athens "legs" of stone, leading straight south to the port. With their huge fleet and the walls to hide behind, the Athenians assumed they could withstand any onslaught by the Spartans. At first, the Athenians seemed to be correct. Repeated Spartan invasions had to be turned back after the Athenians simply outlasted them.
However, near the end of the war (almost thirty years later) the Spartan leader Lysander managed to cut a deal with the Spartans, got himself a line of credit, built up a Peloponnesian fleet that could match the Athenians. The Spartans finally smashed the Athenian fleet at the battle of Aegospotami (in what is now the Dardanelles between the Aegean and Black Sea), and cut off the food supply from the Black Sea that fed Athens. When the remnants of the Athenian fleet arrived home (only days before the Spartans coming to demand their surrender) it's said that the wailing and crying started in Piraeus, and you could hear it move up the Long Walls until it finally reached the city itself.
So, with our "short" lesson on the Peloponnesian War done, what are the lessons for today?
1) Your enemies' past weakness is no guarantee of future performance. Under the inspired leadership of Lysander, Sparta finally broke the back of the Athenian empire, beating the Athenians again and again on land and at sea. They even built a fleet to match the Athenians, something that was unthinkable until it happened.
2) Land power trumps technological superiority. The Spartans not only had more soldiers than Athens, they were of an entirely different caliber than any other Greek army. Long before the final defeat at Aegospotami, the Athenians were having their heads handed to them in land battles.
3) Dependence on a strategic import is a weakness. This ranks up there on the "duh" scale, but it deserves to be said. If Athens had been self-sufficient, like Sparta was, in agriculture, then we wouldn't care about Aegospotami (because it's a household term now, right?) Because of their reliance on imported food, the Athenians never had to be invaded to be defeated.
And, I would argue, nowhere in the history of the Peloponnesian War is there evidence that Athens "defeated itself" as Kristof argues. The one exception to his would be Athens' history of disastrous military campaigns in Sicily and the Aegean. Still, this was a relatively simple case of one sandbox not being big enough for two children, and one eventually getting thumped so hard it had to give up.
The implications for the US today should be obvious. The next rival for global hegemony will be whoever can match US technology, put more boots on the ground, and can act independently of the need for oil, or any other crucial imports. There are any number of theoretical enemies that could fit this bill, but it's also possible the correct answer will be "nobody". Finally, it's worth noting that even after they won, the Spartans were so exhausted by their victory (and their male population was so small) that Spartan hegemony in Greece collapsed after only thirty years of dominance, when Thebes' victory of Leuctra massacred most of the remaining adult male population. Even by winning, Sparta still lost. Whoever is thinking today that they could fill the US's shoes might want to keep that in mind.
(Note to self: It was a good idea not to sell self's Greek History textbook from last year.)