Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Athens and Sparta

The larger point here, which Lind suggests but doesn't actually articulate, is that the United States is now a global trading and commercial power (instead of a continental industrial power as it was when it entered World Wars I and II.) Such powers can become vulnerable if protracted wars threaten their far-flung interests -- as demonstrated by the abrupt collapse of Dutch power in the last half of the 17th century. It takes an exceptional position of strength, such as the one enjoyed by Great Britain during the Napoleanic [sic] Era, to both fight a world war and defend a global economic empire. Does the USA still have what it takes? Do our ruling elites really want to find out?

Lind closes with an historical analogy of his own, arguing that "Israel is to America what Serbia was to Russia in 1914." But here I think Lind's Germanophilia is showing. Under the circumstances, it seems more accurate to say that Israel is to America what Austro-Hungary was to the Second Reich -- a reckless ally bent on vanquishing a weak but troublesome neighbor, whom Kaiser Wilhelm foolishly allowed to start a chain reaction that no one, him least of all, could control.
I don't know if there's a hard and fast dividing line between "continental industrial" and "commercial global" empire, but it's worth pointing out that America hasn't had a trade surplus since the end of the Vietnam War. If we wanted to give a classical shorthand for these two types of empire, an easy mnemonic would be Sparta and Athens. Sparta of course was a huge (by the standards of the day) land power, with bountiful resources and the best armed forces the ancient world had ever seen. Athens had soldiers who could fight just as tenaciously, but also had a sprawling and fractious empire of city-states that regularly needed re-invading and disciplining.

America, interestingly enough, may be one of the only countries since Rome to make the transition from Sparta to Athens. Britain was never terribly good as Sparta, but made a fantastic Athens. France and Russia each did Sparta to varying degrees of success, but couldn't grok the Athenian way of doing things. The interesting thing is that while many empires seem to aspire to the Athenian ideal (a sprawling, wealthy, commercial power) it's difficult to see why you'd prefer the Athenian model from a military standpoint. Commercial imperialism really breeds vulnerability like Kudzu. Athens had to keep its own colonies in line, protect the vital trade routes to its food colonies (the lifeline of the Athenian economy) and try desperately to fend off the Spartans at the gates. Athens succeded at the first and third, then lost the war because it couldn't keep the Dardanelles clear. Sparta's victory was relatively easy, once they figured it out.

The best example of modern Athens was Britain, of course. And everything went more-or-less swimmingly for the Brits until WWI, when the Germans a) fielded an army capable of driving the British out of Belgium and deep into the heart of France, and b) discovered the virtues of submarine warfare on merchant shipping - something they'd put to far greater effect in the next war.

And here's the military point: It's far easier for the Spartas of history to win against Athens' than vice versa. An Athenian empire can be harassed at various points at low cost, forced to spread its strength thin while a continental power can concentrate its strength and attack the enemy directly. It's worth pointing out that in WWII it was really the two Spartas of the time, the US and USSR that were able to crush Germany. Britain was able to prevail against Germany in WWI only with the help of two other major powers (France and Russia) and the manpower of its colonies. And even then, it was closer than it should have been, considering.

Which brings us to the current crisis - actually, crises. Between their attacks on Haifa and the Israeli navy, Hezbollah has demonstrated that they, like the Spartans, have retained the ability to surprise us with innovation - not that Hezbollah is the new Sparta, but the Israelis have got to be surprised. The Americans have got to be terrified of what Iran could do in the Gulf, watching Hezbollah. Of course, America is being harassed all over the place right at the moment, so lacks the ability to commit any resources if Syria gets feisty, or for that matter Iran. It might be better if it weren't for Iraq, but even then we've got North Korea shooting off alarming duds, Lebanon getting crazy, and Iran playing a dangerous nuclear game. With America's strategic and economic interests spread across Israel, the Gulf, and the Korean peninsula, it was really only a matter of time before there was a series of crises like this one. This doesn't require any kind of concert between Pyongyang, Tehran, and Damascus - just that the respective leaders each realize the opportunities to be had. To some extent, I'd bet that's what's happening.

America as Sparta liberated the world, crushed great empires, and strode the world as a Colossus. America as Athens is increasingly harried, attacked, and dizzied by its enemies. The only thing that's missing, ironically, is Sparta - there is no single power harassing America. Rather, America is being set upon by the equivalent of mosquitoes and wasps. The obvious candidate for the next Sparta - China - has been nothing if not compliant and eager to assist America in the one area it can - Korea. Which just shows you how wrong historical analogies can be - nothing's perfect.

Britain, too, increasingly had to put down a growing number of brush fires before WWI broke out. This benefited Germany to a certain extent, even though Berlin had nothing to do with a lot of it. Beijing is certainly not instigating these incidents (that fantasy belongs in a Tom Clancy novel, not reality) but it's certainly benefiting from the temporary respite - another few years of this, and America will be willing to give Taiwan away, just to be rid of the headache.

America needs to get smarter, faster. I can't think of a power that made the transition from Athens to Sparta again, but I'd sure like to see the Americans try.

1 comment:

julie said...

I dont think that it is possable for America to make the move from "Athens to Sparta", I dont think that it has even ever reached the leval ofAthens. America has the army, it has the insistant domination in its leadership, however, it doesnt have the drive of the people to back it up. Spartans were dedicated to the army. I dont think that there are many american mothers willing to give up their baby boys to the army at 7. However, Athens did, as America will, fall to a power that has the dedication of it's people.