contributor perspectives

Literature and Geopolitics

Robert D. Kaplan
Chief Geopolitical Analyst, Stratfor
7 MINS READMay 7, 2014 | 08:06 GMT
A man walks down a corridor in a library.
Books in the Cecil H. Green library in Stanford University.
(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Neither political science nor policy journals hold the lessons required for understanding foreign policy as much as the great works of literature. That is the message of Yale's Charles Hill in his 2010 book, Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft, and World Order. In this magisterial work, Hill distills a lifetime of reading, diplomatic service and teaching in order to produce a guide to the great books of the kind required by any secretary of state or national security adviser.

As Hill explains, historians are of limited utility here because they have the luxury of knowing all the facts before writing, whereas a statesman knows only a "small portion" of the facts before acting. As for political scientists, they reduce events to abstract theory and a "narrowly defined corner" with a few variables, so that they, too, miss much — especially the human drama and disfiguring passions that swirl around great decisions. As I learned early on as a foreign correspondent, world events are less about political science than they are about Shakespeare. Hill puts it better, though: "Neither historians nor political scientists can deal with the complexity of true strategy and statecraft. Thucydides does so because his narrative is literature, and literature does not restrict itself. It can say anything that needs to be said." Duff Cooper, in his 1932 biography of French statesman Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord, had written along similar lines: "Fiction is often an aid to history, and the penetrating eye of genius can discern much that remains elusive to the patient researches of the historian."

The first part of Hill's book deals with the Greek classics. I will restrict this column to a brief discussion of them and save future columns for other parts of his essential text.

Of course, Hill begins with Homer's Iliad, but for reasons that may be less obvious to some. Whereas the Iliad is an urtext for the subject of war, Hill reveals that it is also, inevitably, a seminal work for the study of diplomacy. For as Hill explains, "diplomacy precedes the state and is natural to the human condition. Everyone practices it in some form, from 'signaling' to making concessions, to 'getting your way without force.'" When war breaks out, the importance of diplomats in some form increases, and the Iliad is replete with examples of this. Anyone who thinks diplomacy is overvalued is speaking out of ignorance of the past.

And it is not just war and diplomacy to which the Iliad holds insights but also to the very nature of political order itself. When the ruling class is in conflict, as Achilles is with Agamemnon, "a popular uprising and a more egalitarian politics may be imagined." More generally, all societies — including democratic ones — are ruled by elites, so that when an elite is divided, it often means upheaval or decline. That is why the endemic partisan strife in Washington in our own day augurs badly for the destiny of the United States.

Between such diplomatic dramas as Odysseus's mission to heal the rift between Achilles and Agamemnon, and the interminably hideous descriptions of actual war, the Iliad is fundamental to understanding human society before the existence of the state. For understanding the creation of the state itself, Hill leads us to the Oresteia trilogy. This drama chronicles the aristocratic house of Atreus — associated with Agamemnon — "disintegrating under a curse that demands revenge down the generations." Until, that is, Orestes helps along a restoration "from the primeval cycle of revenge to civil society based on judicial order." Orestes' fate is decided in a battle between Apollo, representing impersonal law over blood relations, and the Furies, who represent the anarchy of nature. Apollo wins and thus the state in a spiritual sense is born.

Indeed, the state is not a blood nation but an association of strangers judged by an impersonal law and bureaucracy, thus granting sovereignty to the individual rather than to any ethnic or religious group. To wit, the Oresteia trilogy is, in Hill's interpretation, the primary work of classical literature for comprehending why the European Union, despite all of its travails, still represents the hopes and dreams of Central and Eastern Europeans who desperately want to escape from their historic furies and live under the rule of law. The very existence of the Oresteia demonstrates that this is an eternal longing.

And yet the state, once in existence, will at times face the threat of collapse, and thus there will be the need to reconstitute it. That is the theme of Xenophon's Anabasis ("The March Up"), also known as The Persian Expedition. It is the story of 10,000 Greek mercenaries abandoned in Persia who must march back westward across Anatolia and the Black Sea to their homeland. But even though their generals have been killed, the Greek soldiers — experienced citizens of a democracy — are "ready to debate and decide by voting on new commanders and new courses of action." And so these warriors become a polity on the march. As Hill says, in the course of the journey they change their form of government from rule by one to rule by the few (the elite officers corps) to rule by many, as the circumstances require.

Anyone who thinks diplomacy is overvalued is speaking out of ignorance of the past.

In the course of his disquisition on Xenophon, Hill quotes one of my favorite poems, the Victorian writer A. E. Housman's "Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries," first published in 1917. It is worth repeating here:

These, in the day when heaven was falling,
The hour when earth's foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling
And took their wages and are dead.

Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
They stood, and earth's foundations stay;
What God abandoned, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.

Literature's greatest theme, according to Hill, is "the founding and preservation of a polity." Beyond that even, is the founding of a universal civilization and world system, which Rome — with all its flaws — constituted for antiquity. America, like Rome or even Athens to a degree, has been attempting something similar. But in the course of such great projects, tragic mistakes periodically occur. Wars will be fought to preserve world order or to extend the boundaries of civil society. Yet, even if their motives are pure or at least defensible, it does not follow that the results will be honorable. That is the theme of one of the most tragic episodes in world literature, the Sicilian Expedition of the late fifth century B.C., as described by Thucydides in the sixth and seventh books of his Peloponnesian War.

The Peloponnesian War, between democratic Athens with its alliance network and militaristic Sparta with its, has often been compared to the bipolar conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. In that earlier conflict Athens, arrogant in its prosperity but afraid of the domino effect of the power of Syracuse — in turn an ally of Sparta — was lured into far-off Sicily by an ally. Athens originally sent a small force that became larger and larger, until it seemed that the destiny of Athens itself depended on victory in Sicily. Athens' humiliating defeat sparked defeatism in Athens, with the public turning against those who had promoted the war. The Sicilian Expedition, as Hill notes, has been read by both soldiers and diplomats as an allegory of both Vietnam and Iraq.

I am not surprised. Over the years I have lectured at the graduate level at military war colleges and have taught at the undergraduate level at the Naval Academy. I saw my students intensely engage in the ancient classics almost as contemporary texts of geopolitics. For young men and women who have actually served in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere — or who anticipate serving in similar places and circumstances — they try to hold close the sense of the tragic so inherent in the classics. The great books are great for a reason, and Hill's book is a particularly useful survey of them.

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