The Return of Ancient Times

Why the warrior politics of the twenty-first century will demand a pagan ethos
Tavis Coburn


IN 1988, during the Palestinian intifada, the Israeli Defense Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, referring to Palestinian protesters, reportedly told Israeli soldiers to "go in and break their bones." Rabin's standing with the public began to rise thereafter. In 1992 hard-line Israeli voters switched to the Labor Party, only because Rabin headed the ticket. As Prime Minister, Rabin used his new power to start peace talks with the Palestinians and the Jordanians. Rabin, who was assassinated in 1995, is now judged a hero by enlightened public opinion the world over.

In 1970 and again in the 1980s King Hussein of Jordan cracked down brutally on the Palestinians. Had Hussein been subject to Western judicial procedures, he might have been implicated in mistreating considerable numbers of people through his security services. Yet Hussein's crackdown saved his kingdom from those who would have been less just in office than he was.

Western admirers of Rabin and Hussein prefer to forget their ruthlessness. But Niccolò Machiavelli would have understood that such tactics were central to their virtue. In an imperfect world, Machiavelli wrote, good men bent on doing good must learn how to be bad. And in this world virtue has much less to do with individual perfection than with political results.

By substituting pagan for Christian virtue, Machiavelli explained better than any political scientist today how Rabin and Hussein could become what they were. There is nothing amoral about Machiavelli's pagan virtue either. The late Oxford philosopher Isaiah Berlin observed that Machiavelli's values may not be Christian but they are moral. Berlin implied that they are the Periclean and Aristotelian values of the ancient polis -- values that secure a stable political community. (If you want to act strictly according to Christian ethics, Berlin suggested in explaining Machiavelli, that's fine -- so long as you don't assume political responsibility for the lives of too many others.) But even Machiavelli has his limits. By his standards, Rabin and Hussein are moral, because they used only the minimum degree of cruelty required to further a virtuous cause. Augusto Pinochet is not. His cruelty was excessive and his cause was questionable, so he lacks virtue.

Machiavelli's emphasis on political necessity rather than moral perfection framed his philosophical attack on the Church. By in effect leaving the Church, he left the medieval world and kindled the political Renaissance, renewing links with Thucydides, Polybius, Livy, Tacitus, Seneca, Sallust, and other classical thinkers.

A tenet of classical philosophy states that primitive necessity and self-interest drive politics -- all to the good, because competing self-interests allow for compromise, whereas rigid moral arguments lead to war, which is rarely the better option. Explaining Machiavelli brilliantly, the Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield writes in (1966) that primitive necessity is irresistible, because human affairs are always "in motion": "A man or a country may be able to afford generosity today, but what of tomorrow?" (Today we may be able to intervene in East Timor, but what if we have to fight China over the Taiwan Strait tomorrow?) "Anxious foresight" must therefore be the centerpiece of any prudent policy. In recent decades, however, such verities have sometimes been disdained by American foreign-policy makers, journalists, academics, and intellectuals. The uncomfortable classical truths enunciated in the fifth century B.C. by the historian Thucydides, revived by Machiavelli, and imbibed by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison -- truths such as Morality and patriotism can best be obtained through self-interest; Conflict is inherent in the human condition; The law of nature precludes a republic of perfect virtue and demands instead a balance of forces among men and groups -- are often forgotten. The American elite has come to believe that the solution for humanity is to adopt a few universally applicable remedies, such as democracy, respect for minority rights, and free-market capitalism. Whether liberals or neoconservatives, many of those who came of age in the 1960s have trouble dealing with such facts as national characteristics ingrained by historical and geographic circumstance, and violence for its own sake.

The 1994-1996 war in Chechnya illustrates ancient verities to which policymakers and intellectuals often cannot admit. Chechen fighters pulled rockets out of the pods of downed Russian helicopters and refitted them in order to shoot down low-flying Russian planes, and wore fur masks to keep their faces from being burned by the backfire. The Chechens fought with a ferocity and an ingenuity unusual even by the standards of the Caucasus, which can be explained by a nineteenth-century Muslim warrior tradition against Russian colonialism. But nowadays thinking in terms of group character is often dismissed as deterministic: to think of Chechens as Chechens is to stereotype, denying each Chechen his individuality. Any reference to tragic histories anywhere -- the Balkans, sub-Saharan Africa -- is similarly tagged deterministic and therefore invalid.

Seeing the future purely in terms of group characteristics and historical experience can certainly immobilize policy. But it is also true that outlawing generalizations about peoples and regions immobilizes meaningful discussion about them. Denying such factors as history and culture and geography, and denying the effects of these factors on group behavior, would end the work of intelligence services and others who try to forestall crises through anxious foresight. Seneca, the first-century Roman stoic, wrote that foresight based on probability is all we ever have to go by, and probability need not mean inevitability.

Statements regarding Kosovo by the Clinton Administration in the spring of last year are another example of an inability to confront difficult truths. Because the Administration insufficiently acknowledged the historical hatred between Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo, it seemed ill prepared for both the ethnic-cleansing campaign the Serbs perpetrated against Albanians in response to the NATO bombing and the retributive attacks by Albanians against Serbs. The Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic, bears responsibility for the atrocities, but he also had historical memory with which to work. The Administration sold the war as a moral crusade against Milosevic; because the American public would tolerate significant casualties only for reasons of national interest, the Administration limited itself to a low-risk air campaign. The air war eventually succeeded, but by the time it did, thousands of Albanian Kosovars had died. Just as good men must learn how to be bad in order to do good, moral goals often require "amoral" arguments, or, rather, arguments using an ancient morality -- arguments the Administration failed to make convincingly.

*  *  *

Nothing demonstrates the gulf between our lofty goals and the reality of the human condition better than the refrain "No more Bosnias." In fact there were several Bosnias in the Caucasus of the early 1990s, to which the American media and intellectual community paid scant attention. Abkhazia, Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh all suffered ethnic killings and expulsions involving more than a million people combined. The American elite yearns for singularity: if atrocities are rare, then they are preventable. But the truth is that sectarian killing in poor parts of the world may for the foreseeable future overwhelm our appetite for armed intervention. Thus triage, rather than wish fulfillment ("No more Bosnias"), will define American foreign policy.

Presented by

Robert D. Kaplan is the author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. He is the chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. 

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