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05/15/2004

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Craig Hubley

Look again at differences "between Athens and Sparta (as Thucydides observed, the inevitable rivalry between a great land power and a great sea power)" and ask if it is really different than "the ideological conflict between democratic capitalism and totalitarian socialism." Soviet Spartans and American Athenians (works alliteratively) may not have had all that much choice about their economic systems. Consider:

Infantry inevitably require standardized training, simple equipment, high common standards of responsiveness and conditioning. It is a more or less totalitarian socialist world, the barracks, in which one obeys commanders, and in which tasks are similar enough that anyone can rise to command. Land powers are Spartan by nature. Soldiers can scatter like cockroaches, live off the land as teenage Spartans were taught to do, and often such guerilla armies can defeat other armies operating with more order. Soldiers are not so different from villagers and new infantry can often be recruited in the field.

Navies inevitably require officers with very specific cultural commonalities and trust relations, specialized training, very complex expensive equipment (a much higher cost per sailor typically than the arms of infantry), high but differentiated skills for all but the ordinary seaman who has little exposure to command level decisions and no capacity to exercise initiative - they're a galley slave, basically, and can't rise to command. Recruiting any more than galley slaves on shore (the "press gang") just doesn't work, because of all these constraints. You'll see many more black generals in the US Army than black captains in the US Navy. Sea powers are Athenian by nature. Even Freidrich Engels used ships as his example in "On Authority", explaining why no communist state could dispense with hierarchy: Ships go in only one direction at a time. While the complex economy required to make and maintain warships may only come from relatively creative and sophisticated democratic states with vibrant economies, it's an elite making the deals, and cutting the orders. Necessarily.

Now look again at Rome, and how it failed: fleeing slaves absorbed into the barbarian fiefdoms, happy to receive their skills and knowledge. Many more such slaves due to requirements on the middle class to go collect taxes from "warlord" class Senators who could ignore them. A Goth kingdom, Alaric's, jammed between Eastern and Western Empire, eventually sacking Rome itself (in 410 AD) when the Senate made deals to buy them off and then didn't pay. Legions dependent wholly on "barbarians", demoralized by the execution of a trusted commander (Stillicho) due to intrigue (in 408 AD), abandoning the defense of the City. Forty years later, in 451 AD, a second attack by Attila, who was poised to attack in the East but shifted to the West when a bratty princess objecting to an arranged marriage wrote him a letter... These are not failures of grand strategy. These are all failures of leadership among the elites and ability to maintain the loyalty even of the elite families, all while the middle class is squeezed out of sight.

There are things to learn from 400-450AD in Rome, and also from 1945-95 (the Cold War didn't quite end then but it was clear by then how its final form would look, with the EU and NATO expanding, and China making itself the premier industrial superpower - like the US in the 1930s, and Russia sidelined into a resource exporting role). I think you miss the point of George Kennan:

Specifically, he pointed out that with 6% of the world's population and 50% of its wealth, the US would attract jealousy and backlash. Do the math: 6% having the same wealth as 94% is 15.67 to 1 ratio in the wealth each American commanded after the war, to the wealth commanded by anyone anywhere else. By the 1990s the Rio and then Kyoto agreements clearly established what developed vs. developing nations would be expected to pay to save a life of each of their citizens. The numbers agreed? 15 to 1. The ratio hadn't changed, though there was now a larger club of nations in the rich side of the equation - the overall ratio hadn't changed. While Kennan did not advise keeping that ratio constant, exactly, he did advise tactics that made that possible, and it was these exact tactics (notably control of Bretton Woods institutions, fixing UN National Accounts and World Bank / IMF / BIS rules) that were picked up by the elites. Like the Romans, unconcerned with what consequences might arise from this fixed ratio.

Now in 2006 the US still refuses to explicitly accept the 15-to-1 numbers in Kyoto, insisting on infinity-to-1 in various ways, and still insists on US dollar hegemony in the oil markets, in pegging the yuan, etc. There are quite a few similarities here to the way Roman senators were behaving in oh say 408-410 AD.

One of the goals that might have been stated after 9/11 would have been gradually reducing the 15-to-1 ratio or bringing friendly states into it, somehow, as was done after WWII very deliberately to France, Germany (most of it), Japan, and even Italy and the UK. But there's little acknowledgement that Kennan's ratio remains unchanged, and any international treaty that actually attempts to make it explicit, remains shunned. Nothing done for the developing world is a duty or obligation, there's no recognition of owing anything for suffering during the Cold War or since or before. It's all "charity" and the existing world order always has been, and always has been "just". I think this delusion is the greatest danger we face as citizens of the developed world.

Grand strategy today is more about the atmosphere and greenhouse gas and uneven distribution of harms from climate change, more about sustainable agriculture and biodiversity, more about not releasing new bugs and plagues from deforested regions (SARS, Ebola, HIV, look 'em up, where'd they come from?), more about sustainable cities, more about cutting off conflicts over resources and jealousies over priveleged positions in markets and alliances, and a lot less about the toys used to deal with the issues that arise inevitably when these aren't solved well in advance.

The old land vs. sea power debate seems to be over. We may need to all become Spartans now, of a sort.

Roger Duprat

Terrorısts are a nuısance, not a threat. The threat to US ıs Chına. (Or a Russo-Chınese coaltıon) The so-called War on Terror ıs akın to the War on Drugs, whıch was a war on Central Amerıca. You can't declare a War on Chına, so you have to call ıt somethıng else.

Barry

Craig, a few comments:

First, the Spartan army was an elite; a small slice of society intensively trained from childhood. The heavy infantry of Greece was also an elite, the land-owners. All were equipped quite expensively. The Athenian navy used a large number of free-born rowers (however, they didn't necessarily have to be land-owners). They had to be trained well, but were they trained as well as a Spartan warrior (rather, soldier)?

In terms of press gangs, the British RN used those quite a bit. Enlisted service in the navy was extremely nasty work ('like being in prison, with the added prospect of drowning'). Life expectancy was short; sailors were treated as expendable.


"You'll see many more black generals in the US Army than black captains in the US Navy"

Is this due to the cultural differences between the US Army and Navy, or what?

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