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Donald Trump is something new in politics, right? Well, not as such. For those who ignore the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it.
The Americans have only ever had one historic model – one epoch, civilisation, culture and grandeur they sought to emulate and indeed surpass: Rome.
You need only look at the architecture of their capital, the Republican model of their constitution, the strength and esteem of senators, the confidence with which they spread “Lex Americanus” across the globe, the network of trade and commerce from Africa, Europe, Egypt and the Middle East; America is Rome in all but name.
Of course, there are some minor qualifications. Rome was particularly charitable with its citizenship. “Becoming Roman” was the bargain elites struck for handing their homeland over to the Empire as a province. And Rome was, in the end, less attached to its Gods.
However, when I read the transcript of Donald Trump’s latest foreign policy speech I’m not reminded so much of Rome’s triumph over Carthage, the conquests of Gaul, the expansion into Britain or the subjugation of the Parthians. I’m drawn further back in time – to Athens.
Trump’s foreign policy reminds me more of Greece 430 BCE than Rome 117 CE.
The latter was at the height of its power heading into 300 years of slow decline, the former on the brink of a 30-year war that would end its civilisation.
Here is the Athenian leader Pericles giving a foreign policy speech in Athens (431 BCE):
“The warlike deeds by which we acquired our power…the battles in which our fathers gallantly resisted our enemies…”
And here’s Trump at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington (April 27th):
“In the 1940s we saved the world. The greatest generation beat back the Nazis and…guess what, we won and we won big…”
So far so good. But then Trump says this:
“Our allies are not paying their fair share…”
This sets off alarm bells as Thucydides (who wrote a majestic account of Athens’ great defeat at the hands of Sparta in the Peloponnesian Wars) tells us the main reason for the breakdown of international order (and the catalyst for war) was a general fermenting of anger among Athenian allies that felt they were paying too much for their security.
After Athens single-handedly beat back the Persian Empire at the battle of Marathon, lured King Xerxes’ fleet into the straits of Salamis and saved the Greek states, the Athenians set up an alliance named the Delian League. The League was essentially a security alliance where Athens built a huge amount of ships, patrolled the Aegean to keep it safe, and the rest of the city-states in the area paid Athens tribute. Sound familiar?
Anyway, after about 50 years (spooky, right?) the allies started to forget why the Delian League was there – thinking the Persians were finished for good – and began resenting the high cost of their protection. Sparta, who had been the power state in Hellas until the Athenians made them look cowardly when they wouldn’t fight King Xerxes, saw an opportunity to knock Athens down a few…and the rest is history.
So when Trump ratchets up the rhetoric with:
“I will also call for a summit with our NATO allies…we will not only discuss a rebalancing of financial commitments, but take a fresh look at how we can adopt new strategies for tackling our common challenges…”
I get a little curious about the world’s security blanket giving itself a shake.
I’m not suggesting the United States is without a moral argument. Indeed, one of the big complaints of the last 20 years has been America roaming about like the world’s policemen. What concerns me is what starts to happen the day after.
Trump says, “We desire to live peacefully and in friendship with Russia and China.”
It’s certainly possible that as the United States pulls back these nations respectfully acknowledge America’s role in international affairs, maintain a perfectly charitable relationship, and America’s allies (now more taxed) stick by her.
On the other hand, maybe they won’t.
Here’s some realist international relations theory:
First, vacuums don’t stay empty.
Second, states seek to maximise their relative power.
Third, weaker states bandwagon for security with the strongest regional power.
Fourth, significant reconfigurations in the international system can lead to large-scale wars.
So here’s a possible realist’s future:
1) The US pulls back from Asia
2) China grows more assertive in the South China Sea
3) Japan implements a new defence strategy involving alliances with its southern neighbours
4) South Korea, finding China no great ally due to its cozy North Korean relationship, leans to Japan
5) Smaller regional states weigh their national interests
6) Some bandwagon with China, others to the new Japan/South Korea block
7) Soon you’ve got an entirely new configuration of alliances in Asia
8) Looks similar to Europe circa 1914
9) North Korea does something stupid and presto! – like dominoes, defence arrangements and alliances knock-on and what happens next is anyone’s guess.
Am I suggesting this is the most likely scenario? No. But it’s certainly something that could happen. While America has every right to ensure the viability of its defence expenditure and determines its foreign policy, it needs to tread carefully.
Take the lessons of Thucydides seriously. Just because Trump has forgotten what the world was like before Pax Americana – what the international order is usually like – don’t think for a moment history has. She’s always there, ready to take over and guide human affairs to a predictably miserable conclusion.
America has it pretty good being Rome; I’m not sure if becoming more like Athens – swapping the Coliseum for the Parthenon – is an upgrade.
Trump, be carefully how you fiddle with the Delian League, increase your allies’ tribute and re-arrange patrol of the Aegean…
You don’t need another Sparta stepping up, stealing your friends and re-writing history in their image.