How Byzantium, not Rome, can help preserve Pax Americana.
- By Edward LuttwakEdward Luttwak is a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the author of Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace.
Economic crisis, mounting national debt, excessive foreign commitments — this is no way to run an empire. America needs serious strategic counseling. And fast. It has never been Rome, and to adopt its strategies no — its ruthless expansion of empire, domination of foreign peoples, and bone-crushing brand of total war — would only hasten America’s decline. Better instead to look to the empire’s eastern incarnation: Byzantium, which outlasted its Roman predecessor by eight centuries. It is the lessons of Byzantine grand strategy that America must rediscover today.
Fortunately, the Byzantines are far easier to learn from than the Romans, who left virtually no written legacy of their strategy and tactics, just textual fragments and one bookish compilation by Vegetius, who knew little about statecraft or war. The Byzantines, however, wrote it all down — their techniques of persuasion, intelligence gathering, strategic thinking, tactical doctrines, and operational methods. All of this is laid out clearly in a series of surviving Byzantine military manuals and a major guidebook on statecraft.
I’ve spent the past two decades poring over these texts to compile a study of Byzantine grand strategy. The United States would do well to heed the following seven lessons if it wishes to remain a great power:
I. Avoid war by every possible means, in all possible circumstances, but always act as if war might start at any time. Train intensively and be ready for battle at all times — but do not be eager to fight. The highest purpose of combat readiness is to reduce the probability of having to fight.
II. Gather intelligence on the enemy and his mentality, and monitor his actions continuously. Efforts to do so by all possible means might not be very productive, but they are seldom wasted.
III. Campaign vigorously, both offensively and defensively, but avoid battles, especially large-scale battles, except in very favorable circumstances. Don’t think like the Romans, who viewed persuasion as just an adjunct to force. Instead, employ force in the smallest possible doses to help persuade the persuadable and harm those not yet amenable to persuasion.
IV. Replace the battle of attrition and occupation of countries with maneuver warfare — lightning strikes and offensive raids to disrupt enemies, followed by rapid withdrawals. The object is not to destroy your enemies, because they can become tomorrow’s allies. A multiplicity of enemies can be less of a threat than just one, so long as they can be persuaded to attack one another.
V. Strive to end wars successfully by recruiting allies to change the balance of power. Diplomacy is even more important during war than peace. Reject, as the Byzantines did, the foolish aphorism that when the guns speak, diplomats fall silent. The most useful allies are those nearest to the enemy, for they know how best to fight his forces.
VI. Subversion is the cheapest path to victory. So cheap, in fact, as compared with the costs and risks of battle, that it must always be attempted, even with the most seemingly irreconcilable enemies. Remember: Even religious fanatics can be bribed, as the Byzantines were some of the first to discover, because zealots can be quite creative in inventing religious justifications for betraying their own cause ("since the ultimate victory of Islam is inevitable anyway …").
VII. When diplomacy and subversion are not enough and fighting is unavoidable, use methods and tactics that exploit enemy weaknesses, avoid consuming combat forces, and patiently whittle down the enemy’s strength. This might require much time. But there is no urgency because as soon as one enemy is no more, another will surely take his place. All is constantly changing as rulers and nations rise and fall. Only the empire is eternal — if, that is, it does not exhaust itself.
John Arquilla earned his degrees in international relations from Rosary College (BA 1975) and Stanford University (MA 1989, PhD 1991). He has been teaching in the special operations program at the United States Naval Postgraduate School since 1993. He also serves as chairman of the Defense Analysis department.
Dr. Arquilla’s teaching interests revolve around the history of irregular warfare, terrorism, and the implications of the information age for society and security.
His books include: Dubious Battles: Aggression, Defeat and the International System (1992); From Troy to Entebbe: Special Operations in Ancient & Modern Times (1996), which was a featured alternate of the Military Book Club; In Athena’s Camp (1997); Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime and Militancy (2001), named a notable book of the year by the American Library Association; The Reagan Imprint: Ideas in American Foreign Policy from the Collapse of Communism to the War on Terror (2006); Worst Enemy: The Reluctant Transformation of the American Military (2008), which is about defense reform; Insurgents, Raiders, and Bandits: How Masters of Irregular Warfare Have Shaped Our World (2011); and Afghan Endgames: Strategy and Policy Choices for America’s Longest War (2012).
Dr. Arquilla is also the author of more than one hundred articles dealing with a wide range of topics in military and security affairs. His work has appeared in the leading academic journals and in general publications like The New York Times, Forbes, Foreign Policy Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Wired and The New Republic. He is best known for his concept of “netwar” (i.e., the distinct manner in which those organized into networks fight). His vision of “swarm tactics” was selected by The New York Times as one of the “big ideas” of 2001; and in recent years Foreign Policy Magazine has listed him among the world’s “top 100 thinkers.”
In terms of policy experience, Dr. Arquilla worked as a consultant to General Norman Schwarzkopf during Operation Desert Storm, as part of a group of RAND analysts assigned to him. During the Kosovo War, he assisted deputy secretary of defense John Hamre on a range of issues in international information strategy. Since the onset of the war on terror, Dr. Arquilla has focused on assisting special operations forces and other units on practical “field problems.” Most recently, he worked for the White House as a member of a small, nonpartisan team of outsiders asked to articulate new directions for American defense policy.| Rational Security |