Realism in international relations, as seen in a Spanish pro basketball game
Two quixotic American rookies dismissing a seasoned European’s skepticism.
By Haley Peters
Best Defense guest columnist
Last September, on the eve of our first game in Spain’s top professional basketball league, my one American teammate and I asked our point guard, a cheery rubia [“blondie”] from Valencia, how she thought we would do the next day.
“I think we are going to lose by forty points.” she said.
For las Americanas, who both attended blueblood basketball schools — Kentucky and Duke — and lived by mantras like “if you think you are going to lose, you’ve already lost,” this was close to heresy.
It was a somewhat allegorical exchange — two quixotic American rookies dismissing a seasoned European’s skepticism.
As we drove along the northern coast of Spain and through an outskirt of Santander en route to that game, I saw two dilapidated castles perched on a cliff that dropped down to the water of the Bay of Biscay. They were vestiges of Spain’s 16th century glory, but reminded me also of the Tower of Hercules, the world’s oldest working lighthouse just a few hours away in A Coruña, built by the Romans in the second century AD.
Together, these relics and our earlier conversation led to a small revelation.
My generation has grown up entirely in the so-called “unipolar moment.” The “multilateral idealism” that I and many others hold dear has been enabled in part by America’s unique position of power over the last three decades. The residue of the Spanish and Roman Empires was a subtle reminder of how fleeting hegemony usually is; how its durability depends on equal parts good policy and good fortune. It was also a reminder of how new America and most of what it espouses is.
Most people have been horrified by the brutality of the Islamic State. As Stephen M. Walt wrote last week, we shouldn’t be. Brutality in the consolidation of states is not new. Far newer are Western values of human dignity and equality.
My town in Spain, Ferrol, was the birthplace of Franco. It was a leading naval center in the 17th and 18th century, and Franco’s father and brother were both Spanish Naval officers. In the pre-steam era, the port was virtually impossible to blockade because of strong westerly winds. The naval base at Ferrol was among the first overtaken by Franco at the start of his revolt.
In the same year, Franco’s fascist allies were marched one by one out of the City Hall of Ronda, Spain, past a line of townspeople with sickles and flails, and pushed off a cliff to their death (a scene immortalized by Hemingway in For Whom the Bell Tolls). This was less than a century ago.
Most of the world’s nations face a much different calculation when assessing the challenges they face—without the means of the United States, yes, but also with a far different, often more scarred, history. Rosy-eyed self-assuredness is not their M.O.
In international relations classes in America, we propose solutions for Syria and retroactively solve the Rwandan genocide with American power. I’d still count myself among the multilateral idealists that find these are worthy pursuits — what use is a benevolent superpower if it does not defend the values it espouses?
But, we often overstate the extent to which our Western values have pervaded the world. We overestimate our own capabilities, misunderstand the intentions of our adversaries, and overextend ourselves. We often neglect the lessons of every hegemon before us.
What use is a benevolent superpower if it loses its position to defend these values at all?
Haley Peters is a recent graduate of Duke University who interned this summer at New America’s International Security Program. In the winter, she does the pro ball thing in Europe. This year she is a member of C.B. Conquero Huelva.
Photo credit: Duke
Thomas E. Ricks is a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy. Twitter: @tomricks1
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