In Box

Take Me Back to Constantinople

How Byzantium, not Rome, can help preserve Pax Americana.

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.


In Box

New Order

How "the multipolar world" came to be.

The multipolar world has become a global reality, recognized as a near certainty by no less an authority than the U.S. intelligence community. But it wasn't always such. For most of its geopolitical life, "multipolar" has been a synonym for America-bashing, whether by erstwhile allies in the Cold War or an anxious Russia grappling with its post-superpower status. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once bragged of the United States as the world's "indispensable nation"; today, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promises to tilt the balance "away from a multipolar world and toward a multipartner world."


circa 1350 to circa 1900: Although the term is not yet in use, Europe remains for centuries basically a multipolar world: Several countries vie for dominance, but none reigns supreme for more than a few decades at a time.

March 5, 1946: Winston Churchill's "Iron Curtain" speech heralds the start of the Cold War, rendering the geopolitical world bipolar overnight. Refusing to take sides, five countries found the Non-Aligned Movement in 1955 under the leadership of Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

1969: "Our deepest challenge," U.S. national security advisor Henry Kissinger writes, will be "to base order on political multipolarity even though overwhelming military strength will remain with the two superpowers." A year later, President Richard Nixon articulates the Nixon Doctrine, which seeks to exploit diplomatic divisions to reduce America's military commitments.

January 8, 1978: French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing describes his differences with U.S. President Jimmy Carter as a "means to attain our grand objective, namely, the organization of a multipolar world which will not be limited by the decisions made by two superpowers alone."

1987: In The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Yale University historian Paul Kennedy predicts the balance of military power will shift over the coming 20 to 30 years, creating a truly multipolar world around 2009. "If the patterns of history are any guide, the multipolar economic balance will begin to shift the military balances," he later tells the New York Times.

December 25, 1991: The Soviet Union ceases to exist, eliminating the second Cold War "pole" and launching a debate about the new world order. "Global politics," Samuel Huntington argues later in Foreign Affairs, "is now passing through one or two uni-multipolar decades before it enters a truly multipolar 21st century."

April 23, 1997: Fear of U.S. unipolarity inspires China and Russia to sign a "Joint Declaration on a Multipolar World and the Establishment of a New International Order" in Moscow.

February 2, 2000: Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who earlier dubbed the United States the "indispensable nation," claims the U.S. is not looking to "establish and enforce" a unipolar world. Economic integration, she says, has already created "the kind of world that might even be called 'multipolar.'"

Spring 2003: Calling for a "multipolar world" becomes a euphemism for opposing the Iraq war. British Prime Minister Tony Blair warns that French President Jacques Chirac's multipolar vision, and his prolific use of the term, is "dangerous and destabilizing."

January 26, 2007: A New York Times editorial describes the "emergence of a multipolar world," with China taking "a parallel place at the table along with other centers of power, like Brussels or Tokyo."

November 20, 2008: In its "Global Trends 2025" report, the U.S. National Intelligence Council declares the advent of a "global multipolar system" as one of the world's "relative certainties" within two decades.

2009: U.S. President Barack Obama takes office with what many deem a multipolar worldview, prioritizing rising powers such as Brazil, China, India, and Russia. "We will lead by inducing greater cooperation among a greater number of actors and reducing competition, tilting the balance away from a multipolar world and toward a multipartner world," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says in a July address.

July 22, 2009: "We are trying to build a multipolar world," U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden declares in a speech in Ukraine.