Friday, November 11, 2011

Byzantium's Epic Survival and the Balance Between Force and Persuasion

At the public library last night, I happened upon a book called The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire. The title immediately reminded me of taped lectures by Edward N. Luttwak that I heard in 1982, when I was a senior at St. Olaf College.

It was still very much a Cold War world back then. The Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan only three years before. The Berlin Wall seemed as impassable as ever. Gorbachev was a rising Soviet official, but glasnost (openness) was at best a glimmer on a far-off frozen horizon.

In the spring of 1982, my Russian history professor at St. Olaf, Robert Nichols, lent my roommate and me a tape containing lectures by Luttwak on “The Grand Strategy of the Soviet Union.” This topic became the subject of his book by that name the following year.

A generation in later, in 2009, Luttwak published his long-planned follow-up book on the Byzantine Empire. In it, he explores the divergent fates of the two halves of the old Roman Empire. How was it, he asks, that the militarily stronger western half succumbed so soon to encroaching tribes, while the far more vulnerable eastern half survived for over 800 years?

His answer is thought provoking. The eastern empire adapted and persisted while Rome was overrun because Byzantium devised a strategy that used:”a minimum of force and a maximum of persuasion.” Rome, by contrast, relied on what the George W. Bush administration, on the eve of the Iraq War, called “shock and awe.”

Shock and awe, however, was little more than a propaganda phrase for excessive reliance on force. And it led to a devastating cascade of calamities in Iraq for Iraqis and Americans alike.

One of those calamities, of course, was the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib. In an upcoming post, I’d like to examine what happens when the relationship between force and persuasion gets out of balance in the criminal law.

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