Promoting Democracy

13 July 2010


Philipp von Foltz's imaginative rendering of Pericles delivering the famous funeral oration given in Thucydides.

More than a year ago in Spreading Democracy: An Historical Perspective I wrote about the conflicts that arose from the Athenian program of standing up democratic regimes throughout the Delian League during the period that Athens dominated this confederacy, how this contributed to the outbreak and even to the bitterness of the Peloponnesian War, and contrasted this to the Spartan policy. The Spartan policy was not to enforce any particular political regime among its allies, and to consult among its allies before taking action. Today this would be consider pragmatic and realistic, while the Athenian program of democratization would be seen as idealistic and therefore unrealistic.

The kleroterion was a device used by Athenians during the period of their democracy to randomly choose citizens for daily juries.

The Athenians were not idealists; they were a powerful commercial city-state that came to dominate the Delian League, and once in control of the Delian League imposed its preferred socio-political conventions and traditions on other members of the Delian League even while extracting tribute from them in the form of dues paid to the Delian League. What this has in common with democratization today is overreach: there is a broad consensus that US efforts to encourage democratization since the end of the Cold War have constituted a case of monumental overreach born of quasi-imperial hubris, and the same can be said of Athen’s democratization program when it controlled the Delian League. I would not make this argument myself, but I certainly can imagine others arguing that Athenian overreach led to the Pelopennesian War, while US overreach led to the War on Terror and its many engagements around the world, as well as (some would argue) damage to US prestige.

One point I realize now that I did not touch upon in my earlier discussion of promoting democracy is the essentially different military traditions and capabilities of the adversaries. Athens was a naval power; Sparta was a land power. One cannot improve upon Thucydides in characterizing the nature of Sparta:

“I suppose if Lacedaemon were to become desolate, and the temples and the foundations of the public buildings were left, that as time went on there would be a strong disposition with posterity to refuse to accept her fame as a true exponent of her power… Still, as the city is neither built in a compact form nor adorned with magnificent temples and public edifices, but composed of villages after the old fashion of Hellas, there would be an impression of inadequacy.”

Sparta was a network of interconnected villages, therefore mostly rural, therefore intensely agricultural, therefore a people literally in close contact with the soil. This is what makes a land power. The tough farm boys drafted into Spartan service and given even tougher training would have been formidable fighters.

Athens, in contrast, was for a time in miniature what Rome later became on a grand scale: a city-state made wealthy by commerce, trade, cottage industry, tribute, and slave labor. Sparta was an inland city, whereas Athens was a great port city, and an example of what in Pure Agriculturalism I called “Great coastal cities linked by sea-borne trade to the rest of the world” — something notably lacking in medieval civilization, and also lacking as a element in Spartan power.

Although Sparta had strong traditions — traditions tied to the soil — it did not seek to extend its traditions to others; there was no element of proselytizing about the Spartans; they had no gospel to spread. The Athenians, on the other hand, had a vision. In this respect they were like the revolutionary French armies under Napoleon, or communist revolutionaries in the twentieth century, or US efforts to evangelize democracy.

In a speech of April, 1945 (as quoted in Conversations with Stalin, 1963, by Milovan Djilas), this visionary attitude was given explicit formulation by Stalin:

“This war is not as in the past; whoever occupies a territory also imposes on it his own social system. Everyone imposes his own system as far as his army can reach. It cannot be otherwise. If now there is not a communist government in Paris, the cause of this is Russia has no army that can reach Paris in 1945.”

We could call this principle cuius regio, eius credo, following the famous formulation that was the basis of the settlement of the Thirty Years War with the Treaty of Wesphalia, namely cuius regio, eius religio. But in our time, credo has supplanted religio.

Stalin, in true realpolitik style (and not as an ideologically motivated and foaming-at-the-mouth revolutionary) made clear that military power determined political power. As Mao put it with characteristic ruthlessness and brutality: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” And I have read elsewhere (I can’t at present recall where, though I searched for the quote before writing this) that the Red Army was a far more effective force for spreading communism than was proletarian revolution. Thus the kind of military power one has is likely to affect what kind of political control one can impose, thus it is no small matter than Athens was a naval power and Sparta was a land power. Athens projected its power over vast distances and controlled sea born commerce throughout the region. This made them powerful, but it was also a temptation to overreach. The Spartans remained focused on exercising control over contiguous territory, their traditional territory with its traditional villages, and in the fragmented landscape that is Greece, there can be no land empire.

The duality of sea power and land power was so much a staple of strategic thought throughout the greater part of human history that during the Enlightenment the humorist Jean Paul Richter could use it as a laugh line:

“God has given to the French the land, to the English the sea, to the Germans the empire of the air.”

By “the empire of the air” Richter meant the great systems of philosophy for which the Germans were famous during the Enlightenment; at that time the General General Staff had not yet established its reputation as the preeminent military institution of Europe, which it doubtless became during the first half of the twentieth century. Thus the very idea of “air power” was once a joke.

Air power is a joke no longer. Yesterday in A Glimpse at the Near Future of Combat I wrote that, “…one can foresee a time in the near future when air superiority is the only military superiority that matters, and becomes the ultimate determinant of combat power and efficacy.” It could be argued, and in fact I would argue, that the shift away from the duality of naval and land power to the preeminence of air power represents an integral shift in military history.

The US today, the world’s sole superpower, is an air power. US airbases are an archipelago strung across the face of the globe as coaling stations for the British Navy were once literally located throughout the world’s archipelagos. While, as noted yesterday, US control of all the world’s oceans is historically unique, worldwide dominance of the air is not merely historically unique but historically novel. The duality of sea power and land power tottered back and forth for thousands of years, but within fifty years of the invention of heavier than air travel, the US had established, and continues to retain, air dominance.

What is the nature of an air power? How does it shape combat? How does it lead to the exercise of influence of an air power? These are unprecedented questions, and we can look to history for analogies and parallels, but we cannot look to history for answers, for history has no answers for the unprecedented.

These are questions about which we must do more thinking.

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3 Responses to “Promoting Democracy”

  1. Katie Lien said

    This is weird photos!

  2. askar said

    I read this with interest. I agree with ‘overreach’ and about ‘cuius regio, eius religio/credo’. I also found Richter’s line ‘…to the Germans the empire of the air …’ prescient given the quality, in WWI and WWII, of German fighter aircrafts and pilots.

    Now, in terms of today’s USA, it’s not air-power which characterises it imho but the new and unprecedented ‘robotisation’ so to speak of that air-power. Pilot-less drones today kill people remotely (entire Afghan villages) without the attacker incurring any risk whatsoever and with barely troops (who might doubt the morality of the orders they receive) being involved. And this new type of power can and might eventually be applied just as easily domestically as it is in the attack on foreign peoples.

    This is what does bear ‘more thinking’ about, together with, let’s not forget, the 1945 use and continued and permanent threat ever since, of mass-killing weaponry, nuclear, biological, etc.


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