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History’s Largest Lessons
A historian of the ancient world believes that in every era humankind has reacted to the demands of waging war in surprisingly similar ways, and that to protect our national interests today Americans must understand the choices soldiers and statesmen made hundreds and even thousands of years ago
February/march 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 1
I think one distortion in our current thinking, largely created by Karl Marx, has dominated Western ideas for well over a century: We tend to focus on economic interests as the source of conflict and interpret politics accordingly. But the hard evidence belies this. When we look at the decisions made by the people who decide on war, it’s fascinating how infrequently economic concerns are on their mind.
Instead, people are motivated by what Thucydides would have called honor, which we are more likely to call questions of prestige. There are few other issues, and I don’t mean just for public consumption; I mean, as these people talk to one another in their own circles. So it’s pretty hard to escape the notion that a very, very old concept is alive and well today.
You argue that the interests of a state depend on its moral credit, the perception by its adversaries that under someconditions it will fight, which means that its prestige has a real deterrent value and so is at the heart of its interest. So how can you separate honor and interest?
What must he understood—and I think Thucydides meant for us to understand this—is that though one can separate them in ways that are helpful and meaningful, honor, fear, and interest all are related to one another. Let me give you an example. If a state finds that its honor is at risk, that it is treated with contempt, the other two elements of the triad immediately become part of the story. Men get fearful that in light of this contempt others will take advantage and damage their real interests.
It’s very important to make the separation, because otherwise it’s easy to slide back into the obsessive materialism of the Marxist analysis. I.enin argued that Kuropeans established and expanded empires to acquire economic benefits alleged to flow from political control. But if you actually look at imperial ventures, you discover that in most cases the F.uropean powers did not get any economic benefits. So what were they up to? They were in competition for glory, eminence, prestige —in other words, honor.
Yet you point out in your book that in the case of World War I the strongest supporters of the single most destabilizing German policy, the naval race, were German businessmen.
Of course, some businessmen benefited from the construction of the German fleet. Elements in society with a direct economic stake in something will obviously tend to pursue their private interests. The question is, Why does the government, which doesn’t share those particular interests, pursue a course that may be economically detrimental to the country at large?
And who started the naval race? It’s clear that the German government encouraged the businessmen and bankers whose imperialist organizations were paid for with government money. And so on. The much-touted Berlin to Baghdad railway had no persuasive economic rationale; the German government had to dragoon the bankers into supporting it. That was typical of what was happening.
What about the quest for power?
Well, this seems obvious to me, but it’s amazing how many people who write about these subjects ignore it. In the end what people really go to war about is power, by which I simply mean the ability to have their will prevail. Nowadays in the United States, and to a degree in Britain and a few other parts of Western F.urope, there is an increasing sense that power is inherently evil, and that seeking to maintain or increase one’s power is a villainous activity. This strikes me as a serious mistake.
Every being and every nation requires power for two purposes. The first is to he able to do what it wishes to and must do, some of which will he good and perfectly natural things. Second, one needs power to keep others from imposing rheir will, to prevent evil things from being done. Only in the Kingdom of Heaven would it be unnecessary for human beings to have power. Power is morally neutral, and throughout history nations of every kind have been concerned with maintaining and increasing their power.
Your theory gives us a way to think about the place of the United States in twentieth-century history and about the outbreak and avoidance of war in our era. Don’t you believe that the great lesson to be drawn from the origins of World War II is that nothing is more dangerous than assuming that a momentary deterioration in a state’s power is permanent?
I suppose you’re referring to the abnormal condition of Hurope after the Hirst World War, when Germany’s power had been temporarily reduced by the conditions of the peace. It was immediately apparent that there were only two possibilities. One was that the victorious nations would simply impose weakness on Germany for as long as they could, which could have been for quite a long time if they’d maintained the will to do it. The other possibility was that Germany would very quickly become once again the most powerful state in Hurope. And of course, that’s what happened.
But the states that declined to impose a long period of weakness on Germany would not face the inevitable consequences of their action. One should never make the common mistake of assuming that what is true today may be projected in a straight line into the future. The natural order of things is change, particularly in the realm of international relations. The belief that refraining from action preserves the prevailing condition is another very common mistake.