Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
I shall complete the tetralogy on my time with the Peace Corps in Ethiopia soon enough. But because tomorrow is Inauguration Day, a.k.a. America-Becomes-a-Vassal-State Day, I interrupt the regularly scheduled programming and suggest — however tentatively as though in a late-night college dorm room discussion — new analogies for U.S.-Russian relations and for Mr. Trump.
During the Cold War a favorite comparison of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. was to Athens and Sparta during the Peloponnesian War — on the one hand, a raucous democracy prone to hubris, and on the other, a militaristic authoritarian regime. The analogy seemed so appropriate that the American service academies started teaching Thucydides to officers and cadets.
Another celebrated strain of thought (for example, in George F. Kennan’s Sources of Soviet Conduct) was to see the contest through the lens of Alexis de Tocqueville. Back in the early 19th century, in Democracy in America, de Tocqueville had declared that America and Russia “each seems called by some secret desire of Providence one day to hold in its hands the destinies of half the world,” so that they were headed toward inevitable contest. And in that contest, America “has freedom as the principal means of action,” while Russia “has servitude.” Kennan extended and revised de Tocqueville’s remarks, concluding that to prevail in the Cold War, all that the United States had to do was to “measure up to its own best traditions and prove itself worthy of preservation as a great nation.”
But I suggest another analogy — Rome and Persia. The analogy would not have applied in de Tocqueville’s time, before each country expanded across a whole continent and became a great empire. But now that expansion in each case is a fact of history, the analogy is worth considering.
For centuries, from the era of Julius Caesar to Emperor Maurice of Byzantium, Rome and Persia fought each other again and again and again. Roman leaders from Crassus to Julian the Apostate invaded Persian territory, and the Persians gave as good as they got.
Indeed, Roman politicians often treated a Persian campaign as a way to win prestige back home instead of any serious attempt to achieve a foreign policy goal. This was in large part because the geopolitical situation of each rendered it essentially invulnerable to definitive conquest by the other.
The same reality applies to America and Russia, after each expanded and matured as a great power. Given the respective geopolitical position of each, neither can truly conquer the other. The two sides may tousle over client states like Cuba and the two Germanies during the Cold War or the Baltic countries today, just as Rome and Persia tousled over buffer states like Armenia. But the Red Army was never likely to march down Pennsylvania Avenue, and U.S. forces were never likely to take Red Square.
In our triumphant post-Cold War moment we forgot or failed to realize this enduring truth. We thought we’d won, when in fact any victory was going to be temporary. The struggle was always going to continue, as Rome and Persia carried on wrestling with each other inconclusively for seven centuries until forces neither originally foresaw, chief among them the advent of Islam, swept away both.
This view allows us to put Donald Trump in a different historical perspective. There was no such thing as hacking in the ancient world. The KGB art of the kompromat, or “compromising material,” had yet to come. But Roman emperors did find themselves surrounded and even captured by Persians, so that Rome was placed in the humiliating position of beseeching its rival as though a vassal to be allowed to ransom its own prince.
It is in that respect that Mr. Trump makes me think of Emperor Valerian.
Now, this is surely unfair to Valerian. Other Roman figures to whom Mr. Trump has been compared include Caesar, for his destruction of the Republic, and Caligula, for his decadence and cruelty and for almost appointing his horse to the position of consul, and actually appointing it a priest. Mr. Trump may be doing modern versions of both. Bannon, DeVos, Sessions et al. aren’t literally horses, but they are horses’ asses. Valerian, on the other hand, was a sober elder statesman who stepped up to lead his country in its season of crisis.
But in the long twilight struggle between Rome and Persia, Valerian was the first Roman emperor to be taken prisoner by the Persians. Shah Shapur I took his trophy back home and held Valerian captive for the rest of his life. The story goes that he used the elderly Roman as a footstool. Another version of the story says that Shapur flayed Valerian and stuffed his skin with straws.
Analogously, it seems that Mr. Trump is the first captured American president, if captured in a very different way. Mr. Trump appears to be a prisoner of kompromat, the invisible walls of his wall being whatever the Russians have on him hanging over his head like Damocles’s Sword. The difference is an appropriate update of circumstances from the 3rd century to the 21st, but as long as Mr. Trump can no more oppose Putin than Valerian could refuse to serve as Shapur’s footstool, he is a prisoner, an emperor in a cell.
The thought makes me feel almost bad for him. Almost, but not quite.
But what the rest of us need to remember is that the grim circumstances we face now are by no means unprecedented in the scheme of things. If my American friends find it hard to believe that they are about to live in a vassal state, well, for almost two hundred years until Maurice defeated Persia, the Romans paid a vast sum to the Persians each year for the privilege of not being attacked.
The present moment shall pass, just as Valerian eventually had to die, and Roman politics moved on. But the present struggle shall continue for many years to come; perhaps it would not end until some third force sweeps both contenders away.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."