Oct 28, 2007

Book review. Pagan Politics: Why leadership demands a Pagan ethos

This is a relatively short, if quite dense, book written by the American journalist Robert Kaplan, who has worked for several publications, such as the Atlantic Monthly, Washington Post, New York Times and National Interest.

Kaplan starts off the book in probably the best way possible, explaining his own background. As he freely admits, he is not a scholar or academic. He has no think tank or policy background. Instead, he draws on his own experience, of that as an overseas reporter, as well as a wide range of literary and philosophical works, both pre-Christian and more modern.

His main thesis is familiar to that of Realist thinkers from Hans Morgenthau to John Mearsheimer – namely that utopian idealism is terribly dangerous and in fact more responsible for death and destruction on a global level than anything else in the past century. Because of inherent utopian or transcendental morality within the Judeo-Christian system of thinking – a system that has defined western thought for roughly a thousand years – a return to a more classical, or pagan, ethical standard is what would most benefit international politics.

Because there has not been a substantial change in human behaviour since the dawn of civilization, these works, such as those done by Thucydides and Sun Tzu, can aid where conventional morality fails. There is no “modern world” Kaplan insists, all that has changed are the circumstances in which human power plays are set.

After some historical lessons, of Churchill in the Sudan and the Second Punic War, Kaplain starts to actually dig into the classical books themselves. He looks to both the Peloponnesian War and the Warring States Era of China because their similarities in culture, despite their lack of contact and vast distance, bought about very similar ideas concerning human nature, conflict and political philosophy. He brings out the most important axioms of the Art of War for examination, that war is in fact a failure of policy, that spies and dishonourable action may be necessary to avoid or win the war and that leaders should not be swayed by public opinion if the state's existence is risked.

He then concentrates more on Thucydides, explaining his subtle philosophy drawn from the bitter experience of the war between Sparta and Athens. Human behaviour, Thucydides argues, is driven by fear, self-interest and honour. The conditions these place on actors lead to communal instability, when the pure instincts of the above triumph over the laws, then anarchy is the result. Therefore, such instincts should not be repressed, but channelled towards moral outcomes.

Thucydides portrayed Athens as in the grip of a terrible hubris, bought on by their victory over Persia, their empire, and their culture (including democracy). This led them to believe they could act with impunity because they were the righteous actors in a wicked and evil world. This led to atrocities such as those which took place at Melos.

Kaplan abandons the pure Pagan texts for a moment, to look at Machiavelli, a philosopher whose classical instincts are all too obvious. He compares Machiavelli to Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister whose infamous order to “go in and break their [Palestinian protesters] bones” led to a landslide victory for the dovish Labor Party – a victory which allowed Rabin to sue for peace. This is well within the teachings of Machiavelli, that virtue and morality are determined by outcome, not method. The only moral policies are effective ones.

Machiavelli also has another teaching – that values are useless without arms to back them up. Therefore projection of power is a primary interest, the values these promote comes second. Taking into account Machiavelli's comments on human nature (which echo Thucydides), a wise and prudent leader structures his country in such a way as to lessen these instincts for the greater good of the community. This is likely most evident in the founding of America,, where the comments of Hamilton can be seen to have a definite Classical edge to them.

Shortly after follows a discussion on Hobbes and Malthus. Hobbes is personally not that interesting to me, his ideas being quite simple and self-motivated. He argues for an all powerful Sovereign who can impose order, because life without is pure anarchy. Thus despotism is the basic state of affairs in the world, the necessary condition for the state to be effective.

Malthus is more interesting because, despite the flaws in his mathematical calculations, his thesis remains sound. Because of exploding populations and resource scarcity, existing tensions will boil over into civil strife. Therefore, without some way to generate new resources, the condition of war is going to be with us well into the future, despite what political settlements are made.

Interestingly enough, Kaplan actually balances out the book somewhat via his introduction of Kant, as a distinction between how politicians are forced to act and should act. Actions based purely on consequence would lead to a world drowning in cynicism and deceit. As he illustrates with the Cold War, the Western nations had an inherent moral advantage, but to be able to keep that, they had to build nuclear weapons, engage in espionage (incidentally, as a personal aside, I have never seen the immorality in this, per se) and support unpleasant regimes. However, this is better than a policy guided by zealotry, extremism and intolerance. This is the danger of religion, as Machiavelli once explained, not that it is inherently dangerous, but that its extremism brings and otherwordly dimension into politics, one incapable of compromise or backing down. The Pagan ethos brings with it a level of tolerance that otherwise cannot exist within moral foreign policies.

The final three chapters can be seen as a commentary on the rest of the book. Kaplan looks into the resurgence of warriorship in the third world – that is, 'warriors' as we would recognize from the ancient Greek epics. The danger is not so much other states any more, but warriors with no stake in civil society or order. Like Troy, the most advanced and civilized nation in the world, the danger will come more from piratical chieftans, driven by the irrationality of human nature and intrigue, rather than in the rational pursuit of obtaining strategic goals. However, there is a flipside to this. Ancient war was about the capture, humilation and execution of the opposing political leader. In the past this meant physically cutting down everyone around him to do so. But with technology advances, assassination and kidnap missions, special forces orientated military missions, will become more common. The unfortunate downside of this will of course be the lack of democratic control over such actions.

Kaplan again turns his attention to the Warring States of China, to look for an upside or positive aspect of recently international movements. As he notes, the common culture of China allowed for the evolution of a system which eventually was subsumed by the Han Empire. The system, he explains, came first, the Han Empire was the one state who managed to unify that system. Thus, he suspects, the evolution of an internationally monocultural upper-middle class could help the evolution of an international system of governance with far greater power. The Han Empire, instead of being run from the Imperial capital, was a grouping of fiefdoms, feudal kingdoms and baronies. Nonetheless, it was an empire still, a singular international entity in its politics.

He ends with a talk on Tiberius, and how his example is one that modern leaders should follow. Tiberius, despite his reputation, removed many of the elements of Roman Imperial rule that made it a leader-based dictatorship. He refused many of the honours his office held and instead chose to strengthen the institutions of the state. He founded few cities, annexed little in the way of territory, left the Imperial treasury with 20 times more gold in it than it held at the start of his rule, and internally strengthened the empire with his military reforms. Of course, as Kaplan points out, one can hardly take the second part of his rule, cruel in the extreme as it was, as a model of expert leadership, but his early policies were one a leader should look to emulate in their prudence and strength of character.

I personally found the book a somewhat confused read at times. This could be because of my own studies, but at times it seemed divided between a Realist foreign policy paper and an actual investigation into what a Pagan ethos was. Realism is something I have spent 3 years studying, in one way or another, and it is something I need no real further introduction to.

That he chose philosophers who were purely concerned with foreign policy is something of a shame, as well. I was hoping that perhaps an examination of Aristotle or Nietzsche would have illuminated conceptions of the ancient virtue ethics system, which is after all what he is advocating. Instead, he looked far more towards the practicalities, or rather history, of people who followed such teachings, instead of what those teachings really were.

In short, while there is no doubt a claim to be made that historically an ethos existed that does not today, and that such an ethos can be linked to the Classical Realism tradition of international thought, this book is not the best one to make such a claim. For someone new to Realism, or indeed historical philosophy, this is an excellent starting point for drawing out comparisons between the two. However, for anyone who has studied those topics in depth, you will find little here that you haven't already heard.

Overall, I rate this 7/10. Many people are not acquainted with Realist thought at all, and Kaplan is not only an easy read, he is an interesting and educational one too. However, for the serious scholar of philosophy, you are far better off looking towards more academic texts for your information and discussions.

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