The Lessons of Tragedy
Statecraft and World Order
Hal Brands and Charles Edel
Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut, 2019, 216 pages
Book Review published on: February 21, 2020
Hal Brands and Charles Edel argue in The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order that an “understanding of tragedy remains indispensable … to the conduct of statecraft and the preservation of world order.” Each author has interagency experience. Brands formerly served at the Office of the Secretary of Defense and now is at Johns Hopkins, and Edel previously worked on the secretary of state’s Policy Planning Staff and now teaches at the University of Sydney. Their easily readable and informative book defines tragedy, describes the rise of tragic drama, exhorts the dangers of hubris and complacency, provides historical examples of tragic events, and warns of America’s current amnesia. They aspire that America rediscovers the precursors and consequences of tragedy before experiencing its effects.
Merriam-Webster defines tragedy as a disastrous event or misfortune, causing destruction or distress. Thesaurus.com lists its synonyms as affliction, apocalypse, calamity, catastrophe, devastation, and misfortune. A second definition indicates that tragedy is literary genre about a play or story that involves tragic events.
Theatrical tragedy arose in Greece during fifth century BC. The plots revolve around conflicts amongst the gods, between gods and mortals, and between human desires and duties. Their narrative arcs usually culminated in the destruction of an individual, group, city, or empire. The disaster and decline on stage may have resulted in the audience departing with a feeling despair. However, rather than the promotion of fatalism and resignation, these dramatic tragedies educated viewers and inspired them with calls to wisdom and action. It permitted citizens to consider the actions, inactions, and consequences depicted on stage and use those to inform current debates and decisions.
The Greek tragedies warned of two distinct perils: hubris and complacency. Hubris occurs when past successes create overconfidence in capabilities, the perception of infallibility, and the presumption of divine support. Arrogance and pride arise to fuel further ambitions. The consequence of these “acts of commission” is the overreach that brings forth calamity. In contrast, complacency stems from assuming that threats will not arise, avoiding duties, dismissing the capabilities of challengers, neglecting obligations, and surrendering the willingness to sacrifice. The results of these “acts of omission,” or failure to do what should and could be done, prevent halting that which with action is otherwise preventable. The authors note that during the 1930s, the fear of tragic consequences induced inaction by Britain and France, which further promoted the hubris of Adolf Hitler.
The authors argue that miscalculation, misfortune, and acts of commission and omission cause tragedy to be the norm in international relations. Lasting peace remains elusive as avarice, credibility, economic security, fear, honor, pride, and other impulses lead to conflict. They provide two notable examples. Athens and Sparta held ideological differences. The aspirations of the former, and the fear it created in the latter, caused the Peloponnesian War. This resulted in the demise of both and the Hellenic World. In the Thirty Years War, religious differences plus geopolitical motives to seek aggrandizement or prevent a rival’s expansion prolonged and intensified the devastation. In both cases, the conflicts broke down the then prevailing international order, halted commerce, and destroyed cultivation. The conscious of participants devolved; they ignored neutrals, conducted ethnic cleansing, torched towns, tortured combatants, and killed prisoners and noncombatants.
The carnage of the Thirty Years War, military exhaustion, and the recognition of the need for a new system to order Europe resulted in the Treaty of Westphalia. That document applied lessons and proposed norms that European nations adopted in order to limit future tragedies. The signatories did not establish perpetual peace. European nations engaged in forty-eight conflicts between the signing of that treaty and the French Revolution. Yet, when war occurred, the absence of ideological and religious context plus accepted norms of behavior constrained their intensity and devastation.
Post-World War II American and other Western leaders perceived the consequences that occurred due to a decade of complacency in the 1930s. The failures to enable international efforts to preserve the peace, counter efforts to attack democratic values, prevent trade wars, and defend friendly nations from external aggression had tragic results. The liberal postwar global order intentionally arose to create a system to promote international stability and prosperity. During the Cold War, American leaders from both political parties made sizeable investments to preserve the international order because they realized the necessity of those costs to avoid tragic outcomes. Glimpsing the dawn of the Cold War post-World War II, Secretary of State George Marshall noted, “I doubt seriously whether a man can think with full wisdom and with deep convictions regarding certain of the basic issues today who has not at least reviewed in his mind the period of the Peloponnesian War and the fall of Athens.”
The book’s introduction refutes the argument that “the trajectory of humanity is a steady, even inevitable, advance towards ever greater prosperity, peace, and morale enlightenment.” Brands and Edel commend the ancient Greeks who attempted to avoid tragedy by confronting it. The authors contend that since the conclusion of the Cold War, we strive to escape tragedy by ignoring the possibilities of devastating instability, global upheavals, and great power conflict; hoping none of these will happen.
For decades, most required secondary education and undergraduate studies neglected the Western canon and its introduction to the classics and insights into human nature. The Lessons of Tragedy offers to students and readers of military history, national security, strategy, and foreign policy an outstanding remedy. It expertly reveals the catastrophic consequences of complacency and hubris, and notes measures taken tragedy. It would be a superb addition to any reading list for classes in geopolitics, international relations, political philosophy.
Book Review written by: Robert D. Spessert, Fort Gordon, Georgia