Wednesday, October 28, 2009



By Edward N. Luttwak

Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, $35, 498 pages

Reviewed by Gary Anderson

An Iranian empire trying to reassert lost glory, an Islamic jihad and tribal animosities in the Balkans; life is not easy for a superpower. This could describe American strategic challenges today, but these are the same types of threats faced by an earlier superpower in Edward N. Luttwak’s new book, “The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire.” For a millennium after the Western Roman Empire fell, the Eastern half lived on with its capital in Constantinople. Mr. Luttwak describes how Byzantium managed to survive its Western sister so long, and our contemporary strategists should take note.

Mr. Luttwak takes up where he left off three decades ago when he wrote “The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire.” That book was daring in its revisionism at the time, and people still love or hate it depending on their disposition toward the author. In those ensuing decades, Mr. Luttwak has matured as a writer and a historian. This book is good history as well as being an insightful commentary on strategy. Mr. Luttwak still has some interesting historical interpretations, but he has written good history.

The Eastern Roman Empire has received a bad rap since Edward Gibbon largely dismissed it as an effeminate and unworthy successor to the Western Roman Empire, whose demise he described while writing in the 18th century. The term “byzantine” is still used disparagingly in describing modern bureaucracies that don’t work well. As Mr. Luttwak tells it, the bureaucracy usually got the job done.

The Byzantine Empire used a combination of military persuasion and what we now call soft or “smart” power to keep its enemies at bay. By soft power, we are talking about diplomacy, intelligence operations and sometimes outright bribery. American soldiers and diplomats who helped turn enemies into allies in creating the Sunni Awakening in Iraq will recognize and empathize with what the Eastern Romans did for centuries. This is a timely and relevant work.

From the fifth to the 15th century, Constantinople could be a very unpleasant place; its politicians and bureaucrats could be vicious and venal, and they would feel very much at home in 2009 Washington. Nonetheless, as Mr. Luttwak describes it, the system managed to work. The Byzantine Empire had a standing professional army, a National Guard-like reserve and written military doctrine that was refined periodically to capture lessons learned from contemporary campaigns and conflicts.

The Byzantines also updated their military technology to take advantage of what they learned from their neighbors, and they lived in a very tough neighborhood indeed. Mr. Luttwak describes the tactics and the technology in detail without falling into the trap of losing the larger thread of his narrative.

Mr. Luttwak does an excellent job of describing the intelligence system of the Eastern empire, from its tactical use of scouting and patrolling to its strategic use of spies and double agents in the courts of its enemies. The Byzantines were not just interested in what their enemies were doing; they wanted to know how opponents thought.

Armed with this knowledge, they used the other tools of soft power to attack in nonlethal ways. The tools included diplomacy designed to turn two or more potential opponents against each other and outright bribery in the form of tribute when needed to buy time. In this way, the empire practiced what one historian has called “conservation of enemies” when faced with too many hostile foes on the periphery of a realm that held few naturally defensible borders.

Mr. Luttwak’s description of how the Byzantines deflected the first great wave of Islamic Arab jihad is particularly interesting. The Eastern empire’s leaders could not defeat the enthusiasm of the jihadists by direct military confrontation, but they recognized the inherent instability of a caliphate that had to expand to survive. They used a combination of indirect naval action and skill in defensive field fortifications to trade space for time, and then eventually counterattacked to regain at least some lost territory.

Gibbon was an admirer of the ancient Roman virtues and despised the supposed perfidiousness on the part of the Byzantines, who were merely practicing the strategy of survival, but there is much we can learn in a world where we face far too many challenges to fight every possible battle every day. Mr. Luttwak does a great service in giving us a readable account of how the Byzantines managed national-security strategy in a way that should be useful to contemporary soldiers and civilian policymakers. It is also a very good read.

Gary Anderson lectures at George Washington University’s Elliot School of International Affairs. He is a retired Marine Corps officer.

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