While American geopolitical thought tends to divide the world up morally into the Democratic (whoever is on our side) and the Evil (vice-versa), Russians tend to strategize geographically in terms of Land (Mother Russia) v. Sea (those deplorable Atlanticists).
This dichotomy leads to endless paradoxes. For example, Russian grand strategy has traditionally been obsessed with making the country less of a land power by obtaining non-Arctic ports such as St. Petersburg, Vladivostok, Port Arthur, and Sochi, which is why Sevastopol in Crimea is such an emotional subject for them.
And yet the land-bound Russians never achieved their ultimate goal of taking Constantinople and thus securing a sea route to the Mediterranean. In contrast, the nautical British have held the strategically comparable Rock of Gibraltar at the opposite entrance to the Mediterranean for 310 years, and they appear to be in no hurry to give it back to Spain.
In the American mind, land powers are seen as militarist, brooding, and no fun: Sparta, Prussia, the Soviet Union, and now Putin’s Russia. In contrast, sea powers are the good guys, the cool kids: Athens, Holland, England, and America.
With natural defenses and a high-tech military, sea powers generally didn’t need enormous conscript armies, martial discipline, and centralized economic control. Instead, sea power was conducive to liberty at home and adventure capitalism abroad.
So what’s not to like? Why doesn’t everybody love us?
It’s worth considering the underlying structural reasons why land powers have traditionally perceived sea powers as, at minimum, annoying hypocrites, if not roving pirates. The French, for instance, routinely denounced England as, in the words of a teasing French comic strip, “Perfidious Albion, which burnt Joan of Arc on the rock of Saint Helena.”
The aristocrats running agricultural land powers tended to preserve backward social systems such as serfdom and slavery. In contrast, commercial sea powers tended to take the lead in abolitionism. Of course, this was only after the seafarers in England and New England had gotten rich off the slave trade.
Even more fundamentally, sea powers have the privilege to project violence where they please and then go home, secure in the knowledge that they can’t easily be followed. Land powers are stuck having to live next to their rivals. They know that propelling themselves forward against neighbors is a grinding process. (It took the Soviets 41 months of supreme effort to push the Germans back from the outskirts of Moscow to Berlin.) Land powers tend to be foreboding rather than flighty. To them, foreign policy is a serious business.
To sea powers, however, mobility means, as the old Navy recruiting commercial said, “It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure.” During the Dark Ages, for example, when the Roman road system had decayed, making land travel laborious, the Vikings could still venture as far as the coast of North America in the west and the rivers of Slavic Europe in the east. Although Russian and Ukrainian nationalists can agree that the Kievan Rus who founded their culture must have been Slavs, the suspicion remains that the initial ruling class consisted of predatory Norse “Varangians.”
To the sedentary monks who wrote most of the few records we have of the Dark Ages, the Vikings were heathen holy terrors. Today, though, with their immense freedom of movement, egalitarian politics, and relatively high status for women, the Vikings seem pretty American.
The land v. sea division in Western thought goes back at least to the differing roles of the Spartan and Athenian allies in the Persian Wars of early fifth-century BC. The number-one movie at the box office last weekend was 300: Rise of an Empire, the sequel to the 2006 hit 300, which was based on Herodotus’s history of the heroic delaying action the Spartan infantry fought at Thermopylae in 480 BC. The new film culminates with the subsequent Battle of Salamis in which the Athenian-led fleet, the “wall of wood” prophesied at Delphi, defeated the Persians.
With the Greeks’ liberation from the Persian Empire, the uneasy alliance between these ideological opposites broke up. Oligarchic Sparta and its allies in the Peloponnesian League went home. In contrast, those city-states that wished to take the war to the Persians, mostly Aegean islands and coastal regions led by democratic Athens, formed the Delian League.
It was only natural that most Greeks found Athens more appealing. Sparta was an inland city-state surrounded by potential enemies without and even within (the Helots whose labor made economically feasible the citizens’ constant practice at arms). Its culture was rigorously devoted to training for land warfare and little else.
In contrast, Athens was connected to its port of Piraeus by long walls that made the city invulnerable to siege by land as long as she could import food by sea. As the Athenian politician Pericles assured his voters, as reported in his final speech in Thucydides’s The History of the Peloponnesian War:
The visible field of action has two parts, land and sea…your naval resources are such that your vessels may go where they please, without the king [of Sparta] or any other nation on earth being able to stop them.
Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighboring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves. Its administration favors the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy.…The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life.
Pericles taunted the Spartans:
…while in education, where our rivals from their very cradles by a painful discipline seek after manliness, at Athens we live exactly as we please, and yet are just as ready to encounter every legitimate danger.
Still, during this golden Age of Pericles, seafaring Athens managed to so annoy other Greeks with its piratical tendencies as it turned the Delian League into the Athenian Empire that it all ended in the disaster of the three-decade-long Peloponnesian War.
Admiral Stansfield Turner introduced the study of Thucydides to the Naval War College in 1972 as a useful metaphor for the Cold War, with Sparta’s Peloponnesian League playing the Warsaw Pact to Athens’s Delian League as NATO. Alcibiades’s decision at the midpoint of the war with Sparta to suddenly invade distant, irrelevant Sicily stood in for the strategic folly of Vietnam.
The leading American historian of that war is Donald Kagan of Yale. And yet Kagan and his students, such as his sons Frederick (of the American Enterprise Institute) and Robert (of the Brookings Institution), have drawn peculiarly neoconservative lessons from his study of Thucydides. The Sicilian Expedition is envisioned by Professor Kagan, contra Thucydides (who was an Athenian general in the war), as a great idea botched in the execution by Nicias. Thus, this textbook example of imperial overreach somehow struck neoconservatives a dozen years ago as proof that America needed to invade Iraq.
It’s perhaps not surprising that the chief agent of American imperialism in Ukraine is Professor Kagan’s daughter-in-law Victoria Nuland.
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