In my last two posts I made a bunch of comparisons between the Russia-Ukraine war and various other conflicts big and small. Some of the comparisons were good, some were hilariously bad (hence the rankings). There was one that I originally put on my list, however, that I ultimately decided to remove. Not because it’s a bad analogy, but because Ukraine plays such a miniscule role in the comparison that it’s really not a Ukraine analogy at all — more like an analogy of Current Year more broadly.
Honorable Mention: The Peloponnesian War
People often like to compare the Global American Empire to the Roman Empire, and it’s not a wholly bad analogy. No empire since Rome has been so fully hegemonic or militarily dominant over the entire known world as has the GAE since 1990. But in other ways it’s a really bad analogy — one big difference of course is that the GAE doesn’t admit it’s an empire, whereas Rome reveled in it, going so far as to deify the emperor and his government and make them the centerpiece of national religious observation. The US also doesn’t fully assimilate conquered territories as Rome did, but rather maintains them as auxiliaries with nominal (but not actual) political independence.
For a long time I’ve found the best historical analogue of the GAE to be the Athenian Empire of the 5th century BC. Athens’ Empire was held together by a combination of strong economic incentives to favor Athens along with Athens’ incredible naval superiority over any other power in the region. Like the GAE, Athens was able to “project power” on short notice anywhere in the Aegean, making it very difficult for any would-be power to get off the ground. In the same sense, its naval power gave it unprecedented ability to facilitate trade throughout the known world, making it (and its allies) fantastically rich — but at the same time, also immune to siege warfare, sanctions, and the like by potential rivals.
The Athenian Empire famously destroyed itself through the Peloponnesian Wars, fought against Sparta and its allies. I first got to thinking about this analogy during the Iraq War, which to me resembled in many ways Athens’ ridiculous attempt to conquer Sicily in the latter stages of the war on Sparta. Like Iraq, the Sicilian Expedition posed no clear benefit for Athens, was directed at a target that was unlikely to matter much to the real enemy Sparta, and was enormously expensive in terms of manpower and money. On top of that, Athens failed to take Syracuse and had to retreat with its tail between its legs, severely depleted and ultimately unable to continue its resistance against Sparta. Likewise, our failure to democratize Iraq was the beginning of the end for the GAE — it’s been all downhill since then in terms of our ability to project power in the world, culminating in our recent humiliation in Afghanistan and our impotent struggling against Russian military action in Ukraine.
The big problem with the analogy between the US and Athens, though, was always that I wasn’t sure who worked as the Sparta in the analogy. But it’s clear now that it’s Russia; the analogy is just too perfect. The US is a mercantile power whose military might stems from its dominance of the oceans that also protect it from retaliation; Russia on the other hand has always been a land-based power, like Sparta. Soviet communism also had similarities with the ideology that drove Spartan society in its heyday, e.g. the focus on individuals’ duty to the state and the paranoia about foreign aggression. So the idea that America and Russia are heading toward a replay of the Peloponnesian War is pretty appealing.
Athens started out the war vastly more powerful than Sparta, such that anyone with any sense would have surmised that Sparta was doomed, it was just a matter of time. But Athens was then hit with a number of setbacks, chief among them a nasty virus that shut the city down for a few years — sounds unfortunately familiar, no? Ultimately a combination of natural disaster and military/political incompetence turned the tables and resulted in Athens’ ignominious defeat and disappearance from history as a particularly important city. Which certainly seems like the direction the US is heading, if we’re going to be completely honest.
The reason this fails as a Ukraine War analogy, though, is that there really isn’t an obvious Ukraine in the story. Sure, there were a lot of little city states that could be pushed into the role for the sake of analogy, but none of them stand out as particularly important. But maybe that’s the real wisdom to be gained from this effort of comparison — Ukraine just isn’t that important, it’s merely the current tripwire in the looming great power war between the US, Russia, and probably China that is going to explode at some point in the next few years into a third World War.
As always, I strongly hope that I am wrong! But if not, remember you read it here first, folks.