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'Byzantine' Tips For Today's Foreign Policy

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'Byzantine' Tips For Today's Foreign Policy


'Byzantine' Tips For Today's Foreign Policy

'Byzantine' Tips For Today's Foreign Policy

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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When we say "Byzantine" today, we usually mean complicated and disorganized. But historian Edward Luttwak argues that the U.S. should look to the Byzantines — the ancient empire, that is — for foreign policy answers today. Luttwak, who wrote the book The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, tells host Guy Raz about what strategic tips President Obama could get from the Byzantium.

(Soundbite of music)

GUY RAZ, host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

With the foreign policy challenges facing the White House, one scholar argues the U.S. should take a Byzantine approach. Not Byzantine as in complex and disorganized, Byzantine as in the Byzantine Empire, a global force outside(ph) of Constantinople - modern-day Istanbul that reached its height of power in the 10th century.

Edward Luttwak makes that case in his new book "The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire."

Mr. EDWARD LUTTWAK (Author, "The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire"; Senior Fellow, Center for Strategic and International Studies): The grand strategy throughout its history, those 800 years of history, longer than any other state ever lasted was priorities. That is they were constantly at war. They had multiple frontiers, multiple enemies. First thing was always going back to priorities, not to expend. Scarce, go, the scarce troops on minor threats and the places that could be just managed.

RAZ: Hmm. You mentioned the scarce resources. We often hear comparisons made between the Roman Empire and the so-called American empire; both dominant powers, huge military capabilities. But by contrast, the Byzantine Empire was relatively poor, not nearly as influential. So how did its leaders manage to preserve some kind of stability?

Mr. LUTTWAK: First thing was that they minimize the exposure to main force combat. They did lots of intelligence, lots of monitoring, lots of surveillance, lots of raiding, lots of bribing, lots of diplomacy, lots of going in, and above all, finding two enemies to fight each other or three enemies to fight each other and avoiding that main engagement of troops. They would not send large bodies of troops, let alone in remote places where nothing important really happens.

RAZ: You wrote a short article for the latest edition of Foreign Policy magazine with seven strategic lessons we can learn from the Byzantine Empire. The first you write is: Avoid war by every possible means.

Mr. LUTTWAK: Yes. Avoid war because you deal with threats by containing them, by managing them, by finding somebody else to fight. We have done that, of course, recently in Iraq. We found the Sunni tribes to attack al-Qaida. We benefited from the fighting of the Shia against the Sunni. They are still (unintelligible) the Kurds and the Arabs. We did some of that.

First, we tried to do it called the Roman way and then that failed, then we started ourselves doing it in Byzantine way, but we have to do more of that.

RAZ: By the Roman way, you mean...

Mr. LUTTWAK: The Roman way is to go in, you organize the territory, you set up provincial Iraqi, you start educating them, building roads, baths, cities, transforming them into Roman citizens.

RAZ: You write that the Byzantines were very good at maintaining a balance of power by selectively using deception and subversion. Wouldn't doing that today by the United States government simply undermine our credibility - America's credibility abroad?

Mr. LUTTWAK: Well, listen, in the congress of Afghanistan, a brilliant feat of arms back in 2002. Remember, we sent in a small number of Special Forces, some position in power, which is important, but let's not exaggerate, and people with bags of money, and we bought out different tribal chiefs.

It turns out when you are in this environment, it's quite easy to buy people, much cheaper than to fight them. And the fact that they may be religious fanatics appears not to interfere with that.

After all, they believe in inevitable victory of their religion so why not take some of the money and incorporate in the meantime? We should focus on state craft on the places where there is production creation. Important places; Latin America, China, et cetera and we should deal with these troublemakers by using police methods and subversion.

But the idea of changing the entire environment, expending all those resources to transform an entire country, because somewhere in that country, there might be a camp where 25 people are practicing terrorism, there is the sort of loss of perspective. If the Chinese focus on the world and we've focused on Anbar province of Iraq or Paktika province, we're lost.

RAZ: That's Edward Luttwak. He is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the author of the book "The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire."

Edward Luttwak, thanks for coming in.

Mr. LUTTWAK: Thank you.

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