‘History repeats itself,’ Karl Marx wrote presciently in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. ‘The first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.’ The central themes of Hal Brands and Charles Edel’s The Lessons of Tragedy are clear. In the developed world, we are complacent about world order, democracy, and civil society. But the ancient Greeks knew, from endless wars with Sparta to the Hellenic Republic’s annexation by Rome, that empires have feet of clay. It is telling, too, in a work about world order and engagement, that seminal figures such as Bismarck and Kissinger are quoted approvingly. Both men were Machiavellian in their use of power, but they were also sufficiently prudent to know its limits and to exercise restraint.
Appeals to classicism have both their vices and virtues. Machiavelli’s The Prince, the first modern work of political science, was influenced profoundly by Virgil, Plutarch, and Cicero. Enoch Powell’s inflammatory ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968 also drew inspiration from Virgil, as he excoriated Britain’s mass immigration policy.
It is no surprise that the first widely accepted international relations text, Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, tells a tale of tragedy. The Athenians defeated the Melians, slaughtered the men and sold the women and children into slavery. From the Battle of Vienna (1683), to the establishment of the Concert of Europe following Napoleon’s defeat, to the darkness of Auschwitz, the response to tragedy has been the same: nations coalescing to defeat the oppressor and cooperating to reduce the persistence of conflict and to regulate the conduct of warfare. By the mid-nineteenth century, the grim battlefields of the Austro-Sardinian War led to the formation of the Red Cross.