Ancient and modern

Cicero would have agreed with Putin

Russia’s approach to international affairs is rather Roman right now

15 March 2014

9:00 AM

15 March 2014

9:00 AM

Last September Russian President Vladimir Putin warned against a ‘unipolar’ world, saying that the national revival of Russia was in line with its foreign policy objective of a multi-polar world and the prevailing of international law over the rule of brute force. How very Roman of him. Cicero pointed out that if one wanted violence to end, the law must prevail; if it did not, violence would reign supreme. To no avail.

Every five years, the Roman censors asked the gods ‘to improve and strengthen the position of the Roman people’. There was nothing unique about this. Many states prayed for a similar outcome for themselves, while the historian Polybius commented that it was a mark of the greatness of a state’s constitution and culture to extend its power internationally. All this was simply a response to the nature of the ancient world. Inter-state conflict was endemic: Rome was just better at it, to the fury of its enemies.

The consequence was that treaties and obligations regularly went out of the window. After defeating Carthage in the first Punic War over the control of Sicily (241 BC), Rome promptly grabbed Sardinia and Corsica as well. Strategically, it was an intelligent move, but even the pro-Roman Polybius said it was unjust. When in 217 BC Egyptian Ptolemy and the Greek king Antiochus were arguing over Syria, Polybius wrote of the endless repetition of similar claims and arguments, ‘but there was no mediator to prevent or restrain injustice’, so both sides gave up and went to war. Anarchy, then, was a standard feature of the relationships between ancient states. Where diplomacy did occur, it was usually the diplomacy of coercion, and no one was bluffing.

Today’s world is largely the same. When push comes to shove, international law goes by the board. So the big question is: what does the Russian seizure of Crimea signify? As in the ancient world, it is all about status and prestige: a desperate attempt by Putin to prove that Russia is America’s equal in a multi-polar world. Or at least, its equal in allowing brute force to reign supreme.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • You should write for the Telegraph, they’d love this kind of monochromatic schtick.

    • mikewaller

      Ignore the above cheap shot. The most interesting facet of the Crimea business is how almost perfectly it maps onto Hitler’s retaking of the Sudetenland and that does not auger well for the future!

      • No it doesn’t. Russia doesn’t have a fascist party in control, it isn’t pushing back against punitive reparations, nor does it face the restarting of a war under the terms of a treaty. There is no rhetoric of lebensraum, no militarization of Russian society, no general surge within Russian society to take/retake territory lost. The alleged parallels with WW2 are wholly specious, and made to make the commentators appear informed. Look elsewhere for your illustrations.

        • mikewaller

          Putin’s Russia sure isn’t my idea of a liberal democracy (ask the folks in Cheyna) and it is already making noises about the Russians in the rest of Eastern Ukraine and in Latvia. I also note that most of the newly independent Eastern European countries seem a great deal less sanguine about Russian intentions than you. As for treaties, Russian is actually a signatory to one guaranteeing the Ukraine’s current borders.

          As for militarisation, they sure do not seem to me to be short of the wherewithal. Nor does it need the whole society to be militarised. All it requires is a narcissistic personally of Putin’s type to become so convinced of his all-round genius that he takes a step too far, and off it all goes. I also note that the Russian regime is already pretty well advanced in tolerating the killing of journalists and others they don’t like so internal criticism is a tad dangerous.

          And always remember what Chamberlain had to say about Hitler when he got back to Hendon:

          We regard the agreement signed last night and the Anglo-German Naval Agreement, as symbolic of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again.

          That did not last very long did it?

          • Terry Field

            When did Hitler get back to Hendon; I thought it was a Jewish neighborhood. Where did Hitler live in Hendon, a semi, or a terrace?

          • Doggie Roussel

            Hilarious, Terry… Springtime for Hitler … in Hendon..

            Laughed, I almost sh……..

          • mikewaller

            You put me in mind of an aphorism much favoured by an old tutor of mine:

            “When dealing with intelligent readers we need not be over-exercised by the niceties of grammar as they will have the ability to read what was intended. Indeed the odd infelicity can be a wonderful device for drawing out the intellectual lightweight.”

          • Baron

            To compare Adolf’s move on the Czechs with that that of the Russians on Crimea smells of childlike naivety.The former followed Germany’s massive rearmament not of the defensive sort, bunkers and stuff, but the opposite. More to the point, scan Mein Kampf, the chapter on the East, it’s there black on white what the madman intended to do. He penned it almost two decades before the event. Nobody listened because everyone hated, quite rightly, the Bolsheviks.

            Everyone in the elite strata of the West (and their scribbling poodles) argues against Putin not because he’s a dictator, but because he ain’t one of them, no rainbow, PC man he, on the contrary, he argues for a family as the building block of the society, thinks the Judeo-Christian foundation is worth defending, believes there’s nothing wrong to be proud of one’s heritage….

            Western leaders have lived, can live with dictators, still do (Saudi Arabia, China) if not comfortably than at least profitably. If only Putin joined the progressive club everything would be OK, he can have Crimea and whatever else he may want.

          • mikewaller

            Amazing just how well this fits both 1938 and 2014.

            “Imagine a great power to the East which, having engaged in a titanic struggle with Western democracies, has to throw in the towel, its economy in tatters. As part of the new order, that power is substantially dismembered with many of those considering themselves its citizens reallocated to newly independent states the majority of whose populations still resent the hegemony previously held over them. In the years immediately following collapse it seems that those reallocated citizens will have either to like it or lump it. Then a new leader comes to
            power in the homeland determined to re-establish its greatness, not least by the re-absorption of its lost lands and peoples. The best opportunity to advance this process is afforded by an adjacent state which contains a large number of citizens who fervently wish to be re-incorporated. A two-pronged approach which entails strenuous support of the would-be returnees
            coupled with vigorous vilification of that state’s majority population rapidly brings about a crisis. Attempts by international mediators to reach a compromise are skilfully rebutted. This is shortly followed up by sending the
            homeland’s troops into the border region where those wanting re-integration are in a majority. These forces receive an ecstatic welcome. The international
            community, initially appalled, rapidly comes to accept this fait accompli, in part mollified by a promise that this is all that is being sought.”

            BTW, we were told on tonight’s news that the vanguard of Russian expansionism – ultra-right nationalists – are now moving into Eastern Ukraine.

          • Baron

            You’re watching the wrong news, mikewaller.

            Also, so tell us where will the ultra-right nationalists stop? Will they make it just to the shores of the Atlantic, will they swim across towards the shore of the Republic? Arghhh

          • mikewaller

            I can’t help thinking that I am picking up news items you would prefer me not hear. Silly old ostrich or fellow-traveler spring to mind as explanatory possibilities.

            As to the current bounds of Putin’s ambition, at the moment I think he simply aspires to be another Tzar and as such a defender of all the Slavic peoples. That would explain his current meddling in Bosnia, Eastern Ukraine and elsewhere. Whether just making as much territorial progress in that direction as proves practically possible will satisfy his political and ego needs, who knows?

            However, what so frequently pushes “strong men” over the top into reckless adventurism is the failure of the domestic economy from which they feel a need to divert attention. Ironically, if the West punish Putin as they ought by doing everything possible to make the rest of Europe less dependent on Russian gas and oil, the economic effects could make military aggression increasingly attractive to him. That said, our current dependence on Russian supplies is so strategically ludicrous that something has to be done. I am not a great fan of nuclear power, but I cannot help but think that were Germany to reverse its anti-nuclear stance it would be a timely shot across Putin’s bows.

          • Baron

            You should be left to your world of speculative dreams, it seems to suit you.

            Baron would say just this, then he’ll shut up:

            Until the EU with their 20-year plan (sic) for Ukraine began seriously meddling in Kiev, all the ethnicities in the country lived together in peace, acceptable harmony, no major reported friction. That’s a fact. The same ethnicities also did trot to the ballot box regularly, and it wasn’t entirely their fault that since the fall of the USSR, every leader they’ve elected turned up corrupt.

            The key point though is that regular elections did take place. Until, that is your Brussels friends decided to back a bunch of armed thugs who, not fully satisfied killing both the Maidan protesters and the policemen, stormed the Parliament building, got the deputies running for their life, deposed a democratically elected President and Government. It’s not how it’s done in democracy, mikewaller, and that is what cuts it for Baron.

            Whoever wins, the country will never be the same again. It will be another boil on the face of Europe we could do without.

          • mikewaller

            What triggered the revolt in the West was a sudden decision at the highest level to re-orientate towards mother Russia. Indeed, the interest in the Western Ukraine in getting closer ties with the EU was driven by a fear of being back under Russia’s thumb.

            Of course in the present mess we hear all the stuff about the Western Ukraine being pro-Nazi during WW2 (aka as The Great Patriotic War) whereas the East was solidly anti-German. What gets quietly forgotten is that:

            (a) when we were facing our hours of crisis between 1939 and 1941 the whole of the USSR was allied with Germany, having for years prior to that provided secret training for German pilots. This was fine by Uncle Joe as it enabled him to gobble up a large part of Poland and Finland. He only thought it a bad idea when Germany turned on him.

            (b) the primary reasons why many countries to the West of the Soviet Union gave support to the Germans were a combination of their then irresistible might and the fact that the SU had made life intolerable for tens of millions during the 1920s and 30s i.e my enemy’s enemy is my friend.

            Two final points: By pure chance I got into conversation with a Latvian lady yesterday. She works as a cleaner/housekeeper over here and is absolutely terrified about what the “freedom-loving” people of Russia have in mind for her little country. Second, if you cannot see the clear parallels between Putin railing on yesterday about all the “wicked” things done to Russia post 1989 and Hitler banging on about the iniquities of the Versailles Treaty, get back to the history books.

          • Baron
          • mikewaller

            I think it appalling: but then I am a Western democrat who found yesterday’s news item about a Tarter who had been taken away by right-wing pro-Russian thugs and beaten to death, even worse. History, very much including the recent Soviet history of which Putin was so sorry to see the back, has brutalised these people to a terrible extent.

          • First L

            They don’t argue against him because he likes the family unit. They argue against him because he’s just invaded a sovereign country with the aim of annexation and empire building.

          • Baron

            Thank you, First L, for telling it as it, stupid of Baron to be so dimwitted, except that the foreign country he invaded was part of Russia (the hint is in that around 60% of people living there are Russians) for centuries.

          • The Laughing Cavalier

            and the Tartars?

          • Baron

            Way back in history the Russians were subjugated by the Tartars, one of the Russian princes called Ivan Moneybag even collected money from his fellow Russians for them. That was when their predecessors joined forces with the Genghis Khan. As the Mongol Golden horde fell apart the Tartars split into many clans, converted to Islam. The most notable and powerful of the clans was based in Crimea in the times of James I, the one who didn’t wash, wrote lewd letters to his gay lover the Duke of Buckingham. Stalin dealt with them ruthlessly (google for why), deported them to Uzbekistan, eastern Russia. Many got back after 1992, all speak Russian, worship Allah.

            They’ll stay where they are still speaking Russians, worshiping Allah. What’s your problem then?

          • First L

            Doesn’t matter what it used to be, what it is now is Ukranian. Normandy used to be part of Britain, half of Germany used to be part of France – hell, most of Europe used to be Italian, maybe we should all attempt to take back our old lands by marching the army in.

            You stupid prat.

        • Mario_Ferretti
  • Robertus Maximus

    I would have thought that, being a prominent Stoic, Cicero wouldn’t have touched Putin with a barge-pole, as his philosophical beliefs would have been diametrically opposite to that of the pocket-sized Stalin.

  • George Hayes

    Cicero as master of rhetoric would have agreed with Putin after shamefull hysterique approache of Samantha Power ( US ambassador to UN).
    At a meeting of the UN reporters saw an unusual picture- the U.S. representative to the UN Samantha Power suddenly went to the Russian representative to the UN Vitaly Churkin and started shouting at him loudly and grabbing his hands, according to the testimony of some witnesses, Samantha Powers said, that Russia has no right to forget that it is not the winner and is the loser and must comply with all United States, but Vitaly Churkin, with the laughter of all, asked the lady do not to humiliate of America by her behavior and do not spitting,