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The Perils of Peacemaking

Paul A. Rahe

It is much easier to initiate a great war than to end one. Even when an attempt to do the latter seems, to the unsuspecting glance, to be an unqualified success, it frequently lays the foundations for a renewal of the struggle. The origins of the Second Punic War, of the War of the Spanish Succession, and of the Second World War can be found in the armistices and treaties of peace that ended the First Punic War, the War of the League of Augsburg, and the First World War; and we have recently discovered, to our surprise and dismay, that the accommodation reached with China in and after 1972 and the Soviet Union’s subsequent defeat in the Cold War and that polity’s eventual dismemberment did not put an end to the threat to stability, the international order, peace, and Americans’ well-being posed by the ambition of China and Russia.

In pondering the settlement that ended the First Punic War and prepared the way for its successor, the Greek historian Polybius articulated a principle that applies to virtually any arrangement that a polity negotiates at the end of an extended conflict with a genuine strategic rival. “Statesmen,” he warned,

must take heed lest the aims of those breaking off hostilities . . . escape their notice. Above all else, they must ascertain whether those coming to terms have yielded to circumstances or are broken in spirit. In this fashion, they can be constantly on guard against the former, who are apt to be lying in wait for a favorable opportunity, and they may trust in the latter as subjects and true friends and readily call upon them for whatever services occasions demand.

As Polybius implies, if the conditions that initially gave rise to a strategic rivalry persist, that rivalry is almost certain to revive, and a renewal of war (hot or cold) may well be the consequence.

Sparta’s second and third Attic wars serve as another example. The peace treaties that brought Lacedaemon’s first two Attic wars to their conclusion in 446 and 421 B.C. arose because of mutual exhaustion and settled nothing. These contests had their roots in the fear inspired among the Lacedaemonians by the dramatic growth in Athenian power during and subsequent to the Persian Wars and the fear generated among the Athenians by the Lacedaemonians’ attempts to rein them in, and the treaties the two negotiated did nothing to alter the situation, alleviate fear, or change the calculations to which this fear gave rise.

Of course, had either of the two wars in question come to a conclusion with the decisive defeat of either hegemonic power and with its elimination as a threat, there would not have been another Attic war. But, on both occasions, the conflict ended with an attempt at restoring something like the status quo ante—back before the antagonism first developed, when the two powers had operated more or less amicably within different spheres. On both occasions, Sparta and Athens yielded to circumstances and came to terms. In consequence, neither power was broken in spirit; and, in the aftermath of both wars, each was on the lookout for a favorable opportunity to strike a decisive blow.

Sparta’s third Attic war, however, changed everything—for in its course, thanks to the terrible suffering inflicted on the Athenians, their spirit was broken, and the same can be said regarding Rome’s victory over the Carthaginians in the Second Punic War and America’s victory over the Germans and the Japanese in the Second World War. Yesterday’s foe, if broken in spirit, can easily become the victor’s ally. In the aftermath of the Cold War—after the Chinese and, then, the Russians had yielded to circumstances—American leaders were far too sanguine. For neither power was broken in spirit, and now, thirty years after the end of our struggle with the Soviet Union, both lie in wait, hoping for an opportunity. For our misapprehension on this occasion and the miscalculation attendant thereon, we may well have to pay a very high price.

In antiquity, no one attentive to such a case would have expected any long-term outcome other than a renewal of hostilities. The opinion attributed to the lawgiver of Crete by Cleinias in Plato’s Laws was the common sense of the matter throughout Hellas: “What most men call peace, he held to be only a name. In truth, for everyone, there exists by nature at all times an undeclared war among cities.” Although we may not, for good reason, be willing to embrace this sentiment, we would do well to temper our optimism and attend to Polybius.

Paul A. Rahe studied ancient history at Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, then later at Yale. He holds the Charles O. Lee and Louise K. Lee Chair in the Western Heritage at Hillsdale College, where he is professor of history.

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