Sunday 03 Jul 2022 | 09:24 | SYDNEY
Sunday 03 Jul 2022 | 09:24 | SYDNEY

Israel: Learning from the Byzantines

24 September 2010 13:23

Ben Coleridge is a student at the University of Melbourne with an interest in Byzantine history. His articles have appeared in Eureka Street.

When we think of key historical voices in the realm of strategy and statecraft, many of us might think of Thucydides and then make the leap through time to Metternich, Clausewitz and Bismarck.

But between these epochs there are other resources often passed over by historians of international relations. One is the well documented strategic discourse of late-antique and medieval Byzantine strategists. It included debates on how best to conduct foreign relations and to ensure Byzantium's security against manifold threats, with debates ranging from the tactical to the grand-strategic. Texts such as the 6th century Strategikon of Maurikios, for example, outlined the first sophisticated combined arms theory prior to World War Two. 

But most interestingly for us, the Byzantines left detailed manuals on how they conducted statecraft, some of which offer lessons for the present.

Edward Luttwak's new book, The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, charts the development of Byzantine strategy and the methods the Byzantines employed to survive in an extremely hostile region for almost a thousand years. Straddled across continents and without defensible borders, Byzantium was vulnerable. It puts one in mind of modern Israel, a state which shares many of Byzantium's strategic weaknesses. Like Israel, the Byzantines were surrounded by antagonistic kingdoms or states; they were threatened by Sassanian Persia, suffered frequent and large incursions by tribes like the Pechenegs, the Avars and the Slavs and bore the brunt of a militant Islam from the 7th century. 

Yet the Byzantines differed from Israel in how they addressed these vulnerabilities. Whereas Israeli policies have historically placed a premium on maintaining Israel's hard power, the Byzantines understood that hard power is never sufficient for stabilising an entire region over a long period.

Of course, the Byzantines used hard power frequently to ensure their survival – the great Theodosian walls protecting Constantinople were the nuclear deterrent of their day, a final resort that frustrated invading enemies for hundreds of years until 1204. But Byzantine thinkers such as the Emperor Leo VI made sure that hard power was used in concert with energetic (and often wily) diplomacy and was complemented by the soft cultural power of Byzantine imperial prestige. They even used their Christian Orthodox religion to sway tribes, notably the Slavs, into establishing closer ties of loyalty with the empire.

The Byzantines saw that their empire lacked the military resources to counter the threats they faced from east and west. In this way, Byzantine statesmen were realists in the truest sense – they recognised the limits of their hard power and understood that their security relied on a combination of elements besides force. 

In a recent article in The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg explores how Israeli policy-makers view the threat presented by a nuclear Iran and its proxy Hezbollah. He argues that a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities could destabilise Israel's region, put Jewish communities in danger of Iranian-sponsored terror and convert Israel into 'a leper among nations', thus trampling on Israel’s long term strategic interests.

The Byzantines would probably have agreed.

In an ethnically and religiously diverse region, where very different cultures had to exist next door to each other, the Byzantine ability to weld alliances between Christians, Muslims, Turkic tribesmen and pagan Slavs was remarkable. Indeed, Byzantium's strategic nimbleness inspires questions about how modern Israel interacts with its own diverse and unstable region. Perhaps it is worth applying Byzantine strategy to the two threats to Israel's security: Hezbollah and Iran's nuclear program. What would the Byzantines do'

Firstly, a strategist following the Byzantine example would try to strengthen Israel's soft power by halting incendiary policies in the West Bank, such as settlement construction. By burnishing Israel's soft power they would draw a more sympathetic line from Western governments and be able to better channel Western policies towards Israel's regional priorities.

They would strengthen ties with the Lebanese Government and try to solidify its position in the country. They would attempt to mend ties with Turkey after the recent furor caused by the Gaza flotilla clashes. They would approach Arab neighbours who are equally concerned about a nuclear Iran and offer dialogue as well as mutual support. 

In short, they would create a regional network of relationships, allegiances and reliance that would strengthen Israel's position in the region and allow it to bring more non-military pressure to bear on Hezbollah and Iran. Only if none these efforts worked and Iran was on the very cusp of nuclear capability would they risk a military strike that could have region-wide consequences.

For all those interested in the strategies of states, its time to take the Byzantines out of the dustbin.