Byzantine Strategy and Western Decline?

David Kilcullen’s recent book, The Dragons and the Snakes: How the Rest Learned to Fight the West, is an incisive work that has deservedly garnered a great deal of attention and is likely to be of enduring importance in debates about the decline of Western power. Kilcullen, best known for his previous writing on counterinsurgency, argues that Western militaries have lost their ability to compete against nonstate groups and rival nations that employ asymmetric warfighting methods. On his assessment, the most likely future for the West – shorthand for the United States, Europe, and their Asian allies – is irreversible decline. Accepting this fate as largely preordained, Kilcullen recommends as “the least bad option” a policy of accepting and deliberately managing long-term decline that he calls the "Byzantine strategy.” Just as Byzantium survived the fall of the Western Roman Empire for nearly a thousand years, he believes the 21st century West should focus on preserving its values and prosperity in the short-term while seeking "sufficient strategic delay to allow an acceptable successor order to emerge.” 

After two decades of Western foreign policy setbacks, Kilcullen’s grim counsel of prudence is persuasive. Nevertheless, his argument is flawed in several key respects, and there are reasons to be skeptical that a “Byzantine strategy” is, in fact, the least bad option available to the West.

Kilcullen’s outlook is based on his application of Darwinian theories of natural selection. He claims that American military dominance after the end of the Cold War created a lethal “fitness environment” that forced adversaries to evolve in order to survive, akin to the way that the spread of antibiotics has given rise to “superbugs” with antibiotic resistance. On battlefields from Somalia to Iraq, the least capable fighters were quickly dispatched. Meanwhile, a more capable class of enemies was forced to create tactics that nullify Western advantages. Terrorists learned how to hide within local populations, exploiting Western rules of engagement designed to avoid civilian casualties. They created decentralized, more resilient forms of organization and learned to exploit publicly available technologies like GPS and drones to level the technological playing field at virtually no expense.

Nonstate actors (“snakes”) were the first to adapt, but states like Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea (“dragons”) quickly learned from their successful innovations. In different ways, these revisionist states all developed tactics designed to achieve political objectives without crossing the threshold that might provoke the West into a conventional interstate war, where its economic and technological advantages would come into play. These tactics range from cyberwar, economic espionage, media manipulation to political assassination, irregular forces, and nuclear brinksmanship.

The result is that strategic outcomes now bear little resemblance to traditional measures of military power. After nearly 20 years at war and over $6 trillion spent by the United States on the “War on Terror” alone, the Taliban remains the dominant player in Afghanistan, Iraq vacillates between a sectarian kleptocracy and a failed state, and decentralized terrorist movements with the ability to strike at Western interests have metastasized around the world. Russia has successfully flouted international law by annexing territory in its near abroad while destabilizing the domestic politics of Britain and the United States. China looks poised to dominate the global economy and the South China Sea. On these issues, American nuclear weapons and aircraft carriers have, so far, mattered not a whit.

That said, it is unclear why the West should be any less able to adapt to this new security environment than Russia and China, states that face enormous internal challenges of their own, let alone weak states like North Korea or Iran. Darwinian pressures cut both ways, after all.

Like all civilizations, the West has changed over time and adopted many different political and military structures to meet shifting international challenges. Western history did not begin with the postwar order of 1945, the revolutions of 1789, or even the Westphalian peace of 1648. Many of the scholars to whom Kilcullen refers, writers such as Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee, date the rise of the West from the emergence of the Holy Roman Empire in the year 800 CE. Over these 1,200 years, the story has been one of continual institutional adaptation.

Second, it must be said that the notion of a more or less “successful” decline is largely a chimera, especially if this is taken to mean passing the baton to a successor willing to preserve the values and prosperity of the erstwhile hegemon. For instance, if we examine Graham Allison’s recent set of 16 relevant cases of major power transitions in the international system since 1500, it is evident that the losing side in each such contest nearly always displays some combination of state collapse, social revolution, economic breakdown, and political upheaval. In truth, the ultimate fate of the Byzantine Empire itself is hardly reassuring. When Constantinople finally fell to the Ottomans in 1453, tens of thousands were enslaved, and the Hagia Sophia was, as recent events have reminded us, converted into a mosque. The simple truth is that decline is usually painful.

Kilcullen offers a single example of a benign power transition: the shift from Pax Britannica to Pax Americana during the first half of the 20th century. But this was a very special and perhaps unique case. The United Kingdom and the United States were connected by ties of language, political culture, ethnicity, religion, and history. Furthermore, they were two seafaring commercial powers, driven by a common geopolitical interest to cooperate against a series of autarkic land powers that threatened to dominate the European continent. 

One problem here is that Kilcullen is strangely dismissive of classical geopolitical arguments, especially the idea that land-based and sea-based powers tend to develop opposed political cultures, an argument that he associates with the Russian geopolitical theorist Aleksander Dugin but which actually extends back at least to Montesquieu. Kilcullen points out that China is a land power with many good commercial seaports so that the old distinction between land and sea power doesn’t apply. But the traditional geopolitical argument is that states that have historically been forced to defend land borders against invaders are usually required to maintain large standing armies, an institution that is conducive to the development of an authoritarian political culture. This observation certainly does apply to the historical trajectory of Russia, China, and indeed to most of the potential successors to the contemporary West that might emerge on the Eurasian landmass.

The upshot is that something resembling the benign transition from Pax Britannica to Pax Americana is unlikely to repeat itself, not merely for contingent reasons, but for structural ones that are built into the geography of the international system. No amount of waiting or playing the long game is likely to completely solve this problem.

Finally, Kilcullen is vague about what policies would be required to successfully implement the Byzantine strategy. He tends to conflate the concept of managing civilizational decline with the "offshore balancing" long advocated by realists such as Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer. However, offshore balancing is a strategy designed to prevent a regional hegemon's emergence in Eurasia or elsewhere. It is best exemplified by the U.K.'s role in the Napoleonic Wars and American interventions in WWI, WWII, and the Cold War. According to a recent statement by Walt and Mearsheimer, one goal of offshore balancing is to “preserve U.S. primacy far into the future.” By contrast, the Byzantine strategy's goal is to eventually “allow an acceptable successor order to emerge” and take the reins of global leadership from the West. It is hard to see how these two outlooks are mutually compatible.

In sum, The Dragons and the Snakes offers a profound diagnosis of Western military decline, but the solution it proposes leaves much to be desired. It is perhaps worth remembering that serpents are typical symbols of deception and misdirection in Occidental mythology, and their actions are never to be taken at face value. David Kilcullen is right about many things, but it is too soon to embrace Western decline.


Christopher M. England is currently visiting assistant professor of political economy at the College of Idaho. His foreign policy writing has been published by The National Interest and the Atlantic Council. He can be reached at cengland@collegeofidaho.edu.

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