Tragic Sense

Charles Edel and Hal Brands’s new book, The Lessons of Tragedy, investigates a value seemingly long since departed from American thought: a sense for the tragic. The idea that tragedy has much to teach our political leaders is a powerful one. Not least because contemporary American policy thinking seems to be based — even now, after the horrors of the past two decades — on an idea of unidirectional, uninterrupted progress.

We spoke with Edel, a former State Department official and current fellow at the University of Sydney, about his book and what he thinks America needs to learn from the Athenians at the point of their highest political flowering. “One of the recurring conversations that Hal and I had,” Edel told us, “was that history seemed too often to be missing from the larger policy debate. The idea that we seem to be on a path to progress and world betterment and increasing stability in the world — this was an ahistorical read, totally out of step with the recurrent cycles in history. As we discussed this, we realized that tragedy was a really useful way to frame and talk about international relations.”

A sense of the tragic, in Edel’s telling, means above all else recognizing that your worst fears might become reality. Admitting this does not, Edel argues, hamper the scope of your actions. Rather, it allows for the undertaking of truly extraordinary actions as a countermeasure to your fears. And tragedy was an integral part of Athenian society in the early 6th and 5th Centuries BCE. “The Great Dionysia was the festival where you would go to watch tragedy,” Edel told us. “Citizens would gather once a year for about three days. It would be a public holiday. They would watch these performances, the performances would be subsidized by the state, and you would have the entire community there to watch. All the citizens would come into the theater, but reserved in the front row would be seats for the ten generals elected from the people. They would march the war widows and orphans in and give them seats of honor. Every resident alien and ambassador would be there as well, to be awed by the splendor and majesty of Athens. Then they would turn their eyes upwards, and they would watch prominent individuals fall due to errors, due to ignorance, due to their own acts of hubris. Only by understanding how bad things could get, how quickly things could spiral out of control, could the Athenians make sure that they worked as individuals and as a community to take actions to prevent what they just saw on the stage from happening in real life.”

There is no clearer evidence of the depth to which this idea penetrated Athenian thought than the work of the historian Thucydides. His The Peloponnesian War, among its numerous other virtues, borrows heavily from the structure of tragedy. “The book is stage-managed like a tragedy,” as Edel puts it. “There are actors, there are speeches, there's dramatic parallelism. Consider the greatest speech in the book, the funeral oration given by Pericles: a call to communal sacrifice, to be forward in defense of the nation. Of course, the very next scene is the plague that falls on Athens. Having listened to Pericles’s stirring words, the Athenians do the exact opposite and not only die in great numbers, but are chewed out by their leader for not following his wise and sage advice. The point, I think, is that this is meant to be just as instructive as the plays were. That these are consistent pressures, and it is almost — almost! — impossible not to let your logic and your reason be overwhelmed by your passions.”

Fast forward a couple millennia to post-war America. The First and Second World Wars are paradigmatic examples of this type of Thucydidean tragedy. And they had, Edel argues, a commensurate effect on the political leadership of the United States. “The American project, the American-led order, the rules-based order, the liberal international order — whatever we want to call it — is definitively what America took the lead on doing in the aftermath of World War II in order to make sure they didn't repeat the failed lessons of what they had done after World War I. Harry Truman made the call, and he appealed directly to many of the young men and women who had participated in those wars by saying, effectively, ‘We're asking you to take these actions and efforts during peacetime to make sure that we don't return to what we just went through over the last 15 years.’ That immediately resonated. It was never an easy sell, but it was politically palatable and acceptable in its broad contours by both parties. And I think it's important to point out that while this has not been perfect it has produced amazing success. Global prosperity has dramatically increased. There hasn't been a great power war since (although there have been many and bloody proxy wars). We went from a dozen or so democracies in the aftermath World War II to more than 80, even if they've begun to recede at this point.”

So how, where, and why did we lose sight of the values that inspired the Truman-Acheson-Marshall project? How did this amnesia come upon us? One possible reason, Edel argues, is the paradoxical result that great success bred by hardship conceals the sources of its own conception. “When we were looking at the current composition of international affairs — the politics of them — we thought the idea that things can go horribly wrong, which inspired America to take the efforts and exertions that it did in the first place, seems to have gone missing and probably had gone missing because it's been so long since we experienced a real and profound international tragedy,” Edel said. “Indeed, the problem with success it that it tends to breed complacency, and the post-war order that America labored so hard for has been undercut by its own success. It's been more than 70 years since World War II, it's been 30-odd years since the end of the Cold War, which has led many observers to think that the prospect of global conflict and a true buckling of the international order is actually an impossibility. That has led to a slackening of not only the desire but also the willingness to pay for some of these large efforts that underlie the order. Worse still, this has happened just at the time when the international environment is becoming more fraught.”

On that note — the sense of American decline amid an increasingly uncertain world — it’s important to distinguish, Edel says, between a sense for the tragic and simple pessimism. Pessimism is a fatalistic view of events; tragedy teaches us that while the worst might occur we can strive as hard as we can to prevent it. The Greek tragedies, Edel points out, “have real communal messages about sacrifice, about resolve, about struggle even when you don't know the outcome and can't possibly know the outcome. About mustering the courage to take action together. Even when you're faced with no good choices at the same time.” Anxiety over a permanent decline does not stem from that place. Nor is it warranted on the data, Edel says. “America is doing pretty well. Until recently we had not only good demographics, but favorable immigration policy. If you look at the size of the economy, the GDP was roughly 22 percent of 2016 global GDP, which is not far off the highs of the 1970’s. When you begin to add in allies and partners, we're talking about upwards of 60 percent of global GDP and military outlays, which is far in excess of any competitor. I have a feeling it has something to do with how America has fared since 9/11 in its endeavors in both Iraq and Afghanistan. To many Americans, these do not seem like overwhelming successes. Add in stagnant or slow wage growth, and America might not seem to be moving forward by leaps and bounds.”

But beyond those half-comforting numbers, our amnesia around these issues has troubling implications. “Since the end of the Cold War and the disappearance of our major strategic competitor,” Edel says, “in many ways American policymakers’ strategic muscle memory has faded because they haven't had to hone it quite as sharply as they did previously. It's coming back, but it has faded as no challenge seemed to emerge from a true competitor on a global scale.” One possible emergent competitor, in the opinion of many analysts, is China. Edel did not offer a view on American-Chinese power competition, but he did note that Xi Jinping is one of the few leaders on the current political scene to have deeply imbibed the teachings of tragedy. “It is a core narrative of the People's Republic of China under Xi that they know how bad things could get because they've experienced it. They've experienced 150 years of humiliation. I do think there is a willingness in China to undergo common hardship for national ends. They keep their history very close to them.”

Speaking more broadly, this amnesia has given fuel to the current crisis or alleged crisis of liberalism as a philosophy and democracy as a political system. “When democracy is seen to not provide for its own citizens’ needs,” Edel says, “people are more willing to believe in alternative systems and purveyors of different truths. In some ways, that is the lesson of the 1930’s. Economic crisis begets political crisis begets global crisis. We also have not had to make the argument to our own citizens and to different countries around the world about why our system is better — or if it indeed is better. This has been for too long assumed because you couldn't point to any alternative models and examples. I think we're in the process of waking up to the fact that those benign conditions no longer exist. There are different systems competing with democracy. That's true both internationally and domestically. If our system is not seen as promoting the best interests of a great majority of our citizens, people become less enamored of it.”

On the question of whether America can surmount these problems, Edel is forthright. “America has the resources and abilities — particularly the ability to lock arms with its allies and partners — to deal with the challenges that we face today,” he says. “It is a question of willingness to do that, and above all willingness during peacetime, which makes it more challenging politically.” One way to spur that willingness is through reading. “I would really recommend Edith Hamilton's The Greek Way,” he told us, “a scan of Greek culture. I would also put front and center Dean Acheson’s Present at the Creation, which describes both the lessons that he and others thought they had learned from the 1920’s and 30’s, and exactly what they were trying to do as they stumbled their way forward. Acheson was a contemporary of George Marshall, who said himself that you could not possibly understand what was happening in the unfolding Cold War if you had not read your Thucydides. Finally, there are the Federalist Papers. They are steeped in the ancient classics with multiple references to small democratic and republican states and how they failed. They are also deeply interested in national security and foreign policy. In fact, the spurs to the Constitution were foreign policy crises. The argument that both Hamilton and Madison dig into is that we need to look back to the ancients because one has to be a pretty gloomy-minded (but not pessimistic) person to understand the world we're living in. Absent that, you have no chance to create something that is not only new, but that has a chance of sustaining itself.”