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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.


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