This one almost ended up as another channel trailer. I initially produced a video making fun of the Thucydides Trap when it was first publicized in the Atlantic over five years ago. I thought it was a profoundly silly concept from the start. Unfortunately, it’s become a phenomenon. Just go to Google News and type in “Thucydides Trap” and you’ll find that it is mentioned at least weekly in one article on US-China relations or another. This misuse of the concept is quite sad, because Thucydides actually does have a very useful story to tell policy-makers in the United States. In today’s video, I lay out that story, and use it as the foundation for my pitch for the third of three options for this channel’s next new project. You now have the all the information you need to vote!
It’s basically impossible to over-state how stupid the current US position in Syria is. What’s going on there is a proxy war between two clearly opposed sides. Obviously it would be preferable if Syria was still whole, and half a million people hadn’t died, but it is possible to envision a fairly stable frozen conflict, that would allow everybody to move on and rebuild. There being no justice in the world, this frozen conflict would also work out pretty well for the US. Worried about Iran? Turkey’s there to balance them. Worried about Turkey’s growing influence in the region? Russia and Iran are there to confront Turkey. Want to shield the Kurds from Turkey’s (alleged) genocidal plots? Assad, who the Kurds have been working with closely since 2011, would be happy to do it.
The United States is the only thing standing in the way of a more peaceful situation that works out better for the United States. Our insistence, with Israel, on being everybody’s enemy, all at once, keeps Syria in a permanently unbalanced state. Thanks to the Russians, the meat grinder stopped a number of years ago, but it could tip over into a mass death situation again at any moment. It almost did this past spring. My hope is that today’s video can help to illustrate how much better off we would be if we just left.
Today’s video is a particularly crotchety one. I sometimes worry a bit that I’m insufficiently respectful to the heads of state of these countries in videos like this one. But in reality it’s these politicians that are being disrespectful of their duties to their countries. The East Mediterranean issue is fundamentally not a very serious one, yet Turkey, France and Greece are committing military forces as if real issues are at stake. This kind of thing could back fire terribly. I don’t think it will. But the reckless actions that these men are taking are certainly not going to get me to treat them respectfully. I hope you enjoy my explanation of one of the more requested topics in recent months.
History can seem predictable sometimes. We know how it turned out, so we assume that the countries that are powerful today had somewhat predictable paths to power. Sure, there were ups and downs, but the countries we’ve come to expect to have done well, did well. No surprises there. The story of Egypt’s 19th century provides a counterpoint to that complacency. There was a lot about its story that was quite similar to the stories of the Japanese and German world-beaters we are more familiar with. In the 1830s, an African country was, quite successfully, intervening in Europe. If a few things had gone differently, Egypt might have ended up as one of the world’s great powers.
It all went wrong of course. And the British had a lot to do with this. But too some extent, it was also just bad luck. There was nothing to guarantee that Japan or Germany would be successful countries. There wasn’t even anything guaranteeing that the United States would have been as successful an experiment as it has been. It’s all much more up in the air than we might think. This is a little terrifying, but also a little exciting. Today’s video on Egypt talks about what could have been.
The fall of Christian Constantinople to the Muslim Turks is one of the most significant events in Eurasian history. Some use the date it happened, 1453, as the break point between “Medieval” times and the “Early Modern” era. The threat of the Ottoman Empire was an important thing too. It motivated a lot of the state consolidation and military advancement that gave us modern Western Civilization. The threat of “the Turk” is long passed, but we don’t challenge the basic assumptions that that struggle has left us with. We don’t need the dream of a fallen Constantinople for propaganda purposes anymore. We should acknowledge what actually happened. That’s what this week’s video aims to do.
You all may have noticed that I consciously avoid the term “Byzantine Empire” here. The Byzantines did too. In fact the term wasn’t even invented until centuries after they had gone. They knew themselves as Romans, so that’s how I try to refer to them as well. This confusion has its origin in a bit of archaic racism. The Enlightenment thinkers that drew European History together didn’t like the Greeks much. For them Rome was based in Rome. It was the great civilization of Cicero and Augustus, it spoke Latin and it ended in 476.
The Western bits of the Empire did in fact fall in 476. But the Eastern Half had a full 1,000 years of history ahead of it. The Western European historians of the 1700s found this kind of thing distasteful. Altogether too Eastern. The Eastern Roman Emperors, with their constant murdering of each other, their pretensions to imperial divinity, and tasteless bling weren’t really their sort of Romans. So they invented a whole new name for them, the Byzantines, based on the original Greek name of Constantinople. I’m a big fan of Rome, and I have some of the same prejudices, but I don’t feel the need to distinguish the way the folks in the 1700s did. So I tend to use the term “Eastern Roman Empire” rather than “Byzantine Empire”.