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The Byzantine Doctrine

What the United States could learn from the military and foreign policy of the Byzantine Empire.

12:00 AM, Oct 28, 2009 • By STUART KOEHL
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In writing about Byzantine foreign policy, Luttwak's task was made easier because, unlike the Romans, the Byzantines did write manuals of strategy, including such classics as the Strategikon of the 6th century Emperor Maurice, or the 11th century Strategikon of Kekaumenos--the sophistication of which would not be matched until the 19th century works of Clausewitz and Jomini. Consciously aware that they were the bearers and conservators of classical culture, as well as the bastion of the Christian faith, the Byzantines believed they had a sacred obligation to persevere. As Luttwak notes,

The Byzantines, however, wrote it all down -- their techniques of persuasion, intelligence gathering, strategic thinking, tactical doctrines, and operational methods. All of this is laid out clearly in a series of surviving Byzantine military manuals and a major guidebook on statecraft.

Unlike Rome in its heyday, the Byzantine Empire was relatively impoverished, and lacked the overwhelming materiel and manpower advantage possessed by Rome. Byzantium's enemies were numerous, highly diverse, and present on all sides, whether Goths on its northern and western borders, or the Huns coming in from the steppes, or the Persians from Mesopotamia, or later, the Muslims out of Arabia, the Turks out of Central Asia, and the Normans out of Sicily. After the Muslim Conquests of the Near East, Egypt and North Africa in the 7th century, Byzantium lost its richest provinces, was even more heavily outnumbered, and had to deal with new enemies such as the Slavs and Bulgars, who overran the Balkan Peninsular. Yet, by the 8th century, Byzantium was on the rebound, systematically defeating and regaining much of its lost territory while simultaneously becoming the intellectual and commercial center of the early medieval world (Byzantium maintained the only stable gold currency of the time, the solidus, which was the universal medium of exchange from Persia to Britain; the word "sterling", as in "pound sterling", is an abbreviation of "Easterling", i.e., Byzantine). By 1025, at the death of the Emperor Basil II "the Bulgar Slayer", the Byzantine Empire was the most wealthy and powerful state in the world.

It got there not by opposing force against force, the classic "Roman" strategic approach, but through stealth, guile, propaganda, bribery and deception. With a relatively small but highly trained and professional army (generally recruited from the hard mountain tribes of Isauria or Anatolia; foreign mercenaries did not become a significant element in Byzantine armies until the 11th-12th centuries), Byzantine military power was potent but fragile. Capable of sophisticated combined arms tactics, even a small Byzantine force could defeat several times its numbers in barbarians or steppe warriors, but a single major defeat could result in losses that would take years to replace. Hence, the Byzantines generally avoided stand-up fights and adopted what Luttwak, back in the 1980s, called "relational-maneuver warfare"--adopting tactics and operational methods that emphasized Byzantine strengths (organization, professionalism, political unity) against enemy weaknesses (fragmented command, tribal divisions, lack of training, etc.). In his FP article, Luttwak lays out seven principles of Byzantine strategy which he believes would be applicable to the United States in its present strategic situation. They are worth repeating here:

I. Avoid war by every possible means, in all possible circumstances, but always act as if war might start at any time. Train intensively and be ready for battle at all times . . . The highest purpose of combat readiness is to reduce the probability of having to fight.

II. Gather intelligence on the enemy and his mentality, and monitor his actions continuously. Efforts to do so by all possible means might not be very productive, but they are seldom wasted.

III. Campaign vigorously, both offensively and defensively, but avoid battles, especially large-scale battles, except in very favorable circumstances. . . employ force in the smallest possible doses to help persuade the persuadable and harm those not yet amenable to persuasion.

IV. Replace the battle of attrition and occupation of countries with maneuver warfare . . . [T]he object is not to destroy your enemies, because they can become tomorrow's allies. A multiplicity of enemies can be less of a threat than just one, so long as they can be persuaded to attack one another.

V. Strive to end wars successfully by recruiting allies to change the balance of power. Diplomacy is even more important during war than peace . . . The most useful allies are those nearest to the enemy.