By Rhea Kumar:
The year was 479 BCE. The Persians advanced into Platea, clearly outnumbering the Greeks. Victory seemed certain. Yet Persian king Xerxes was to face a very humiliating defeat. Carefully planned phalanxes, men arranged in a tight formation with their shields, fell upon the Persian forces like a huge war machine. As Athens and Sparta, the forces of the sea and the land, joined hands to rid their land of this common enemy and fought the last in a series of battles, Persia was forced to retreat. The Greek city-states emerged victorious. But the happiness was short lived as a series of tensions and rivalries began between Athens and Sparta.
Sit back for a second and imagine. Imagine Platea as an arena of World War II, Persia as the Axis Powers, Sparta as the Soviet Union and Athens as the United States. Sounds scarily familiar to World War II and the subsequent Cold War, doesn’t it?
History tends to repeat itself, and the hegemony of the ancient Athenian city-state and that of modern United States is one of the most striking examples of this phenomenon. Both became dominant powers after a major war: Athens after the Persian War and USA after World War II. Both were pitted against a rival power in the aftermath of the war. Athens’ rivalry with the military state of Sparta is similar to the Cold War tensions between USA and USSR. In both cases, the Superpowers attempted to increase their military and political clout through alliances. Athens formed a naval alliance known as the Delian League with surrounding city states, similar to the formation of NATO, while Sparta formed the Peloponnesian League with southern city-states, similar to the Warsaw Pact formed by the Soviet Union.
The Cold War tensions ended with the 1991 disintegration of the Soviet Union. This is where the similarity, according to many, ends. While Sparta emerged victorious over Athens in what is known as the Peloponnesian War, the US emerged as the sole superpower after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. In the decade that followed, US supremacy was more than obvious. As George H.W. Bush declared the ‘new world order’, US engaged in wars in Iraq, Iran and Yugoslavia, wars that were both terrible due to the amount of destruction caused and awesome because they revealed how US war technology was leaps and bounds ahead of other nations. 9/11 has only made the US more aggressive, with drone strikes becoming an integral part of the ‘Global War on Terror’. Slowly, the US has managed to eliminate its state enemies by establishing puppet governments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
So while one superpower became stronger, the other declined rapidly in terms of traditional military power. But beyond the obvious contrast, lies a subtle and amazing similarity between the two nations. For both these powers have dominated and continue to dominate in a realm very different from wars and weapons: the realm of soft power.
In his book, ‘Soft Power, the means to success in World Politics’, Joseph Nye defines soft power as “the ability to co-opt and attract, rather than coerce, use force and give money as a means of persuasion.” It is through the flow of ideas, values, culture, policies and institutions that a nation can increase its soft power, and therefore, influence the behaviour of others to get its desired outcomes. In the years following the Persian War and World War II respectively, the Athenian and US culture was at its zenith. Athens saw the rise of playwrights such as Aeshcylus, Sophocles and Euripides, philosophers such as Socrates, historians such as Herodotus and Thucydides and doctors such as Hippocrates. US saw the rise of Civil Rights and feminist movements, the emergence of Abstract Expressionism in the visual arts, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, the hippie culture, low waist jeans, Hollywood, and, most importantly, the Internet. Both nations represented the most liberal and democratic regimes in their era, representing the ‘good life’ or, as Athenian leader Pericles put it, “I doubt if the world can produce a man who, where he has only himself to depend upon, is equal to so many emergencies, and graced by so happy a versatility, as the Athenian.”
When we look at the quotient of soft power the US and Athens secured clear victories over their rivals. In the case of the US, the victory was direct. While it was constantly struggling to overtake the Soviet Union in the arms race, in the end, it was not weapons, but ideas that won the Cold War for the US: ideas of liberty, openness, of McDonalds and Levis Jeans. The more the people of the Communist east were exposed to Western ideas, the more dissatisfied they grew with their own regime that stifled freedom of thought, rationed food out to each citizen as if to a prisoner and turned a deaf ear to the people’s demands. The fact that countries such as Estonia and Lithuania freed themselves from Soviet control and joined the NATO without any compulsion to do so and the migration of artists and intellectuals to the United States in the Cold War period speak volumes for the US’ soft power.
And what about Athens? True, it lost badly to Sparta in the Peloponnesian wars. But was Sparta ever a significant dot on the cultural landscape? In fact, the English world ‘spartan’ comes from Sparta, the military city-state that stifled all cultural expression to further its ambition. And in the Renaissance period that followed many centuries later, it was Athenian, and not Spartan culture that was remembered and revived. Hippocrates is regarded as the father of medicine, while Herodotus is seen the father of history. Even today, Athenian democracy stands out as a major success of this regime. So, in terms of cultural legacy and soft power, Athens has emerged as the victor, not Sparta.
Today, the US economy is declining and various players that want a more multi-polar world order are challenging its singular political domination. In varying degrees and shapes, the European Union, ASEAN, China and even players within the NATO exercise restraints on US hegemony. In some ways, the political decline of the US seems imminent from the pinnacle it has occupied for two decades. But a power is yet to emerge that will influence culture around the world the way the US has done, and continues to do. Despite the recession in the US economy, many still dream of studying in American universities, which are renowned the world over. Despite widespread resentment against racial profiling that has become commonplace after 9/11, the youth in many Islamic countries dress in jeans and Western clothing, smoke Marlboro cigarettes and listen to Britney Spears on their iPods. And the US is able to get away with many of its military expeditions by naming it ‘a war for democracy’, although everyone can discern the real agenda.
After the war with Sparta and its subsequent decline, Athens was taken over by Philip II of Macedonia, the father of the famous Alexander the Great. This marked a period of new cultural green shoots in ancient history. Now, China’s economy seems set to overtake that of the US by 2020, if not earlier. But can China take on the role of Macedonia and replace American culture with its own? Will we ever see a world where people prefer state control over liberal democracy, wheat noodles over pizza and burgers, green tea over coke and lemonade and kung fu over baseball? Without hesitation, today the answer would be a resounding NO. Only time can tell the truth and we must wait and watch.
All empires rise and fall, and history does tend to repeat itself in subtle and amazing ways. What endures is the cultural legacy of an empire, and what it symbolizes for people not only within its own borders, but outside the world. The US may not be engaging in wars or dominating the Security Council in the years to come. But when we eat at a McDonalds outlet or access our Facebook account, we know that the US is here to stay, it is very much a part of daily lives.