Great-power rivalries are recurrent in history, and once in place, they endure until one side gives up the fight (e.g., the Soviet Union) or is defeated in a war (e.g., Kaiser’s Germany). The risks associated with such competitions often lead to an understandable temptation: Why remain locked in a struggle when perhaps a grand bargain may be possible? Understandable, yes, but dangerous and to be resisted.
The temptation is to believe that the sources of the tensions perhaps can be negotiated away; some common interests might be found; possibly, a rival can help to solve a challenge in a distant region; and, why not, the rivalry may be simply the product of a misunderstanding caused by the crankiness or incompetence of previous political leaders. The human mind can find plenty of ways to fancy a rosy outcome. Thucydides was right when he wrote that it is a “habit of mankind to entrust to careless hope what they long for, and to use sovereign reason to thrust aside what they do not desire” (Thucydides, 4.108.4).1
A great power’s leaders are affected by such temptation especially when the rival is not attacking directly and clearly. A percolating conflict, rather than a full-blown war, gives the impression that the enemy does not have deeply held hostile desires and is merely seeking attention; a temper tantrum of a teenager demanding less discipline more than a careful plan of an aggressive predator.
Maybe, the seductive voice says, it is better to show comprehension of the rival’s aggressiveness and offer some sort of deal to him to stop the misbehavior.
The allure of such a grand bargain with Russia is back in Washington, and is resurgent again in many European capitals. Nobody denies that Putin has escalated tensions with NATO and that relations between Russia and the United States are frosty. But—and here is the temptation—maybe all this can be swept aside because of some, until now undiscovered, common interest. For instance, improved relations with Russia may aid the United States in counterbalancing China and fighting ISIS. In a civilizational clash, the West and Russia may join forces, erecting a 21st-century version of Christianitatis Antemurale. But any deal is likely to carry a cost, probably some sort of acceptance of a Russian sphere of influence over Ukraine, a promise not to accept new states into NATO and the European Union, and an end to the strengthening of NATO’s eastern frontline. The grand bargain would have to be sealed with a weakening of deterrence in Europe.
A proper response to such a bargain is simple: nuts.
Let’s take an example from the Romans. For several centuries, Rome had Parthia, as the United States has Russia and China: a large power with which there was an enduring rivalry. The flare-ups of violence were dangerous and Rome had licked its wounds several times. For instance, in 53 BCE, Crassus, the wealthiest Roman at the time and the victor over Spartacus, suffered a crushing defeat. He was killed, and for good measure the Parthians poured molten gold into the mouth of his corpse.
Some time later, in the 4th century, the Persians continued to be a nuisance on the eastern frontier. By thieving and robbing, through small raids—per furta et latrocinia (Ammianus Marcellinus XVI:9:1)—they nibbled at Roman territories.2 Careful to avoid a direct clash and set battles, they engaged in low-intensity conflict—“new generation warfare,” “hybrid war,” or whatever the latest term for raiding may be.
Furta et latrocinia did not warrant a serious military response from Rome. On the contrary, the Roman high official in the region approached the Persian authorities in search of a grand bargain that would hopefully put an end to the annoying behavior of the Persians. Persia sensed an opportunity. After all, Rome had other worries: the Danube and Rhine were under barbarian assault and the Eastern frontier was a distraction. Maybe the Romans would be happy to concede some territories in exchange for a promise of a stable limes and lowered tensions.
The Persian King Sapor, a straight-talking guy, made an offer. He wanted to get back territories in Armenia and Mesopotamia that he considered as unjustly taken away from him. As he put it, these lands were Persian because it was well known that “the rule of [his] ancestors once extended” that far. It was simply “right that [he] should demand this territory” (Ammianus Marcellinus, XVII:5).
After clearly stating his goal and his right to it, Sapor immediately followed with a not-so-veiled threat. After all, he said, these were small, insignificant territories that Rome did not need. “If you will be guided by good advice, let go this small area, which has always been a source of trouble and bloodshed, and reign in peace over the rest of your realm.” Rome would be so much better off without these lands, shedding them from the rest of the empire like those wise doctors who “sometimes cauterize and cut and even amputate parts of the body in order that the patient may enjoy the healthy use of the rest” (Ammianus Marcellinus, XVII:5).
Sapor’s arguments sound familiar. For instance, Moscow claims a right to big chunks of Ukraine because it is part of “New Russia,” an old province of the Russian empire. And voices favorable to a grand bargain with Russia are eager to emphasize the risks of the United States being “entrapped” by its alliance with the Baltic states and Central Europe, the pygmies of Europe deemed to be the cause of regional crises in the past and future. Why hold them? Maybe it’s worthwhile to “amputate” them.
A proper response to the temptation of the grand bargain was offered by the Roman emperor, Constantius. He replied quickly and clearly, rejecting the arguments, offers, and threats of Sapor. “Listen to the plain unvarnished truth, which is not to be shaken by empty threats.” Were Rome to be attacked, Sapor should have no doubt that Romans will “defend our territory, whenever we are attacked, with courage inspired by a clear conscience.” And for good measure, Sapor should remember that Rome was a powerful empire that “has never emerged the loser from an entire war” (Ammianus Marcellinus, XVII:5).
The negotiations for the grand bargain were over. “The mission was dismissed empty-handed, since no further response was possible to the unbridled greed of the [Persian] kings.” But Rome sent another envoy, this time not to negotiate what could not be negotiated, but to do what diplomacy ought to do in case of a deep-seated rivarly: buy time to prepare for war. “Their task was to secure by diplomacy a delay in Sapor’s preparations, while our northern provinces were being fortified beyond the possibility of an attack” (Ammianus Marcellinus, XVII:5:8). Sapor had no intention of abandoning his claims to Armenia and Mesopotamia, and the Roman proposal to sign a peace treaty on the basis of the status quo was rejected (Ammianus Marcellinus, XVII:14:1).
The rivalry was after all enduring. The conflict of interests was deep. The grand bargain was an alluring illusion. Constantius rejected the temptation.
We should also reject the temptation. Russia is not a misunderstood power asking for sympathy but a predatory rival in search of gains. To anyone proposing a grand bargain, the answer should be clear: nuts.
1The Landmark Thucydides, trans. Richard Crawley, ed. Robert B. Strassler (Free Press 1996).
2Ammianus Marcellinus, The Later Roman Empire (A.D. 354-378), trans. Walter Hamilton (Penguin Books, 1984).