Book Review: Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order

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As Thucydides recorded Pericles’ famous funeral oration, the mayor of Athens exhorted citizens: “[J]udging happiness to be the fruit of freedom and freedom of valor, never decline the dangers of war.” Likely gleaning from the themes in this oration, President Lincoln's Gettysburg Address sounded the same calls to honor battle sacrifices in the name of a higher cause. What are the other analogs between the Athenian Greeks and today's Americans that would compare the challenges and alert the defenders of civilization? 

The ancient Greeks, as exemplified by the Athenians, projected legendary power in the preservation of their freedom and autonomy. The premise of the book Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order holds that much of the resolve to confront war -- and thus also to deter war – came from “keeping comfort with their worst fears.” What does the Greek embrace of tragedy while maintaining a general sense of optimism teach us today?

The authors of Lessons of Tragedy conclude that America is in a state of amnesia just when authoritarianism is advancing and the global balance of power is gradually shifting. They write that there is no night watchman and no supreme authority to enforce order. Does this state of affairs create a vacuum that becomes an actual invitation to chaos?


Dr. Charles Edel, Senior Fellow, United States Studies Centre, and co-author, The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order 


Event Transcript

Operator:  Welcome to The Federalist Society's Practice Group Podcast. The following podcast, hosted by The Federalist Society's International & National Security Law Practice Group, was recorded during a teleforum conference call held for Federalist Society members.


Micah Wallen:  Welcome to The Federalist Society’s teleforum conference call. Today’s topic is the book Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order. Today we are fortunate to have with us Karen Lugo, who’s the founder of the Libertas-West Project. Karen will be introducing our other speaker, so without further ado, Karen, the floor is yours.


 Karen Lugo:  Thank you, Micah. Today’s call structure will be a little different than usual as we will not open this call for question and answers. Due to the challenging time differences between the United States and Sydney, Australia, where our speaker resides, we’re recording this interview that will go just straight to a podcast. There may also be some pauses between question and responses due to telephonic delays, but we are looking forward to a highly interesting call and will move forward with this opportunity to talk to Dr. Charles Edel.


      Dr. Edel has co-written the book that was the title of our teleforum today with Hal Brand. The book has been titled The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order. Charles Edel is currently Senior Fellow and Visiting Scholar at the United States Studies Center at the University of Sydney. Previously, he was Associate Professor of Strategy and Policy at the U.S. Naval War College, and I will refer you to the link in the podcast description to learn more about him.


      So, at this point, we will ask Charles Edel more about what he was thinking and why he was interested in writing, researching this book at this time and just ask him to give us a little overview.


Dr. Charles Edel:  Sure. Well, thank you very much, Karen, for having me on. And I thought it might be useful to provide a bit of an overview of the book. Because as the cheery title suggests, the lessons of tragedy, the thesis of the book, the subject of the book, is the role that tragedy plays in international affairs. And the main argument that Hal and I put forth in the book is that tragedy—and, here, we’re talking about geopolitical tragedy, the full buckling of the international order, complete with great-power war, mass suffering unfolding on a very wide extent—is more normal than we think, and we’re closer today than we often realize. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here because we don’t actually start the book with today but rather in the distant past and at the birthplace of tragedy.


      We start the book in 5th century B.C. Athens that, of course, was home to the invention of tragedy. Now, if you remember 5th century Athens, B.C., from high school, or college, or perhaps when you never learned about it, you’ll notice that Athens was at the height of its power. It had a navy that ruled the waves, an empire that spanned the known world, a relatively liberal democratic system that its citizens took great pride at and that we still marvel at today, and yet, Athenians were obsessed with tragedy.

Every year, great theatrical dramas were staged, presented to the entire community, and financed by the public treasury. Athenians would gather together to watch prominent individuals fall from great heights due to their own errors, their own ignorance, and their own hubris. And they did this because it was a Greek insight that understanding tragedy was essential if they were to avoid it themselves. That is by looking disaster squarely in the face, by understanding how quickly things could spiral out of control, the Athenians sought to create a communal sense of responsibility and resolve that was necessary to avert such a fate.  


      Now, Hal and I thought that this is a pretty good way of thinking out international affairs as well. However, it’s not a particularly American way to think about international affairs. Americans tend to think that history is a story of steady progress towards a better, more just, and more stable world. And as we’ve grown the distance, since the last international buckling—say 75 years since the end of World War II, 3 decades since the end of the Cold War—tragedy seems to be something of an impossibility. The problem with that, though, is that’s a deeply ahistorical way of thinking.


Because tragedy in international affairs has long represented the norm as much as the exception. It happened to the Greeks notwithstanding their obsession with tragedy. It happened to Europe repeatedly during the Thirty Years War, during the wars after the Napoleonic revolution. It happened during World War I, and, of course, it happened on a global scale during World War II. That’s the bad news. The good news is that tragedies can also serve as an inspiration. Because the breakdown of international orders is so traumatic to those who have basic experience did, the building of stable international orders generally takes place directly after those bucklings.


So, if you think about the Thirty Years War, we often think of the Treaty of Westphalia that follows it. We think about the Napoleonic upheavals, and you can think about the Concert of Europe that happens afterwards. And, if we think about the post 1945 order, the United States was similarly routed in a tragic sensibility. It was American leaders’ insights that it was the failures of those interwar years; the failure to stand up for friendly nation that were facing pressure from external aggression; the failure to prevent trade wars; failure to stand up for democracy and democratic values produced a vacuum and was an invitation to chaos. And it was those efforts that directly informed both efforts and successes of the post-war order.


Now, the problem though—and this is where we begin to get into the contemporary aspects of this book—is that the problem with success is that it tends to breed complacency, and the post-war order has been so successful that Americans now seem to be losing the tragic sensibility that helped bring it about in the first place. And the effect of this has been a fading of Americans’ appreciation of the very possibility of tragedy and a slackening of the efforts required to maintain that stability and security in the first place. The irony here, of course, is that this amnesia is occurring just as the international order is growing much more fraught.


All three key regions, Eurasia, are in upheaval, simultaneously. The number of threats has proliferated. We begin to see that authoritarians are advancing as the democratic wave has already crested. China’s working to carve out a sphere of influence in Asia and Russia to undermine the order in Europe. And that all is to say that these begin to look like warning lights flashing on the dashboard. And, if the defenders of the international order don’t get their act together, we might well look back at today as the prelude to a greater tragedy to come.


So that is the overview of the book, Karen, before we get to what we think can be done about it.


Karen Lugo:  You mentioned the word hubris, in passing, as if that is a condition which may precede the sense of invincibility or complacency just to where people begin to -- maybe, are lulled into a sense that this won’t happen again. And I remember back to the days that -- currently, we’re marking the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, and we’ve looked all of the remembrances of the heroic events, like D-Day, where we ask ourselves “Could this generation mount the kind of resistance? Is leadership what it used to be? What’s missing? What are we not remembering? Are we capable again of that kind of resolve?”


And I have toured the areas for Normandy and World War I, World War II sites—I was with Victor Davis Hanson when he was battlefield commissioner—and going through all of those museums and book shops, the theme seems to be today, never war. There’s a “never again” statement made, but the meaning today is more a matter of conveying the idea that nothing is worth fighting for, nothing is ever worth the kind of sacrifice, again. And you write—and I find this part of your book fascinating—about how the Greeks brought pageantry and remembrance to the culture, and we have a generation that is lacking, as we all understand it, and a general sense of history. But to have these kind of community events that brought back some powerful evocation of what it was to go to war and why a culture goes to war. So could you explain to us what that meant to the Greek culture and how the pageantry played out?


Dr. Charles Edel:  Sure, Karen. It’s a great set of questions that I’m going to try to unpack because we said so much there. So first, let me talk a little bit about pageantry for the Greeks, and then we can talk a little bit about not only hubris but also about this concept of war and how we think about it contemporarily. As I noted that the tragedy, it’s important to remember, was at the core of Athenian civilization, and it’s also important to recall that the Greeks and the Athenians, in particular, were anything but a depressive people. They were an amazingly creative people, but they kept council with their worst fears. And, in some ways, that’s what prompted them on to such great achievement.


When we think about the pageantry of it, though, when they went down to the theatre, right in the akron, the side of the acropolis, what would happen was the entire citizenry would come in. It’d had an awful lot of wine because it was a big holiday. They’d be there for three days. And all the citizens would file in, but the first couple of rows would be opened, and that would be reserved for several dignitaries—so they wanted up-front and center for everyone to see. First of all, the 10 generals, the Strategos. This were citizens who were elected by their fellow citizens to be the Generals. They would also have reserved seating for all the war widows and the war orphans because they were being celebrated for the sacrifices that they had undergone individually and that they had collectively taken for the community. You would also have all the resident aliens and the foreign ambassadors parade in and get special seats so they could witness the power that was Athens.


      Now, the one other thing that’s really important to note here because you had basically most of Athens crammed into the theater benches watching this is—if you remember those Greek tragedies—there are a lot of heroes and there are a lot of heroine. But, of course, up on stage, you didn’t have any women. You had young men playing the role of women. And this is actually a particularly poignant message for the audience. Because, if you think about these young men, in their early teens, they were those men, boys, really, who were just about to take up arms for the state. So I think the sum total of this pageantry was really meant to reinforce that this was a communal action that required individual sacrifice.


And, in fact, in the first chapter of the book, while we really dive into the Greeks, we do talk a lot about Thucydides’s history of the Peloponnesian War, which is, of course, not a tragedy in the sense that Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus wrote tragedies, but it’s written just like a tragedy. It’s got speeches. It’s got acts. It’s got actors. And, when we think about the most famous moment, certainly the most famous speech of the Peloponnesian War, it’s Thucydides’s Funeral Oration. And it is his charge to the Athenian people to make sure that they are serving a purpose higher than self, which is the state and defense of the democratic state.


      Now, before I let off on this question, Karen, I would just quickly—and maybe we want to discuss this a little bit further—talk about your final question, which I think was whether or not we are capable of doing this today. And I would say briefly that, of course, we’re capable of doing this. The question becomes whether or not we’re willing to do this, and the question becomes a little bit more pointed when we ask whether or not we’re willing to do this in the absence of something horrible happening.


      Democratic societies tend to get turbo-charged, but only after something cataclysmic happens. And so our attempt here, a modest attempt, just by writing a book, is to try to remind us of our history to get ahead of the curve so that we don’t have to wait for something to happen before we respond to it. So I’d probably leave the answer off there, Karen, and we can pick that up further if you would like.


Karen Lugo:  Understood. And I think this leads to the question as to what is important for a democratic culture to teach an upcoming generation, those that would become of military age, the role of the military in society? I think we’re at a point where many young people don’t have any idea what the military is for, what it does, what purpose it serves, what is a deterrent role, and, therefore, it is very difficult to imagine them rising to an occasion. Also, keeping in mind that, in many cases, there is a sense of revulsion when it comes to the idea of The Warrior Ethos or Brutality. These young people are the ones now who can’t tolerate the idea of a war leader’s sculpture being in the public square because it may evoke to them some of those acts that is just difficult for them to understand in the modern context. What do we do about that?


Dr. Charles Edel:  So it’s probably a bigger question than I can answer in a small amount of time but let me offer a couple of thoughts on that. So the first one is I teach at a university. We are temporarily living down here in Sydney, Australia. It’s a terrific place. I get to interact with younger people all the time. And one of them came up to me, right after we were discussing the book, and said, “I’m sorry. I’m listening to your talk,” and “Are you just saying this is the older generation telling us we’ve never had it so good? Young people don’t know anything, that hardship. You just need another war to set you straight.” And that was a rather blunt way to ask the question. I said, “You know what? The answer’s yes, but wouldn’t you rather read about a war than experience one?”


So this is trying to use history, make it as real and visceral as possible, so that we don’t have to experience it. The two things that I’d say beyond that to your question, Karen, are -- I’m not sure if they’re contradictory. Now, you can tell me if they are or are not. The first part is, I would say, on a larger scale, that since the end of the Cold War, since we had to stop thinking constantly about what competition was like, what strategy was like, our strategic muscle memory has atrophied a bit in policymaking communities because we haven’t had to think like that. Things are changing, but it’s atrophied.


That actually undercuts, in some ways, the severity of the challenge that we face. Because, if we haven’t had to think that way, I would also say that we have not had to think about what it’s like when we have an opponent or opponents who are ideologically antithetical to a democratic system. And I think we are in that situation now, and I think that, therefore, our democratic muscle memory has atrophied. That is we’ve forgotten how to make an argument about why democracy is important, why it is worth defending, and what it looks like without it.  


I look at the polls—and I’m sure a lot of your listeners look at these too—with some concern that young people seem less interested in democracy, less inclined to defend it. And I’m not overly concerned by those polls, and that’s simply because I think they’re abstract. “Do you like democracy or not?” “Sure, I probably like it.” But it doesn’t ask “As opposed to what?” and doesn’t begin to make the question not theoretical but real. And I think that when people are confronted with real choices—be they security, be they economic, be they the freedoms that they have—the choice is pretty clear, but we have to get better at explaining that.


Final point that I would make, here, is in terms of thinking about our military—right? —and in a democratic society, there’s our military—is there’s a wonderful piece that I would recommend to your readers written by Jim Fallows in The Atlantic, oh, about three or four years ago. The main thesis of this piece -- it had some title I’m sure the publisher gave him, “It Wasn’t His Chickenhawk Nation,” something like that. But the thesis of the piece was we have a problem in the democratic society with an all-volunteer force where less than 1% of our citizens choose to serve in our armed forces.


And our problem is that probably born out of feelings of guilt and respect for those who choose to serve, we over venerate our military, and that’s a problem not because we shouldn’t be paying honor to the men and women who serve, but because many of us feel, therefore, that we don’t have a stake in criticizing, critiquing, and making our military better. And, when you don’t have a stake in it, it’s not fully integrated into your democracy, and we tend to be intimated rather than engaged with one of the most vital institutions of our democratic nation.


Karen Lugo:  And an institution that should be subject to evaluation and assessment, that, at least, we should be taking the time to better understand as far as troop movements, locations, strategy. While the average person is not read in on all that, and the daily news doesn’t provide all the details, it is a matter of understanding -- certainly those of us that have had children of military age. I had a son who volunteered and served time in the Navy. And, after a family has been involved in the experience, there is a lasting relationship with wanting to continue understanding what is going on in that arena.


      When you mentioned ideological commitment, part of what -- the challenge we face is the possibility of a foe that is even more ideologically committed than we are, and to a particular cause. And, as you and I were conversing, before the call started, you were talking about some recent audiences and how one of them was somewhat adversarial and was skeptical about some of the reasons that America has participated or intervened in certain causes. And, I wonder, when it tends to the idea of the Greeks and nationalism, what is the role of nationalism, and is this a matter of not having fostered nationalism, or is this something else where you have very skeptical young people not thinking that America’s contribution would ever be positive based on what they understand of the past?


Dr. Charles Edel:  So, again, really good question that I’ll pull in a bunch of different ways, Karen. My family’s been living down in Australia, and I’ve had a great time, and I’ve learned a lot of things. And one my favorite concepts that I’ve learned is one of contestability. That’s a favorite Australian term that we don’t use quite as much in America and in American policymaking. And by contestability, the Australians—who actually have offices of contestability within their department of defense, within their department of foreign affairs and trade—what they mean is we don’t just have proposals, we contest them. We debate them. And, in fact, as a democratic nation, that’s what we need to do. And so, the fact that I have, occasionally or sometimes more than occasionally, pushback from an audience, that’s a good thing. That’s what we’re supposed to do in democratic societies. We don’t create policy by diktat. We do it by debate. Having this conversation I think is a very good thing.


      The second point that you had raised about ideology is -- I’m gonna take this question a slightly different way, if that’s okay -- that one of the critiques that I hear—or pushback that I hear often or read about—is that the new world that we’re entering, particularly with Russia, but really with China, is that we shouldn’t be overly concerned or we shouldn’t overhype this. Because, amongst other things, this is not an ideological challenge. This is not an ideological threat that the West, America, and its allies confronts. It’s not like they really believe in communism. It’s not like Beijing is the same as Moscow, say, in the late ‘40s, early ‘50s. And I think that point of view has a lot to recommend it to it, and they are not the same.


But, for people who think that there’s no ideological overtones to this, they probably have to answer a couple of questions, which is if one side of the competition thinks that this is ideological in nature, and the other side does not, are we in an ideological competition? Because, if you look at the statements of the Chinese leadership, really from Xi Jinping down, this is an ideological competition that they are engaged with. And, in fact, I’m pretty sanguine about what America has the power, capability to do. Somewhat doubtful at this moment about whether or not we will choose to use our resources wisely and choose to put them to use. And, if we look at some of the differences where China is at—when Xi Jinping is out there over the last two weeks, as the trade war heats up, preparing the Chinese people for a people’s war, a long war—I don’t think this means kinetic strike but trying to harness them for national purpose and against the United States—it is unclear to me if the United States is doing the same thing.  


      The second point is, for those who say that there’s no ideological overtones to this, I think we have to say that if hustle actors are reaching into democratic states—this is not only China, of course, this is Russia as well, no less other states, and seeking to exacerbate their internal tensions, make them work less well than they are capable of—does that make it ideological? Particularly, with new technologies, it gives them the power to do this.


And then, finally, when states have a different model and are looking to export that to make their own sense of security better, then that makes sense just simply from an analytical perspective. If you were an authoritarian, you want to have more authoritarians in the world. If you are a state that is deeply inimical to liberal values, such as human rights and freedom of the press, you want to make sure that the international environment in which you swim is more conducive to your values not to the other sides. This is, in fact, what is happening today, that we are watching this model being exported, certainly, to the countries around China and Russia in different ways, but also further abroad. That strikes me as highly ideological even if we are not willing to recognize it to this point.


Karen Lugo:  What is the role then of nationalism, and would you call what the Greeks practiced or taught nationalism?


Dr. Charles Edel:  So, look, nationalism has a very bad name, and for many good reasons. Because nationalism, at least, in the way that most historians would describe it, is what we associate with states pursuing their own interests at the expense of other states, and hyper-nationalism is what gets you to a situation like World War I. That is why nationalism has a bad name. However, the pejorative, I think, makes sense, but if you ask a citizen what else would you defend other than your own nation, it’s hard to know. So nationalism, again, as a concept has a bad rap, and for many reasons. But a state citizenry defending its own state and defending its ideology makes eminent sense to me.


The challenge here, though, for Americans, I would say, is that -- and this is really, again, what we try to key in on our book is the reason that America was able to create unparalleled successes over the last 70-plus years—not unvarnished successes, of course, but unparalleled successes—in the growth of global prosperity and stability, in terms of no great-power war, and the advance of democracy and democratic institutions around the world is precisely because we harnessed American interest, American national interest, in the service of broader ends, and that when you have the absence of America working for those broader ends, working to promote this amongst other nations, working to make their security concerns, America’s own as well, what you have in the absence of that—it’s not a hypothetical—it’s what we experienced not once but twice during the first half of the 20th century.  


Karen Lugo:  At this point, we’re out of time, and I have questions based on much more of what I’ve read in the book. I would love to encourage our audience to look at the book The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order. I am so appreciative of your time today. And I am hopeful that many will be buying the book, and engaging in this discussion, and the importance of understanding the role of deterrents and the lessons that Greeks can teach us if we’re paying attention to what is happening in the world around us, and understanding that tragedy does indeed have a lesson to give us. Thank you very much, Dr. Edel.


Dr. Charles Edel:  Well, thank you very much, Karen. No, it’s been a pleasure being on.


Micah Wallen:  On behalf of The Federalist Society, I wanna thank our experts for the benefit of their valuable time and expertise today. We welcome listener feedback by email at Thank you all for joining us. We are adjourned.


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