Tragedy potential for both towering achievement and terrifying descent into the abyss

Rediscovering Tragedy

What chained Greece so tightly together? What drew the people so unresistingly to their theater?” asked the German playwright and philosopher Friedrich Schiller in the early nineteenth century. “Nothing else but the national content of the plays, the Greek spirit, and the great overwhelming interest of the state and of a better humanity.”1 The value of these plays, tragedies chief among them, was to be found not solely in the entertainment they offered but in the message of sacrifice, resolve, and inspiration they imparted. As the Greeks knew, a tragic sensibility is not the same thing as an acceptance of tragedy. By dealing squarely with the omnipresent possibility of great suffering, a tragic sensibility can better prepare one to brave an uncertain world. This duality of human existence—its potential for both towering achievement and terrifying descent into the abyss—was never absent in Athens. The best way to prevent a community’s accomplishments from crumbling, the Greeks believed, was to be confronted continually with reminders of just how tenuous those accomplishments were.

This is something that the originators of successful international orders grasped. From the Peace of Westphalia to the post–World War II system, moments of great geopolitical creativity and vision have often drawn on a willingness to keep company with one’s worst fears—and a refusal to be paralyzed by them. Yet as the Greeks also understood, the more distant a community grows from the experience or recollection of tragedy, the less likely it will be to recognize and stifle the sources of tragedy before they emerge fully formed. Today, as a result of the historical amnesia brought on by the great success of the postwar order, Americans are losing the tragic sensibility that would allow them to better understand and confront the dangers that threaten to upend that success. The United States and its allies are by no means incapable of addressing those dangers; the balance of power has shifted, but not nearly so much as to make the situation irretrievable. What often seems to be missing, however, is the sober but determined mindset that would impel the defenders of the international order to face up squarely to the task.

What follows is an attempt to sketch the key elements of that mindset—of the tragic sensibility Americans must recover. To be clear, the aim is not to outline the precise operational steps policymakers should take. Analysts can productively debate precisely how big the U.S. defense budget should be, or what measures might be taken to defend the international economic system from resurgent protectionism. There is room for constructive disagreement on precisely how the United States should oppose Chinese or Russian revisionism. But constructive thought precedes constructive action, and summoning the fortitude to defend the international system requires first rediscovering the tragic mindset that Americans have largely forgotten. Tragedy may be commonplace, but it is not inevitable—so long as we regain an appreciation of tragedy before it is too late. (Pg.146)



How, then, to inspire this sense of conviction, courage, and balance? How to re-instill in Americans the tragic sensibility they so urgently need? The challenge of doing all this in many ways boils down to the challenge of convincing democratic societies to act before it is too late, and of reminding them of what they are fighting to preserve—and avoid—in the first place. The liberal international order is built upon a positive agenda that has promoted great wealth and well-being. Yet it is also predicated upon preventing another plunge back into the abyss. And just as the most successful international orders looked backward as well as forward, an engagement with history offers the best way of recapturing a tragic sensibility without having to experience tragedy in the flesh.

In ancient Athens, tragedies used distant, mythical history to illuminate contemporary challenges. Today, we need not look back to an imagined past. Recovering a tragic sensibility means only re-familiarizing ourselves with a history that is so edifying precisely because it is so real.

By understanding the frequency with which prosperous and seemingly stable worlds have plunged into darkness, we can better appreciate the inherent fallibility of our own creations. By revisiting the painstaking efforts that were required to build and sustain international order in the past, we might better grasp the labors that remain necessary to perpetuate the American-led order. By returning to the creation of the postwar system in the years after 1945, we can remind ourselves why the United States does so many extraordinary things—leading the international economy, patrolling distant borders, anchoring military alliances around the globe—whose rationales now seem so abstract and difficult to explain. And by reacquainting ourselves with all this history, we can reteach ourselves the lesson that previous generations of statesmen instinctively understood—that the alternative to modest sacrifices today is likely to be the necessity of making much larger and more painful sacrifices later. “Fools learn by experience, wise men learn by others’ experience,” Otto von Bismarck once said. Today, Americans could benefit enormously from the sort of vicarious experience history has to offer.21

For in the final analysis, the key geopolitical questions confronting the United States and the international order it created are not simply questions of power. They are equally questions of perception and willpower.22 Will the countries that have historically defended the international order summon the nerve and unity to defend it again today? Will they realize that it is not historical inevitability, or some triumph of moral progress, but rather incessant and determined effort that holds geopolitical disasters at bay? Will they remember precisely how bad things can get, and how quickly they can get that way, when international orders fall apart? Will they overcome the naïve ahistoricism that risks blinding them to these realities? The United States and its allies once found, in tragedy, the determination necessary to create something imperfect but beautiful. Will they now recover an equivalent determination to keep that good thing going?

The Greeks understood the challenge of maintaining a tragic sensibility over time, which is why they enshrined tragedy as the central, and most visible, part of their culture. They did so to cultivate a political culture that was both sober and optimistic, believing that optimism without sobriety led to hubris and overreach, and that sobriety without optimism led to paralysis in the face of danger. For them, as for older generations of Americans, the past served as a source of both terror and inspiration.

Today, it is impractical for whole societies to cram themselves into the narrow benches of a theater. But without a similar determination to recover a history that Americans now seem determined to forget, we will surely squander something essential. In writing about the successes and ultimate failure of the Concert of Europe in the nineteenth century, Henry Kissinger observed that “in the long interval of peace the sense of the tragic was lost; it was forgotten that states could die, that upheavals could be irretrievable.”23 One suspects that Americans will soon end up relearning these lessons one way or another. They will do so either by reacquainting themselves with a tragic sensibility, or by experiencing the real-world tragedy that their amnesia, if not corrected, may help bring about. (Pg.165)

WE&P by: EZorrillaM.

“The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order” by Hal Brands, Charles Edel