Alcibiades: Trickster and Folk Hero of the Classical Era


Victorian death portraits, like those above, are always so full of melodrama. But in the case of the historical figure of Alcibiades he would surely have appreciated such portrayals.

One of my original objectives was to regularly have a historical figure who meets the description of the mythological trickster as an entry. Well, it hasn’t been quite regular at all…in fact I believe the last time I properly did this was in 2015, but there is no one more deserving of coming back to the theme than Alcibiades.

I just recently finished David Stuttard’s excellent ‘Nemesis: Alcibiades and the Fall of Athens’ , which is a book I have been waiting for years to be written by someone. The book is chock full of citations and facts as you might expect from a university publication, but reads like a page turning biography. What Stuttard doesn’t know he doesn’t tell us and he leaves the many ambiguities of this famously amorphous figure as they are. What is known though, or can be surmised, is written up in both an educational and accessible manner. You really do get a feel for both the strangeness and later fascination for this most mercurial Athenian. In his time it was said that ‘in youth he enticed husbands from their wives, as a young man wives from husbands.’ He still entices historians to this day, if in a different way.

For a full biography read the book, but in what follows I wish to touch upon Alcibiades trickster like attributes as illustrated by key themes in his career.

Born into a wealthy if declining family of the Athenian aristocracy , Alcibiades was hardly someone who scrapped up from nothing at first but with his many massive changes of fortune he would come to prove his immense ability (and immense flaws) time and time again. Meritorious service with his mentor Socrates in the Peloponesian War would cause his star to rise as many of Athens’ elected and older warriors stumbled into death or obscurity. The war itself was a time for all kinds of varied fates, as Athens and its allies and vassals struggled with Sparta and its allies and vassals for mastery over Greece. The common front posed by a Persian threat had long since departed (or so was thought), and Athens had benefited the most from their withdrawal from Europe, building its own wealthy commercial empire founded on a core of naval prowess. Eventually, Athens overreached, and the city states not wanting to bow her way looked to Sparta.

Most of the history of the war was a stalemate, but as the Greek city states in Sicily began to enter the periphery of the conflict (especially by supplying food to Sparta) many of the leaders came to imagine a knockout blow against the Spartans. An invasion of Sicily, a seizure of Sparta’s biggest trade partner, and the empowerment of Athenian allies. Sparta could then be starved and blockaded into submission and the groundwork for expansion into the western Mediterranean would be laid. Overly ambitious perhaps, but the only navy that could challenge Athens at this point was Carthage, who also hated Syracuse was was too far west to yet matter.

Alcibiades had proven himself a strongly divisive figure, a hateful hot head to his enemies and a great benefactor of his friends. He was known for stealing fancy silverware to pass as his own and then sneaking it back to the owners once an esteemed guest was gone. His bravery on the battlefield was matched by his legal and social perfidy. Not everyone wanted him in command of the attack on Syracuse, and furthermore, not everyone wanted a risky attack on Syracuse in the first place.

Before he left, various statues of Hermes were vandalized. People whispered he, as a notorious indifferentist to the gods, had done so. Most likely it was either someone trying to stop the invasion in general (be it Spartan agent or Athenian who feared the results) or trying to sabotage Alcibiades in particular. Of course, there really is no real known motive here. A bad omen is bad for him as well as the city, but the tongues flapped. Before more could be made of it, Alcibiades left Athens with fleet and invasion in tow, seized a coastal town in Sicily, and began to lay out a plan to take Syracuse and link up with her enemies on the island. That is when the news came that he was going to be recalled for trial. If found guilty he would be executed, if not he would still lose command and possibly never be given another one. He escaped.

He was an outlaw on the run now. And at this point when most might give up and disappear into obscurity, that he really began to shine. He defected to Sparta. He had, after all, intimate knowledge of the Athenian plans and dispositions in Sicily. The Spartans sent a general, armed with this information, to aid the Syracusians, and soon the entire Athenian force of troops and ships alike was killed or captured.

Alcibiades was a dashing presence at the rustic Spartan court and soon he seduced the Spartan King’s wife and fathered a son by her (not as bad a thing to have happen in Spartan culture as you might think, but Alcibiades rankled many nonetheless). He was able to recommend ways to best use Sparta’s fledgling navy to conduct raids on Athenian holdings that just so happened to belong to his wealthiest rivals back home.

This gave him Persian contacts with local satraps in Anatolia as Sparta and Persia were now growing closer as the war dragged on. Once the tide of ruling class opinion in Sparta turned against Alcibiades, he was able to escape once again to Persia, where he befriended the satrap Chiththarna. For over a year he tended gardens and lived in luxury while advising the Persians on how to drag out the war as long as possible to weaken both parties to the point that Persia could get its lost coastal and island provinces returned.

The Athenians, meanwhile, made moved from disaster to disaster. They had finally seen how effective Alcibiades was as a commander but mostly from the wrong side. Internal turmoil enabled some to put out feelers to him about returning. When the Athenian navy off the coast of Anatolia broke out in revolt against the government Alcibiades rode to take command of them and proceeded to defeat the Spartan navy and seize several ports from them. When the regime changed at home he could sail back, a hero. Naturally, he had waited to see which faction came out on top.

Back in Athens he would alternate between naval command (and taking back and securing the Bosporus to secure grain supplies) and living his decadent life back in the city. He campaigned with and secured an alliance from Thrace as well. All this made him more popular than ever before-and this bothered his enemies whom he had both humiliated and also directly attacked before with the Spartans. He was so popular people would beg him to the street to take charge of the city as a tyrant. The forces against him would surely act the second a chink in his armor was made. Finally, luck swung their way. Alcibiades’ led a campaign that deadlocked for him and ended in catastrophe for his subordinate. The war had swung back in the Spartan’s favor now that Persian gold flooded into their coffers. Alcibiades was banished-again.

He had come to hate the buzzkill Spartans and could not trust the Persians who were now firmly in their camp, but he still had one last trick up his sleeve. He now defected as a mercenary commander to Thrace, the one kingdom that still had love for him. He proceeded to expand the kingdom and take some fortresses for himself, amassing great wealth at the expense of conquered tribes there. The situation was ripe for a perfectly solid retirement. Many of his friends, lovers, and family had joined him and the government was friendly. He even got to see Athens final naval humiliation from one of his forts in a battle where he either rode down and offered to take command or just to give advice. He was jeered off and the Athenians would go on to lose.

But with the end of the war others turned to settling scores. The Athenian puppet government under Spartan command demanded the death of anyone who would rally opposition, and Sparta obliged by sending a request to the Persians as it had been learned he was traveling in their territory. He was set upon and killed in the night.

Later figures, especially in the future Roman Empire, would take quite a shine to this bizarre figure. The reasons I take a shine to him are as follows:

Balls of Steel: Trickster type figures are often stereotyped as cowards, but this is not always the case. Alcibiades personified this with his commended service as a hoplite and then as a cavalry commander who always led from the front. He developed a loyal following based of his ability to take personal risks, including diplomatically. Often, he would take a city by offering to negotiate solo within their walls and convince the place to surrender without a fight. One time he stormed a city with an inferior force. Realizing as the enemy bore down that they outnumbered him he pretended to issue orders to units in the dark which were not there and then called on the enemy to surrender for they were surrounded. It worked.

Loyalty to the Art First: Considering he only left Athens when he had to and was still willing to come back to it, one cannot consider him a straight out traitor per se. He was Athenian first but flexible. He followed his skills-the art of strategy-above regional loyalty. This was a practice common among many talented generals and diplomats all the way up to the 19th Century. It barely exists today. The trickster is always ‘moving along’ and retains few if any loyalties that get in the way of personal gain or getting one up on one’s enemies.

Undone by Appetite: Alcibiades was often undone, like most tricksters, by a voracious appetite. Be it sex, food, luxury goods, fame, revenge. He checked all the boxes.




Ibn Khaldun vs Washington DC


ibn khaldun

Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) was a historian and social science theorist from Tunis most famous for writing the Muqaddimah, a work of historical theory which sought to explain the cyclic nature of politics, its benefits and drawbacks, and how best to ride these changes for certain fields like medicine and scientific exploration to keep growing even while the regimes they required to support themselves kept inevitably declining and/or collapsing. He traveled widely, found employment in many places, and even directly discussed Emir Timur’s role in history with Timur himself during the siege of Damascus. There are few examples of primary source research so direct and enviable as that.

He was a bit of Gray and a bit of Marx and a bit of Smith and a bit of Diamond and even a bit of the contemporary IR theories of both neoclassical realism and world systems theory long before any of those things existed. He pioneered materialism in historical research and advocated political policies ahead of their time for his context. His work is widely available and translated in many languages so I need not go over it in detail. It merely needs to be stated that he is probably the single most important social theorist in my life. No one individual has ever, to me, made more sense of history and politics on the macro scale. I read and cited him extensively while I was working on my doctoral thesis.

For the sake of this post we need now only deal with one of his thesis, perhaps his most famous. That all regimes and governments become corrupted with incompetence, nepotism, and laziness with time. The longer they are around, the worse it becomes. They lose all their ‘asibyyah’ (group-feeling) while forces opposed to them will unite and therefore gain asibiyyah. In Khaldun’s world these were nomadic and tribal people, be it Bedouin, Turks, or Mongols. They had the practical skills and solidarity enough to eventually capitalize on the rotten empires, come in, and take over. For a few generations the new ruling class would re-invigorate society combining the best of the outsider’s abilities with the resources and learning of the establishment. Then, they too would begin to be subsumed into the conventions, rote thinking, and petty factionalism of the society to which they had integrated into to rule. Then the cycle would begin again.

Demographic changes over centuries ending in the industrial revolution abolished the power of nomadic societies but kept the privateering naval oriented ones going strong in this way, though states that survived industrialization became too strong to fall to outsiders so easily unless said outsiders were more powerful established states themselves or were internal mass revolutions. This in no way invalidates Khaldun’s thesis to be a relic of the medieval past, however. I would argue it merely shifted who the outsiders were. One could bring in Marx here and say it was the working classes who could play this role now. Mao would say it was the rural peasants. Marxism, however, at its core remains an often Hegelian and almost always eurocentric philosophy (particularly when discussing history-just look at the farce of Hobsbawm being taken as a great insightful thinker for a more modern example) in both theory and historical assumption. Perhaps Marx’s theories would have been better off at the bat had he been able to  engage with figures like Khaldun. As it is, the promise in Marxist theory has yet to be fully realized and work there still has to be done by those so inclined. Still, the fact remains that the ‘lower orders’ of society might very well be the invigorating invaders we need to topple the status quo.

Or just as easily, perhaps not. Perhaps the people who have the luxury to not have direct regional attachments will be such a force, or perhaps disaffected and disillusioned former establishment operators will be it. Or an alliance of some or all of the above. Perhaps an anti-populist reaction against purist movements will one day grow and demand to seize the power from the complacent classes which in America have certainly built around them webs of true believers and ideologues capable of nothing but posturing their supposed purity in front on each other like Calvinists and Wahhabis at a theological convention.

Edward Gibbon once theorized that Christianity itself was the root cause of the decline of Rome (at least in the west). While I am far too much a materialist to agree entirely, I would say a values system that prioritizes feelings over action and moral posturing over civic duty is surely no positive introduction to society. We have seen waves of this moral absolutism and internal purge-culture throughout societies since that time, and now in the form of faith based economic models and appeals to identity politics of all stripes it still rides a high horse through the land, motivating politicians obsessed with election cycles to harness this ignorant mass in order to ensure little gets done while their positions (and book deals) are secure. It is a government by the elect, for the true believers. Thus, it is really no government at all.

One of the many disturbing things I have learned since I moved to DC is that the more insider to DC culture one is and the more educated they are, the more likely they are to adopt rote thinking on major issues since they have lost the ability to see any issue as anything but a well-oiled cog in the machine which is exposed to a very small array of mandatory socially acceptable opinions. Most of these people are liberals and centrists and feel that merely by being more intelligent or well read than a Trump supporter or a Tea Party fanatic means they are in fact extremely enlightened and virtuous guardians of rationality. It would be much the same as an uncoordinatated dweebus such as myself who has no aptitude for sports claiming to be a better basketball player than Stephen Hawking. I mean, yes, it is technically true, but it effectively says nothing of substance or offers an interesting comparison.
It must be apparent to an outsider that this limited multiple choice test of right-on opinions as the baseline of public discussion is increasingly the problem rather than the solution, the defensive entrenched class circles the wagons even further. They admonish us to be ‘centrist’, ‘sensible’ and ‘not to rock the boat.’ Of course, they never say that to the far right, useful idiots and all, but now they have let the asp into the bed and cannot control it. But we should still trust them to be ‘sensible’ anyway.
Leaving aside for now the quite obvious counter-point of pointing out what a thin substance-free gruel ‘centrism’ and ‘sensibility’really is by merely asking them questions like ‘what is a sensible centrist in Saudi Arabia?’ ‘What is a sensible centrist in Iran?’ ‘What is a sensible centrist in North Korea?’ And ‘What was a sensible centrist in the Axis Powers of World War II or during the times of the Inquisition?’ ‘What was a sensible centrist in the vote to invade Iraq?’ We should move on to another point-why are you all so short cited? The obvious answer is addiction to fashion and the need to posture rather than to act. Needless to say, these are all symptoms of a regime in decline which-technology adjusted-Ibn Khaldun would have recognized in a heartbeat.

It is the shame of the legislative branch of the United States that so many people can be part of such a powerful institution with access to so many resources-including intellectual ones, I became an official card carrying ‘Reader’ at the Library of Congress just last week-is so short term and factionally driven. Much like the nonprofit sector which grows around the establishment and feeds off of its divisions, petty media-driven battles are considered good politics in America rather than the act of actual governing or planning beyond an electoral cycle. Otherwise thoughtful people tow the line on ideological package deals when cherry picking would be more admirable and honest of a course to take.

Just take one sad, sorry, drawn out example is that of the US response to the Syrian Civil War, to look at how much nonsense such a dysfunctional regime can produce. In a zealous quest to overthrow a government of the country where Khaldun once met Timur the establishment found itself arming effectively Al Qaeda affiliated rebel groups and even ‘moderate’ rebels who have no room for sectarian and ethnic minorities in their new order. This toxic combination helped lead to the rise of Daesh, which now is every (sane) person’s enemy. And yet, an accommodation with the (relatively secular and multicultural) regime is still avoided because the Washington Consensus from congress to its mindless town criers and prophets by the names of Dowd, Friedman, Kristol, and Will somehow believes the fundamental values of not rocking the boat of the establishment is worth upholding. Indeed, even extolling in moral terms.

To say that the building forces of accumulated history which may as well be the ghost of Ibn Khladun himself will one day lay down the vengeance on this order is to be as polite as humanely possible. And not just the United States. I feel like we are living in a collection of powerful societies unwittingly and even proudly reenacting the death throws of Late Imperial Russia.

But even within this sad state of affairs, one heroic figure has emerged from the most unlikely place-inside of congress. Outside of shunted aside realist academic thinkers and a kooky quixotic Rand Paul presidential campaign, no one has come from the inside to really challenge the ossified orthodoxy on foreign policy-until Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard that is.

From challenging the internal incompetence of the Democratic Party (currently seeming to be throwing away all its collective advantages and surrendering all power locally simply to hold on to the presidency-a bad long term strategy if ever there was one) to the inability of people to state that radical Islam itself is a problem, to the neocon establishment that lurks in both parties, she takes them all on. Here is someone who made it to the inside but retained the more sober and less fashion-prone perspective of the outsider. If Americans do not make a concerted effort to support people like her in government they may as well give up on retaining opinions or participation with the government as it is in any shape or form. People like her are our last best hope in the system as it presently is.

The question is, where do we find our own new outsider-based regime? This is ‘The outsiders guide to geopolitics’ as a blog after all, but I am still trying to figure this out. We need more tricksters. We need an Age of Tricksters. And not just hovering outside poking fun-though that is always necessary-but inside. We have to figure out how to remake governments with those immune to its faddish complacent tendencies directly in power. Inevitably, over time, they will integrate and the process will has to be repeated of course, just as Khaldun said. But only fools think history progresses along a linear path to a predetermined end point after all.
That is the challenge to ponder for the future.




The Strategic Tricksterism of Herman Kahn

‘Better to operate with detachment, then; better to have a way but infuse it with a little humor; best to have no way at all but instead the wit constantly to make one’s way anew from the materials at hand.’

~Lewis Hyde, ‘Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art’

‘I am against fashionable thinking.’

~Herman Kahn

herman kahn

As someone who is deeply interested in the think tank world (and eventually perhaps finding employment there) I have long been fascinated by Herman Kahn. This is a field which attracts already-made celebrities, bur rarely creates them first. But with Kahn, it did. Or to put it closer to the truth, he was one of the rare disruptive personalities to make a name for himself there.

I recently finished Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi’s excellent part-biography part-Cold War think tank survey ‘The Worlds of Herman Kahn: The Intuitive Science of Thermonuclear War’ and was immediately struck by the kindred spirit painted so adeptly on her pages. I had known about Kahn before of course, but only related to his book ‘On Thermonuclear War’ and the effect it had on the popular consciousness at the time of its publication in 1961 (most obviously as the declared inspiration for the Dr. Strangelove character in the film of the same name). Seeing a personal portrait of the comical, self-deprecating man who fired off jokes about mothers learning to love their two headed babies twice as much in the event of a nuclear war, all while giving presentations to the media, the Air Force, and peace activists alike really helped flesh out Kahn’s larger than life persona better than even his controversial and potentially horrifying book on strategy.

Kahn was an early prodigy who breezed into Air Force logistics and support during World War II before devoting himself to wargaming, systems analysis, and work at the RAND Corporation. Within the organization he made a name for himself as an affable eccentric who loved to argue and play the contrarian. In some of the most establishment settings imaginable he upset norms and provided outsider insight.

All this was just prelude though. ‘On Thermonuclear War’ was coming, and popular culture was about to take note. Kahn wrote a book which somehow managed to offend everyone. Nuclear War was removed from a pedestal of ‘the final option’ to something real and almost mundane. Like a battlefield everyone lost but some lost much more than others, meaning of course that there were still winners and losers. Intercontinental exchanges of ICBMs became part numbers game and part tactical risk. It was doable, it was a real possibility, and there would still be a world left when it was all over.

Everyone lost it. The right threw a conniption because Kahn simply viewed the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. as nation-state rivals and gave no significant credence to any ideological element of the Cold War in his strategies (he had remarked in his personal life that he hated right wingers and refused to even eat dinner with them). The left by and large had a meltdown, seeing  the doomsday scenario treated in such a detached and occasionally flippant manner as the ultimate in diseased military-industrial complex thinking. The defense establishment itself worried about bad PR but had a more sedate reaction, even if Kahn personally rubbed them the wrong way with his jokes and gross inserts (he had once blurted out to officers that the military command were unthinking brutes about grand strategy and only capable of having ‘wargasms’-a term he coined and which would appear intermittently in nerd culture-most importantly to child-me in the late 90s action/strategy hybrid game ‘Wargasm.‘)

But Kahn wasn’t some mad technocrat simply crunching the numbers of people’s lives like the human resources department from hell. He was someone who saw quite simply that if at least two nations on Earth were willing to build and stockpile massive amounts of nuclear weapons than there was the obvious chance they might be used. This did not mean the world would immediately come to an end or that strategy had become obsolete. In fact, the idea that nuclear weapons could only lead to an immediate end of all things meant that they were less likely to be taken seriously as a threat both at home and abroad. Kahn took nuclear warfare seriously and many, if not most, of the establishment did not. So to get their attention he talked about a very real possibility of nuclear war in a manner deemed ‘unprofessional’. Crude jokes making light of the most dire subject matter ironically got people to take the unthinkable seriously, and thus start thinking about it. It was reported that once translations had been made, the Soviet leadership was all over the book just as much as the Pentagon was.

Since there never was a massive nuclear exchange, we may never know how good Kahn’s strategies were. But this is far less relevant compared to the discussion he started. He became target number one of the peace and anti-nuclear movements, who he was willing to meet in person. They often left discussions with him in a glow, feeling the man was both affable and respectable. No one, save one particularly vindictive book reviewer, viewed him as a threat. In the end some peace movements would even embrace his arguments, seeing them as the stark truth of the necessity of their cause laid bare in a neutral tone.

On the other side, many of his own employers were not exactly enthused with the kind of attention they were now getting. Feeling stifled by RAND after the release of his book, Kahn would go on to found The Hudson Institute, which seems to have somewhat different overall priorities today but at the time was his own personal project with some friends. It is the hallmark of the trickster, as they go along they travel constantly and upset the status quo, turning enemies into friends and friends into enemies but always leaving the world changed.

Could another international relations trickster exist (aside from this blog of course) and have such an impact from within the insider world of strategic analysis? Of course. But would they be able to get as far into the popular mind before being given the boot? One doubts it as things are now. The influx of raw talent from outside the calcified circles of the elite in past eras was caused by the mass mobilization of World War II. The perpetual defense mechanisms in place since have had no such upheavals however, and the reinforcement of tropes in thinking seems extremely strong.

But these things do tend to come in cycles. One day the tropes will fail, the complacency will shake, and outsider advice will need to be sought again. Nothing can stay the same forever.

The question is will I, this blog, and it’s mission of reinvigorating strategy from without, live to see it? And if so, where? As Kahn himself said about professional tones and overly serious working culture:

‘One does not do research in a cathedral. Awe is fine for those who come to worship or admire, but for those who come to analyze, to change, to tamper, to criticize…sometimes a colorful approach is to be preferred.’

Anyway, using the phrase ‘systems analysis’ seriously makes me think immediately of vaporwave, so have some on the house:

Trickster was going along…

The intention of this blog is to explore the very establishment field of geopolitics from a non-establishment perspective. The mythological figure of the trickster (think of Hermes in the classical world, Coyote for the Plains Indians, Raven for the Pacific Northwest, Loki in Scandinavia, the Tanuki in Japan, Reynard the Fox in western Europe, Anansi in Sub-Saharan Africa, Monkey in China and many more) was a perennial outsider whose influence upended previous received wisdom and changed the nature of the order around them.

The thing with International Relations (IR), and the particular sub-set of it that is focused on alliance networks, grand strategy, and other related fields called geopolitics which we will be exploring in this blog, is that the great achievements of diplomats and strategists often follow similar paths in history to the meandering and surprising journeys of the trickster in mythology. The problem is that much of contemporary IR scholarship is focused on the predictable. Quantitative theories attempt to predict the future of states with mathematics while many qualitative theories forget the big picture in order to indulge in contemplating the feelings engendered by ones identity or media consumption. These approaches and others like them may have uses for particular fields, but when it comes to the core of big issue IR-geopolitics and strategy- they have caused the discipline to lose much of its way.

In addition to highlighting the role that outsider thinking has shaped strategy in history as well as today, it will also be the purpose of this blog to advocate on behalf of viewing the world devoid of fashionable jargon. Like the legends of trickster, when coming upon an idea which is held by many and therefore assumed to be true no mercy will be shown if said idea is lacking in actual merit. This of course does not mean that all popular or fashionable ideas are wrong, and rote contrarianism would become boring and predictable on its own anyway, but merely that whether to dispute or defend an established theory, an outside perspective is always beneficial.

Hopefully you will enjoy the ride.