Founding foreign policy and strategy on romantic ideas about destiny or a pecking order among nations smacks of whimsy. Dangerous whimsy: not for nothing does Sun Tzu start his famous manual of statecraft by cautioning sovereigns and generals about the hazards of armed strife. Geopolitical competition is an arena of national life and death. Statesmen should never enter lightly into ventures that might sap the nation’s vigor, bankrupt its treasury, or needlessly sacrifice the lives of its sons. They should also beware of the advice they solicit and how they interpret it. Take it from Herodotus, a scribe who knew a thing or two about the vagaries of fate. They call Thucydides the father of history. If Thucydides is history’s patriarch, then Herodotus, who chronicled the great Persian invasion of Greece (think of the stand of the 300 at Thermopylae), is its crazy uncle. He mixed the deeds of gods into tales of human endeavors, supplying moral instruction alongside empirical fact.
Consider the strange case of King Croesus, the ruler of Lydia, a kingdom in Asia Minor. Croesus was a prideful man, perpetually on the lookout for opportunities to expand his power and thwart his enemies. Herodotus notes that he conquered the Greek cities along Asia Minor’s Aegean coast. Croesus sought counsel while contemplating his next move. When the Athenian lawgiver Solon visited the Lydian court, the king asked him who was the Mediterranean world’s happiest and most prosperous man. He was fishing for flattery. The Athenian annoyed him by declining to list him among this rarefied elite, his wealth and military laurels notwithstanding. Solon protested that it was impossible to say whether Croesus—or any other living person—belonged to the ranks of those blessed by fortune. Pronouncing judgment was premature because the end of his story had yet to be written. Advises Solon, “We must look to the end of every matterto see how it will turn out. God shows many people a hint of happiness and prosperity, only to destroy them utterly later.”
How’s that for foreshadowing? A few years later, alarmed at the rise of Persian power under Cyrus the Great, Croesus resolved to strike before being struck. He sent emissaries to Delphi to consult the oracles. “Both oracles concurred in their reply,” recalls Herodotus. They agreed “that if Croesus were to wage war against the Persians, he would destroy a great empire, and they advised him to find the most powerful Hellenes [Greeks] and to make them his friends and supporters.” Lydia struck an alliance with Sparta, the preeminent Greek city-state. Though warned by a sage named Sardaris not to undertake an enterprise fraught with such peril, Croesus launched an expedition against Syria before engaging the Persians on the battlefield. After an indecisive encounter, the Lydians retired to their capital of Sardis and summoned the allies to join them, hoping to renew the campaign in greater numbers the following spring. But Cyrus’ army marched on Sardis immediately, sacking the city before Sparta or the other allies could march to its rescue.
Croesus wrecked a great empire, all right—his. I’m looking at you, China. Keeping ambition in check is prudent statecraft. Acting imperial, not so much. Fate is fickle. Oracles are pranksters who speak truth but couch it in riddles. Ironic reversals of fortune commonly befall the ruler who acts rashly after misinterpreting oracular prophecy, or whose reach exceeds his grasp. One hopes there’s a Solon or Sardarisin Beijing to discourage strategic hubris—and that China’s leadership heeds hisgood advice. Fortune has smiled on China in recent decades. But then, it favored Lydia too before King Croesus squandered its gifts on his not-so-excellent adventure.
Come to think of it, Croesus’ folly is a parable for all of us.