Return of the Barbarians: Confronting Non-State Actors from Ancient Rome to the Present, by Jakub J. Grygiel

| December 2018
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Return of the Barbarians: Confronting Non-State Actors from Ancient Rome to the Present, Jakub J. Grygiel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 221 pp., $84.99 cloth, $28.99 paper, $23 eBook.

Under the dominant influences of realism and liberalism, scholars of international relations, almost singularly focused on the modern state-system, have ignored vast swathes of history and the valuable knowledge that accompanies it. In Return of the Barbarians, while not eschewing realism or liberalism entirely, Jakub J. Grygiel points out that the state is not the only strategic actor in international affairs, nor has society progressed as far as we would like to imagine. He argues that there is change and continuity in history, and that certain characteristics of the present are not so different from those of our pre-Westphalian past.

This thesis of historical continuity and recurrence lies at the heart of the book, allowing Grygiel to sketch out a premodern political and security landscape that illustrates how strategic actors other than the nation-state “may be making a resurgence” (p. 5). This includes a proliferation of groups with few territorial claims but possessing high levels of mobility and structural flexibility. This development is enabled by (i) a diffusion of lethal military technology; (ii) a focus on influencing people rather than controlling territories or natural resources; and (iii) the existence of ungoverned spaces (including, in the modern context, cyberspace). Terrorists and violent nonstate actors—the modern “barbarians” of Grygiel’s story—have flourished under these conditions. Indeed, Return of the Barbarians makes an excellent case for the relevance of history to modern political and strategic challenges, and I would encourage anyone with an interest in history, international relations, or security studies to engage with it.

The author utilizes a range of evidence and he is generally well versed in the histories from which he draws, especially Roman. From this he makes a forceful and persuasive case about how and why premodern and modern states are systemically ill-equipped to cope with barbarians, concentrating particularly on the failure of traditional tools of statecraft such as diplomacy, deterrence, and the use of force. Still, there are some oversights. For starters, there is no bibliography (presumably the fault of the publisher, not the author), making it more difficult to situate the thesis within its historiographical context. More importantly, however, the lack of engagement with seminal texts (such as David J. Bederman’s International Law in Antiquity, Greg Woolf’s Tales of the Barbarians, or Chris Wickham’s Framing the Early the Middle Ages) leads to some outdated presentations of ancient society as “untamed by agreed-upon conventions” (p. 18) and of premodern barbarians as being almost wholly a destructive, negative force.

Grygiel himself briefly critiques this latter narrative, but the dominant impression is that territorially defined states—no matter how cruel or oppressive—are preferable to the groups that oppose them. This is presumably because barbarians “destroyed more than they built” and “were more interested in blood than law.” In short, “Barbarians were barbaric” (p. 10). This characterization is typical of modern historiography, written by scholars ensconced within nation-states who have usually painted groups on the fringes of kingdoms and empires as dangerous and dark (precisely how their sources, produced by kingdoms and empires, also portray them). Such assessments have rarely paused to consider the alternative perspective: How did barbarian groups view the expansionist states that sought to dominate them, and what types of security threats did imperialist states pose to such groups?

The political and normative structures of barbarian societies are also judged against the more familiar (thus inevitably “superior”) structures of centralized states. There is a large orientalist and postcolonial literature that tackles such issues and engaging with it would have added more nuance to Grygiel’s analysis. Of course, a key premise is that modern terrorists and nonstate actors are comparable to premodern barbarians. This semantic and conceptual move makes it difficult to present barbarians as anything other than undesirable at best and morally reprehensible at worst.

And herein lies the weakness at the heart of the book: the term “barbarian” itself. Grygiel makes an early “preventive defense of the term ‘barbarian,’ a term that can raise criticism from many fronts” (p. 8). Foremost among these is the insinuation of cultural and moral inferiority. As Grygiel admits, “ascribing all types of undesirable and nonhuman characteristics to the targeted group of ‘savages’ justified the often-vicious conquest of these tribes” (p. 49). He attempts to remedy this by insisting that “negative connotations ascribed to the term ‘barbarians’ have, however, obscured the underlying original concept. It is simply an attempt to distinguish two different ways of life . . . the term ‘barbarian’ used in this book is therefore merely descriptive, not normative” (pp. 49–50).

This claim to a purely descriptive use of “barbarian” sounds reasonable enough, but three issues problematize such a claim. First, there is no getting away from the fact that, like it or not, the term is not simple or neutral; it carries a great deal of negative cultural baggage. Second, if certain historical characteristics truly are recurrent, as Grygiel insists, then there is every reason to believe that branding enemies as barbaric will only encourage the type of vicious behavior witnessed in previous ages. Third, while Grygiel claims to use the term without normative connotations, the book is saturated with implicit value judgments.

By equating barbarians with terrorists (especially radical Islamist groups) and nonstate violent actors—who are clearly presented as destructive and undesirable—it is difficult for Grygiel to uphold any claim to a neutral use of the term. Likewise, by equating the strategic challenges of premodern states with the states of today—namely the United States—Grygiel (employed at the U.S. Department of State) implicitly identifies the state as good and worth preserving and the terrorist/barbarian as bad and requiring eradication.

While many, including this reviewer, will be willing to agree that many nonstate actors pose an unwanted threat to modern societies, of greater concern is Grygiel’s failure to confront the problem of what happens when you apply terms like “barbarian” to actors who are already widely feared and vilified. By branding nonstate actors as barbarians, Grygiel encourages the further dehumanization of such individuals as savages who pose an existential threat to “civilized” life. These types of enemies are rarely considered deserving of any customary or legal protections. History is full of examples of how groups viewed as barbaric or culturally inferior have been the targets of extreme cruelty and violence, from the Crusades to the post-9/11 U.S. torture program. Grygiel’s identification arguably legitimizes and encourages such trends, and at no point does he properly tackle the problem.

Connected to this insouciance regarding the consequences of the language of barbarism is Grygiel’s observation that a “centrally organized state is . . . poorly equipped to respond to small-scale incursions along a lengthy frontier” (p. 124). How then should modern states counter localized and diffused barbarian threats? The answer, suggests Grygiel, is partial decentralization of the state security apparatus, empowering local institutions, communities, and even individuals to take more responsibility for their own security. This “subsidiarity of security provision” (p. 211) might enable a more rapid and effective response in localities threatened by nonstate actors. However, there is a fine balance here, for too much decentralization can lead to a fatal weakening of the state’s authority. It is also complicated by the potential presence of peer competitors (other states), which require more traditional defensive strategies and resources. Late imperial Rome serves as the perfect example of how a centralized state struggled to cope with diffused threats along a vast border, resulting in regional disintegration and collapse.

Moreover, while security decentralization may indeed maximize the effectiveness of a state’s limited resources, the question of accountability is entirely absent from the discussion. This is concerning because it does not require much effort to imagine the likely results of branding enemies as barbarians while at the same time empowering local actors with the authority and resources to defend themselves however they see fit. Such a mix could prove toxic, to say the least, with the emergence of hyper-securitization and thinly veiled paramilitarism or vigilantism targeting marginalized communities on any number of specious “security” pretexts.

In sum, Return of the Barbarians is convincing on some levels and deeply problematic on others. Grygiel’s presentation of the premodern strategic landscape and its reemerging characteristics in modern international relations is provocative and often persuasive. Nonetheless, his underlying Huntingtonian vision of a clash of civilizations and his unwillingness to engage seriously with the unsavory repercussions of applying the language of barbarism to enemies of the state is troubling, especially when combined with calls to decentralize the state’s security powers. If Grygiel truly believes, as he writes, that the “possibility of ubiquitous assaults leads to the necessity of ubiquitous security provision” (p. 213), then we are left in a very dark place indeed, where all facets of life become securitized. This dystopian state of securitization would surely do more to perpetuate violence and threaten civil liberties than any nonstate actor could ever hope to achieve.


—Rory Cox

Rory Cox is lecturer in late medieval history at the University of St. Andrews. His research examines violence, the ethics of war, and comparative international history.

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Category: Book Review, Issue 32.4

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