Hal Brands and Charles Edel, The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2019), 216 pp., $25.00.
In January 1961, Dwight D. Eisenhower addressed the nation for the final time as president in a speech most famous for its warning about the influence of the military-industrial complex. Yet at a deeper level, Eisenhower conveyed a sensibility he thought was disappearing from modern life--and wanted to warn of the consequences. As one of his speechwriters later described it, Ike "was striving to reach tomorrow's conscience, not today's headlines."
Eisenhower said he spoke as "one who has witnessed the horror and lingering sadness of war," who believed that while he had brought the world closer to peace, America faced dangers of "indefinite duration." He urged his fellow citizens to remain confident but eschew arrogance, reminding that American leadership depends not simply on the aggregate of its power, but how it is used. He emphasized the importance of time and patience--speaking of the "long lane of history" and the imperative of avoiding "the impulse to live only for today."
As he entered the twilight of his life of service, Eisenhower sought to leave Americans with a sense of conviction, courage and balance--and this latter word he used repeatedly throughout the address. Americans, he argued, should always remain true to their principles while "confident but humble with power." After a decade of peace and prosperity, he was proud of the success the United States had achieved. Yet he counseled that "we should take nothing for granted."
Looking out at a world that seemed to be getting only more complex, Eisenhower projected an outlook to try to help Americans navigate between the impulses of hubris, complacency and resignation. This perspective reflected his unique experience, the kind he worried would be lost to the next generation. As David Brooks has observed,
this was the speech of a man who had been raised to check his impulses and had then been chastened by life. It was the speech of a man who had seen what human beings are capable of, who had felt in his bones that man is a problem to himself. Or to put it another way, Eisenhower's final words as president reflected the perspective of a leader who understood the lessons of tragedy.
Tragedy is an ancient concept in global politics. But too often it is misunderstood or misused. Tragedy is not the same thing as pessimism. To understand tragedy is not to believe that everything is destined to fail and therefore nothing is worth trying. Yet neither is tragedy something that can be transcended. So it is equally dangerous to think the world's dangers can ever be completely overcome.
As portrayed most vividly in the works of Euripides, Sophocles and Aeschylus, tragedy...