Are Tyrants Only Local Thugs?

If we see that tyrants lack hope, making them myopic in their historical outlook, we might also argue that their actions are circumscribed to their dominions. Tyrants, in other words, may be only local thugs and thus have less impact on international stability than they might otherwise. Applied to today, this argument would suggest that a tyrant like Putin presents merely a local problem, and his decision to invade Ukraine creates at most a regional tiff.

But it is more complicated than that.

The theme of tyrants as local rascals rather than actors with a wider systemic impact stems in part from Thucydides. In the first book of his Peloponnesian War, while giving a brief historical excursus of the years before the great conflict between Athens and Sparta he explains that it was the tyrannical nature of Greek cities that limited their ability to fight large wars. “Wherever there were tyrants, their habit of providing simply for themselves, of looking solely to their personal comfort and family aggrandizement, made safety the great aim of their policy, and prevented anything great proceeding from them; though they would each have their affairs with their immediate neighbors.” (Thucydides, I.17).

Self-centered, preoccupied with their personal survival and wealth, fearful of domestic rebellions, and, even more, perennially watchful of ambitious members of their entourage, tyrants cannot go far away. A tyrant going on a distant expedition risks denuding his own lands of armed men who instill fear and prop up his power. Fear among the populace is much more real when the imperial guards are in the city, not outside of it. Any absence by the tyrant chips away at his hold on power. (It is not surprising that Putin’s recent disappearance from public view, irrespective of the reasons for it, called into question his hold on power. Being there is half of what it means to hold tyrannical power.) To use the classical analogy of a state as a ship, and of the political leader as the captain, a tyrant is perennially fearful of his own crew; the navigation of the ship to distant shores is an ancillary concern.

The additional risk of embarking on a war abroad is that it may bring glory to, and whet the political appetite of, the tyrant’s military commanders. The logic of tyranny insists that only a tyrant should be the author of martial success; a defeat, on the other hand, must be ascribed to the cadres in charge of operations. There are dangers in both victory and defeat, because the commanders may be jealous of the tyrant’s appropriating undue glory in case of the former, and they may be angry at being offered as expiatory sacrifices in case of the latter. Wars, in brief, are risky for tyrants, who as a result have strong incentive to stay home. In Thucydides phrasing, nothing “great” can come out of them.

The Greek historian, of course, did not claim that tyrants were peaceful. But they were geopolitically timid, and at most they engaged in…