THE CARTHAGE SYNDROME (I): Two Thousand Two Hundred Years Ago


César Vidal (*)


     If there is a word to describe a widespread feeling at this moment toward the foreign policy of the United States, it is “dissatisfaction”.  The reasons for this dissatisfaction are varied and even contradictory, but the feeling is the same.  For some, the United States isn’t showing itself strong enough in the international arena, as evidenced in the civil war in Syria, the battle against ISIS, the Bolivian government and even the Ukrainian crisis.  For others, on the opposite side, the United States is trying to adhere to a foreign policy that is not rational and which, most importantly, is carried out at the expense of domestic problems which they feel are being neglected.  For some, the U.S. is abandoning its allies; for others, the current policy of alliances makes no sense.  For some, the blame lies in a Republican Party that puts on hawkish feathers; for others the responsibility falls on a Democratic Party that, like a dove, continues to offer an olive branch to the world’s worst dictators.  I would like to suggest, in this and subsequent articles, that  responsibility for the deficiencies in the U.S.’s foreign policy has more to do with a faulty  viewpoint on the part of both the Republicans and Democrats - a viewpoint that is a far cry from the one held by the Founding Fathers - than with any mistakes by a particular party or administration.  I call this viewpoint the Carthage Syndrome, and in this introductory article I will try to explain why I have given it this name.


     In 218 B.C., the Mediterranean - the “world” at that time - was the battlefield for two superpowers: Carthage and Rome.  Though the situation was stable at that point, a few years earlier Carthage had suffered a setback in what is called the First Punic War.  The strategic equilibrium hadn’t been upset, though Carthaginian pride was wounded after the defeat.  The situation, however, changed radically when a young Carthaginian commander named Hannibal decided to alter the geo-strategical situation once and for all.  In a monumental decision, Hannibal violated the border agreement and crossed over from the Carthaginian to the Roman sphere of influence in Hispania, today’s Spain, and began to advance, unstoppable, toward Roman territory.  Before Rome could react, the Carthaginian forces had crossed the Alps - a feat that only Bolivar would rival many centuries later in the Andes in his struggle against the Spanish Empire - and descended onto the Italian plains on his way to crush Rome.  What followed surpassed even the most optimistic hopes of Carthage.  Hannibal inflicted terrible military losses on the Roman legions in Ticinus, Trebia, Trasimene and Cannae.  This last battle would become a paradigm for a battle of annihilation, and has been viewed with great admiration by military leaders such as General Schwarzkopf more than two thousand years later.


For anyone looking from the outside, it was clear that Carthage had won the war and done so definitively.  There was nothing to indicate that Rome could fight back after a series of disasters that had meant the annihilation of its legions, invasion of its territory, desertion of its allies and the arrival of a military threat to Rome itself.  “Hannibal ad portas!” (Hannibal at the gates!) had become, in fact, the cry of terror for the Romans. The government of Carthage considered the war to be over and indeed acted as if that were the case.  But Rome had not declared its surrender nor sought terms of negotiation, and above all, it hadn’t given up. For Rome the battle continued, and it continued because Rome knew that Carthage was not pursuing a reshaping of the world but its total destruction.  This was, understandably, unacceptable. Rome was also aware that Carthage had spread itself over too many theaters of operation, and so it started to take action in those theaters before considering a direct confrontation with Hannibal, which would have been unfeasible.


    The Carthage Syndrome - taking for granted that a conflict has been won, presuming that one’s aggressive policy will not elicit a response from a power that has suffered from this policy and  allowing the arrogance of those who believe themselves the victors to lead to ventures beyond the humanly possible - had disastrous results. First, Rome was able multiply the theaters of battle, gaining victories in Hispania and in the First Macedonian War against an ally of Carthage.  It took years, but in the process it became clear that Carthage could not cope with the commitments it had taken on, nor could it assert its authority in the territories which it supposedly controlled.  The economic repercussions were no less serious, because war, then and now, is costly, especially if it takes place in distant lands.  The consequences might not have been clear to everyone, but Carthage’s economy began feeling the troubling effects of the military campaigns that had dragged on over a decade and a half.  Finally, and quite unexpectedly, Rome defeated Hannibal himself in 202 B.C.  Fifteen years had passed since the grand successes of the brilliant Carthaginian, successes that almost no one remembered anymore, and if they did, didn’t see them as relevant.  Carthage would not collapse immediately, but its dream of hegemony had been exposed as impossible and ended up being ruinous. The main responsibility for its defeat did not come from Rome, however - although the way it was able to face up to adversity for so many years is admirable - but from Carthage, which let itself be swept along by a syndrome that was fatal.




(*) Cesar Vidal is an historian, writer, PhD in History, Law, Philosophy and Theology; Member of the Interamerican Institute for Democracy’s Council and of the North American Academy of Spanish Language.