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Return of the Barbarians: Confronting Non-State Actors from Ancient Rome to the Present

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Barbarians are back. These small, highly mobile, and stateless groups are no longer confined to the pages of history; they are a contemporary reality in groups such as the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and ISIL. Return of the Barbarians re-examines the threat of violent non-state actors throughout history, revealing key lessons that are applicable today. From the Roman Empire and its Barbarians are back. These small, highly mobile, and stateless groups are no longer confined to the pages of history; they are a contemporary reality in groups such as the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and ISIL. Return of the Barbarians re-examines the threat of violent non-state actors throughout history, revealing key lessons that are applicable today. From the Roman Empire and its barbarian challenge on the Danube and Rhine, Russia and the steppes to the nineteenth-century Comanches, Jakub J. Grygiel shows how these groups have presented peculiar, long-term problems that could rarely be solved with a finite war or clearly demarcated diplomacy. To succeed and survive, states were often forced to alter their own internal structure, giving greater power and responsibility to the communities most directly affected by the barbarian menace. Understanding the barbarian challenge, and strategies employed to confront it, offers new insights into the contemporary security threats facing the Western world.


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Barbarians are back. These small, highly mobile, and stateless groups are no longer confined to the pages of history; they are a contemporary reality in groups such as the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and ISIL. Return of the Barbarians re-examines the threat of violent non-state actors throughout history, revealing key lessons that are applicable today. From the Roman Empire and its Barbarians are back. These small, highly mobile, and stateless groups are no longer confined to the pages of history; they are a contemporary reality in groups such as the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and ISIL. Return of the Barbarians re-examines the threat of violent non-state actors throughout history, revealing key lessons that are applicable today. From the Roman Empire and its barbarian challenge on the Danube and Rhine, Russia and the steppes to the nineteenth-century Comanches, Jakub J. Grygiel shows how these groups have presented peculiar, long-term problems that could rarely be solved with a finite war or clearly demarcated diplomacy. To succeed and survive, states were often forced to alter their own internal structure, giving greater power and responsibility to the communities most directly affected by the barbarian menace. Understanding the barbarian challenge, and strategies employed to confront it, offers new insights into the contemporary security threats facing the Western world.

34 review for Return of the Barbarians: Confronting Non-State Actors from Ancient Rome to the Present

  1. 4 out of 5

    David Wineberg

    Jakub Grygiel, of the US State Department, has all the insight to make Return of the Barbarians a truly important book for our time. Unfortunately, the book misses its own objectives and its own point. It is a frustration rather than a revelation of what is going on today. Barbarians originally meant foreigners who did not speak your language. It had nothing to do with manners, morals, or culture. But, as Grygiel points out, barbarians are invaders who never build, improve, govern, or even settle Jakub Grygiel, of the US State Department, has all the insight to make Return of the Barbarians a truly important book for our time. Unfortunately, the book misses its own objectives and its own point. It is a frustration rather than a revelation of what is going on today. Barbarians originally meant foreigners who did not speak your language. It had nothing to do with manners, morals, or culture. But, as Grygiel points out, barbarians are invaders who never build, improve, govern, or even settle. They invade, destroy, kill, and rob. They take the loot away with them. They are not nation builders. The purpose of the book is to determine whether we are facing a resurgence or episode of barbarians today, specifically in the form of Islamic terrorists. Grygiel does not provide the answer, and misses the elephant in the room. By his definitions, Islamic terrorists are not barbarians because they are mostly citizens, raised in the country they attack. They are not usually armies of foreign opportunists loitering outside the territory, waiting for an opportunity to raid and escape. Much of the book is a recitation of the issues facing the Roman Empire as it overstretched, deteriorated, and imploded. It could not send troops to defend against every incursion, and wrote off various territories as indefensible and non-strategic. Grygiel follows the trials and tribulations of several Roman bishops and saints preparing to see their territories overrun, and nothing they could do about it. An interesting insight for our times is the creation of the walled city, which Grygiel says was a sign of weakness, not strength. Much like those cities, with better arms and communications, we now ring whole countries, prevent immigration and visits, record all mail deliveries, phone calls and chats. There are no-fly and extra scrutiny lists totaling over a million in the USA, from babies to dead people (Death is not sufficient cause for removal). We have progressed in terms of technology and numbers, but the mentality is the same – weakness, not strength. Where Return of the Barbarians really falls down is with the history of Christianity. There is no discussion of the suicide cult, the burning of books, the razing of other houses of worship, the destruction of the Great Library at Alexandria, the torture of nonbelievers, forced conversions, Crusades, Inquisitions, the spread of missionaries, and endless other ways in which earlier Christians set the precedents for Islamic Fundamentalists. They are not barbarians, because they actually have an agenda. They want to convert the entire human race to their religion, kill anyone who disagrees, and take pleasure in dying for the cause. Christianity set the bar for Islam. Without that analysis, Return of the Barbarians is of little import. David Wineberg

  2. 4 out of 5

    Margaret Sankey

    Apparently, Grygiel was at a cocktail party and glommed on to the idea that ISIL and Islamists are the "new barbarians," and he's put this book together to continue this deeply flawed metaphor. Sure, you can talk usefully about asymmetry and both the advantages and disadvantages nomadic groups have over states with sedentary populations and an manufacturing base, but if you're going to discuss the Mongols and the Comanches, you have to better than waxing excited about their weapons and studiousl Apparently, Grygiel was at a cocktail party and glommed on to the idea that ISIL and Islamists are the "new barbarians," and he's put this book together to continue this deeply flawed metaphor. Sure, you can talk usefully about asymmetry and both the advantages and disadvantages nomadic groups have over states with sedentary populations and an manufacturing base, but if you're going to discuss the Mongols and the Comanches, you have to better than waxing excited about their weapons and studiously avoiding Pekka Hämäläinen's study of their interior workings, or the Secret History of the Mongols so that you don't have to acknowledge that they had features that don't fit the model you sketched out on the back of a napkin. When Grygiel launched into his bit about states and "worthy opponents," and what states need to do to field virtuous warriors against the new barbarians, I heard the molon labe whistle loud and clear.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Dominic

    Prof. Jakub J. Grygiel's "Return of the Barbarians" argues that practitioners of international relations working to defeat terrorists and gangs would do well to study how ancient civilizations, particularly the Roman Empire, dealt with barbarian threats. Grygiel argues that, like terrorists, barbarians were non-state actors who were frequently mobile and conduct asymmetric warfare in a way that negates the advantages of the traditional military power. Had this book been published 15 years ago - o Prof. Jakub J. Grygiel's "Return of the Barbarians" argues that practitioners of international relations working to defeat terrorists and gangs would do well to study how ancient civilizations, particularly the Roman Empire, dealt with barbarian threats. Grygiel argues that, like terrorists, barbarians were non-state actors who were frequently mobile and conduct asymmetric warfare in a way that negates the advantages of the traditional military power. Had this book been published 15 years ago - or even 5 years ago - it probably would have been hailed as prescient and important. Al Qaeda and later ISIS seemed like bewildering threats that thwarted our best efforts. However, as of late 2018, the threat from large terrorist groups seems to have subsided. Yes, the Taliban insurgency persists and terrorism is still a threat, but ISIS was defeated and al Qaeda seems limited to causing trouble on a much larger scale. Foreign policy experts worry the US spent far too much attention on terrorism, to the detriment of focusing on other threats, including China and climate change. I also don't think the terrorist threat is quite as "unprecedented" in modern times as Grygiel seems to believe. Traditional international relations scholarship has focused excessively on states and interstate warfare. However, throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, states in Asia, Africa, and Latin America have faced mobile and ideological insurgencies that look very similar to these barbarian threats. . Moreover, during the height of Western colonialism, multinational corporations like the East India Company were the leading threats to governments Asia. In short, non-state actors have long played an important role in international affairs. Perhaps the biggest difference is now those non-state actors are more directly threatening Europe and America. Nevertheless, Grygiel is correct in that international relations scholars have typically spent far less time developing theories about non-state actors. Grygiel's book is worth a read, if only for some fresh thinking on the counterterrorism problem. Or if you're a history buff interested in ancient Rome. The last few chapters do a particularly good job emphasizing the tradeoff states have to make between retaining enough control to hold the country together and ceding control to local authorities so they can more quickly counteract barbarian threats. It's also important to realize, as Grygiel does, that terrorists, like barbarians, are more concerned with winning people than with conquering territory. Overall, some interesting points, but I can't help but feel that this book might have worked better as a long article in Foreign Affairs or the New Yorker... unless you're interested in ancient Roman history. [Note: I received a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review]

  4. 5 out of 5

    Quratulain

    ARC. NetGalley Excellent, well-researched book. Easy to follow, well-organized. Needs an audiobook version.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Carmen C.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Tim

  7. 5 out of 5

    Marisol

  8. 5 out of 5

    Gayatri

  9. 4 out of 5

    Michal

  10. 4 out of 5

    Grouchy Historian

  11. 5 out of 5

    Sam

  12. 4 out of 5

    Annarella

    I don't always agree with the ideas of the writer but I really appreciated this well researched and interesting book. As for many historical/political facts it's a matter of point of views so, as I'm just reviewing a book, I will not write about why I don't agree and what I think the right thing should. You can agree or not but it was a really interesting read. Many thanks to Cambridge University Press and Netgalley for this ARC I don't always agree with the ideas of the writer but I really appreciated this well researched and interesting book. As for many historical/political facts it's a matter of point of views so, as I'm just reviewing a book, I will not write about why I don't agree and what I think the right thing should. You can agree or not but it was a really interesting read. Many thanks to Cambridge University Press and Netgalley for this ARC

  13. 4 out of 5

    Jo

    Jakub redefines the barbarian concept through the history: from Rome to the present. He represents his point of view supported by references collected during his arduous work.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Ammonius

  15. 5 out of 5

    Peter Sunrise

  16. 4 out of 5

    Jerome

  17. 5 out of 5

    Mark

  18. 4 out of 5

    Nick

  19. 4 out of 5

    Krzysiek (Chris)

  20. 4 out of 5

    KeBOBster

  21. 5 out of 5

    Mikaela

  22. 5 out of 5

    Kusaimamekirai

  23. 4 out of 5

    Navi

  24. 4 out of 5

    Melkor von Moltke

  25. 4 out of 5

    Diana

  26. 5 out of 5

    Revi

  27. 5 out of 5

    CuriousReader

  28. 5 out of 5

    Валерій Ластовський

  29. 4 out of 5

    Gavin

  30. 5 out of 5

    Stephanie

  31. 4 out of 5

    Brian Carlson

  32. 5 out of 5

    Pawel

  33. 4 out of 5

    Lalo

  34. 4 out of 5

    Ina Cawl

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