The Triumph of Geopolitics

Image: “Battle of the combined Venetian and Dutch fleets against the Turks in the Bay of Foya, 1649.” Public domain.

Amoral geopolitics, more than any clash of civilizations, dictated Venetian-Ottoman relations.

September-October 2016

Noel Malcolm, Agents of Empire: Knights, Corsairs, Jesuits and Spies in the Sixteenth-Century Mediterranean World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 604 pp., $34.95.

THOUGH HISTORIANS know about the vast difference between the early modern world and the modern world, journalists and policymakers are often confused about the distinction. But the distinction is crucial, and grants an insight into where human society might be headed next. The early modern period is often popularly defined as beginning with the Renaissance and ending with the Industrial Revolution. The modern period begins after that. A key to early modernism is how it generated identities far more multiple and elastic, and, therefore, benign compared to those wrought by the ethnic straitjackets demanded by modern nationalists. Indeed, the main point of the late Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order—a book that everyone owned an opinion about, but that few actually read—is that political identities based on culture and civilization are not primordial, but integral to the very process of modernization. Yet, if modernism is itself just a stage, are identities—despite the headlines of sectarian war and the conflict between Islam and the West—moving imperceptibly in the direction of something more flexible? Might the early modern era offer a relevant and more hopeful guide to the future?

Arguably the most accurate and finely shaded view into Europe’s early modern past has only recently been published: Noel Malcolm’s Agents of Empire: Knights, Corsairs, Jesuits and Spies in the Sixteenth-Century Mediterranean World. Malcolm is the definitive academic historian: a research professor at All Souls College, Oxford, intimidatingly multilingual, a trained archival detective and a fiercely engaging writer. He knows that the art of biography is to illuminate the entire period in question and can write a rich portrait of a country encompassed within a smartly drawn geopolitical panorama. Agents of Empire, which is roughly about the contest for supremacy in the Adriatic and the eastern Mediterranean between Venice and the Ottoman Empire in the late sixteenth century, is a “microhistory” of a family within an encyclopedic, almost Proustian, vision of early modern Europe. Malcolm is writing academic, not popular, history. Emotions don’t bleed off these pages: you are told only what the archives and other records reveal. The result is a dose of dryness combined with extreme erudition—the mark of the true academy.

Ulcinj, located on the Adriatic Sea in the far south of Montenegro, close to Albania, is where Malcolm’s narrative begins. Originally Illyrian, Ulcinj fell to the Romans, Byzantines and Slavs before coming under Venetian rule in 1405 and Ottoman rule in 1571. Of course, Ulcinj still mattered greatly to Venice in the sixteenth century because it stood on a vital frontier. For here was the messy Venetian-Ottoman borderland of periodic atrocities, where clan conflicts mattered more than religious ones, even as Christians fled the Ottoman conquest. Nevertheless, the Ottoman conquest fashioned subtle changes, not an upheaval. As Malcolm writes:

“It may seem that an alien element took over at every level. . . . This impression is false. With a few exceptions (soldiers, and some others), the Muslims were not immigrants brought in from distant Islamic territories; they were local Albanians who happened to convert to Islam. Reasons for conversion were various, and in many cases probably had more to do with advancing one’s social and economic position than with any religious concerns.”

In other words, yes, there was in fact a clash of different empires with different religions, but it was more complicated and less stark than meets the eye. The Ottoman Empire was still an important source of grain for Venice. There were long periods of peace between the two empires, when Venice used the Muslim Ottomans as a source of pressure upon rival Catholic city-states in Italy. “Venice even made arrangements,” as Malcolm meticulously puts it, “with the sancakbeyis of Bosnia to employ Croatian light cavalry to supplement its own stradiots.” Furthermore, “Venice was the only power whose naval policy was primarily concerned with the protection of trade routes; and since the trade in question was with the Ottoman Empire, the usual policy involved cooperation, not conflict.” There is an even larger point here: that geopolitics, because it is somewhat refreshingly amoral, stood above bloody religious clashes. For example, Catholic Poland could live with the Ottoman-ruled Romanian principalities, “but it could not accept the idea of their becoming clients and creatures of the [fellow Catholic] Habsburgs.” Moreover, there was the “overriding determinant of Ottoman policy” in Europe in this period, which was the struggle against fellow-Muslim Persia in Asia, that further encouraged—along with the Ottoman hold over Syria and Egypt—the sultans’ desire to dominate the eastern Mediterranean and Cyprus in particular, which only in turn, helped bring them into rivalry with Catholic Venice.