I’ve only just come across this example of the use of Thucydides in a discussion of contemporary international relations (thanks to Ben Earley for the reference): according to an article in the Financial Times by Graham Allison, Director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University, relations between China and the USA need to be understood in terms of the ‘Thucydides trap’, the inevitable tension that arises when a rising power rivals a ruling power:
Thucydides wrote of these events: “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this inspired in Sparta that made war inevitable.” Note the two crucial variables: rise and fear. The rapid emergence of any new power disturbs the status quo. In the 21st century, as Harvard University’s Commission on American National Interests has observed about China, “a diva of such proportions cannot enter the stage without effect”. Never has a nation moved so far, so fast, up the international rankings on all dimensions of power. In a generation, a state whose gross domestic product was smaller than Spain’s has become the second-largest economy in the world. If we were betting on the basis of history, the answer to the question about Thucydides’s trap appears obvious. In 11 of 15 cases since 1500 where a rising power emerged to challenge a ruling power, war occurred.
It does make an interesting change to see the US characterised as Sparta rather than Athens, the normal comparison; Allison wants to focus solely on the relative strengths of the contending parties, excluding any consideration of different systems of government or values, and so doesn’t have a problem with this (he also takes a fairly critical view of US foreign policy from the late 19th century onwards). This ignores the way that Thucydides’ narrative shows how, not least because of the different characters and societies of Athens and Sparta, this situation actually led to war, rather than presenting it as an inevitable result; indeed, some scholars have argued that he deliberately problematises this apparently simple statement at 1.23 about the “real causes” of the war. However, it’s scarcely unheard of to take a single line of Thucydides, ignore any question of translation or interpretation, and elevate it into a universal principle of inter-state relations while treating states as homogeneous actors whose motivations can be discussed and interpreted.
To be fair to Allison, he offers a reasonably nuanced account of the usefulness of history, distinguishing between structural factors and historical laws, and urging a Thucydides-esque approach to learning from history.
To recognise powerful structural factors is not to argue that leaders are prisoners of the iron laws of history. It is rather to help us appreciate the magnitude of the challenge. If leaders in China and the US perform no better than their predecessors in classical Greece, or Europe at the beginning of the 20th century, historians of the 21st century will cite Thucydides in explaining the catastrophe that follows.
Would the world be a better place if the leaders of China and the US read Thucydides, and interpreted the world in these terms? Not inevitably; rather, it would depend, among other things, on how they read his work, and what conclusions they drew from it. Thucydides portrays the complexity and unpredictability of the world, the ways in which things generally turn out differently from what’s expected despite all the efforts of those involved. For those who are inclined already to see the world in such terms, it’s a compelling and persuasive portrayal; I wonder whether those who are more inclined to see things in black and white would be convinced. In practice – aided, of course, by the fact that the majority of them don’t read the whole work, but only pre-selected extracts or single quotations – people have tended to pull out individual ideas from Thucydides and his characters, and elevate these to the status of principles or rules.
The problem is that Thucydides offers so many different ideas, frequently contradictory and only rarely given his own seal of approval, which are nevertheless given the same authoritative status by modern readers. The result is that, as I’ve observed before, Thucydides is widely if not universally held to be an authority on inter-state relations, while being evoked to support radically different policies. Thus, while Allison evokes 1.23 to focus on the almost inevitably disastrous consequences of Great Power rivalry if the powers in question don’t tread very carefully, other readers have looked to the Melian Dialogue to establish that Great Powers can do exactly what they want without fear of the consequences, or – in the case of the current Chair of the Joint Chiefs – have quoted 1.75 to the effect that all states can be counted on to behave more or less rationally in pursuit of their interests. In the context of Thucydides’ account, each of these ideas helps to make sense of the world – but in most cases as a characterisation of the mindset of different individuals or groups, helping to explain their decisions and actions, not as a general principle that can guide action in the present.
The question is, as always: what value does the name of Thucydides add to the discussion? How does the idea of the ‘Thucydides trap’ work to underpin the idea that Sino-American relations are liable to lead to war if those states don’t work to prevent it – and is it more or less effective as a form of argument than Allison’s other approach, the quantitative, namely that 11 out of 15 similar situations since 1500 have led to war? The latter appeals to the facts of the past, and can be countered as always by the assertion that things are now significantly different (as several commentators on the article note, the possession of nuclear weapons changes the equation); the former appeals partly to the facts of the past, but also to the authority of the interpreter of that past – understood as someone who has not only studied it but extracted from it the general principles that will enable us all to learn what to do in future. This is the Thucydides that, clearly, many readers want, especially when it comes to international relations; the fact that this isn’t the sort of Thucydides we actually have doesn’t really matter when we have a whole structure of discourse that turns his work into precisely the sort of pedlar of foreign policy maxims for which there’s a demand…