One of the ideas from Thucydides that is regularly cited, deployed and abused in contemporary political theory – not least because it’s one of the few ideas in his work that looks like a proper statement of a political-theoretical principle, the sort of thing that we might be expecting to find there after reading I.22 – is the claim, made by two different speakers on two different occasions, that states make decisions based on considerations of honour, fear and interest. This idea is taken as the basis, or offered as justification, for believing (a) that all states are rational and (b) that issues of justice and the like are irrelevant, hence leading in many cases to variants of the Realist view of international relations, and ignoring the possibility that Thucydides’ own narrative spends much of its time apparently questioning the validity of the statement, or at any rate emphasising that states and peoples don’t generally have a very good grasp of what their interests actually are or how best to pursue them. All of this is perfectly familiar, and has been frequently denounced by writers who don’t think much of Realism or Neo-Realism.
However, I think it’s worth emphasising one aspect of Thucydides’ formulation that seems to receive less attention. You could see the significance of his remark as relating not to the rationality or otherwise of states but to the plurality of their motives – which immediately undercuts the idea that international relations are regular and predictable, since even a perfectly rational and fully-informed process of deliberation and decision-making will need at some point to decide between different motives or priorities, which may not neatly mesh with one another. Modern readers (and various of the characters in Thucydides’ account) tend rather too readily to reduce his statement to the idea that states rationally pursue their interests, or at any rate act to anticipate or deter an enemy threat, whereas Thucydides clearly implies that a state might also choose to prioritise honour above rational interest – and he doesn’t suggest that any one of these motives is superior to the others.
I’ve thought of this now because of a growing sense – in particular in response to an exchange in this morning’s Observer between Henry Porter and Malcolm Rifkind on the NSA/GCHQ/Snowden/Miranda developments – that too many people in the current debate about state power and its limits seem to be operating with a wholly reductionist view of motivation. The pro-security and surveillance crowd of course insist that they are operating wholly in the interests of the state, including its citizens, in seeking to anticipate possible threats; this may at times require departure from certain principles, but those who have done nothing wrong have nothing to fear etc. The civil liberties crowd, on the other hand, seem equally convinced that this development is a matter of the pursuit of state interests – they simply see things in terms of a division between the state and its citizens, rather than conflating the two, and they understand the interests of the state as being the accumulation of power by any means available as an end in itself, rather than taking a more benevolent interpretation of its actions.
One might reasonably suggest that both sides are adopting the line that is most likely to convince their audience. That’s certainly true of the defenders of the security system, but I’m less convinced that it works for people like Porter: of course those who already distrust the state instinctively will tend to agree with him, but there’s a clear risk that these arguments will appear to others as paranoid, and a matter of abandoning the rational calculation of risk and precaution in favour of what Thucydides might term the honour motivation, i.e. pursuing a principle (civil liberties) at the expense of real interests. Porter, just like his opponents, puts forward an image of a rational, instrumental state, and that’s what sticks if you don’t share his suspicion of all state activities. That is to say, the argument that the state is rationally pursuing its own interests by accumulating power over its citizens tends to reinforce the idea that state actions are rational and instrumental – and if you then reject the idea that the state is interested only in accumulating power over its citizens, then you may be more likely to accept the surveillance as a rational response to a real threat.
Porter et al might be better off following the Thucydidean intuition that states do not always pursue their own interests (even if they know what they are), or pursue them consistently. It’s hard to see how the extension of electronic surveillance reflects ‘honour’ in any meaningful way – but it undoubtedly reflects fear. It’s there in Rifkind’s account of past developments: once upon a time, we were worried about a tiny number of Soviet agents and IRA terrorists, but now anyone is a potential threat – not just foreigners, but any of our own citizens. Implicit in this mindset: we can’t possibly keep track of everyone, but if any of them gets through the net and causes an atrocity we’ll be blamed, so we have to try. Arguably this is a more paranoid viewpoint than Porter’s sense that the state’s sole purpose in life is to increase its power over everyone; it is the politics of fear, not only in the use of fear to justify extending surveillance (that’s a familiar enough theme) but in the way that the whole process is motivated by fear of the unknown threat, submerged in the general population. And, as Thucydides depicts very clearly, decisions motivated by fear are even more likely to be ill-informed, disproportionate and confused, with negative consequences. Even at the best of times, as Ulrich Beck has documented, humans are generally bad at estimating and evaluating risks; under conditions of stress, that ability deteriorates further.
There’s a case to be made that we might be better off, or at least know where we stand, with a ruthlessly rational state apparatus that’s wholly devoted to extending its power over the population, rather than with a terrified, over-reacting state apparatus that’s desperately grasping every means available to try to fight its imagined enemies and stave off imagined disasters.