If International Relations theorists are going to continue citing Thucydides – and there’s no real sign of a let-up any time soon – then at least it’s a good sign if more of them have read more than just the Melian Dialogue. In a new article in The National Interest on the prospects for US-China relations, ‘Thucydides Trap 2.0’, Patrick Porter not only cites some ideas from the Corcyrean stasis but also distances himself from crass evocations of ancient Greece: “That Thucydides did not lay out a sustained explicit theory, and that his opinion is hard to extract from the arguments he recreated, does not stop people from ransacking his history for lessons.” Of course, that’s a conventional rhetorical move to imply that this reading of Thucydides in terms of contemporary lessons is complex and sophisticated and can be trusted…
Porter’s argument, as evident from the title, sets off from the idea of the ‘Thucydides Trap’, the inevitability of conflict between an established power and an upstart rival (see previous posts). History shows that such ‘power transitions’ do not inevitably lead to conflict; the true ‘trap’ is rather an internal one, as Athens’ rising power led to excessive ambition and poor decision-making:
Thucydides made a different lamentation that should resonate for the United States: about the way Athens’ foreign policy disaster was born in civil strife. Growing power led to a loosening of restraint and the corruption of language. The ‘root cause’ was not the hegemonic challenger’s rise, but Athens’ own growth, generating a lust for power and destructive politics with ‘national security’ as the totem. Foreign-policy debate suffered. In the debased rhetoric of the time, hardliners and opportunists treated the prudential regard for limits as unpatriotic cowardice.
In Book Three, Thucydides’ description of wartime rhetoric bears resemblance to today’s gridlocked politics. ‘Words had to change their ordinary meaning….Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question, inaptness to act on any…The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected.’ An aristocrat exiled by the people’s vote, Thucydides portrayed a volatile Athenian population misled by demagogues that whipped it up. Even allowing for his disdain for unruly democracy, we can recognize in his History a useful warning. Power generates an obsession with status and the projection of strength, mutates into imperial swagger, and coarsens domestic politics. Domestic political spite in the imperial capital leads to moral and strategic failure, precisely because it makes sober debate difficult.
There’s a certain amount of sleight of hand here, conscious or not; the casual reader would quite reasonably conclude that the words quoted from Book III were explicitly offered as a description of Athens, rather than being an account of a completely different city that Thucydides intended to serve as a paradigm of the consequences of stasis across Greece. It’s a perfectly reasonable reading of the debasement of political rhetoric and the failures of deliberation in Athens – but it’s slightly strange that it isn’t developed using the more direct examples of the Mytilene Debate and the decision to send the expedition to Sicily. Is that perhaps precisely because those are debates, in which the outcome was uncertain and hence could have turned out differently, whereas Porter seems keen to imply that catastrophe is the inevitable result of such internal divisions and debased political discourse? One might even wonder whether there is a superstitious evasion of the example of Nicias, given that Porter’s basic message is a rather Nician one – “A climate of hysterical accusation prevents the formation of a party of caution, and impedes the measured consideration of hard choices.”
The strangest aspect of this piece is the use of the phrase “suicide”. To be fair, “superpower suicide” appears only in the title and might not be Porter’s doing, but he certainly evokes the idea: “The real snare in [Thucydides’] History was not the murder of great powers, but their suicide.” (It may be wholly coincidental, but this immediately brought to mind the remark of an early C20 French historian whose name I can’t for the moment remember that the Roman Empire didn’t die a natural death, it was assassinated). In what sense did Athens commit suicide? It didn’t choose to destroy itself; the problem was rather excessive hope in the prospects for success and a glorious future, and various failures in short-term strategy and planning. I suppose this is rather a matter of ‘effective’ suicide, pursuing an obviously dangerous course of action in the face of all common sense and good advice – but surely part of the message of Thucydides’ account is that the decision to send an expedition to Sicily was finely balanced, even if it ended in disaster – not as a matter of inevitability, but as a result of various different circumstances, some foreseeable but others not, that made it seem a poor decision in retrospect.
Porter’s main concern is the absence of a ‘party of caution’ and the domination of bellicose, hubristic rhetoric in US foreign policy circles. The Athenian case is rather different; clearly there was a party of caution, in the form of Nicias and his supporters, but they lost the argument. Thucydides may well have intended us to conclude that things would have been better if they had won, but there’s enough evidence in his portrayal of Nicias’ actions in Sicily to raise doubts about his overall judgement, and one might equally conclude that the fatal step was the decision to recall Alcibiades. The idea of a straightforward “if X, then Y will follow” principle – whether “if rising power confronts established power then war”, or “if internal divisions and debased political rhetoric in context of power transition then war” – is quite alien to his sensibility.
ADDENDUM: Dr Porter has contacted me to express his unhappiness with the tone of this blog post, and to provide a link to his response: http://offshorebalancer.wordpress.com/2014/05/07/arguing-about-thucydides/ It was not my intention to imply that his intentions were in any way dishonest or demagogic, but on reading his post and re-reading mine I can see how it could come across like that – and I am horrified to see how much I do appear to be playing the superior classicist, scolding any non-classicist who dares to comment on one of ‘our’ texts, which couldn’t be further from my convictions. I think there are some issues of different disciplinary discourses here, but at the same time I certainly could have expressed myself more carefully and clearly – I had not actually forgotten the golden rule that if you comment on a piece published online, the author is likely to read your comments, but in retrospect I didn’t pay enough attention to this when writing, and I have written to him to apologise for this.