Catching up on last week’s edition of Die Zeit – a hectic trip to Trier, of which more shortly, followed by desperate efforts to catch up with the overgrown garden and the burgeoning pile of emails – I find further evidence that the idea of Thucydides as all-purpose authority on international relations and global politics is infiltrating German discourse on these topics – or at any rate the pages of Die Zeit, whose Radakteur, Josef Joffe, has some form in this regard: see comments below this blog. In an article entitled ‘Kann man Kriege verhindern?’, which also draws in Ian Morris’ claims for the useful and productive nature of war, Andrea Boehm and Gero von Randow offer a conventional reading of Thucydides’ account of the causes of and motives for conflict:
The face of war has changed over the centuries, but the motives for war have stayed the same. What the ancient historian Thucydides described in his work The Peloponnesian War is still valid today. For example, that the causes of and reasons for [Anlass and Ursache] a war must be differentiated. Whatever form the trigger may take – a box on the ear, a fall through a window, an assassination, a law related to language as occurred not long ago in the Crimea or a murderous kidnapping as that of the three Israeli students recently – the central motives remain those which Thucydides established over 2000 years ago: fear, honour and interest.
After some general comments about the different forms that these different emotions may take, and the different ways in which they may be aroused, the authors apply the lesson directly to the Russian president:
The motives specified by Thucydides are quite evident in the case of Vladimir Putin. His political strategy is driven by the fear that his country could lose still more influence. Putin wants to demonstrate that Russia is beyond doubt a major power once again, which can if necessary defend its interests with violence. And if he sees an opportunity to do this, he seizes it: fear, honour, interest.
It isn’t the authors’ main point, but one of the things this summary brings home to me is how far the application of this Thucydidean idea depends, in most cases, on assuming that the decision-making process is unified and clear. It is so much easier to think of this in terms of a single individual; the model then has enough complexity to avoid accusations of excessive simplification, with this mixture of potentially conflicting motives and emotions rather than a single straightforward drive, but it isn’t too complicated. It works very nicely for autocracies, where only the decision of one man really counts; when it comes to other forms of polity, it’s necessary to treat the ruling group or even the entire state as if it is a single individual, driven by these different emotions but ultimately capable of reaching a decision about what to do in the given circumstances and hence of behaving in a rational manner – this is how for example ‘the United States’ and ‘China’ are discussed in the ‘Thucydides trap’ literature, and it’s been a fixture in IR since Thucydides was first adopted in the Cold War.
But it is of course only a partial representation of Thucydides’ own approach. Yes, he ascribes these motives to the contending parties, especially to the Spartans (or to be precise, he causes these motives to be ascribed to them by one of his speakers) – but he also offers detailed accounts of deliberation and decision-making, in which it is made clear how these motives are effective to different degrees and in different proportions with different individuals within that society. This is where rhetoric steps in, as the means by which some try to manipulate the reasoning of others; but it’s also clear that even without such interventions the relationship between different motives is not stable and so the outcome is not predictable – fears can multiply fears, hope can persist beyond any reason (think of Melos) and over-optimism can escalate out of control (think of the Sicilian debate).
Which brings us back to the old question of whether, as Boehm and von Randow imply, Thucydides supplies us with the tools to predict the likely future actions of politicians and even states, or whether – given the complexity of the decision-making processes in reality – he is realistic enough to offer us only the tools to help make sense of events in retrospect, or at best as they are happening.