A recent discussion of the likely foreign policy tendencies of Malcolm Turnbull, Australia’s new prime minister as of yesterday, cited an earlier article that included the fact that he’s been known to cite Thucydides:
Turnbull is alive to such risks, and he seems to favor a conciliatory path to resolving U.S.-China tensions. He reviewed quite favorably a book by a leading Australian academic arguing that the U.S. should give up its primacy and instead find an accommodation with China in which the two countries share power in the Asia-Pacific (Turnbull also notes in passing that Beijing’s South China Sea territorial claims are not “without any legal merit”). There is a strong streak of realism in Turnbull, who has quoted the Thucydides line that “justice is only to be found as between equals in power. As for the rest, the strong do as they will and the weak suffer as they must.”
Interestingly, several of the people who’ve mentioned this piece on Twitter have chosen to emphasise the Thucydides aspect, and it’s difficult to avoid the sense that this is operating as some kind of code – with remarks such as “this sheds a different light on MT”. In the US, of course, Thucydides is part of the general discourse of political and military affairs, encompassing politicians, journalists, high-ranking officers and IR academics, so such a reference on its own wouldn’t mean much; it all depends on how precisely it’s employed. In the UK, outside specialist academic fields, evoking a classical author signals in most cases class privilege and pretentiousness (whether or not self-conscious). For the moment, I can only speculate about the Australian scene, and would be very interested in views from any readers based there. Is this “different light on MT” likely to be good or bad?
Here are some initial possibilities. (1) Highlighting references to Thucydides communicates, in the British style, class- and/or education-based superiority – he’s clearly not your average man in the Sydney street, but that could also imply that he brings a bit of class after Abbott. (2) This is a sign of a Serious Person who’s going to engage with Important Issues in a serious, considered manner; it could imply actual expertise in international relations and military matters, or at least knowing the right names to drop. (3) Specifically, it could be taken as an indication of familiarity with the US discourse in these fields (note that in the articles cited above it comes up in the context of relations with China, and the ubiquitous Thucydides Trap – but also sets up an implicit distinction, as Turnbull looks to the Melian Dialogue rather than citing the Trap. (4) Finally, it could be taken as an indication of actual or potential policy preferences, revealing someone who is, as the article suggests, a realist in the pragmatic sense rather than that of the Neocons – recognising the strength of China, rather than assuming the invincibility of western power and its right to intervene.
This isn’t about Turnbull’s own knowledge of Thucydides, which actually seems to be quite deep and sophisticated, to judge from a speech he gave to the Classical Association of New South Wales a couple of years ago (which might be worth closer analysis if his foreign policy decisions end up taking an interesting course…). It’s rather about the public discourse in different countries – and the suspicion that, with one obvious blond-haired exception, UK politicians might be tempted to self-censor rather than admit familiarity with something so ideologically suspect. This seems especially true for those on the left. I’m not convinced that Thucydides is inherently right-wing (and I would be working on an essay to this effect, if I ever actually had time), but that’s the dominant view, reinforced by his regular deployment in conjunction with US military enterprises. However, insofar as familiarity with Thucydides (or at least his slogans) can be taken as a sign of seriousness in foreign affairs, with undertones of ruthless pragmatism and lack of illusions, maybe this is something that left-wing politicians should actually be doing more often, not least to build some common ground with the US political-military establishment. Paging Hilary Benn…
It’s increasingly clear that Turnbull’s premiership is going to be defined, at least in part, by his liking for Thucydides – and that he is playing up to this. First there’s this cartoon from First Dog on the Moon:
So: basic argument is that it’s refreshing to have a PM who uses words of more than one syllable – but look what mutli-syllable is chosen. And then to reinforce it. Turnbull himself turns once again to Thucydides in a tribute today to war correspondents:
Arguably, the first war correspondent, arguably the world’s first historian, was of course Thucydides who wrote and who was a participant in the Peloponnesian War. Although, I’d say to the Admirals and the Generals, he was also a General so he was multi-tasking – perhaps that wouldn’t be allowed, wouldn’t be acceptable nowadays.
And a little further on, talking of Charles Bean:
I mentioned Thucydides earlier, the Athenian General and writer who wrote his history, the Peloponnesian Wars and, you know when you reflect on how Bean was chastised by editors for not being romantic enough in his coverage and often reproached himself for not having enough poetry in his copy – preferring to set out the facts. I can just quote to you from Thucydides’ work, two and a half thousand years ago, and he wrote:
“The absence of romance in my history will, I fear, detract somewhat from its interest but if it be judged useful by those who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation to the future I shall be content.”
So there is a long thread of telling the truth from Thucydides right down to our war correspondents of today.