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Resistance is useless! The zombies are coming! About eighteen months ago, I suggested that the impact of my research into the modern reception of Thucydides might be measured by how far discussions of world affairs in the British media remained uncontaminated by the ‘Thucydides Trap’ meme that crops up whenever someone in the US talks about China. Well, so much for that. Earlier this month, the phrase turned up at the end of a letter in the London Review of Books – without any explanation, suggesting that not only the author but the Letters Editor were treating it as a sufficiently familiar idea not to need any context – and now Gideon Rachman (who really deserves a lot of the blame for publicising the idea on this side of the Atlantic) has opened a review essay in the Financial Times on US-China relations books with Graham Allison’s new book-length version of his theory, prompting the sub-editor to include it in the headline. Rachman raises some questions about Allison’s argument, in particular the familiar issue of whether nuclear weapons have changed the whole dynamic of such (alleged) great power relationships – but he takes Allison’s reading of Thucydides as read. Sigh. (more…)

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What more is there to say about the Thucydides Trap? The issues with this as a reading of Thucydides and as a model for current US-China relations have been quite extensively discussed (see e.g. T. Greer’s excellent contribution to the current zenpundit.com Thucydides roundtable, or Seth Jaffe’s National Interest piece last year, if you’re sick of my frequent comments on this issue). And yet it keeps coming; as I’ve remarked before, any mention of tensions in the South China Seas prompts a flurry of re-tweeting of Graham Allison’s original article in The Atlantic, while this week the concept has been given a big push in another Atlantic article, this time by James Fallows on China’s ‘great leap backwards’ and the threat this poses to the USA, followed up by a blog post by Fallows in response to Trump’s cack-handed and provocative tweeting about the situation: “But if historians and citizens look back on our era as the transition point, at which 40 years of relatively successful management of U.S.-China relations gave way to a reckless focus on grievances and differences,tweets like the one today will be part of their sad record.”

What’s most striking about this latest intervention, (more…)

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A further thought on the Thucydides Trap idea, that’s just a bit too long to develop properly on Twitter… Insofar as Thucydides actually holds such a conception, it’s firmly rooted in the specific historical situation of the confrontation and competing interests of Athens and Sparta, including the distinctive characters of those two states. That is, it’s the restless, energetic, ambitious nature of the Athenians (as set out by the Corinthians in the debate at Sparta in Book 1) that both explains why they have risen to a position of power and makes the current situation volatile; it’s the slow, cautious, conservative and risk-averse nature of the Spartans that has allowed the Athenian rise. The “truest cause” of the war can’t be reduced to the bare dynamics of the confrontation – established power versus rising power – alone; but of course that’s precisely what the ‘Thucydides Trap’ does, setting up historical analogies and making predictions on the basis solely of abstract structural similarities.

If we bring ‘national character’ back in, as a way of talking about general tendencies in foreign policy and how different states will behave in a given situation – and keeping in mind the Thucydidean point that it’s never absolutely uniform or fixed – then the great potential US-China confrontation looks somewhat different. It’s difficult to imagine a ‘rising power’ that looks less Athenian than China: slow, steady, cautious, risk-averse. Meanwhile, the US certainly has its cautious, risk-averse phases, especially when it comes to dealing with other major powers – but it also has a track record of reckless military aggression that couldn’t be less Spartan. Arguably this makes the situation more volatile, depending on the regime in power, but it certainly directs attention towards the ‘established’ power as the likely source of trouble, whereas a lot of the articles discussing the South China Sea as the crucible of WWIII seem to accept US hegemony as legitimate because already existing, and every Chinese action as gratuitously aggressive because they’re the rising power – they must be the pushy ambitious ones, as they’re playing the Athenians…

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The ‘Thucydides Trap’, having infiltrated both Australasia and China from its incubation in the USA, now appears to have turned up in the UK, with a piece in the Independent (not sure if it’s just on the webpage, or… Actually, is there anything else?) entitled ‘The Next World War Will Be In The South China Sea. Ask Thucydides’. It’s our old friend, Graham Allison’s analysis of the confrontation of the hegemonic power and the rising power, with added apocalyptic noises about the imminence of nuclear war (whereas the role of the nuclear deterrent in reducing the impact of the supposed dynamic of Great Power rivalry is something many critics have put forward as an objection to Allison’s transhistorical claims) and some especially amusing asides. “And as has happened in international summitry since the time of Pericles, sweet talk, fraternal visitations and hearty dinners proceeded in tandem with steely military build-ups  on both sides.” Yes, Thucydides is full of that sort of thing.

I live in hope that someone will ask me, or someone else from the classical side, to write a piece on why this is a dubious reading of Thucydides; I do have a draft that I’ve been meaning to finish at some point… In the meantime, I thought it might be helpful to post links to the various things I’ve written on this in the last couple of years, in one easy-to-access post…

The Thucydides Trap (October 2012)

The Tao of Thucydides (April 2014)

The Real Thucydides Trap (May 2014)

Who Laid the Thucydides Trap? (August 2015)

Stuck in the Middle (September 2015)

Absence of Evidence (October 2015)

 

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Apologies for the lack of posts recently; partly, the usual effects of the beginning of term crossed with a series of cold/flu bugs, and partly because I’ve spent the last week as guest tweeter for the @WeTheHumanities account, attempting to demonstrate the continuing vitality of the humanities. I’m not sure what it may mean that the comments which got the greatest level of response were those focused on artisan foodstuffs, followed by complaints about the difficulty of combining domestic chores and the academic life, while carefully crafted provocations about the possible limitations of the sorts of knowledge our disciplines can produce, compared with the apparently solid and practical findings of the sciences and social sciences, apparently fell on deaf ears – or, people just didn’t want to go there.

Still, I benefitted from thinking through some of these issues, and I’m delighted to announce that I’ve developed a completely new approach to the ‘impact’ of my Thucydides research. This is an area that has often made me feel rather uneasy (more…)

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Just to prove that Australians don’t remotely have a monopoly on invoking Thucydides in the antipodes – and one would scarcely expect that they should, given they share with other former British dominions a common inheritance (however differently problematic) of Old World classical interests and (perhaps more pertinent) a common association with Thucydides, the Aegean and war through the Dardanelles Campaign in WWI, hence a tendency to quote the Funeral Oration on public war monuments – I’ve just been pointed towards an interesting paper by Vangelis Vitalis, currently New Zealand’s ambassador to the European Union and NATO (and a few other places): Thucydides, the Peloponnesian War and Small State Foreign Policy in the 21st Century: Lessons for New Zealand, originally given as a lecture to the Centre for Defence and Strategic Studies in Canberra in 2011.

Vitalis opens with some conventional remarks about Thucydides’ “timeless” political wisdom – the Melian Dialogue. inevitably, with citations of Kaplan, Huntington (both of whom should ring a few alarm bells) and W.R. Connor – and the standard comparison of the period of the Peloponnesian War to today’s multi-polar, more or less anarchic international scene. His focus is rather more interesting, however: the behaviour and strategies of the “small states” caught in the cross-fire between Athens and Sparta (more…)

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The idea of the ‘Thucydides Trap’ has now established itself quite firmly in the journalistic mind as the defining dynamic of relations between the USA and China; a clear example of the power of the name of ‘Thucydides’, and the ways in which a meme can be created and disseminated in the age of social media. It’s entirely understandable that some people in China are therefore starting to pay a little attention to the topic; I reported on the first stirrings a year or so back (The Tao of Thucydides), and there is now an interesting article on news.xinhuanet.com, taken from ChinaDaily: Thucydides Trap Not Etched In Stone. I’m grateful to Joseph Cotterill (@jsphctrl) for the reference, and for the information that 修西得底斯 (Xiūxīdédǐsī) = Thucydides, 希罗多德 (Xīluōduōdé) = Herodotus and 色诺芬 (Sènuòfēn) = Xenophon. Googling 修西得底斯 produces over 690,000 results; true, most of the first hundred or so are just dictionary definitions, but if Google Translate is to be trusted it does look as if there are some potentially interesting discussions, even if a lot of them seem to be focused on the Thucydides Trap rather than anything more original. (more…)

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