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Posts Tagged ‘China’

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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Before anyone says anything, yes, I know it was a mistake to search for ‘Thucydides’ on Twitter. And to keep searching every couple of days. And to start replying to all the people who insist on quoting the line from William F. Butler’s 1889 biography of General Charles Gordon – “the society that separates its scholars from its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools”, or words to that effect, so bring back national service and/or replace all the professors with retired military men – as if it was written by Thucydides, to correct them. Whether or not it was a mistake to embark on trying to create an autonomous twitter account, The Thucydiocy Bot (@Thucydiocy) to do all the searching and responding for me, time will only tell (especially once I’ve worked out the technology to make it genuinely autonomous). But there really seems to be only one place this is leading… (more…)

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Tensions continue to rise between Russia and Nato, while Ukraine edges closer to civil war; the question of the best way for the West to deal with Iran returns after a period of relative calm and quiet; looking further into the future, the possibility of confrontation between a rising China and a declining United States looms large. Little wonder that people, and especially politicians, look nervously around for guidance in the midst of all this uncertainty, and International Relations specialists rush to give it to them. Little wonder, perhaps, that the latter return time and again to Thucydides, long established as the original and still relevant authority on relations between states and the origins of war, to ground their claims to offer an authoritative account of the likely or inevitable course of events.

One key theme in Thucydides’ account of the War between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians is the balance between inevitability and contingency. (more…)

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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… (more…)

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It seems that Thucydides is starting to infiltrate China: back in November (I heard about this only in the last couple of weeks, courtesy of @JakeNabel), President Xi Jinping participated in a session at the Berggruen Institute for Governance’s conference on ‘Understanding China’. His opening address can be read at http://berggruen.org/topics/a-conversation-with-president-xi-at-big-s-understanding-china-conference, and after a hilarious put-down of the idea that a bunch of world leaders could possibly ‘understand’ China as the result of a brief conference – “As we Chinese say, one needs to read ten thousand books and journey ten thousand miles to gain understanding” (yay, world figure recommends reading!) – we find the following gem within his broad overview of China’s prospects:

We all to need to work together to avoid the Thucydides trap – destructive tensions between an emerging power and established powers, or between established powers themselves.

(more…)

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I’ve only just come across this example of the use of Thucydides in a discussion of contemporary international relations (thanks to Ben Earley for the reference): according to an article in the Financial Times by Graham Allison, Director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University, relations between China and the USA need to be understood in terms of the ‘Thucydides trap’, the inevitable tension that arises when a rising power rivals a ruling power:

Thucydides wrote of these events: “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this inspired in Sparta that made war inevitable.” Note the two crucial variables: rise and fear. The rapid emergence of any new power disturbs the status quo. In the 21st century, as Harvard University’s Commission on American National Interests has observed about China, “a diva of such proportions cannot enter the stage without effect”. Never has a nation moved so far, so fast, up the international rankings on all dimensions of power. In a generation, a state whose gross domestic product was smaller than Spain’s has become the second-largest economy in the world. If we were betting on the basis of history, the answer to the question about Thucydides’s trap appears obvious. In 11 of 15 cases since 1500 where a rising power emerged to challenge a ruling power, war occurred.

It does make an interesting change to see the US characterised as Sparta rather than Athens, the normal comparison; (more…)

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