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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There is a world in which the following would be a sure-fire hit… A panel of respected and yet suitably media-friendly academics: ancient historian, International Relations theorist, U.S. Naval War College person, Straussian. John Oliver as host controls the ever-spinning Wheel of Bewildering Succession of Events. It stops randomly on a moment – US Election! Brexit! European Economic Meltdown! Labour Party Crisis! Syria! Swift/Hiddleston! – and the panelists take it in turns* to show how a particular passage of Thucydides illuminates the situation. The key point is that each passage can be played only once, so no repetitive invocation of ‘The strong do what they want, the weak suffer what they must” as if the Melian Dialogue is the only thing Thucydides wrote**; you need to make a strategic choice whether to play one of the familiar passages as early as possible for low points, or hang back and risk someone else grabbing it first.
This does need a suitable name… I’m currently inclined to go with the meme and call it The Thucydides Trap – but only if there can be an actual Trap, depositing players in a tank full of mutated sea bass or sending them into exile for ten years for doing something egregious like misattributing quotations, e.g. the ‘Justice will not come to Athens…’ thing, or invading Iraq.
I think this would work. In the meantime, I’m getting ready for a panel discussion on ‘Die Aktualität von Thukydides’ as part of the FU Berlin’s International Week (see https://www.topoi.org/event/35076/), and having now redrafted my notes at least seven times in last two days in the light of changing events, the idea of just being presented with a topic to talk about holds some appeal…
*Quickest to the buzzer would be unfair on the Straussians, most of whom seem to be somewhat elderly.
**For obvious reasons, Realists and Neorealists don’t win this game very often…
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Posted in Musings, Research in Progress, tagged Graham Allison, Henry Kissinger, history, international relations, Niall Ferguson, political theory, Thucydides, wine on December 3, 2015|
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Misquotations of Thucydides on Twitter, Nos.73 and 74… Nestled in among the continuing deluge of mis-spelt variations on ‘The sacred of hippiness is freedox…’ quotes – most of these are bots, I assume, changing the spelling slightly for copyright reasons – the discerning observer may occasionally spot a few new variants; yes, I’m starting to feel like one of those obsessive bird-watchers, improbably excited by the possible sighting of something that’s distinguishable from a common-or-garden variety of misquotation only by a slightly different pattern of wing stripe. But this is one of the few occasions I get to be a properly scholarly pedant, or pedantic scholar…
First up is something I’ve spotted a couple of times before without getting round to looking it up: “The peoples of the Mediterranean began to emerge from barbarism when they learned to cultivate the olive and the vine.” Perfectly innocuous statement, indeed more or less a staple of introductions to the Mediterranean environment and the rise of classical civilisation – but nagging feeling that I can’t actually recall it in Thucydides’ Archaeology (which is the obvious place to look). (more…)
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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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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”. (more…)
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