Posts Tagged ‘international relations’

Ever since the days of Thucydides, states have used force to get what they want, and have expected weaker states to comply with their wishes. Ever since the days of Thucydides, they have claimed that this is all perfectly justifiable as the way of the world. Ever since the days of Thucydides, men have made confident claims that war is easy, straightforward, risk-free, simply an opportunity to demonstrate one’s greatness and reorder the world in a more congenial manner. Ever since the days of Thucydides, international relations academics and military strategists have spouted cliches like “Ever since the days of Thucydides…” as a cheap source of borrowed authority and gravitas. I just don’t get the part where this is supposed to be reassuring, even if it is delivered by a chiselled jaw and Action Man stare. (more…)

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Brexit negotiations. Yes, we’re still replaying the Melian Dialogue, with the UK still stuck in the attitude of the Melians, offering the equivalent of “Surely there’s advantage to both of us in being friends rather than enemies?” and “Can’t you see that this will damage you as well as us?” as if these are knock-down arguments. My final-year Thucydides class has been having some really interesting discussions over the last couple of weeks about Pericles’ manipulative rhetoric and parallels to the Leave campaign – offered spontaneously by the students, before anyone puts me onto that government watch list – so I’m tempted to skip forward to the Melian Dialogue while these issues are still fresh. But, realistically, the negotiations aren’t likely to be going much better in February, when we’re scheduled to get to Book V, so the issues will still be fresh enough… (more…)

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When I first began putting together a research project on the modern reception and influence of Thucydides, and writing funding applications, the big ‘hook’ – the thing that was going to persuade reviewers of the contemporary relevance of the theme – was Thucydides’ infiltration of the G.W. Bush White House. Irving Kristol’s claim that he was the favourite author of the Neocons, the relationship between Donald Kagan and the Project for a New American Century, and – from a less bellicose perspective, Colin Powell’s love of the (fake) Thucydides quote about manifestations of power and restraint, were not intended to be the central focus of the project, but they showed the importance of understanding the context of such readings, the traditions of reception and reinterpretation that made powerful people think, or at least claim, that Thucydides speaks to the present.

Here we are again, with a new article on ‘Why everyone in the White House is reading Thucydides’ suggesting the Obama adminstration’s relative restraint in such matters (occasional references from Martin Dempsey when Chair of the Joint Chiefs) was just a blip.* (more…)

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I’ve written on a number of occasions about Graham Allison’s ‘Thucydides Trap’ idea and why I disagree with it – indeed, I imagine that this is why the viewing stats for this blog have risen appreciably in recent weeks – but there’s nothing like reading someone else’s critical but largely wrong-headed review to prompt a bit of reflection. Arthur Waldron’s review in the Straits Times (which I first encountered via SupChina – and is that the worst name for a site ever?) has been widely circulated on the Twitter (at any rate by the normal standards of Thucydides-related references) with a measurable atmosphere of glee and Schadenfreude. It seems that a fair number of people want Allison to be not just wrong but catastrophically wrong – Ian Buruma’s New Yorker review is just as critical of Allison but much more measured, and hasn’t been nearly so widely cited as a result – and Waldron gives them what they want.

Waldron’s opening sentences are brutal – and frankly bizarre: (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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What would Thucydides think of the current debate about the banning of the burkini in various French coastal resorts in the name of secularism? On the one hand, there is his notorious scepticism about religion and its manifestations, which, coupled with his equally notorious conservatism and indifference towards women, might have inclined him to side with those who see the costume as a symbol of intolerance and ignorance. On the other hand, there are the words he puts into the mouth of Pericles in praise of Athens as a liberal state where people’s private lives and behaviour are their own business so long as they obey the law, coupled with his keen ear for the hypocrisy of politicians and the lamentable tendency for society to fragment into factionalism and mutual intolerance.** (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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