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Posts Tagged ‘international relations’

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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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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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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The great thing about Google NGram – which, if you haven’t previously encountered it, is a rather neat online tool for counting the frequency of different words and phrases in books published since 1800 and displaying the results in graphical form – is that it feels a bit like a game, where you get to play with lots of different parameters and see what happens*, but can still be chalked up as a research activity; just the thing if you’re feeling slightly under the weather but not ill enough to take the day off.** I remain a little sceptical about some of the results (especially as books mentioning classical examples are always such a small part of the total corpus of publications, and I don’t currently feel well enough to calculate whether a shift in references to Thucydides from 0.0001958557% of the total corpus in 1940 to 0.0002307328% in 1945 is statistically significant or not), but if you keep in mind that it’s all about relative prominence then you’re less likely to place undue weight on the results, and can just have fun.* (more…)

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I’ve never seen the whole of The Phantom Menace,* only odd five- or ten-minute snatches here and there, generally with the sound turned down, but over the years this has been enough to build up an overall impression of the film. This has tended to confirm the comments of various critics that it’s basically a number of show-piece action sequences interspersed with long discussions of galactic politics and trade embargoes with the Naboo, that could easily have been edited down into something a bit punchier. Some critics have said similar things about Thucydides – though in this case the temptation is to skip the battles and action sequences** to get to the meaty political debates, rather than vice versa. There is also, thankfully, no equivalent of Jar Jar Binks. Thucydides doesn’t really do comedy, even if it seriously cuts his margins on the merchandising.

How should one read Thucydides? Or, as I put the question at the end of the last blog post, do you really have to read all of it? (more…)

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Daniel Drezner (@dandrezner) – professor of International Politics at Tufts and author of the excellent Theories of International Politics and Zombies – has just started a Twitter hashtag #IRvalentines, imagining what different theorists of International Relations might have said to their nearest and dearest. Obviously it’s hard to resist the temptation to extend the range of Thucydides quotes beyond the one he suggested, and so obviously I haven’t – but it is slightly disturbing how quickly a pattern sets in: hard-edged quote about realism, power relations, general nastiness, off-set by the claim that this time with you it’s different. Obviously I’m reacting to the selection of quotes normally adopted by IR people, which do largely involve the most brutal expressions of might is right, but I suddenly had the alarming feeling that Thucydides might as well be writing taglines for 50 Shades of Grey, such is his apparent concern with power and its abuses (and thanks to @apothetae, I cannot now think of this in any terms other than #50ShadesOfThucydides). It’s one of the points where the quotes do seem most unrepresentative of what Thucydides is really about; the effect of his narrative is precisely to undercut the apparently straightforward sentiments of the quotable bits, which generally represent the Athenians or other actors rather than Thucydides himself. If we characterise his underlying attitude, I suspect it’s a world-weary recognition of the way things are in reality – why does love have to be so sad? why do we always hurt the one we love? there’s a thin line between love and hate… – with a dogged optimism that, if only we can learn from our mistakes, there’s still a chance that things could work out next time…

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