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Posts Tagged ‘international relations’

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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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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