Ideas matter. Perceptions, expectations and beliefs, however detached they may be from reality, matter. This is clear enough from the events of the last year, with the votes in the UK and the USA; and, for all that the ‘Thucydides Trap’ (currently enjoying another burst of publicity) presents global events as the predictable outcome of impersonal dynamics in the relationship between objectively-defined established and rising powers, it’s clear from Thucydides’ account. The events of the Peloponnesian War were shaped above all by the desires, fears, assumptions and misconceptions of individuals – with disastrous consequences. (more…)
Posts Tagged ‘Russia’
A quick addendum to my previous post; it was reassuring to hear that Thucydides has indeed started to be cited in the context of the Ukraine and Crimea, in a letter to the Financial Times published in Wednesday from the former British ambassador to Russia, Tony Brenton. Final paragraph:
It will be argued that big states no longer decide the destinies of small states in this way, and that Russia’s action is a throwback to a now extinct era of “hard power”. I’m afraid it has always been a fond delusion that great power politics today operate any differently from in all previous times. Thucydides is still right.
Melian Dialogue revealing fundamental and universal principles of human existence, check. Thucydides as the pitiless, illusion-free analyst of the way things really are, rather than the way we wish they were, check. Thucydides as a stick with which to beat the optimistic “this time it’s different” brigade, check. All we need now is someone to point out what happened next; is Russia about to embark on its own Sicilian Expedition, drunk with the hubris exhibited in its treatment of the Ukrainians?
Incidentally, I was asked, after I’d mentioned this letter at the close of the recent Warburg conference on The Afterlife of Herodotus and Thucydides (on which I really ought to blog if I can find any time), why I found it reassuring that this letter had appeared. Not, I should stress, because I think we all ought to be discussing Thucydides at this time, but simply because it confirmed my predication. IR people (and, clearly, ambassadors) being what they are, Thucydides’ account will be found to be relevant and useful in more or less any historical situation in the future…
Back in 2003 I marched against the imminent invasion of Iraq with a home-made banner saying “Historical Analogies Are The Last Refuge Of Those Who Have Lost The Argument”, protesting in my own small and deeply pretentious way against the mobilisation of the rhetoric of ‘Saddam is Hitler, we mustn’t repeat the mistakes of Appeasement’ that was helping to drive the Blair/Bush crusade. Extensive engagement over the last eight years or so with readings of Thucydides have done nothing to reduce my suspicion of these kinds of crude, self-serving comparisons, despite the fact that Thucydides makes the strongest case for seeking to learn from the past in exactly this way – this is an issue that one cannot help but consider at length. There is a persistent habit among devoted readers of Thucydides of recognising oneself and/or one’s times in his account, especially in times of crisis – as well as a persistent tradition of claiming his authority to legitimise and publicise one’s own theories of global politics – cf. the Thucydides Trap thing with regard to China.
And there are times – especially times of crisis – when it is easy to see why these habits persist, and hard to resist joining in. (more…)