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Posts Tagged ‘Thucydides trap’

Doom! Doom!

What is the point of these proliferating ‘Thucydides and coronavirus’ takes? Besides giving different academics a chance to get an article into one or other prestigious publication, obviously – never let a good crisis go to waste… This was one of the key themes that emerged in the course of an online discussion this morning with at least some of my final-year Thucydides class, for the final session of the year (and I can’t quite believe how emotional I feel about having a chance to interact with some students, rather than just creating discussion topics that no one comments on and launching audio files into the void…).

If there is a point besides self-advertisement, it’s not a consistent one. Some takes seem focused on reassurance – if only that Thucydides was able to make sense of such events, 2500 years ago, so we should feel okay about it. Others take the opposite tack, seeing the new Plague as the thing that will finally trigger the Thucydides Trap they’ve been confidently predicting for some years – or as something that will sound the death-knell for democracy (whatever happened to the fourth century..?). It makes me feel like a bit of an outlier, since – in my contribution to the ongoing flood, an interview for a podcast at the War on the Rocks website – I took the line that the Plague seems to have had remarkably little effect on the ability of the Athenians to wage war, apart from the possible consequences of the death of Pericles.

Obviously if Xi does get Corvid-19 and is replaced by a new generation of more aggressive and reckless leaders, indulging the demands of the people for an aggressive strategy, we should all start worrying.

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What can Thucydides tell us about the current state of global politics and the likely direction of future developments? As I’m writing a book for Princeton UP called What Thucydides Knew, it does suit me very well that people keep asking this question – even if they then keep offering the same tedious answers. I struggle to see, for example, what contribution this morning’s op ed in the New York Times makes to our understanding of anything, beyond the fact that it’s a Colonel in the People’s Liberation Army trotting out boilerplate Thucydides Trap stuff about tensions in the South China Sea, rather than one of the usual suspects.

It’s a bonus, therefore, when someone offers a new and potentially interesting take on the question, even if I disagree with a lot of it.* (more…)

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WAG the Dog

Somewhere on my ever-expanding list of ‘Things it would be really cool to try if I wasn’t already deep into time/energy/sleep deficit’ is the idea of a video series called Thucydides Explains It All, in which the incomparable wisdom of Thucydides would be applied to the analysis of contemporary issues – not just vacuous speculation about China, but things that actually matter to people. Case in point, which is why I thought of this again yesterday: the Rooney-Vardy bust-up. It was the rise of a new generation of WAGs, and the fear of media obsolescence this aroused in the established influencers, that made conflict inevitable… My wife suggested that I ought to buy a false beard and present these videos as Thucydides; I would much rather hire the brilliant animators who did the ‘Heavyweight Champion Historian’ video, so if anyone out there has lots of money and fancies sponsoring this project… (more…)

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Everyone in the world has forgotten Thucydides. Everyone except Jill…

Suppose that the text of Thucydides never made it out of Constantinople before it was sacked; no Latin translation by Lorenzo Valla, no French translation by Claude de Seyssel, no English version from Thomas Hobbes, just a few passing mentions in authors like Cicero that don’t really convey much about what the work must have been like. No elevation of him as the model critical historian by nineteenth-century Germans; no quotes from the Funeral Oration on war memorials or in speeches; no Henry Kissinger, no Neorealism, no Neocons. (more…)

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What’s the key lesson of the Melian Dialogue? The dominant tradition has been some sort of variant on Crude Realism, from the perspective of the would-be superior power: justice only between equals, we the strong have the right to dictate and you the weak must comply, and forget all this nonsense about hope. The usual response, from those who reject such a worldview and/or, perhaps more significantly, aren’t in any position to pursue it, is to question and reject the Athenian logic, by detaching it from the authority of Thucydides and pointing to the consequences of their attitude. But of course it is also possible to be one of the Weak and nevertheless accept the logic of the Strong; like the prisoner in Life of Brian who praises the Romans for their strict approach to crime and punishment, or the cow at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, there are those who fully accept the right of others to dictate terms and exact obedience. (more…)

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Obviously the current febrile atmosphere in British politics lends itself to quotations from Thucydides’ account of the stasis at Corcyra (though I must remember to look up his narrative of the coup of the 400 as well) – but, been there, done that, still deeply depressed by the state of things. Instead, let’s quote mid-C20 Hungarian political and novelist Miklós Bánffy, who in his Transylvanian Trilogy (which I’ve never read, but clearly need to; this reference comes via the Twitter courtesy of @simonahac, as apparently his wife is reading it) looks remarkably as if he’s referencing Corcyra:

Yes, it’s the ‘Centrists piss EVERYBODY off’ bit – those who presented themselves as reasonable moderates were the first to perish. It’s not an original reading, but it is the first example I’ve stumbled across from this period. (more…)

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Either the ‘Thucydides’ Trap’ has now infiltrated France, or Bernard-Henri Lévy has been spending a lot of time in Washington lately; in either case, his latest discussion of the fate of the Kurds (French version in Le Point (£), English in Tablet) and denunciation of Trump’s USA for abandoning them invokes Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War extensively* – though not in the most illuminating manner. (more…)

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As I’ve remarked on here before, I really wish I had some grasp of Mandarin, in order to be able to get a proper sense of how Thucydides is being discussed in China: do they simply follow the conventional US international relations reading, and especially Allison’s Thucydides’s Trap theory, on the basis that this will help them understand American foreign policy thinking, or are they engaging with this and other classical texts (including Chinese ones) more creatively? A recent report from the Asia News International website (original link from @rogueclassicist) suggests the latter may be more likely, as it reports on an article from the official news agency Xinhua that speaks not of Thucydides but of the hitherto-unremarked Tacitus Trap. (more…)

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A measure of the success of an idea, or at least its temporary trendiness, is when it crops up in completely irrelevant and inappropriate places. It can only be a matter of time before ‘Thucydides’s Trap’ starts getting referenced in sports reporting (Bayern versus Red Bull Leipzig?) or pop music (Taylor Swift versus someone we haven’t heard of yet?), but at the moment it does appear compulsory to mention it in any discussion whatsoever of inter-state relations in Asia. This morning’s example comes from a piece by John Blaxland of ANU in East Asia Forum asking ‘Do the lessons of Thucydides apply to Singapore?’

Tl;dr: nope. The real question: why did anyone imagine that they would? (more…)

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There is one crucial question about Graham Allison’s ‘Thucydides’s Trap’ model of power transition and the confrontation of rising and ruling powers* that has not yet, so far as I’m aware, been asked: what sort of trap did Thucydides have in mind? Mouse? Elephant? Bear? Rat? Lobster? Honey? Because clearly this must affect how we imagine the process of being captured and the possibility, if any, of escape – and indeed the likelihood of realising that one is in a trap in the first place, before it’s too late. A basic starting assumption for such an analysis is that the idea must be based on ancient Greek hunting technology, and so, in the absence of any comment on the subject from Thucydides himself – we can safely assume his familiarity, as an Athenian aristocrat, with the basic techniques – we turn to a comparable figure in the next generation, Xenophon, and his treatise Cynegeticus, or Hunting with Dogs. (more…)

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