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Posts Tagged ‘Ukraine’

Perhaps the most striking thing about Tom Holland’s fine and interesting article in this week’s New Statesman on ‘Why Empires Fall: from Ancient Rome to Putin’s Russia’ is how far it ignores, and even at times rejects, the promise of the title. What the casual reader might expect to find under such a heading is a general theory of the imperial life-cycle, perhaps drawn primarily from Rome as the archetypal empire and the paradigm of decline and fall, that can be applied to the present (focusing on Russia for a change, rather than the usual debates about the USA as an imperial power). Instead, Holland offers a range of narratives of different imperial collapses, emphasising the complexity of events and the plethora of competing interpretations, and also identifying the great counter-example of China; it’s all thoroughly historical and historicist, eschewing the kinds of social-scientific theorising that one might find in Michael Doyle or Michael Mann or in a typical ‘Empires Ancient and Modern’ op-ed. What does persist through time, in his account, is not a universal principle of imperial destiny but the belief in the paradigmatic status of Rome, regularly revived as model, ideal – and awful warning.

The article doesn’t go so far as to state clearly that the real problem with trying to learn from the past is the persistent belief that we can do this because the pattern of future events has already been set in the past. Indeed, there are a few points (more…)

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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…

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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…)

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