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I’ve written on a number of occasions about Graham Allison’s ‘Thucydides Trap’ idea and why I disagree with it – indeed, I imagine that this is why the viewing stats for this blog have risen appreciably in recent weeks – but there’s nothing like reading someone else’s critical but largely wrong-headed review to prompt a bit of reflection. Arthur Waldron’s review in the Straits Times (which I first encountered via SupChina – and is that the worst name for a site ever?) has been widely circulated on the Twitter (at any rate by the normal standards of Thucydides-related references) with a measurable atmosphere of glee and Schadenfreude. It seems that a fair number of people want Allison to be not just wrong but catastrophically wrong – Ian Buruma’s New Yorker review is just as critical of Allison but much more measured, and hasn’t been nearly so widely cited as a result – and Waldron gives them what they want.

Waldron’s opening sentences are brutal – and frankly bizarre: (more…)

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Donald Trump is Cleon (brash, populist, unscrupulous, dangerous). Or Alcibiades (rich, ambitious, unscrupulous, dangerous). He’s the Paphlagonian in Aristophanes’ Knights, or the Sausage-Seller, or both (vulgar, greedy demagogues). Danielle Allen has suggested a switch into the Homeric mode, urging Jeb Bush to step up as Achilles to Rubio’s Patroclus, making Trump… Hector (the enemy who must be slain)? Agamemnon? With Mitt Romney stepping into the fight as Menelaus, or Philoctetes. The great thing about Homer is the sheer number of larger-than-life characters on offer for such comparisons. I can’t believe – nothing came up on Google – that no one has yet done Trump as Thersites, for the torrent of bile and resentment fuelling his candidacy. Maybe that risks making him seem too much like the man of the people he claims to be… (more…)

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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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I’ve just finished writing my lecture for this evening on Thucydides and modern political theory; as ever, it was only at about halfway through that I worked out what I wanted to say, so the text switches from nicely polished and word-processed sentences to scribbled notes that may or may not turn into coherent sentences on the night. One of my starting-points builds on the work of Eddie Keene at Oxford (in his chapter for the forthcoming Handbook to the Reception of Thucydides), noting that the conventional genealogy of ‘realism’  in International Relations theory, looking back to Hans Morgenthau and E.H.Carr, really doesn’t account for the importance of Thucydides in this tradition, as neither of them really discuss him (Carr, I think, ignores him completely; Morgenthau has at the most a couple of passing comments). Of course it is, as copious empirical evidence demonstrates, all too easy to interpret Thucydides’ account as a forerunner of neorealism, if you squint at it the right way and assume that e.g. the Mytilene Debate and Melian Dialogue are simply expressions of the historian’s analytical conclusions, but that doesn’t explain why it should be felt to be necessary to bring in Thucydides at all. (more…)

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…restraint impresses men most. Or so it has been said: by Colin Powell, former US Secretary of State and before that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on many occasions; by President Lyndon B. Johnson, some thirty years earlier, in a speech at the Annual Swedish Day Picnic in Minneapolis; by a number of writers and scholars, at least some of whom should have known better; and by an alarmingly large number of websites. By Thucydides, however, not at all, although the line is attributed to him in the majority of cases. Since 2004, it has been reasonably well established that the quote is not to be found in any extant English translation (see Shifra Sharlin, ‘Thucydides and the Powell doctrine’, Raritan 24.1 (2004), pp. 12-28), and so is unlikely to be genuine (though several reputable classicists have suggested that it could be a reasonable paraphrase of one or other line in Thucydides); but its actual origins, and the means by which it came to be associated with Thucydides, have remained in darkness. Until now, or to be exact until a couple of weeks ago.

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I’ve only just come across this example of the use of Thucydides in a discussion of contemporary international relations (thanks to Ben Earley for the reference): according to an article in the Financial Times by Graham Allison, Director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University, relations between China and the USA need to be understood in terms of the ‘Thucydides trap’, the inevitable tension that arises when a rising power rivals a ruling power:

Thucydides wrote of these events: “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this inspired in Sparta that made war inevitable.” Note the two crucial variables: rise and fear. The rapid emergence of any new power disturbs the status quo. In the 21st century, as Harvard University’s Commission on American National Interests has observed about China, “a diva of such proportions cannot enter the stage without effect”. Never has a nation moved so far, so fast, up the international rankings on all dimensions of power. In a generation, a state whose gross domestic product was smaller than Spain’s has become the second-largest economy in the world. If we were betting on the basis of history, the answer to the question about Thucydides’s trap appears obvious. In 11 of 15 cases since 1500 where a rising power emerged to challenge a ruling power, war occurred.

It does make an interesting change to see the US characterised as Sparta rather than Athens, the normal comparison; (more…)

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