Monday, July 24, 2017


"Trump’s termination of CIA funds to Syrian rebels signals the death knell for Western efforts to roll back Iranian and Russian power in the Levant. The reassertion of Assad’s control over much of Syria underlines the success of Iran’s policy in the Northern Middle East. Western efforts to overturn Assad and bring to power a Sunni ascendency in Syria have failed as have efforts to flip Syria out of Russia’s and Iran’s orbit and into that of the United States and Saudi Arabia. The cut off of CIA funding for Syria’s rebels is the raggedy ending of America’s failed regime-change policy in Syria and the region at large. President Trump called the wars in the Middle East “stupid wars” during his campaign. He called America’s policy of regime-change a “failed policy.” This is his effort to concentrate narrowly on eliminating ISIS and ending Washington’s effort to drive Assad from power by force of arms. He believes that by working with the Russians, the United States will destroy ISIS more quickly. It should be added that Syria’s military, with Russian backing, has killed hundreds of ISIS fighters in the last several months. It has driven ISIS from territory twice the six of Lebanon in the last two months alone. Further efforts to weaken the Syrian Army could only slow ISIS’s demise. Many Western leaders have preceded Trump in coming to the conclusion that Assad is staying in power. They no longer believe that driving Assad from Damascus by force of arms is realistic. President Macron has articulated this position for the EU. The end of Western support for Syria’s militant opposition has been clear since radicals began setting off bombs in European capitals. Trump’s decision to stop support for Syrian rebels will be the final nail in the coffin of those factions which draw salaries from the CIA. They will be forced to pursue other careers. More radical groups, such as those historically connected to al-Qaida and Ahrar al-Sham will also suffer from this decision. The radical militias prey on the weaker ones. They extort arms and money from the CIA-supported factions. The porous Syrian border with Turkey can now also be shut more tightly. The need to push resources to the CIA-vetted militias, kept border crossings open to all rebels, including al-Qaida. Factions merge and regroup with such regularity, that border guards could not know who was fighting for what end. This is the last gasp for America’s policy of regime-change which has so compromised its efforts to promote democracy and human rights in a part of the world that needs both".
Joshua Landis, "End of US Support for Syrian Rebels Sounds Death Knell for Attempt to Roll Back Iran & Russia in Syria – By Joshua Landis". Syria Comment. 23 July 2017, in
"I have never subscribed to the idea that the Assad regime was about to collapse due to the protests in the various cities. And indeed the fact that the regime is able to both parlay with the Arab League on a so-called 'peace plan', while at the same time employ overwhelming force in the city of Homs and elsewhere merely shows that the regime is absolutely determined, come what may to remain in control of the country 1. And that any pour parlers with the Arab League or for that matter anyone else is merely a diplomatic smokescreen to divide et impera any potential international coalition in opposition to the Syrian regime from forming, `a la what occurred in the case of Libyan this past Spring. With the likelihood of either Turkey or NATO intervening militarily being the ultimate non-starter. In short, I for one, cannot fathom at the present time, any short-term collapse of rule of Assad Fils and his clique. To imagine anything else is merely a phantasm of the highest order".
Charles Coutinho, "SYRIA: IS THE END IN SIGHT FOR THE ASSAD REGIME?" Diplomat of the Future. 10 November 2011, in
One does not have to necessarily agree with everything that Professor Joshua Landis has to say on the subject of the Syrian Civil War to acknowledge that he is without a doubt one of the leading experts on all matters Syrian in the United States. In the case of the reported change in American policy, it is obvious that the good Professor, an old acquaintance of mine, agrees with the decision by the Trump Administration to in effect 'drop' support for the Syrian rebels. That whatever may have been the one-time hopes for ousting the regime of Assad Fils, that those hopes are now strictly speaking eyewash and fantasy. That by intervening in the half-hearted manner that it did so, the Americans and their allies in the West (not, mind you their local Sunni Arab ones) have lost whatever opportunity once existed to perhaps over-throw Assad. Professor Landis would have said and did in fact say that any such hopes were always very slim indeed, once Moskva decided in 2012, to increase its support for Assad come what may in conjunction with Persia. That once that occurred then only a major military intervention by the West would have changed the calculus on the battlefield. And for reasons cited by many individuals (myself included) there was never any reason to expect that the Western powers were prepared to intervene overtly to overthrow Assad Fils. That both for reasons of realpolitik (Syria has never been a 'major' American / Western interest), and primat der Innenpolitik (any major military intervention would have been wildly unpopular outside of bient-pensant liberal intelligentsia), there was never any real likelihood of Western intervention occurring. Instead a halfway house type of intervention by the Western powers, of indirect military assistance to some not very credible and effective militias was the only game in town. And that game did not play out very effectively, except for the Syrian Kurds. And the Kurds of course have their own, limited agenda. An agenda which does not include overthrowing Assad. In short, it could be very well to argue that whatever one thinks of the Trump regime, the fact is that it is time to call it quits as per Western policy in Syria. And that for the foreseeable future, Assad Fils, et. al., will be in power and control in Damascus. That may strike many people as a horrid result of almost six-years of civil war, but I do not see any other possibility on the horizon. To expect anything else at this point in time would be the very mid-summer of madness. And that the only Western interest in Syria is to combine with Assad and his not very appealing allies (A/K/A Moskva and Persia) to destroy the Islamic State monstrosity. Pur et simple.

Thursday, July 20, 2017


"Whom US presidents engage and how they engage in settings such as these can have lasting implications for foreign policy and the US’s relationships with allies and adversaries. That is why presidents and cabinet members always follow a set of rules on engaging foreign leaders, rules that Mr Trump recklessly disregarded in his one-hour meeting with Mr Putin.... For one reason or another, while he was at the G20 dinner, Mr Trump decided that, irrespective of what his team had spent months planning, he would disregard both their guidance and standard protocol and meet Mr Putin for a second time. How do we know his team had not planned for an informal pull aside with Russia at the dinner? They did not send a translator who spoke Russian. There are many reasons why this unplanned meeting with Mr Putin is so disturbing and dangerous. Most troubling is that the presidents of Russia and the US met without staff and an American translator. Doing so gave the Russians a huge advantage. It enabled Mr Putin to say things he might not have said in the presence of his own staff or Mr Trump’s. It ensured that there would not be any formal record of the conversation, granting Russia as much control over the narrative as the US. And it allowed Mr Putin to claim something was “lost in translation” if, as is often the case, he fails to follow through in the future on a promise made to Mr Trump. The latter will probably live to regret ceding control of the meeting. Equally troubling was the fact that the meeting lasted an hour, which means it was neither happenstance nor a brief pull aside. If the two leaders met for an hour, we can be sure they were not comparing notes on the food. The US president was discussing policy with the president of a country actively working to undermine democratic institutions on both sides of the Atlantic. Did Mr Trump, with his notorious pro-Russian views, promise to lift sanctions, give up on Ukraine or ignore Russia’s human rights abuses at home? We will never know. Finally, the discussion took place in front of all the other attendees, including some countries that failed to secure even one meeting with Mr Trump. The optics of this discussion — Mr Trump and Mr Putin sitting together for an hour — will not have gone unnoticed by the US’s closest allies. It sent a clear signal about how much the US values Russia, a signal that Mr Putin certainly relished.".
Julianne Smith, "Putting aside protocol spells danger for Donald Trump". The Financial Times. 20 July 2017, in
"Does it matter, gentlemen, as a practical question, whether we are, in the present case, dealing with stupidity or treason? When the Duma keeps everlastingly insisting that the rear must be organized for a successful struggle, the Government persists in claiming that organizing the country means organizing a revolution, and deliberately prefers chaos and disorganization. What is it, stupidity or treason"?
Pavel Milyukov, Leader of the Kadet Party, in speech to the Russian State Duma on the 14th of November 1916.
There are two ways of analyzing the Trumperian behavior at the G-20 summit in having an unscheduled and it would appear a completely unbriefed and unprepared meeting with the Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin: first that like a wayward and ill-disciplined child, President Trump had this unscheduled meeting with Grazhdanin Putin because he 'wanted to' and that was that. There was nothing untowards meant nor discussed, merely like a five-year old who has been told that he cannot take a chocolate biscuit, will when no one is around he immediately endeavor to reach around and eat said biscuit. Pur et simple. Nothing malevolent, merely au fond endemic stupidity. The second way of looking at the matter is that President Trump is some species of a 'Manchurian Candidate', who has been parachuted into the American Presidency. And that everything that he does between now and the day that he leaves office is for purposes of pleasing his Russian puppet masters. The second scenario may perhaps be in fact true. I do hope that it is not. But until sufficient evidence comes into play to prove that, I believe that it is more likely that Trump is merely behaving like a five-year old child and the more backward variant of those do have a tendency to engage in this type of stupidity. Which is not to deny that there are dangers in this type of behavior. Nor that for the most part, ignoring protocol is indeed dangerous and that diplomatic protocol exists for a reason. Unfortunately, five-year old children tend to be impervious to the reasoning of adults.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017


"Doctrinaire...yet devious, because the very certainty of his [Fürst von Metternich] convictions made him extremely flexible in his choice of means; matter-of-fact and aloof; coldly pursuing the art of statecraft. His characteristic quality was tact, the sensibility to nuance....A mediocre strategist but a great tactician, he was a master of the set battle in periods when the framework was given or the objectives imposed from the outside."
Henry A. Kissinger. A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the problems of peace, 1812-1822. (1957).
Last month former Secretary of State Dr. Henry A. Kissinger was honored with a 'state dinner' at the Lotos Club here in Manhattan. I was one of the attendees. The following are some of the remarks made by Secretary Kissinger, at this event:
"The importance of the relationship between the Peoples Republic of China and the United States in the contemporary world. The need for these two countries understand each other. The PRC has had three phases in its history so far: a) Mao; b) Deng; c) Li, the current President. It is most important that Peking learns to live with other countries as equals. We live in post-1648, Westphalian International system. The need for a new international order to incorporate each of us to mutual recognition. The next decade will show if the Peoples Republic will be adversaries or partners of the United States. Failure to form a partnership will result in a possible Great War scenario. There is a need to develop a dialogue and rules in which the International system is re-founded. The 'one-belt, one-road' concept is not a military one, but a peaceful one. The Chinese and the American concepts of diplomacy are very different. The peace of the world depends upon dialogue between these two countries. They are not permanent adversaries. Even with all the specific issues at hand, we are still in a hopeful period. I am hopeful about the future. A new international order is on the cusp of the future" (sic).
What is one to make of these comments? I for one believe that they are of a piece with the general line that Secretary Kissinger has been enunciating for the past twenty to twenty-five years. That the Peoples Republic is not a revisionist power and that it wishes to be integrated into the existing (formerly, now it is in some future) international system. Secretary Kissinger's analysis is flawed by virtue of his forgetting one of the points that he himself enunciated in A World Restored. That the continental power's (then Austria, now China) foreign policy was and is a function of its domestic political structure. A/K/A primat der Innenpolitik 1. The primacy of domestic policy in determining foreign policy. The regime in Peking's legitimacy and raison d'etre is founded upon its extreme version of Chinese Nationalism. This discourse mandates among other things that the Senkaku Islands, Formosa, various points in the South China Seas all belong to China. China's pursuit of a aggressive policy towards its neighbors in the past eight to ten years is a function of this domestic political imperative. Unless and until the current regime in power in Peking is overthrown, then there is nothing to suggest that the Peoples Republic will move away from its current aggressive and revisionist stance towards almost all of its neighbors. It is highly unfortunate that a master tactician (albeit not strategist) such as Secretary Kissinger should for reasons of ignorance (he was never a China 'expert') and hubris continue to peddle this outworn view of what is now, along with Russia, the leading disrupter of the international system.
1. See: "Metternich, the statesman of a power situated in the centre of the Continent, sought above all to forestall upheavals....Oppressed by the vulnerability of its domestic structure in an age of nationalism, the polyglot Austro-Hungarian (sic) empire insisted on a generalized right of interference to defeat social unrest wherever it occurred." Kissinger, op cit., p. 5.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017


"Addressing a large crowd on Thursday in Warsaw, Mr Trump hit out at Russian actions in Ukraine and urged Moscow to “cease . . . support for hostile regimes, including Syria and Iran”. The remarks came just hours before Mr Trump flew to Hamburg for the G20 summit, which is expected to be fractious because of acute differences over issues from climate policy to trade and tackling North Korea. He will also hold his first meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin at a time of rising tensions between Washington and Moscow.  While Mr Trump lavished praise on Poland for meeting the Nato goal of spending two per cent of GDP on defence, he renewed his criticism of other nations — such as Germany, albeit not by name — that have not met the target. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor who is hosting the G20 gathering, is due to meet the US president on Thursday. But in comments welcomed by the alliance, Mr Trump said the US strongly backed the mutual defence component of the Nato treaty, something he had controversially refrained from doing when he recently attended his first Nato summit. “To those who would criticise our tough stance, I would point out that the US has demonstrated not merely with words but with its actions that we stand firmly behind Article 5, the mutual defence commitment,” Mr Trump said.  In a speech that had some echoes of his inauguration address, Mr Trump cast the challenges facing the west in stark terms, saying “the fundamental question of our time is whether the west has the will to survive”, in reference to a range of threats that he said included “radical Islamistic terrorism” and government bureaucracy".
James Shotter & Demetri Sevastopulo, "Donald Trump criticises Russia ahead of G20 meeting with Putin". The Financial Times. 6 July 2017, in
"The key passage in the Trump speech went as follows: “The fundamental question of our time is whether the west has the will to survive. Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders? Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilisation in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?” Read at face value, this passage seems exceptionally melodramatic. Does anybody seriously doubt that the west has “the will to survive”? Mr Trump’s underlying point only becomes clear in the context of the later sentence: “Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders...?” It also means that Mr Trump is on a similar wavelength to the Polish government, which has strongly objected to accepting Muslim refugees, as part of an EU-backed resettlement programme. Finally, the Trump argument tacitly labels Angela Merkel as one of those who lack the “desire and courage” to protect western civilisation. After all, it was the German chancellor who allowed more than 1m refugees, mainly from Muslim countries, to enter Germany in 2015. But Ms Merkel’s supporters, in Germany and overseas, regard the German chancellor as the true defender of western values — and President Trump as the real threat. Beyond the personalities, the argument comes down to a question of what “the west” really means. In Warsaw, Mr Trump flirted with a civilisational view of the west. He argued that “we write symphonies. We pursue innovation. We celebrate our ancient heroes, embrace our timeless traditions and customs, and always seek to explore and discover brand new frontiers.” But for many western liberals, the west is defined less by cultural achievements and “timeless traditions” than by a set of political ideas. Those ideas include political pluralism, freedom-of-speech and — at least in modern times — a belief in the primacy of the individual, rather than the tribe. To be fair to Mr Trump, he also nodded in this direction, arguing that in the west “we treasure the rule of law and protect the right to free speech and free expression”. But, coming from a president who has sacked the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and who attacks the “fake media” at every opportunity, those words lack conviction."
Gideon Rachman, "Donald Trump’s speech on the west lacks conviction". The Financial Times. 7 July 2017, in
Donald Trump's speech in Warsaw was and is worthy of at least two 'hurrahs'. It would of course have been an even better speech if it was delivered by someone, anyone else: Secretary Clinton, the ex-Junior Senator from Illinois with the absurd name, Mitt Romney, indeed almost anyone. As it is, the speech highlighted in a way that his predecessor singularly failed to do so in his Cairo Speech of 2009, the fact that Western Civilization has in comparison to everyone else much to be proud of and much to celebrate. And that the other nations and regions of the world, would be infinitely better off in adopting, in as organic and Burkean fashion as is possible, those self-same qualities which have raised North America and Europe to the eminent position that they occupy at present. A position which as Trump correctly stated is under threat due to our bien-pensant liberal, bourgeois, post-enlightenment elites (which Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times is a perfect example if not in fact a parody), forgetting the sinews of those values and truths: Christianity, political pluralism, free-enterprise, community, order, which have raised the West to its current position. As the scholar and political commentator, Victor David Hanson correctly noted, while it is truly ironic (and indeed au fond rather depressing) that Donald J. Trump of all people had to deliver this particular speech, that per se does not obviate the verity of its contents:
"The billionaire, thrice-married, and creature-of-luxury Donald Trump, in his 70th year, was warning the West in Poland that precisely because it is very rich, extremely wealthy, singularly leisured, and technologically sophisticated, it faces the most peril — amid failed enemies who hate those who are more successful for encouraging their own taboo desires for something that they cannot create. In sum, Trump’s anti-Cairo message is that only a disciplined, strong West — confident in its past and sure of its present success — will deter enemies, appeal to neutrals, and keep friends. Trump should not have had a need to deliver such a self-evident but now rare message. That he alone had the courage to state the obvious — and was criticized for doing so — reminds us that the corrective to our Western malady is seen as the problem, not the cure" 1.
1. Victor David Hanson, "Trump’s Anti-Cairo Speech". The National Review. 11 July A. D. 2017, in

Sunday, July 09, 2017


"The reality, however, is that Allison’s recipe is actually a recipe for war. Appeasement of aggressors is far more dangerous than measured confrontation. Did China become more aggressive in the South China Sea in the 2000s because the Obama administration got tougher or because it went AWOL on the issue? I’d say the latter is more likely. When it comes to China, we might want to be more mindful of the “Chamberlain Trap” after the peace-loving prime minister of England, one of the authors of the disastrous 1938 Munich agreement that sought to avoid war by concessions, which in fact taught Hitler that the British were easily fooled. That is the trap we are in urgent need of avoiding. As an intellectual exercise, let us try making the modest substitution in Allison’s argument of Europe for China. Europe — excluding Russia and some other, smaller, countries — has a land area of 3.9 million square miles, which is to say larger than the U.S. at 3.79 million. The European Union GDP is roughly $20 trillion (nominal) while that of the United States perhaps $1 trillion less. Europe had 1,823,000 forces in uniform in 2014, compared with 1,031,000 for the United States today. Where am I going? If we add educational and technical levels as well as standard of living, one might be forgiven for thinking that, by the numbers, Europe, not China, was the leading potential challenger to the United States. That of course is what the late Jean-Jacques Servan-Schrieber argued in his immensely popular and influential bit of futurology Le Défi Américan [“The American Challenge”] in 1967. It may well be that the great, almost unspoken question of this century is the future of Europe. So far, however, Europe and America have not proven “destined to war.” Nor are America and China. My late colleague and mentor Ambassador James Lilley liked to recall a lecture given by an American professor about Taiwan. The speaker became increasingly heated, declaring that unless Washington immediately yielded to Beijing’s demands about Taiwan, a nuclear war was unavoidable. A PLA general in attendance was at first puzzled, and then agitated. He turned to the ambassador to whisper a question: “Who is this guy? Does he think we are crazy?” In other words, come whatever, we Chinese are intelligent enough to realize that war — not to mention nuclear war — with the United States would be an insane action that would destroy all China has achieved in the years since Mao’s death in 1976. As I see it, it’s far more likely, but certainly not as sexy, to believe that there will be no “destined” war between China and the U.S. because the Chinese might actually have a clearer reading of history than the scholars at Harvard.... Since the attack on Scarborough Shoal, now six years ago, my own opinion is that China expected to have occupied a lot more. Her slightly delusional view of her claims, first made explicit in ASEAN’s winter meeting of 2010 in Hanoi, was that “small” countries would all bow respectfully to China’s new preeminence. This has failed to occur. All of China’s neighbors are now building up strong military capabilities. Japanese and South Korean nuclear weapons are even a possibility. Overrelying on their traditional concept of awesomeness (威 wēi), the Chinese expected a cakewalk. They have got instead an arms race with neighbors including Japan and other American allies and India, too. With so much firepower now in place, the danger of accident, pilot error, faulty command and control, etc. must be considered. But I’d wager that the Chinese would smother an unintended conflict. They are, after all, not idiots".
Arthur Waldron, "There is no Thucydides Trap". Supchina. 7 June 2017, in
"Britain, the former colonial overlord, has raised concerns about such encroachments, warning China to abide by its commitment to allow the territory a “high degree of autonomy” — a promise enshrined in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration signed by then British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang.  Beijing hit back last week. Lu Kang, foreign ministry spokesman, said that “the arrangements during the transitional period prescribed in the Sino-British Joint Declaration are now history and of no practical significance”. He added: “The British side has no sovereignty, no power to rule and supervise Hong Kong after the handover.”  Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, described that statement as 'much bigger than Hong Kong . . . If the Chinese government can choose to relegate an international agreement with the UK to the ‘dustbin of history’ when it no longer suits China, can any other government which has signed an international agreement have confidence that the Chinese government will honour it?'"
Ben Bland, "Xi visit exposes gulf between Beijing and Hong Kong". The Financial Times. 2 July 2017, in
Arthur Waldron's piece excellently demonstrates again that appeasing Peking is absolutely the wrong way to approach the Peoples Republic diplomatically. That by either overlooking or in fact ignoring, the Peoples Republic consistently aggressive behavior towards its neighbors is something which will merely increase its likelihood of engaging in said behavior. The example cited above about its policies in Hong Kong are a perfect example showing that left to itself, Peking will quite willing break any treaties or understandings with other countries when it can do so. And leave no doubt: all the talk about the PRC having some valid interests in either the South China Seas or towards the Senkaku Islands is nonsensical in the extreme. Per contra to Lord Palmerston, there are no 'permanent interests'. In the case of Peking, its domestic political imperative need to trumpet extreme nationalism, provides the rationale for its policies in both locations mentioned herein. It is for example quite likely that a different regime in power in Peking would be quite willing to drop claims to both locations as said regime's legitimacy would be based upon something other than a self-induced extreme nationalism. History provides too many examples of states which gave up what were perceived as 'permanent interests' (in some cases for centuries), due to changes in the domestic political regime. Germany and East / West Prussia and Silesia. Poland and Lviv and Vilnius. France and Algeria. Italia and Libya. Serbia and Kosovo. Russia and its former empire in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as the Baltic States. The United States and the Panama Canal. The United Kingdom and Ireland. The list could go on and on. My larger point is that the best policy to follow towards Peking is a Kennanesque policy of containment, which will eventually result in a change in the internal domestic regime of the PRC. And once that occurs, then we will see a shift not only towards Peking's claims in the South China Seas and the Senkaku Islands, but even towards Formosa and Tibet. I will leave the last words for Alan Freidberg, who is perhaps the most intelligent commentator on American policy towards the PRC in the American academic monde:
"Even as it continues to engage China, the United States must work with its friends and allies to maintain a margin of military advantage sufficient to deter attempts at coercion or aggression. Assuming that China's power continues to grow, this will require even greater exertion and closer cooperation in the future than it has in the past....Without active cooperation from its regional partners, Washington cannot hope in the long run to balance against a rising China. On the other hand, without tokens of its continuing commitment and resolve. America's friends may grow fearful of abandonment, perhaps eventually losing heart and succumbing to the temptations of appeasement. A serious response to China's military buildup is therefore vital both for its own sake and for its potentially spine-stiffening effects on others 1."
1. Aaron L. Friedberg. A contest for Supremacy. (2011). pp. 274-275.

Thursday, July 06, 2017


"In Eric X. Lee's telling (The End of Globalism, December 9), the sovereign nation-state will soon regain its status as the primary unit of global governance. The United States is in decline and globalism, a strange 25-year aberration, is ending. China's rise could lead to a classic Thucydides Trap, a situation in which a hegemonic power fails to make way for a rising challenger and conflict ensues. The United States should recognize that the age of its empire is over and consolidate its status as one among many major powers in the world. This analysis of the global order is commonplace in contemporary international relations theory. It is also wrong. To see why, just look at the last so-called Thucydides Trap, when the United Kingdom did not make room for a rising Germany. Germany's GDP surpassed Britain's around 1908, making it the heir presumptive to global hegemony and setting the stage for World War I. Britain did not accommodate Germany's desire for a place in the sun, and war ensued".
Salvatore Babones, "Globalism Lives: China Won't Overtake America Any Time Soon". Foreign Affairs. 10 April 2017, in
"After returning from an invigorating holiday thousands of miles away, your correspondent discovered that Thucydides had been in the news. Not, sadly, because scholars had finally resolved the mystery of why the Athenian general was late to arrive at Amphipolis to defend the Thracian city from the Spartans in 424 BCE. Instead, it’s because Politico reported there are influential people in and around the American government who claim to have read Thucydides’s history of the Peloponnesian war. Defence Secretary James Mattis, National Security Advisor HR McMaster, chief dweeb Michael Anton*, and strategist Steve Bannon are all fans. Graham Allison, a Harvard professor with a new book to flog on the danger of conflict between America and China, has briefed officials about his belief in “Thucydides’s Trap”.... Reading Thucydides’s account seems like the obvious way to do this. He was a thoughtful writer — consider the elision between the Melian dialogue at the end of book five and the introduction of the Sicilian Expedition at the start of book six — and the world’s first proper historian. Unlike Herodotus, who collected myths and folklore uncritically, or others who attributed events to divine intervention, Thucydides claims to have been concerned with describing events as they actually occurred. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to read Thucydides superficially and end up misinformed.... Classicists and historians of ancient Greece have long distinguished between the “news” sections of Thucydides, such as his descriptions of battles and speeches, and the “editorial” bits, where he makes grand pronouncements about why things happened a certain way or inserts his own judgments. As sometimes happens in contemporary publications, a close reading of the facts reported in the “news” sections can lead to interpretations directly opposed to those presented in the “editorials”. For example, Thucydides argues the war was inevitable because Sparta was afraid of the growth of Athenian power, even though his own evidence shows the Spartans were reluctant to fight while Pericles was willing to risk violence to assert Athenian dominance. He says Athens was destined to lose after Pericles died because Pericles was the one man who combined the superior judgment of the elite with the common touch needed to shepherd public opinion. But the “news” section shows Pericles’s defensive strategy had failed to persuade the Spartan coalition to stop fighting and was too costly to sustain more than a few years. Athens didn’t start winning until the populist Cleon switched to a more aggressive policy. (One of the fun things about visiting Olympia is seeing the statue the Messenians commissioned to honour their joint victory with Athens over the Spartans at Pylos and Sphacteria.) Thucydides blames the Athenian disaster in Sicily on the fickle nature and poor judgment of the Athenian citizenry, which should have deferred to its aristocratic betters. Yet a close reading of Thucydides’s account amply demonstrates that the patrician strategos Nicias was the Athenian whose awful judgment transformed what at worst would have been a misadventure into a catastrophic defeat to the Syracusans and their Spartan allies.... The “editorial” Thucydides defends Nicias to the very end, claiming he, more than any other Greek, didn’t deserve to be executed by the Syracusans after his surrender. Thucydides did not extend this generous judgment to the captured Athenian soldiers who were worked to death in a Syracusan quarry, much less the far more competent general Demosthenes, who was executed at the same time as Nicias. These biased interpretations — and there are many others — reflect the fact that Thucydides wrote his history to refute the conventional wisdom about the war in the aftermath of the Athenian defeat. He was the first revisionist historian, determined to acquit Pericles and his fellow elites for starting and losing the war. To do this, he blamed impersonal historical forces and the ignorant rabble. (Ironically, Thucydides’s account, which doesn’t explicitly describe this mainstream narrative, is the one that survived over the past 2400 years, which means that the arguments he was rebutting have only become clear relatively recently thanks to the work of imaginative modern scholars.) Steve Bannon bizarrely described the Athenians as the “incumbent” power chased by the Spartans, but even people with better reading comprehension skills tend to misuse Thucydides. Graham Allison’s entire thesis — or at least his catchphrase — is based on a superficial understanding of the Peloponnesian War.... Beyond Allison, some of the “realist” theory of international relations is at least partly derived from Thucydides’s “editorials” about why states fight each other. Yet a close reading of his own account demonstrates the importance of individual policy decisions that are determined as much by domestic politics — including class conflict, as GEM de Ste Croix first argued — as by anything we would recognise today as “the national interest”. Rather than black boxes operating in an anarchic world of violence, Thucydides shows how governments led by people make peace and war for all sorts of reasons. Studying history is valuable. Reading Thucydides is valuable. But people who think they’ve gained ancient wisdom after reading only the most popular bits of Thucydides’s history of the Peloponnesian War should be approached with extreme scepticism."
Matthew C. Klein, "For the love of Zeus, stop misusing Thucydides". The Financial Times. 27 June 2017, in
I have decided to quote at length the fantastically splendid piece by Mr. Klein in the Financial Times because his demolition job on those benighted individuals, scholars most of them (albeit not mind you for the most part historians!), who have conjured out of historical thin air the concept of the 'Thucydides trap' desires to be read and re-read. The fact that Thucydides himself never employed the term, nor the fact that most of the historical 'examples', like the one above from the American, periodical Foreign Affairs cited above are nonsensical has not prevented people like Graham Allison (who I will admit is a fine scholar in the field of contemporary American foreign relations) from employing it ad nauseam . Which merely underlines the one of the points in my very last piece when I quote the Michael Oakeshott on the fact that a true historian, is not someone who employs history for 'plebian' purposes, `a la Allison, et. al. The fact that history and historical interpretations of the past change so much over the course of twenty to thirty years, merely reinforces how dangerous it is to employ it for purposes of public policy. A deep love and knowledge of history is a truly beautiful thing. I myself greatly suffer from it. However, that love per se, does not mean that I am an adherent in employing history in an indiscriminating fashion as regards state policy. The fact that some of the more 'brainier' members of the Trump regime are citing the (imaginary) 'Thucydides Trap' in their internal decision-making only proves my point in spades.