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.


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