Elites and Imperial Ambitions: A Symposium: The Real Thucydides Trap.

Author:Gustafson, Lowell

But he that desires to look into the truth of things done, and which (according to the condition of humanity) may be done again, or at least their like, he shall find enough herein to make him think it profitable. And it is compiled rather for an everlasting possession, than to be rehearsed for a prize. Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, book I, chapter 22 (Hobbes' translation.) Study of ancient authors may help with current problems.

The study of intellectual history is desirable for its own sake. Asking what ancient authors meant and how we should understand them today is important, partly because we need to consider how they might help us better deal with our pressing current problems. In this article, we consider a current problem of politics and how an ancient author helps us approach it. What does a book written 2,500 years ago have to offer us today? Is the condition of humanity indeed similar enough to think that what happened in an extraordinarily different time and condition could happen in some similar way? No doubt Thucydides would have been amazed by computers, airplanes, and all that distinguishes our age from his. But he may well have felt rather at home in many of the political relationships that characterize the human condition.

Many since Thucydides' time have found in his writing instruction for how to better understand their own time. Francesco Guicciardini (1483-1540) found in Thucydides useful ideas for his own age about balance of power and equilibrium, the influence of character on international relations, alliances, diplomacy, and war. (1) Machiavelli commented on Thucydides and shared his secular attitude towards politics, his desire to learn through historical example rather than abstract principle, regard for calculated self-interest, preference for the combination of virtue with greatness and honor rather than meekness, and estimations of the role of fortune or chance in politics.

Thomas Hobbes is famous for his reading and translation in 1629 of The Peloponnesian War, which taught him about the regularities in society, the problems of democracy, and the need for overwhelming power to maintain order and security.

Gregory Crane finds that William Tecumseh Sherman's "attitude toward the use of power and the practice of warfare owes much to the tradition that Thucydides inaugurated." Crane traces "a line from Melos, where the Athenians annihilated the entire population of a small island, to Sherman's devastating march through the heart of the Confederacy to the firestorms caused by the Allied bombing in Dresden and Tokyo that incinerated tens of thousands of children, women, and non-combatants...." (2) In the nineteenth century, Thucydides could be used to compare the democratic sea powers of Britain and Athens with the more despotic land powers of Napoleonic France and Sparta.

In 1929, Charles Norris Cochrane saw in Thucydides not the ceaseless struggle for power, but the genesis of the scientific analysis of international relations. He wrote that the "truth is that Thucydides had the assured faith of a scientist because he was a scientist...." (3) He continues that, unlike Herodotus, Thucydides did not appeal to religious or metaphysical principles to explain human behavior. Unlike Homer, he wrote scientific analysis rather than imaginative literature. After World War Two, the ability of the democratic America to project its power by sea and air could be compared to the democratic sea power of Athens. The despotic land powers of the Soviet Union and Sparta could be compared as well.

Authors in our own time follow in this tradition of centuries of using Thucydides to better understand our own era. A recent example of this is Graham Allison's Destined for War: Can America and China escape Thucydides's Trap? This is important as the short American Century after World War II may now be shifting to a Chinese twenty-first century. A return to American greatness under Trump seems to mean the end of a commitment to liberal democratic market capitalism. Xi Jinping, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, talks about the Chinese Dream of restoring his nation's lost greatness.


... believing that it would be a great war and more worthy of relation than any that had preceded it. This belief was not without its grounds .... Indeed this was the greatest movement yet known in history, not only of the Hellenes, but of a large part of the barbarian world--I had almost said of mankind. For though the events of remote antiquity, and even those that more immediately preceded the war, could not from lapse of time be clearly ascertained, yet the evidences which an inquiry carried as far back as was practicable leads me to trust, all point to the conclusion that there was nothing on a great scale, either in war or in other matters. Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, Book I Chapter 1 A warning for those who desire greatness.

The word great or greatness appears 339 times in Richard Crawley's English translation of The History of the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides would have no problem with a desire for greatness by itself. How he views it remains instructive for those who desire it. It may be that the relations among those who seek it would receive a warning from Thucydides. In our own time, the world's greatest power and its most prominent rising power both desire greatness. What might that mean for the future of world order? What warning does he have?

Trump and Xi Making Nations Great

President Donald Trump was born just more than eight months after the surrender of Japan, ending WWII. Most of the victors and the vanquished were devastated by the war. Not the U.S. In 1939, when the war had begun, the GDP of the US was $ 93,500 M. It grew steadily during WWII so that by 1946 it had reached $227,800 M. The next year it stood at $249,900 M. (4) The U.S. held a nuclear monopoly; its power had just been demonstrated with ferocious effect. As awful as US casualties had been in WWII, its losses of fewer than 420,000 hardly compared to the Soviet Union's and Chinese casualties of over 20 million each. The world that Donald Trump's generation inherited and grew up in was one in which the U.S. was indeed a great power; indeed, its greatest power.

Perception of U.S. as world's single greatest power was shortlived.

The perception of the US as the single greatest power having emerged from WWII was short-lived. The Soviet Union's testing of atomic weapons in 1949 broke the US nuclear monopoly, and the launch of Sputnik in 1957 threatened to give it superiority in delivering a nuclear warhead. The Cold War was fought out, though not directly with nuclear weapons, in proxy wars often with unconventional tactics.

As Donald Trump concentrated on constructing buildings, casinos, and golf courses and on TV reality shows, the bi-polar world of the Cold War collapsed along with the Soviet Union from 1989 to 1991. In its place, some saw the development of a unipolar world in which the U.S. was again the world's single greatest military and economic power.

Americans could go on talking about the US president as the strongest leader in the world. Our nation's military budget exceeded those of the next ten countries combined. We could outshoot anybody. Our gross domestic product was greater than that of any other single nation. Triumphalism led some to see an End of History not in the German state, but in American global hegemony and global consensus on democratic capitalism. Fascism had been defeated at terrible cost. Communism had collapsed of it own weight. Personal liberty, the rule of law, and free trade were ubiquitous principles.

Like others who do not study history and become familiar with its many vicissitudes, Trump may well have come to assume that what he experienced as a child and then again as an adult was the norm. Twice in his lifetime, the U.S. was seen as the world's single greatest power. It was Great. Changes represented deviations from the way things were and ought to be. Also twice during his lifetime, conditions changed remarkably. A world in which the U.S. was the single great power was the anomaly, not the norm. After WWII, the Soviet Union developed its military and economic power. Europe had exceeded its prewar economic output in fewer than fifteen years. From being warring neighbors, European nations developed from a steel and coal community to a much more fully fledged European one. After the Cold War, China has transformed itself from being a subject of European and Japanese imperialism to a great military and economic power. Brazil, India, and other nations developed impressively as well.

Growing multi-polarity after Cold War the historical norm.

If anything, the growing multi-polarity was the historical norm. The nineteenth century Concert of Europe had a number of discordant notes, to be sure. The Crimean War was just one of the its disharmonies, giving renewed visibility to the balance of power and raison d'etat. But it remained a concert of a type with many players. The twenty-first century has seen an emerging Concert of Humanity, no less discordant but again with many important players.

Making China Great Again

In 2012, Robert Kuhn of the New York Times reported that "Just after becoming [Chinese Communist] party chief in late 2012, Xi announced what would become the hallmark of his administration. 'The Chinese Dream,' Xi said, is 'the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.'" (5) A broad consensus has developed that China is indeed becoming great again. Even in 1998, Andre Gunder Frank argued that China, and other Asian powers were returning to the hegemonic position that they had enjoyed during the period of the Silk Road. (6) Twenty years later, Robert S. Ross writes that "the rise of China presents the United States with an unprecedented foreign policy challenge. For the first time since World War II, the United States faces a great...

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