Daniel W. Drezner

This week on Thucydides Abuse Watch

This week on Thucydides Abuse Watch

Your humble blogger likes to occasionally check the interwebs to make sure that no one is abusing Thucydides in making an argument about modern-day international relations. In descending order of offensiveness, examples of Thucydides Abuse include:

1) Blatantly making up what Thucydides actually said in History of the Peloponnesian War;

2) Exaggerating how Thucydides can contribute to understanding world politics today;

3) Writing the truth, but not the whole truth, about Thucydides’ history.

Yesterday David Sanger invoked Thucydides in his New York Times Week in Review essay on a rising China and a fading United States. Let’s see how he did:

For a superpower, dealing with the fast rise of a rich, brash competitor has always been an iffy thing….

[A]sk Thucydides, the Athenian historian whose tome on the Peloponnesian War has ruined many a college freshman’s weekend. The line they had to remember for the test was his conclusion: "What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta."

So while no official would dare say so publicly as President Hu Jintao bounced from the White House to meetings with business leaders to factories in Chicago last week, his visit, from both sides’ points of view, was all about managing China’s rise and defusing the fears that it triggers. Both Mr. Hu and President Obama seemed desperate to avoid what Graham Allison of Harvard University has labeled "the Thucydides Trap" – that deadly combination of calculation and emotion that, over the years, can turn healthy rivalry into antagonism or worse….

[I]n both capitals, fear makes for good business: It’s a proven way to sell weapons systems.

Meanwhile, Thucydides might be appalled at the nationalistic talk that resounds in both countries. In Chinese newspapers these days, it’s hard to avoid accounts of "American decline." Meanwhile, some new members of Congress talk lightly of cutting off Chinese access to the American market – as if that could happen in today’s global economy.

In both languages, that’s fear talking.

You know what? Given the space constraints, Sanger does pretty well. He manages to nail the subtle point about how fear leads to the worst sort of policy decisions. It is telling that, as the war progresses, Athenian decision-making devolves. Initially, the country’s leaders understand that "fear, honor and interest" guide foreign policy. By the time the invasion of Sicily comes around, however, the Athenian leadership has reduced this to fear. Sanger actually quotes Thucydides rather than paraphrasing him. By modern journalistic standards, that’s pretty extraordinary.

Nonetheless, Sanger commits the misdemeanor of omitting the whole truth of Thucydides. This is important, because the omission gets at how the historical analogy doesn’t really hold up.

First, Sparta was never the hegemonic power prior to the war — at best, they were a co-equal of Athens. That’s not the current situation.

Second, Sparta was scolded by its allies — and implicitly, by Thucydides himself — for excessive caution when confronted with a rising power. Throughout the History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides contrasts Athenian energy and dynamism with Spartan conservatism and risk-aversion. Spartan fear was triggered by past Spartan inaction and caution.

Now, say what you will about American foreign policy, but conservatism and risk-aversion have not been nouns associated with it for quite some time. Similarly, until about mid-2009, China was not thought of as a source of foreign policy dynamism. Furthermore, when China’s foreign policy changed, so did the United States’. Comparing the Obama administration’s response to Spartan inaction doesn’t hold up.

In the sparest structural sense, there are a few parallels that can be drawn between Greece in the fifth century B.C.E. and the present day. On the whole, however, I think the Athens-Sparta historical analogy obfuscates more than it enlightens.

Readers are warmly encouraged to alert the hard-working staff here at the blog for any further abuses of Thucydides. I mean, you know this is going to crop up on the next Jersey Shore episode.