Daniel W. Drezner

The limits of Thucydides in the 21st century

So the media is treating next week’s summit between Barack Obama and Xi Jinping as a Pretty Big Deal, with reports on how the summit is being organized and what issues are going to be on the table.  In the New York Times, Jane Perlez provides some interesting (and slightly disturbing) context to the Chinese perspective of ...

So the media is treating next week’s summit between Barack Obama and Xi Jinping as a Pretty Big Deal, with reports on how the summit is being organized and what issues are going to be on the table.  In the New York Times, Jane Perlez provides some interesting (and slightly disturbing) context to the Chinese perspective of the Sino-American relationship

Earlier this year, officials from the Foreign Ministry met with professors of international relations in Beijing to discuss how best to define the “great power relationship,” but no one knew how to flesh it out, several professors said.

Nicholas Lardy, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, said both sides were “struggling to conceptualize what a new type of great power relationship might be.”

It is a given, Chinese and American analysts say, that Mr. Xi and his advisers are referring to the historical problem of what happens when an established power and a rising power confront each other. The analysts said the Chinese were well aware of the example of the Peloponnesian War, which was caused, according to the ancient Greek historian Thucydides, by the fear that a powerful Athens instilled in Sparta.

Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University and an occasional adviser to the Chinese government, offered some ideas of what Mr. Xi has in mind.

“He wants the American president to recognize that China is dramatically rising in military and economic ways, and he wants the president to know that he is active in world diplomacy,” Mr. Shi said. “If the American president recognizes all of these things, then Xi can be nicer, nicer in his definition, in a very tense situation.” (emphasis added)

Now, to be honest, I’m a bit dubious about just how much influence Chinese IR professors have over defining the Sino-American relationship.  This might be a case where Perlez is reporting this so prominently because the professors were willing to talk about it, whereas Standing Politburo Committee members are not as chatty with New York Times reporters. 

With that caveat, however, I find the bolded section a wee bit disturbing. As someone who teaches Thucydides from time to time — and fervently wishes that everyone in the foreign policy community would read the entire book — this invocation of the Peloponnesian War is not terribly fruitful.  This isn’t the first time someone has invoked Thucydides to describe the current Sino-American relationship, with the United States playing the role of Sparta and China playing the role of Athens.  The problems with the historical analogy haven’t gone away, however: 

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.

This doesn’t even address the biggest difference between the two periods, which is the dynamic economic interdependence that binds China and the United States together in a way that Sparta and Athens never had to consider. When terms like "balance of financial terror" are used to characterize the bilateral economic relationship, and similar terms are used to describe the problems of cyberattacks, it suggests that something new has emerged since the days of Thucydides.

The way in which the Thucydides analogy matters is just how much Chinese and American policymakers think it matters.  If they really believe there are strong historical parallels, that’s good news for John Mearsheimer and bad news for everyone else.  These kind of mental maps can have a self-fulfilling prophecy-like quality to them — and given how the Peloponnesian War played out, I’d strongly prefer not to see a modern-day equivalent.

[OK, smart guy, if the Athens/Sparta analogy doesn’t work, which one would you use?  The Cold War?!–ed.] 

Well, whomever came up with that analogy is really quite interesting.  To be honest, however, the closest historical analogy I can think of is even more disturbing than the Peloponnesian War.  The current era most strongly evokes the pre-World War I era.  As in that era, you have an offshore superpower that’s wary about relative decline.  You have a rising continental power that feels like it didn’t really benefit from the hegemonic order set up before it rose to power.  You have a lot of fading great powers and emerging great powers that make someone very nervous.  And you have global economic system that is far more integrated than the security situation suggests. 

Does this mean a replay of World War I is inevitable?  I don’t think so, in no small part because of the lessons of… World War I.  But that’s a topic for a later post.

What do you think? 

 Twitter: @dandrezner

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