Oh God, Not the Peloponnesian War Again

Western strategists need to learn some new history. Here are eight suggestions from Asia.

Reenactors dressed as Greek hoplites attack Persians during an event  to commemorate the 2,500-year anniversary of the Battle of Marathon in Marathon, Greece, on Sept. 10, 2011.
Reenactors dressed as Greek hoplites attack Persians during an event to commemorate the 2,500-year anniversary of the Battle of Marathon in Marathon, Greece, on Sept. 10, 2011. Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP via Getty Images

Last Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a major speech at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library on the U.S.-China relationship, so naturally one of the first questions, from the president of the Nixon Foundation, Hugh Hewitt, referred to ancient Greece.

“But we are, like Athens was, a naval power. America is a naval power. And as like Sparta [was], China is a land power. Do we not have to change how we approach defense spending to put more emphasis on our naval resources than on our Army resources?” Hewitt asked Pompeo.

Like Hewitt, Trump’s advisors are reportedly obsessed with ancient Greece, but they aren’t alone. The Peloponnesian War mesmerizes strategists and international relations scholars. When it comes to ancient Greece and the U.S.-China relationship, the most prominent comparison is the “Thucydides Trap,” made famous by the political scientist Graham Allison, which uses the relationship between Athens and Sparta to draw an analogy between a rising China and the threat felt by the United States today. But conflicts between city-states in a backwater Eurasian promontory 2,400 years ago are an unreliable guide to modern geopolitics—and they neglect a vast span of world history that may be far more relevant.

To be sure, Greek history is fascinating. But so is everyone else’s. Even for elites who believe themselves heirs of the classical world, the fixation on the Peloponnesian War is especially narrow. Other lessons from Greek history are strangely never mentioned; Thebes, the great power of the fourth century B.C., barely gets a mention. And no strategist has called for the formation of an elite Sacred Band of American warriors, each fighting alongside his lover so as not to appear shameful in his eyes. Thucydides is great. But he doesn’t have to hold the same grip on IR scholars that Harry Potter does on millennial readers.

Even when strategists move beyond Athens, they’re still writing about Europe. In all the takes on the U.S.-China relationship, the history of Chinese warfare itself—and the vast span of Asian conflict, warfare, and political contention over the last 3,000 years—goes virtually unmentioned. The British historian Thomas Babington Macaulay’s claim that “a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia” is still unconsciously followed. There are more articles referencing the fictional European-esque conflict of Game of Thrones than the real conflicts of medieval Asia. Even that favorite of U.S. Army lieutenants, Sun Tzu, is referenced more as aphorism than history.

Historical analogies aren’t always relevant. As useful as the past’s lessons can be, the parallels drawn can say more about the priorities of the pundit than the messy realities of ancient empires that bore little resemblance to our own challenges. With that caveat, then, here are excerpts from eight imagined pieces based on Asian history, of varying degrees of plausibility and relevance. Some of these are topics I have an in-depth knowledge of. Others, with the sure confidence of the true pundit, I got my research assistant to look up on Wikipedia. They suggest at least the possibility of looking beyond a narrow slice of European history, whether for a detailed argument or a hot take.

The Seleucid-Mauryan War (305-303 B.C.)

“Western history remembers the invasions of Asia by Alexander the Great; it forgets the losses of his successors. The victory of Asian powers over European ones is presented as a historical anomaly, whether the defeat of the Russians by the Japanese or the French and Americans by the Vietnamese. But Asian empires have been beating Western ones for millenniums: The crucible of war against the Seleucids was an integral part of the triumph of Chandragupta, the Mauryan founder, and of the ideology of total war outlined in the Arthashastra, the great classic of Indian warfare and statecraft. That bears directly on the crisis of strategy facing the United States today.”

The Han-Xiongnu Conflict (209-60 B.C.)

“For China’s first true historian, Sima Qian, the Xiongnu, the rival power that forced subservience from the young Han Empire, existed as a parallel to the Chinese. When they were weak, the Chinese would be strong and vice versa. We might dub this the ‘Sima Qian Trap,’ the construction of a foreign enemy as a mirror to your own culture, rather than an economic, political, and military opponent in its own right and with its own challenges. Future Chinese writers would look to the Xiongnu to explain new enemies emerging from the West, such as the Turks and Uighurs; in the same fashion, the United States is constantly seeking parallels with past opponents like the Soviet Union in its dealing with China.”

The Sui-Goguryeo War (A.D. 598-614)

“As tempting as infrastructure spending is, the rewards must be immediate and visible. China’s Grand Canal became a source of national prosperity for centuries, but its initial construction was a disaster. It was built to expand Chinese power along a contentious northern frontier and later to ferry men and weapons to the meat grinder of the war against the Korean kingdom of Goguryeo. The costs led to mass rebellion, toppling the short-lived Sui Empire. In similar fashion, China’s Belt and Road Initiative of today looks mostly to flatter the ruler’s ambitions, rather than to bring genuine prosperity on the ground.”

The Jin-Song Conflict (1125-1234)

“Like the United States, the Song Empire believed itself to be the natural master of the world order, dealing with subject states and peripheral challengers. The sudden emergence of the Jin disrupted those illusions, and while Washington has faced no catastrophe as stark as the fall of the Song capital of Kaifeng, the shared sense of outrage at the disruption of the natural way of things resonates between Song and American elites. Just as the Song negotiated an uneasy peace with the Jin and were forced to learn the norms of a new multilateral order, so the United States must find its own understanding with a newly empowered China.”

The Fall of the Chola Empire (1027-1279)

“When we consider the United States as a sea power, one historical example immediately springs to mind: the great fleets of the Chola Empire, which dominated the Indian Ocean and neighboring seas for centuries. Like the United States, the Chola portrayed themselves as a guarantor of stability and free trade. But their colonial efforts spurred resentment among the peoples they had forced into compliance, leading them to side with the land-based Pandya Empire when it challenged the Chola in their own heartlands. That cycle of protection and antagonism is one that Washington needs to heed.”

The Disturbance of the Three Ports (1510)

“American and Chinese policymakers attempting to tackle the intricacies of China’s entangled economic relationship with the United States should heed the lessons of 16th-century Korea. In dealing with Japan, Korea faced a dilemma: Its neighbor was a rich source both of trade and of piracy that preyed on Korea. Korean attempts to crack down on Japanese abuses only prompted greater antagonism, as well as resentment by the Japanese population in Korea, destroying a productive relationship entirely and ending all trade between the nations for decades. So too may American attempts backfire.”

Akbar’s Nine Jewels (1556-1605)

“U.S. President Donald Trump is famously unwilling to read or heed briefing documents, leaving his views to be swayed by whomever he talked to last—or saw on television. That’s a stark contrast with the Mughal Emperor Akbar, even though Akbar, unlike Trump, was literally illiterate. Akbar’s success was built on his coterie of advisors—the so-called Nine Jewels, including poets, ministers, scientists, and musicians—and his respect for their breadth of learning. The next American president will need to have, and to heed, his own Nine Jewels, drawn from all walks of life. Let me suggest a few names.”

The Turtle Ships (1590)

“When Korean Adm. Yi Sun-shin invented—or reinvented, since he claimed to be copying antique designs—what may have been the world’s first ironclad warships, they devastated unprepared Japanese navies. But radically effective though the ‘turtle ships’ were, sudden Korean technological supremacy at sea was only one element in dissuading Japan’s assaults. It took the long stalemate caused by Ming military intervention to ultimately end the Imjin war. In similar fashion, strategists should be wary of overhyping single technologies, such as China’s ship-killer missiles, when it comes to any potential conflict in the South China Sea.”

To be sure, Asian history is harder to access in English than Europe’s, and the continent’s military history is shamefully underwritten. But the materials are out there—and they are far more geographically, culturally, and historically relevant to the continent that is defining the 21st century than dipping into Thucydides again.

James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer

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