Thucydides Won’t Save Us

Politico had an article today about how the very serious thinkers in the Trump administration are currently rehashing Thucydides. The reaction among national security observers and scholars on Twitter seemed to be a collective eye roll. No one wants to talk about Thucydides anymore. Why might that be?

American debates about Thucydides aren’t new. In fact, we’ve been debating Thucydides since the 2003 Iraq War. The Bush administration’s hubris in assuming there were no limits to its power was compared by many observers to the disastrous Sicilian Expedition, in which Athens violated the Periclean policy of restraint from offensive land campaigns. Just as Athens overextended itself militarily, so did the United States. Many of us hoped that readers of Thucydides would learn from this comparison and that a dose of restraint would be injected into future American foreign policy.

But the opposing crude interpretation of Thucydides is alive and well, and it might lead us to war in Syria. This is the version which assumes that power should be used amorally and without limits since international politics is a Hobbesian war of all against all. It’s inspired by taking the “strong do what they will, weak suffer what they must” line from the Melian Dialogue completely out of context. And once again, a Republican administration is asserting American power around the world without any limit. Trump’s “principled realism” inspired him to throw down the gauntlet against Iran and side with the Saudis, Egypt and Israel in their regional power struggle. Rather than deter Tehran from greater expansion, their pursuit of a land bridge linking Syria and Iraq suggests they will respond to force with force. The danger now is that we are about to stumble into a war with not just Assad, but also Iran and Russia. These developments should give us little faith that the administration will avoid a power transition war with China (Graham Allison’s “Thucydides Trap” is merely a trendy, updated version of this theory).

So what does this mean for how we think about Thucydides and today’s foreign policy? If the realism of Trump’s existing Middle East policy is any guide, we shouldn’t have much faith that National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Defense Secretary James Mattis can guide the administration in using force with restraint. McMaster has already squandered his reputation by defending Trump and, along with Mattis, are clearly implicated in his aggressive Middle Eastern commitments. Further, we live in an era of demagogues. Trump is our modern-day Alcibiades, who rallied the Athenian people to war while profiting off of his political power. Add Stephen Bannon to the mix (another self-professed Thucydides fan who happens to be obsessed with power), and we cannot assume that ‘the adults’ will resist the President’s knee-jerk aggression with the proper interpretation of The Peloponnesian War.

Further, it’s not 2003 anymore and the world is more complex. Comparisons between the United States and Athens no longer hold after the emergence of multipolarity and the weakening of American economic hegemony. An emphasis on restraint and the limited use of force is certainly still relevant, but how those principles translate into strategy and policy in an incredibly complex environment remains to be deciphered.

All this shouldn’t be taken to mean that The Peloponnesian War is irrelevant to international politics or that we shouldn’t teach it in IR classes. And there has been wonderful scholarship on Thucydides in recent years (see Lebow’s other work). But it does mean that Thucydidean critiques of Trump’s foreign policy will fall on deaf ears. We are simply talking past each other. And if we want to figure out a concrete way forward for the United States, we might consider other classical realists (thinking of Morgenthau’s discussion of the balance of power) who do articulate clear principles regarding power politics rather than drawing upon a single case whose context is somewhat different from today’s.

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