Ancient advice for modern foreign policy
What we can learn from the ancient Greek writer Thucydides
It only takes quick glance at the headlines over the past few months to understand that America faces a torrent of foreign policy challenges unseen since the Cold War. Russian troops amass on the border of Ukraine, threatening to remove the country’s deeply flawed democracy by force and establish a sphere of influence for Vladimir Putin’s corrupt autocracy. China’s bid for global power proceeds apace, with the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing the latest example of its so far successful effort to translate its economic power into coercive political influence. Negotiations to resurrect the Iran nuclear agreement appear to be reaching a head, while new issues like climate change and cybersecurity only make international relations more complicated.
How are we all to think clearly about foreign policy? We could do much worse than to listen to what the ancient Greek intellectual Thucydides has to say about international relations.
Today’s self-styled realists ensconced in academia and the media frequently often Thucydides as one of their own, the intellectual grandfather of their own worldview. In his History of the Peloponnesian War, today’s they maintain, Thucydides describes the harsh but immutable realities of international politics. It’s a world in which little other than raw power and brute calculations of self-interest matter, one where “the strong do what they can and the weak yield to them.”
Likewise, others assert that Thucydides unearthed another timeless truth about geopolitics when he asserted “the true cause of the war” was “the growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm that it inspired in Sparta.” This shifting balance of power between the two main powers of ancient Greece, he tells us, “made war inevitable.”It’s an idea that the political scientist Graham Allison recently dubbed the “Thucydides trap” – the notion that rising and status quo or declining powers like modern China and the United States are exceedingly likely to come to blows. For Allision, this snare proceeds inevitably from “the inexorable, structural stress caused by a rapid shift in the balance of power between two rivals.”
But as a number of international relations theorists and classics scholars contend, Thucydides was a far more subtle and complex thinker than many contemporary realists might acknowledge. His arguments can’t be reduced to the simple brief for power politics that realists often present to the general public. That becomes clear enough when reading The Greek Histories, the recently published compilation of Thucydides, Herodotus, and other ancient Greek writers edited by the classicists Mary Lefkowitz and James Romm.
In his account of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides proves just as interested in how considerations of honor, justice, and forms of government play out in international affairs as he is in straightforward considerations of power. Take his pithy statement that the rising power of Athens provoked so much fear in Sparta as to precipitate war, a maxim beloved of many modern realists. Before drawing this conclusion, however, Thucydides notes that Spartan policy toward its Greek allies aimed first and foremost “to secure their subservience to her interests by establishing oligarchies among them.” As a helpful footnote from Lefkowitz and Romm clarifies, Sparta “supported narrow oligarchies elsewhere in Greece” because they mirrored its own form of government.To put it another way, Sparta only truly felt safe when it lived in a world populated by subordinate oligarchies; not for nothing did it install oligarchies in Athens and other cities after its eventual victory in the war.
Even so, it took the goading of an allied polis, Corinth, to convince an insular Sparta to go to war against Athens. To clinch their argument, the Corinthians relied on “the great contrast between two national characters” – a democratic Athens “addicted to innovation” and an oligarchic Sparta stuck in its comparatively old-fashioned ways. In politics as in art, the Corinthians argued, “improvements always prevail.”The rising power of Athens, as concerning as it might well have been, wasn’t reason enough for Sparta to go to war; it was the marriage of Athenian power with a democratic form of government and a restless culture that, according to Thucydides, prompted Sparta to seek a showdown with Athens.
For their part, Athenian political leaders clearly saw their conflict with Sparta in terms of their differing forms of government. In his famous funeral oration, for instance, the Athenian statesman Pericles forthrightly asserted that it was his city’s political system and its corresponding national character that “allowed our greatness to grow.”Pericles takes pains to distinguish democratic Athens from its oligarchic adversary, boasting for instance that Athenians did not require the “painful discipline” of Sparta’s soldiery to win battle after battle – and on their own, without the help of allies. Hubristic as these statements may have been, they show that some prominent Athenians considered their war with Sparta to be a logical outgrowth of their different forms of government.
The full version of the origins of the war presented by Thucydides stands at odds with the simple realist narrative of inevitable conflict between rising and status quo powers. Differing forms of government played a crucial role in the outbreak and conduct of the war, and both Athens and Sparta sought to install their own preferred form of government in the cities they conquered over the course of the war. It’s going too far to claim that differences between democracy and oligarchy caused the Peloponnesian War, but it’s equally hard to ignore the differences both Athens and Sparta perceived between their respective forms of government and how these perceptions led to the outbreak of war.
More fundamental to the realist worldview is the famous Melian dialogue between representatives of Athens and those of Melos, an island in the Aegean the Athenians aimed to force into their empire. It’s a dialogue most memorable for the striking assertions the Athenians make regarding the impotence of appeals to values like fairness, justice, and honor in the face of the prerogatives of raw power. While the Melians attempt to convince Athens that crushing their city by force would be unjust and dishonorable (not to mention contrary to the self-interest of Athens itself), the Athenians have none of it and frankly acknowledge that they hold their empire on the basis of might rather than right. If they fail to do as Athens demands, then, the Melians will face the full might of Athenian power.
The lesson Thucydides imparts here, however, cannot be boiled down to the basic notion that might makes right, or that the strong will invariably do what they can while the weak must suffer what they must. Thucydides leaves no doubt that the this does indeed happen to be the case when the strong are determined to exercise raw power without any constraints whatsoever; Athens does in fact put down Melos with brutal force. But it’s far from clear that Thucydides takes this state of affairs to be normal or natural – or even beneficial to Athens in anything other than the short run.
Instead, the Melian dialogue stands as an example of the depths to which major powers like Athens can sink when they give up on any semblance of justice or honor in international politics and their dealings with other poleis. The ideals the Melians invoke to persuade Athens to spare their city comprise the very social ties and bonds that make relations between nations work in the first place; they’re the oil that lubricate the gears of geopolitics and keep it functioning. It all breaks down when the pursuit of power for its own sake becomes the ultimate end of international politics. In its dialogue with Melos, Athens has shed even the pretense of standing for anything other than its own aggrandizement. It’s no coincidence that Thucydides takes his narrative of the war straight from this dialogue to the disastrous Athenian campaign in Sicily, an expedition that may well have lost Athens the war.
There’s much more to feast on in The Greek Histories, from Herodotus and his account of the Persian Wars to selections from the intellectual and soldier Xenophon as well as the biographer Plutarch. But it’s Thucydides who steals the show, “forcing the reader to confront the problems these [foreign policy] decisions raise.”
What does all of this mean for us today as we confront our own complicated foreign policy problems?
First, the balance of power can’t explain everything by itself. It’s foolish to deny that material power or naked self-interest play crucial – and often determinative – roles in global politics. But by the very same token, it’s clear that appeals to the balance of power or the national interest can’t and don’t account for everything in international affairs. The balance of power only tells us so much, and the national interest isn’t always blindingly obvious. It wasn’t merely Athens’ growing power that frightened Sparta, Thucydides reminds us, but the combination of that power with a form of government and precocious culture that Sparta saw as hostile to its own interests.
Likewise, it isn’t simply the rising power of China that bothers many Americans today – it’s the way that power gives the ruling Chinese Communist Party the ability to export its autocratic form of government around the world, even into liberal democracies like the United States. Nor does Russia’s still substantial power necessarily perturb the United States and its NATO allies; it’s how President Vladimir Putin and his cronies use that power to subvert democracies around the world and bully his weaker neighbors.
Second, forms of government and political systems matter – a lot. If the balance of power can’t explain as much as realists claim, at least some of the slack can be picked up by considering how different forms of government and political systems factor into international relations. As Thucydides observed, both Athens and Sparta saw their respective forms of government as fundamentally at odds with one another. Moreover, Athenian statesman Pericles clearly believed his city’s democratic system of government and freewheeling culture were the ultimate source of its power. Again, the importance of these differences doesn’t mean that the oligarchies and democracies of ancient Greece were destined to fight; after all, both Athens and Sparta stood together against common enemies before and after the Peloponnesian War.
Similarly, differences between democracy and autocracy seem to define international relations today. It’s unlikely that the United States would see a democratic and liberal China as the same threat to its interests as one ruled by the Chinese Communist Party; the same goes for a Russia under Vladimir Putin and an Iran run by revolutionary religious conservatives. But as Thucydides’ example of Sparta tells us, it goes both ways: autocratic governments factor democracy into their own geopolitical equations as well. Putin, for instance, sees even an imperfect Ukrainian democracy oriented toward NATO and the European Union as a mortal threat to his own regime. The Chinese Communist Party has likewise thrown its weight around in an effort to make the world safe for its own rule at home.
Finally, values and standards of behavior hold international politics together in ways we tend to forget. Far from an amoral realist, Thucydides recognized the importance of moral values and appeals to shared standards of conduct in international affairs. As he saw it, the savagery of the Peloponnesian War could be explained, at least in part, by the way major powers like Athens discarded fundamental moral values like honor and justice in the pursuit of power for its own sake. Once these standards of international behavior were discarded, might would make right without consideration for anything other than its own prerogatives.
We see a similar logic playing out with Russia’s current demands for the restoration of the Soviet Union’s old sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, as well as its effective control over Ukraine’s politics and foreign policy. In many ways, this crisis represents the logical end point of over a decade of erosion in the basic rules of international politics carried out by Russia, China, and its allies and partners around the world. But it’s also a reminder that the so-called “rules-based liberal international order” was always much more fragile and contingent than many foreign policy experts and political leaders claimed.
That’s what makes holding the line against Putin in Ukraine so important – it’s not a question that comes down to the “adjustment of conflicting interests,” as realist patron saint George Kennan would have put it. If international relations are to be conducted on anything other than the basis of pure power politics, then it’s vital to reject the Kremlin’s way of doing business.
There’s much we can still learn from Thucydides– though often forced into the procrustean bed of contemporary realism, his astute observations on the international politics of the ancient Aegean have much to teach us about the world we live in today. We’d do well to listen to what he has to say.
Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, 5.89 in The Greek Histories - the Sweeping History of Ancient Greece as Told by Its First Chroniclers: Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, and Plutarch, eds. Mary Lefkowitz and James Romm, p. 175.
1.23, p. 141.
Lefkowitz and Romm, p. 139n1.
1.71, p. 143.
2.36, p. 147.
Lefkowitz and Romm, p. 279.