Arguing about Thucydides

I recently published an op-ed on the ‘Thucydides Trap’ at The National Interest, that can be found here.

It has been critically analysed by a Professor of Classics, Neville Morley, in a blog post. While I’m pleased that the piece has drawn attention, I am disappointed at his mixture of passive-aggressive tone and tortured reasoning. So I’ll respond, below, ad seriatim.

Here goes:

If International Relations theorists are going to continue citing Thucydides – and there’s no real sign of a let-up any time soon – then at least it’s a good sign if more of them have read more than just the Melian Dialogue.

With that offering of faint praise, Morley suggests that there is something tiresome and regrettable about the fact that some International Relations theorists cite Thucydides (‘no real sign of a let-up’, ‘at least its a good sign…’). Does he believe that IR scholars should not cite Thucydides? Who, then, should they be restricted to citing? IR theorists are concerned with the dangers of conflict and insecurity in our world. So surely its legitimate for them to study the great texts of past. The past, after all, is the only guide we have. Heavyweight political minds have long been drawn to the Athenian’s history for this reason, from Thomas Hobbes to Richard Ned Lebow. But maybe they should have heeded the irritation of specialists, and stayed out of Morley’s turf.

We then have this:

In a new article in The National Interest on the prospects for US-China relations, ‘Thucydides Trap 2.0′, Patrick Porter not only cites some ideas from the Corcyrean stasis but also distances himself from crass evocations of ancient Greece: “That Thucydides did not lay out a sustained explicit theory, and that his opinion is hard to extract from the arguments he recreated, does not stop people from ransacking his history for lessons.” Of course, that’s a conventional rhetorical move to imply that this reading of Thucydides in terms of contemporary lessons is complex and sophisticated and can be trusted…

Of course I believe my interpretation is ‘complex and sophisticated.’ There aren’t many scholars who believe their own work is simplistic and crude. I argue for a more careful reading that looks beyond mere external foreign relations, but I’m not sure where Morley gets the idea that I believe readers should just ‘trust’ what I say. I argue for an interpretation. Readers can look and disagree.

After this beginning, complete with suspenseful ellipsis, Morley goes on:

Porter’s argument, as evident from the title, sets off from the idea of the ‘Thucydides Trap’, the inevitability of conflict between an established power and an upstart rival (see previous posts). History shows that such ‘power transitions’ do not inevitably lead to conflict; the true ‘trap’ is rather an internal one, as Athens’ rising power led to excessive ambition and poor decision-making:…

In Book Three, Thucydides’ description of wartime rhetoric bears resemblance to today’s gridlocked politics. ‘Words had to change their ordinary meaning….Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question, inaptness to act on any…The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected.’ An aristocrat exiled by the people’s vote, Thucydides portrayed a volatile Athenian population misled by demagogues that whipped it up. Even allowing for his disdain for unruly democracy, we can recognize in his History a useful warning. Power generates an obsession with status and the projection of strength, mutates into imperial swagger, and coarsens domestic politics. Domestic political spite in the imperial capital leads to moral and strategic failure, precisely because it makes sober debate difficult.

There’s a certain amount of sleight of hand here, conscious or not; the casual reader would quite reasonably conclude that the words quoted from Book III were explicitly offered as a description of Athens, rather than being an account of a completely different city that Thucydides intended to serve as a paradigm of the consequences of stasis across Greece. It’s a perfectly reasonable reading of the debasement of political rhetoric and the failures of deliberation in Athens – but it’s slightly strange that it isn’t developed using the more direct examples of the Mytilene Debate and the decision to send the expedition to Sicily. Is that perhaps precisely because those are debates, in which the outcome was uncertain and hence could have turned out differently, whereas Porter seems keen to imply that catastrophe is the inevitable result of such internal divisions and debased political discourse? One might even wonder whether there is a superstitious evasion of the example of Nicias, given that Porter’s basic message is a rather Nician one – “A climate of hysterical accusation prevents the formation of a party of caution, and impedes the measured consideration of hard choices.”

Its not easy to disentangle Morley’s message here from all its contradictions. On one hand, I am guilty of ‘sleight of hand’, though on the other it might not be ‘conscious.’ Its not clear how one can unintentionally be dishonest. On one hand, to believe Book III refers at all to politics in Athens is wrong, given that its about a ‘completely different city’, though on the other hand to see Thucydides statement about the debasement of language as relating to Athens is ‘perfectly reasonable.’ As Winston Churchill said of his desert, this section has no theme.

Then with a series of weasel qualifiers (‘certain amount’…’slightly strange’…’perhaps’…’One might even wonder’) Morley then speculates that I leave out mention of the Mytilene and Sicilian debates because I have dubious motives to twist the story. Actually, for what its worth, the reason is shallow. I had 1500 words to make a point about how to relate Thucydides’ history to the US-China rivalry, and how disaster begins at home. My omission of details is not, as Morley alleges, motivated by ‘superstitious evasion’ or a desire to dupe the reader, but by an editorial word count. Morley is pleased, however, to interpret silence in the most creative way possible, and allege unspeakable motives. Whose rhetorical moves are conventional, we might ask?

But there’s more:

The strangest aspect of this piece is the use of the phrase “suicide”. To be fair, “superpower suicide” appears only in the title and might not be Porter’s doing, but he certainly evokes the idea: “The real snare in [Thucydides’]  History was not the murder of great powers, but their suicide.” (It may be wholly coincidental, but this immediately brought to mind the remark of an early C20 French historian whose name I can’t for the moment remember that the Roman Empire didn’t die a natural death, it was assassinated). In what sense did Athens commit suicide? It didn’t choose to destroy itself; the problem was rather excessive hope in the prospects for success and a glorious future, and various failures in short-term strategy and planning. I suppose this is rather a matter of ‘effective’ suicide, pursuing an obviously dangerous course of action in the face of all common sense and good advice

In a crowded field, this is Morley’s most ill-considered claim. The difference between a metaphorical and a literal statement is something any reasonably talented infant can grasp. But Morley gets there in the end. As it occurs to him eventually, I used the word ‘suicide’ not to mean that the Athenians decided deliberately to destroy themselves, but to mean that the disaster came about primarily because of self-defeating behaviour. Morley’s slide into literalism here is ironic, coming from a classicist who doesn’t like outsiders crudely misreading texts.

Finally, Morley has this to say:

but surely part of the message of Thucydides’ account is that the decision to send an expedition to Sicily was finely balanced, even if it ended in disaster – not as a matter of inevitability, but as a result of various different circumstances, some foreseeable but others not, that made it seem a poor decision in retrospect.

Porter’s main concern is the absence of a ‘party of caution’ and the domination of bellicose, hubristic rhetoric in US foreign policy circles. The Athenian case is rather different; clearly there was a party of caution, in the form of Nicias and his supporters, but they lost the argument. Thucydides may well have intended us to conclude that things would have been better if they had won, but there’s enough evidence in his portrayal of Nicias’ actions in Sicily to raise doubts about his overall judgement, and one might equally conclude that the fatal step was the decision to recall Alcibiades. The idea of a straightforward “if X, then Y will follow” principle – whether “if  rising power confronts established power then war”, or “if internal divisions and debased political rhetoric in context of power transition then war” – is quite alien to his sensibility.

For the record, here is Thucydides’ own comment on the Sicilian expedition, which is more robust than a view of it as ‘finely balanced’, from book 2. It leaves little doubt about the domestic roots of the problem:

Thus Athens, though still in name a democracy, was in fact ruled by her greatest citizen, But his [Pericles’] successors were more on an equality with one another, and, each one struggling to be first himself, they were ready to sacrifice the whole conduct of affairs to the whims of the people. Such weakness in a great and imperial city led to many errors, of which the greatest was the Sicilian expedition; not that the Athenians miscalculated their enemy’s power, but they themselves, instead of consulting for the interests of the expedition which they had sent out, were occupied in intriguing against one another for the leadership of the democracy, and not only hampered the operations of the army, but became embroiled, for the first time, at home.

If Thucydides is clear about one thing, it is that the expedition to Sicily was a bad idea, conceived in ignorance and strategic innocence, and that it was a mistake symptomatic of the decline in Athenian leadership. Morley is right that Thucydides also blames errors of execution. But consider the examples he offers. The recall of Alcibiades was as a result of domestic power struggles, just as the decision to appoint a reluctant and flawed Nicias to the command was an unintended result of perverse, emotive debate. Private quarrels in pursuit of power at home undermined the campaign at the front. There were parties of caution in the Greek world – and as Thucydides indicates, they were subjected to all kinds of abuse. Political disunity and bad faith was his obsessive, recurring theme.

In the article, I built on a legitimate and defensible reading of the text: that though nothing was inevitable, the permissive cause of Athens’ fall and the wider tragedy of the Greek world was the loss of restraint, the rise of destructive ambition and the defeat of the voice of cautious reason, all of which spiralled after the death of Pericles. If Thucydides had a ‘sensibility’, it was to illustrate how the Athenian empire’s growth contained the seeds of its own temptations, how it tragically brought about its own defeat, and through its mis-steps made itself vulnerable to opponents from Sparta to the Persian Empire. It held on for years after Sicily, but internal dissension again laid it low.

To end at the beginning, the original point of my piece was that a Thucydidean approach to US-China antagonism should turn attention primarily to failures at home, both moral and strategic. If Morley is truly interested in my views and has time to spare, he might read my other work on the issue of security in East Asia, which is anything but fatalistic or formulaic. If anything, this interpretation leaves room for hope that a tragic clash with China might yet be avoided, if sober leadership could be brought to bear. There are plenty of differences in context between today and the Peloponnesian war. But the danger of self-inflicted wounds is a theme that rhymes.


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