Book Available for Pre-order!

February 8, 2015 - Comments Off on Book Available for Pre-order!

I have a book coming out in March. The Global Village Myth: Distance, War and the Limits of Power.

Thanks to the sterling work of Georgetown University Press, it has gotten some very generous endorsements, and the link is here. Thanks too to Michael Dwyer and Hurst, who are publishing it in the UK and Europe, linked here.

The book tackles a subject this blog has considered for a while, the power of distance and the way it still exerts itself even in a supposedly globalised world.

The book writes a critical biography of the overblown and misconceived notion of a small, shrinking world of globalised insecurity.

It examines three ‘hard’ cases (hard for my argument) to show how the idea does badly under interrogation.

And it shows how this mythology encourages threat inflation, utopian liberal wars and other self-defeating behaviour.

Amaze your friends, break the ice at parties, and buy it.

Edward Gough Whitlam: Farewell to the Big Australian

October 21, 2014 - Comments Off on Edward Gough Whitlam: Farewell to the Big Australian


‘You either crash through, or you crash’ was a motto of Gough Whitlam, Prime Minister of Australia 1972-1975.

And crash (and crash through) he did. Like an asteroid that smashed its way into Australia’s political cosmos. He only held power for a brief, crowded moment. But after the crash, nothing would ever be the same.

I won’t say his asteroid transformed ‘the political landscape’, because that would be a weary cleche, not fitting the wittiest man ever to have occupied the role, a rhetorician reared in classical history, and a bitchy provocateur who traded in waspish remarks. Once an opponent from the conservative rural heartland – a constituency that never loved this most urban of premiers- reminded Gough ‘I am a country member.’ ‘I remember’, Whitlam replied.

Whitlam’s project, like Whitlam himself, was too gargantuan for the short time it occupied, and every achievement was shadowed by a crisis or failure. In just three years, he brought forth a vast expansion of the welfare state, but also hyperinflation and economic disarray that eroded the very living standards that he tried to lift up.

He launched a reassertion of Australian nationalism and independence (abolishing imperial honours and appeals to the Privy Council, and claiming ownership of Australian natural resources), but he also entrenched the long-standing practice of appeasing Jakarta. And fairly or not his unorthodox efforts to raise international loans through dodgy middle men made his government stink.

He was the architect of a realignment of foreign policy in Asia, withdrawing from Vietnam and recognising Communist China, a move that chimed precisely with the Nixon administration. But his public silence over the Indonesian atrocity in East Timor dogged him ever after.

He got Labor elected into power after two decades in exile. Yet his inflexible commitment to ramming through reforms at a rapid clip, and his literal interpretation of his party’s mandate, meant that he courted a political showdown that left his party decimated at the polls. In the ranks of the Party, Whitlam’s example was invoked just as much as a model to be avoided.

The precedent of Whitlamism, destroyed so quickly after such high hopes, helped drive the shift of future Labor leaders towards political longevity above all, through fiscal discipline, tactical retreats, and the embrace of capital as well as labour. Paul Keating in many ways emerged as the anti-Whitlam. Both had the instinct for the kill, but Keating despised the turbulence and indiscipline of the Whitlam years, and Hawke’s embrace of ‘consensus’ politics was designed as an antidote to memories of the three dark years.

It was Whitlam’s demise, however, his sacking by the Governor General after a parliamentary deadlock, that was also his most immortal hour. His denunciation of Sir John Kerr on the steps of Parliament house, and of the rival who would become a latter day ally of sorts, Malcolm Fraser, will echo through time.

That point of climax was also, necessarily, the point of decline. At a time when most of the electorate worried more about their jobs and mortgages, Whitlam campaigned on the principle of the supremacy of the House of Representatives, of ‘a great wrong that must be righted.’ Unwilling to bend, he broke. It was Whitlam, so there couldn’t be another way.

‘Why do you write so much about Australian history?’ a hapless interviewer once asked. With a glint in his eye, Gough answered ‘Because I’ve made so much of it.’

And so he did, and does. Rest lightly upon him, earth.

Distance Matters

September 5, 2014 - Comments Off on Distance Matters

From DHL’s Global Connectedness Index:

‘Distance and borders still matter – even online. Most international flows take place within rather than between regions. Even online connections are mainly domestic and decline with distance.’

For more on this theme, my book comes out with Georgetown in early 2015. Stay tuned!

Jab and Pause: Limited Wars and NATO

September 2, 2014 - Comments Off on Jab and Pause: Limited Wars and NATO

This is one of the most important articles I’ve read all year, I reckon:

Needs careful reading, but in summary: states like Russia still have the classic impulses of insecurity and pride. But they also calculate the risks of escalation. To assert themselves forcefully without going over the brink, they design their campaigns around a ‘jab and pause’ logic: exploit a crisis, move in rapidly and even deniably, announce a fait accompli, and in the face of a NATO that lacks intermediate options to respond between nothing and major war, dare their adversaries to respond. So, once again, even in the face of nuclear deterrence, states must take seriously the prospect of minor hostilities, opportunistic gambits, and localised disputes.

A review

August 25, 2014 - Comments Off on A review

I’ve just reviewed Lawrence Freedman’s ‘Strategy: A History.’ It’s heavyweight, rich and above all, witty. His book, that is. Here it is.

An article and a book!

August 1, 2014 - Comments Off on An article and a book!

I’ve just published a piece in the journal ‘Small Wars and Insurgencies’, here.

As I argue, the best response to Iraq and Afghanistan as we look back is not just to focus on the techniques of counterinsurgency, but to think hard about the national interest, about whether such wars are really worth it, and recognise that there is nothing inevitable about such conflicts.

Am now copy-editing the book, The Global Village Myth, with the excellent oversight of Georgetown University Press. Stay tuned.

A Rejoinder to Anne-Marie Slaughter

June 18, 2014 - Comments Off on A Rejoinder to Anne-Marie Slaughter

Anne-Marie Slaughter argues that America should enter the fighting in Syria and Iraq. In doing so, she argues that there is little distinction between strategic interests and humanitarian impulses. I’m personally, fearfully, sympathetic towards some assistance to the Iraq state in denying ISIS control of whole cities. But Slaughter’s cosmology is truly startling.

In an article that begins in self-pity, and ends in glib counter-factuals, she makes it all sound so simple.

Here goes:

FOR the last two years, many people in the foreign policy community, myself included, have argued repeatedly for the use of force in Syria — to no avail.

That’s because many people in the rest of the American community, who don’t enjoy the privilege of defining themselves in such exalted terms, think that weighing in to a brutal conflict between an authoritarian regime and an Islamist-infested rebellion isn’t smart.

We have been pilloried as warmongers and targeted, by none other than President Obama, as people who do not understand that force is not the solution to every question. A wiser course, he argued at West Point, is to use force only in defense of America’s vital interests.

Slaughter has been pilloried as a warmonger because she is one. A warmonger is someone who is eager for a nation to go to war. She has called for the America use of force in Rwanda, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, and now for Iraq again. Many of these campaigns have not been triumphs. Her self-pity now doesn’t change that.

At West Point, Obama judged that ‘to say that we have an interest in pursuing peace and freedom beyond our borders is not to say that every problem has a military solution. Since World War II, some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint but from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences, without building international support and legitimacy for our action, without leveling with the American people about the sacrifices required.’ But even this, apparently, offends Slaughter.

This is where the White House is most blind. It sees the world on two planes: the humanitarian world of individual suffering, where no matter how heart-rending the pictures and how horrific the crimes, American vital interests are not engaged because it is just people; and the strategic world of government interests, where what matters is the chess game of one leader against another, and stopping both state and nonstate actors who are able to harm the United States.

In fact, the two planes are inextricably linked. When a government begins to massacre its own citizens, with chemical weapons, barrel bombs and starvation, as Syria’s continues to do, it must be stopped. If it is not stopped, violence, displacement and fanaticism will flourish.

Let’s just stop the tape, right there. Slaughter isn’t just saying that America sometimes should use force prudently where and when it can, selectively and judiciously. As she formulates it, every time a government commits atrocities against its own citizens, it ‘must be stopped.’ Since the world is a large place, and since there are more than a few authoritarian regimes about, this inescapably would implicate the US, and condemn it to endless war. Robert Mugabe violently oppresses his citizens in unspeakable ways. All sorts of regimes use starvation as a weapon, and the North Korean regime has with-held food from those it deems disloyal. A brutal civil war raged for years in Sri Lanka. Must all these regimes ‘be stopped?’

Secondly, civil wars can indeed create ‘violence, displacement and fanaticism.’ But so indeed can well-intended, liberal interventions by a benign superpower to arrest disorder, the kinds of constabulary efforts Slaughter calls for. Slaughter’s blindness to the chaos that our own efforts can fuel points to the main problem in her world view: the West is bringer of order into chaos, not the unwitting cause of chaos except when it passes on fighting wars Slaughter advocates.

Just in case you doubt this, have a look at the Show So Far in Libya, after the ‘textbook’ intervention there brought the rebellion to power. Mass incarceration and torture of black Africans, mounting chaos with a state that can barely govern against militias, the disruption of oil production.

Third, Slaughter repeats the never-ending cliche that any disorder, any violence, any displacement, any fanaticism, is a security threat to the United States, which must therefore perpetually tame the world back into order. This is quite untrue. In a world darkened in some places by any or all of these things, Americans are more likely to be injured falling off ladders than in a terrorist attack, which incidentally were more common in the 1970’s that today. Most first world countries are not deeply threatened by eruptions just anywhere. And as Daryl Press and Eugene Gholz have shown, even when world economics are interdependent, hard cases show how well states can adapt and even prosper while others fight wars. The ability of other states to flourish even during the Iran-Iraq war is a case in point. Contrary to the spirit of Slaughter’s liberal imperialism, actually not everything is deeply connected, and security is divisible.

None of this is a reason to dismiss these events – giving aid generously is a decent response where one can. But Slaughter refuses to recognize any gap, enthusiastically conflating humanitarian crisis with a clear and present danger. Ultimately, for her America’s security interests are universal and limitless, so its little surprise that she tirelessly urges Washington to reach for its gun.

Deciding that the Syrian government, as bad as it is, was still better than the alternative of ISIS profoundly missed the point. As long as we allow the Syrian government to continue perpetrating the worst campaign of crimes against humanity since Rwanda, support for ISIS will continue. As long as we choose Prime Minister Maliki over the interests of his citizens, all his citizens, his government can never be safe.

Well, the fall of the Syrian government would probably unleash horrific atrocities, just as the unseating of Saddam Hussein opened up a vacuum of communal bloodletting, crime and sectarian conflict which is again raging. The fate of the Christian minority of Syria would probably be dark.

Also, notice Slaughter’s hubristic language. Things only happen because ‘we’ ‘allow’ them to, and politics evolves in Iraq because ‘we’ prioritise Maliki over his people. It just couldn’t be, could it, that there are real limits on American power.  In other words, despite all evidence to the contrary, America’s power is vast in a region that it can shape almost at will.

The answer to those questions may well involve the use of force on a limited but immediate basis, in both countries. 

A ‘limited and immediate’ basis, how comfortingly surgical, again the illusion of control. Remember the war in Kosovo, which Slaughter is about to cite approvingly, as the supposedly swift bombing campaign that ended up dragging on for 78 days? Remember the invasion of Iraq that was supposed to be a rapid demonstration of overwhelming force?

Enough force to remind all parties that we can, from the air, see and retaliate against not only Al Qaeda members, whom our drones track for months, but also any individuals guilty of mass atrocities and crimes against humanity. Enough force to compel governments and rebels alike to the negotiating table. And enough force to create a breathing space in which decent leaders can begin to consolidate power.

This is a broad net indeed, cast over a target-rich environment. If our mandate is to retaliate against ‘any individuals guilty of mass atrocities and crimes against humanity’, like murder, torture or dispossession,  it is time to turn our guns on the Egyptian military regime, the Maliki regime, Hezbollah, Assad, ISIS, Iran, the Mahdi Army, Israeli settlers, Hamas, or the house of Saud. This, you can be confident, would not create a space for the ‘decent leaders’ to do anything much. But in Slaughter’s world view, where others’ violence is unacceptably threatening, American violence just creates space for dialogue, or brings down justice from the skies. There are not difficult tradeoffs, no dilemmas, no tragic problems in Slaughter’s ‘How to Do it’ guide to international relations. Just one large harmony of interests, that AJP Taylor warned of years ago.

On the legal side, we should act in both countries because we face a threat to global peace and security, precisely the situation the United Nations Security Council was established to address. If nations like Russia and China block action for their own narrow interests, we should act multilaterally, as we did in Kosovo, and then seek the Council’s approval after the fact. The United Nations Charter was created for peace among the people of the world, not as an instrument of state power.

Well, hell’s bell’s, I thought acting legally included only using force against other sovereign states with the prior approval of the UNSC, unless strict self-defence was established.Kosovo, by the way, wasn’t such a model of superb interventionism. It helped ensure that lots of Serbians would be wiped out in revenge reprisals by the KLA. But Slaughter claims the US and its allies enjoy a privilege that other UN members don’t, of overriding the letter of the law when it suits them, or claiming it retro-actively. The UN Charter was not just created ‘for peace among the people of the world’, a cause Slaughter has a funny way of pursuing. It was also created to enshrine the principle of sovereignty, and to oppose the ‘scourge of war.’ Again, there are no difficult choices in Slaughter’s account. The UN was designed to suit liberal values, she reckons, so state sovereignty be damned.

Strangely enough, other states can invoke the same principle Slaughter embraces, and wage their own wars to protect endangered peoples when it suits them. The very cavalier doctrine Slaughter supports – do what you feel is right and worry about procedure later – enables the thing she claims to oppose, namely cynical and selective realpolitik. As it happens, I am skeptical about international law as a concept. But precisely because of the evasion and have-it-both-ways hypocrisy that its members exhibit, and which Slaughter indulges in.

This is not merely a humanitarian calculation. It is a strategic calculation. One that, if the president had been prepared to make it two years ago, could have stopped the carnage spreading today in Syria and in Iraq.

I’m not sure weighing into Syria militarily could have done much to avert carnage, and certainly not at acceptable cost. Besides, strategy is about limits – the limits of power and knowledge, the need to align goals and scarce resources, the need to rank interests and set priorities, and a prudent regard for how difficult it is to make war serve policy, not just serve itself. Calculations that estimate that a superpower has almost godlike capacity, and limitless interests, are not successfully strategic. They reflect narcissism, still preached by an unreflective ‘community’ of establishment hawks that still believes in waging perpetual war for perpetual peace.



June 12, 2014 - Comments Off on D-Day


D-DayWe remember D-Day as a heroic assault on a strongly defended coast. At the cost of over 4000 Allied lives, the invaders won a foothold that began the rollback of the Nazis from Western Europe. We remember this as a bloody success that was worth the price – a marked contrast to our memory of futile offensives of the First World War.

But D-Day could have been a disaster. Breaching Hitler’s Atlantic Wall was only possible because of deception on a grand scale, making Hitler believe the true assault was coming somewhere else, because of overwhelming air and maritime power that had been won at terrible cost, because of vast logistical buildup, and because of a break in the weather. It took cumulative victories elsewhere, trickery, and luck.

So even successes that look inevitable in hindsight actually were a near run thing. On several occasions in recent times, we have waged wars presuming they would be easy, believing it was a matter of will above all. But capacity, competence and fortune also play their part. There’s more to victory than faith in the cause.

Great Writing on the Myths of Empire and the Roots of Realism

May 22, 2014 - Comments Off on Great Writing on the Myths of Empire and the Roots of Realism

Successive crises in Ukraine, the Senkakus and Syria have inspired some great writing, including:

Peter Beinart on credibility anxiety;

Michael Cohen on the false notion that America is in retreat;

the surprisingly liberal origins of the term Realpolitik in the modern age, as the pursuit of ‘liberal, enlightened goals in a world that does not follow liberal, enlightened rules; and how to ensure political and social progress in an unstable and unpredictable environment.’

Worth a read!


Arguing about Thucydides

May 7, 2014 - Comments Off on 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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