The Influence of Thucydides in the Modern World

The Father of Political Realism Plays a Key Role in Current Balance of Power Theories

By Alexander Kemos

Thucydides, the Ancient Greek historian of the fifth century B.C., is not only the father of scientific history, but also of political "realism," the school of thought which posits that interstate relations are based on might rather than right. Through his study of the Peloponnesian War, a destructive war which began in 431 B.C. among Greek city-states, Thucydides observed that the strategic interaction of states followed a discernible and recurrent pattern. According to him, within a given system of states, a certain hierarchy among the states determined the pattern of their relations. Therefore, he claimed that while a change in the hierarchy of weaker states did not ultimatley affect a given system, a disturbance in the order of stronger states would decisively upset the stability of the system. As Thucydides said, the Peloponnesian War was the result of a systematic change, brought about by the increasing power of the Athenian city-state, which tried to exceed the power of the city-state of Sparta. "What made the war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused Sparta," Thucydides wrote in order to illustrate the resulting systematic change; that is, "a change in the hierarchy or control of the international political system."

Thucydides' realism has had a timeless impact on the way contemporary analysts perceive international relations. Adding to the works of Gilpin and Waltz, Leo Strauss of the University of Chicago viewed The Peloponnesian War as containing propositions that could be brought into a coherent framework and identified as "Thucydides' political philosophy" or serve even as the basis for a series of laws about the science of modern politics. In fact, political scientists have treated the work of Thucydides as a coherent attempt to communicate silent universals that have served as the basis for American foreign policy and security doctrine in the post World War II era.

Thus, on one hand, Thucydides was the first to describe international relations as anarchic and immoral. The "Melian dialogue" best exemplifies Thucydides' view that interstate politics lack regulation and justice. In the "Melian dialogue," he wrote that, in interstate relations, "the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept." For him, international relations allow the mighty do as they please and forfce the weak to suffer as they must. On the other hand, Thucydides illustrated the Cold War phenomenon of "polarization" among states, resulting from their strategic interaction.

The impact of Thucydides' work upon scholars of the Cold War period consists evidence for the relevance of his realist theory in today's world. In fact, while his Peloponnesian War is chronologically distant from the present, Thucydides' influence upon realist scholars in the post-1945 period, and in turn upon American diplomacy, is direct. Specifically, the foundations of American diplomacy during the Cold War with regard to the struggle between the two superpowers and the ethical consequences or problems posed for smaller states caught in the vortex of bipolar competition are derived from his work.

Writings of the early Cold War years often derive their inspiration from Thucydides' work. This period has spawned a significant body of theoretical literature which finds in the Athenian-Spartan rivalry a precedent to the Soviet-American bipolar competition. Structural realists such as Kenneth Waltz and Robert Gilpin found that the Hellenic world, and particularly the relationship between Athens and Sparta, as Thucydides describes it, provided an allegory for the Cold War polarization. In 1947, Secretary of State George Marshall had called attention to the significance of the Peloponnesian War for an understanding of the contemporary world. "I doubt seriously whether a man can think with full wisdom and with deep convictions regarding certain of the basic issues today who has not at least reviewed in his mind the period of the Peloponnesian War and the fall of Athens," he said.

Moreover, during the polarization of the Cold War period, policy-makers equated America's power to Ancient Athens' glory, as told in The Peloponnesian War. Thus, in 1952, Louis J. Halle, at the time Director of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff, wrote that "the present, in which our country finds herself, like Athens after the Peloponnesian wars, called upon to assume the leadership of the free world brings him [Thucydides] virtually to our side... It seems to me that since World War II Thucydides has come still closer to us so that now he speaks to our ear."

Throughout the Cold War, scholarly work focused on the conclusions which Thucydides drew from his study of power and competition in bipolar systems. The contemporary interpretation of the Peloponnesian War paraphrases what realists have come to term the "security dilemma": as the power of a subordinate state in a relatively stable international system increases disproportionately, it is brought into conflict with the dominant state(s). The struggle between these contenders for preeminence and their accumulating alliances lead to a bipolarization of the international system. In the language of game theorists, a zero-sum situation results, in which one state's gain is the other state's loss. As bipolarization proceeds, the system becomes increasingly unstable, and so does the likelihood of system-changing conflict.

Indeed, the study of polarity in the Hellenic world in the period between the Persian and Peloponnesian wars has influenced the work of realist authors such as Robert Gilpin, Kenneth Waltz, Joseph Nye, and John Mearsheimer. In turn, this scholarship has influenced American diplomacy as reflected in the work of Louis Halle in the 1950s, and Henry Kissinger, not only in the doctoral thesis, but in his tenure as Secretary of State in the 1970s. Specifically, reference of the parallel bipolarity of th Peloponnesian and Cold wars influenced the manner in which the U.S. saw the superpower world, and the manner in which it treated political developments and cultures in non-western regions.

As a result of his study of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides drew a fundamental distinction between the mode of politics within a certain state and the pattern of political interaction among several states. This distinction that is still the subject of intense debate in foreign policy circles. Within a state, citizens enter a community based on a form of social contract, which provides the protection of laws at the expense of some individual freedom. As a result of the legal equality with which the social contract provides the citizens, the weak are able to withstand the strong and ethical considerations are respected. In the international realm, however, there is no social contract among citizens of different states, and, consequenlty, there are no laws to defend legality and morality of state interactions. Thus, in interstate relations, it is the strong who decide how the weak should be treated, as moral or ethical judgments are virtually nonexistent. This distinction between the ethics of domestic and international relations are implicit in the "Melian dialogue." Here, Thucydides had Demosthenes, the Athenian orator, specifically contrast the affairs of a city-state, where laws (nomoi) and customs exist to treat weak and powerful equally, with international disputes (en tois Hellenikois dikaiois), where the strong coerce the weak.

Demosthenes is not the only one, however, to identify the place of justice and ethics in domestic relations and their absence in interstate relations. In his Politics, Aristotle accused individuals for having double standards. While they might restrain from behaving in an unacceptable way with regard to their fellow citizens, in the case of outsiders it is a different case entirely. He wrote, "most people seem to think sheer domination is what is appropriate in the political sphere; and they are not ashamed to practice in regard to outsiders what they recognize is neither just nor expedient in their dealings with each other as individuals. For their own affairs, among themselves, they demand an authority based on justice: but in regard to outsiders justice is no concern of theirs."

Moreover, later writers have endorsed Thucydides' argument that "might makes right." Later realists, such as Machiavelli and Hobbes, agree with Thucydides that "might makes right" is an intoxicating precept for states to indulge in. Also, like Thucydides, these later realists suggest that, although Ethics has its own proper sphere within the community of a certain state, the attempt to regulate interstate relations according to similar precepts contains the risk of justifying cases of intervention in a sovereign state. To paraphrase the contemporary theorist Hans Morghenthau, the mixture or morality and foreign policy is a very dangerous one. Indeed, in the early days of the Cold War, Morgenthau disapproved of the U.S. policy to view any region or political development, no matter how far-flung or inconsequential, as a linchpin of the contested balance of power.

Throughout the Cold War period, as a result of America's zero-sum competition with the Soviet Union for the worldwide balance of power, the US justified intervention in regions such as Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and the Mediterranean, with the objective of denying communist influence. The critical importance of interventions for American interests overrode any sense of "immorality" that American support for anti-communist and often brutally undemocratic regimes may have caused. In short, concern for the customs and privileges of civil society in the United States was often not extended to cultures and countries whose political allegiance risked to upset the Cold War bipolar balance. One need only refer to American (mis)adventures in Iran, Greece, Egypt, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, to name a few.

Thucydides may have been the father of a cruel realist view of international reations, but this does not mean that Thucydides himself endorsed the immorality of the international realm. Rather, if one accepts the distinction between internal and external affairs in The Peloponnesian War, it becomes clear that, when Thucydides deals with the relations of individuals within the state, he is indeed ready to make moral judgements. In his reproduction of Pericles' funeral oration, the historian does not hesitate to comment on the tragedy of the plague that befalls Athens. Furthermore, in the debate prior to the Sicillian expedition, Thucydides did not hesitate to compliment Nicias for his sense of morality, by saying that "[Nicias] had ordered his whole life by high moral standards." Of Nicias's cruel and unjust opponent Alcibiades, he wrote, "his way of life made him objectionable to everyone as a person, and thus [the Athenian people] entrusted their affairs to other hands." Finally, of the oligarchic coup that swept Athens after the exiled Alcibiades collaborated with the Persians and Spartans to dissolve democracy, Thucydides stated that democracy had been, in his experience, the best government Athens had had; its composition, of the few as well as the many, had been truly representative.

There have been, however, some misleading misinterpretations of Thucydides. For instance, Thomas Hobbes, great admirer of Thucydides, grieviously misinterpreted the historian when it suited his political interests to do so. He wrote, in fact, that the ancient historian "least of all liked democracy" and "best approved of regal government." Moreover, some classical scholars are uneasy with the conclusions that have been drawn by contemporary international relations theorists from the fifth century B.C. and the Peloponnesian War in the stark hues of the Cold War. "We have been presented lately with an up-dated version of the Thucydidean thesis that the war was the inevitable outcome of the division of the Greek world into two power blocs. In its new guise, the Thucydidean view is fortified with the weapons of modern social science. The condition that troubled the Greek world and brought on the war is discovered to the 'bipolarity.' Typically, such words are borrowed from the physical sciences to lend an air of novelty, clarity, and authority to a shopworn, vague, or erroneous idea."

Actually, while the use of Thucydidean scholarship in international relations theory is useful and accepted in the political science community, the lack of ease with which classical scholars consider such a relationship justifies the examination of realist Balance of Power precepts as derived from Thucydides. The significance of such an examination is found in the parallels that have been made between the Peloponnesian War and the Cold War, and the practical consequences of such scholarship on American diplomacy in the Cold War era with regard to the relationship between the superpower balance and regional politics in regions of contested influence.

Finally, the end of the Cold War requires a re-examination of Thucydidean scholarship and the theories of interstate behaviour which are derived from his work. Furthermore, if there is to be a new world order, the United States must recognize that the dynamics of interstate relations are constantly fluctuating. While there may be certain constants in the behaviour of states and individuals, the possibilities for interaction, cooperation, and conflict are always constant, and often present themselves in new and previously unknown forms. In this case, the study of history is only a guide, not a prescription. If the work of Thucydides is considered in these terms, it will truly be considered a possession for all time, just as the author had intended.

Alexander Kemos was a graduate student in International Relations at Harvard University.

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