Thucydides and international relations

Thucydides is seen by some scholars as the first writer in the realist tradition as well as the founding father of International Relations.[1] There are contrasting interpretations of the ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’ as Thucydides rarely gives his opinion about the events described and the characters’ actions. This essay will adopt the realist interpretation of Thucydides and argue that he is still relevant today due to the prevalence of fear, self interest and power politics in today’s world. It will use competing interpretations of his work to show that, even though there are important differences between his world and today’s world, his insights into human nature are relevant and are one of the best sources to learn from history.[2]

Thucydides’ work is valuable as it investigates the causes and dynamics of war. He states: “What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta.” [3] According to Lebow, power transition theories are based on the premise that hegemons are unwilling to relinquish their status to upcoming powers.[4] Power transition theories investigate how a shift in an actor’s power in the system affects other actors. Theorists stress the critical importance of changes in the relative power of states as these changes produce fear and result in the security dilemma. Thus the system becomes increasingly unstable and small events can precipitate a major conflict. [5] Sparta was afraid that a shift in the balance of power would be to the detriment of its national security and thus according to power transition theory it felt aggression was necessary to address the imbalance. A theme that dominates Thucydides narrative is how fear in conjunction with honour and interest result in a state taking action in the hope of safeguarding its national security and independence.[6] The Peloponnesian war was the product of two developments. The first was the uneven and unprecedented growth of Athens. The issuance of the Megarian Decree was another provocative action. Athens believed that the integrity of their empire was at stake due to their fear of a revolt of their colonies. Athens’s use of economic sanctions aimed to dislodge Megara from its alliance with Sparta posing a direct threat to Spartan and Corinthian security.[7] The Corinthians warned their Spartan allies that unless they asserted themselves against the Athenians, they (the Corinthians) would form a new alliance thus harming Spartan security. Thus Sparta delivered the ultimatum calling for the revocation of the Megarian decree. Rejection of the ultimatum was the immediate cause of the war. Thus the ‘security dilemma’ can be said to have drove the hegemons into a war that neither desired.[8] A modern example of this theory is the change in American perception of Soviet power after the first Soviet ICBM launch. The so called missile gap resulted in US insecurity as the Kennedy administration believed Khruschchev was behaving aggressively in Berlin because he felt the power balance was shifting in his favour. Concern to maintain US power led Kennedy to increase the US strategic buildup.[9] However Kauppi states that there are intervening variables preventing the shifting balance of power leading to war in the cold war world. He cites modern examples of the restraining effect of nuclear weapons, and the existence of neutrals as having a stabilizing influence by not entrapping the superpowers in a zero sum game. He also cites the role of ideology as convincing both superpowers that they could win without war. [10] Thus while power transition theory and the resultant fear explain the pressure imposed on states, other factors can prevent fear from resulting in war. Lebow contests the basis of power transition theory by pointing out that Athens reached the zenith of its power 20 years before the outbreak of war, he adds that it is the perception of power that is vital to power transition theory and war. The effect of middle powers like Corinth is another factor to consider. [11] While there was no direct conflict between the superpowers in the cold war, the massive defence budgets and development of weapons of mass destruction shows that both superpowers were using fear to deter their enemy and acting on fear by arming themselves.

Another central feature of Thucydides thought is that of self interest. According to Gilpin, Thucydides believed that human nature was unchanging and since human beings were driven by interest, pride and fear, they always seek to increase their wealth until others driven by like passions, try to stop them.[12] In the Melian dialogue the Athenians say: “Our opinion of the gods and our knowledge of men lead us to conclude that it is a general and necessary law of nature to rule wherever one can.” [13] The Athenians state that maintaining their empire is their only concern and they try to convince the Melians that it is in their interest to surrender. They ask the Melians to ignore the matter of justice and claim that it is not in Sparta’s interest to intervene on their behalf.[14] The Melian dialogue shows the primacy of self interest not only as a practical course of action but as a law of nature. A modern example of self interest is the statist concept – the national interest- seen in the Mytilenian debate. Even though Cleon and Diodotus have different thoughts of the way forward they both seek to deal with the situation to Athens’s benefit. For Diodotus, considerations of justice are inapplicable to interstate relations. [15] A modern example of the national interest at work is the October, 2006 United States doctrine on space. “The United States will preserve its rights, capabilities, and freedom of action in space… and deny, if necessary, adversaries the use of space capabilities hostile to US national interests.” [16] In today’s world while the national interest is seen as a guiding principle it need not always be action by a sole state. States may cooperate to ensure the common good. In an increasingly globalised world states must consider and temper their exercise of national interest. The development of international law, particularly humanitarian law, shows that there are norms of non intervention and human rights that states are obliged to follow. Condemnation from the international community in case of their violation would not be in a state’s national interest. Thus while the national interest is a key component of state decision making, today, the experience of two world wars and the prevalence of liberal ideas mean that the national interest is still important but not the sole reason for state behaviour.

Self interest and fear result in power politics. The Athenians say one’s ability to engage in power politics depends on strength. “The standard of justice, depends on the equality of power to compel and that, in fact, the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept.”[17] Thus one’s ability to enforce one’s demands depends on relative power. The quote above from the Melian dialogue shows Athens warning Melos to submit as they are too weak to resist. Since there is anarchy in relations among states, the order that exists is created and sustained by the powerful that impose their power within their sphere of influence. States, like individuals, are motivated by fear and self interest and appeal to justice only when their interest is served. The natural right of the stronger to rule over the weaker is a rather simplistic explanation and justification of imperialism. [18] A modern example of this is the ultimatum given by the US warning countries that they were either “with us or against us”. This can be seen as a threat to compel unity in the war on terror. Thucydides adds that an actor’s power determines his treatment thus showing the essential nature of the balance of power in international relations. “This is the safe rule – to stand up to one’s equals, to behave with deference towards one’s superiors and to treat one’s inferiors with moderation.” [19] A quote from US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about nations that didn’t support the war on Iraq illustrates this: “Punish France, ignore Germany and forgive Russia.”[20] For Thucydides it is a law of nature that the weak become subject to the strong and when the opportunity of aggrandisement is offered by superior strength considerations of right and wrong are sacrificed to self interest. [21] Welch adds that while Thucydides does not deny the notion of universal justice; he simply acknowledges that for better or worse it has no constraining force in a system composed of states unequal in power.[22] However Bagby argues that not all states choose to maximise power. He cites the example of Sparta and how the Corinthians call them timid and weak in contrast to Athens. King Archidamus of Sparta confirms these national differences when he asks fellow Spartans to ‘be not ashamed of the slowness and dilatoriness for which they censure us most.”[23] According to Doyle, the political ideologies of both Athens and Sparta, and the different sectors of society they appealed to, were an important component of their conflict. He picks up on Thucydides’ emphasis on the national character of Athens, both in its restless culture and its democratic institutions, as well as the character of Sparta, with its “slow and cautious” character and the conservation of its oligarchic institutions.[24] Thus the goal to maximize power can be seen as a powerful motivator but domestic influences and domestic character are also important.

In conclusion, Thucydides was among the first to set out three basic assumption of classical political realism: states are the key units of action, they seek power either as an end in itself or as a means to other ends and they behave in ways that are by and large rational. [25] While Thucydides has been interpreted in various ways, his ideas about human nature – fear, self interest and power maximisation are enduring. They explain the pressures acting on states in today’s world pushing them to make decisions. While there are many differences between today and his time, Thucydides effectively explains the psychological and social tendencies in strategy and is thus still relevant today.

Bibliography

  • International Relations in Political Thought: texts from the ancient Greeks to the First World War, Brown, C, Nardin, T and Rengger N, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  • The Use and Abuse of Thucydides, Bagby, L, International Organization, 48, 1, Winter.
  • Political Theories of International Relations, Boucher, D, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
  • Ways of War and Peace, Doyle, M, New York, Norton, 1997.
  • Hegemonic Rivalry, R N Lebow, B Strauss (eds), Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1991.
  • Why International Relations theorists should stop reading Thucydides, Welch, D, Review of International Studies, 29, 3, 2003.
  • www.commondreams.org/headlines03/0525-09.htm
  • http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/6063926.stm
  1. Paul Viotti and Mark Kauppi as cited in Bagby, L, The Use and Abuse of Thucydides, International Organization, 48, 1, Winter, Page 131
  2. Lebow, R, Hegemonic Rivalry, R N Lebow, B Strauss (eds), Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1991, Page 1
  3. Brown, C, Nardin, T and Rengger N, International Relations in Political Thought: texts from the ancient Greeks to the First World War, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002, Page 36
  4. Lebow, R, Hegemonic Rivalry, R N Lebow, B Strauss (eds), Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1991, Page 135
  5. Welch, D, Why International Relations theorists should stop reading Thucydides, Review of International Studies, 29, 3, 2003, page 301
  6. Kauppi, M, Hegemonic Rivalry, R N Lebow, B Strauss (eds), Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1991, Page 103-104
  7. Gilpin, R, Hegemonic Rivalry, R N Lebow, B Strauss (eds), Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1991, Page 34-35
  8. Lebow, R, Hegemonic Rivalry, R N Lebow, B Strauss (eds), Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1991, Page 127
  9. Lebow, R, Hegemonic Rivalry, R N Lebow, B Strauss (eds), Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1991, Page 142
  10. Gilpin, R, Hegemonic Rivalry, R N Lebow, B Strauss (eds), Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1991, Page 47-48
  11. Lebow, R, Hegemonic Rivalry, R N Lebow, B Strauss (eds), Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1991, Page 128
  12. As cited by Welch, Welch, D, Why International Relations theorists should stop reading Thucydides, Review of International Studies, 29, 3, 2003, Page 304
  13. Brown, C, Nardin, T and Rengger N, International Relations in Political Thought: texts from the ancient Greeks to the First World War, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002, Page 57
  14. Ibid
  15. Welch, D, Why International Relations theorists should stop reading Thucydides, Review of International Studies, 29, 3, 2003, Page 76
  16. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/6063926.stm
  17. Brown, C, Nardin, T and Rengger N, International Relations in Political Thought: texts from the ancient Greeks to the First World War, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002, Page 52
  18. Welch, D, Why International Relations theorists should stop reading Thucydides, Review of International Studies, 29, 3, 2003, Page 75
  19. Brown, C, Nardin, T and Rengger N, International Relations in Political Thought: texts from the ancient Greeks to the First World War, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002, Page 58
  20. www.commondreams.org/headlines03/0525-09.htm
  21. Welch, D, Why International Relations theorists should stop reading Thucydides, Review of International Studies, 29, 3, 2003, Page 75
  22. Ibid
  23. Bagby, L, The Use and Abuse of Thucydides, International Organization, 48, 1, Winter, Page 138
  24. Doyle, M, Ways of War and Peace, New York, Norton, 1997, Page 150-152
  25. Keohane as cited in Bagby, L, The Use and Abuse of Thucydides, International Organization, 48, 1, Winter, Page 132