Through Gray’s definition of strategy, the timeless application of Thucydidean motives, and an understanding of the immutable influences of geography and politics, any prospective student of strategy is well equipped to enter any debate on the future direction of the national interest.
Professor Harper has produced a wonderful case study that demands a general rethinking of how we view the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. It turns much of the earlier views on Rome’s decline into surface explanations and places the chance happenings of nature in a driver’s seat that we can barely comprehend. It should also give us pause in how we think about the future.
One cannot go far wrong by employing Thucydides as a foundation for any model, as General George Marshall reminded us. But Marshall surely did not mean for policymakers to end their studies with the Peloponnesian War. Rather, Thucydides is but a starting point for a much wider historical study aimed at revealing the true nature of strategic rivalries and the character of their ensuing conflicts.
Must the rise of power in China and the fear it causes in America lead to war? Kori Schake’s new work, Safe Passage: The Transition From British To American Hegemony, probes this question, albeit obliquely, via an inquest into why the passage of power from Great Britain to the United States during the nineteenth and early twentieth century was pacific and whether such passage is repeatable. What emerges from this eminently readable, incisively argued, and keenly erudite history is how precarious such passage was: a contingently calm transition, only tranquil because universal ideals mollified the augured storm.
The ‘Thucydides Trap' is a term coined by Harvard professor Graham Allison to ostensibly describe the tensions and conflict that occur when an existing great power is confronted with a rising state. According to Allison, as the new power rises, the two are more likely to engage in violent conflict as the new power displaces the old. He cites sixteen cases of power transition since the late 15th Century, of which twelve resulted in war between the two powers. Allison also cites Thucydides, and in particular the ancient Athenian author’s conclusion that the war between Athens and Sparta, chronicled in his History of the Peloponnesian War, began "because they [the Spartans] were afraid of the further growth of Athenian power.”
Thucydides, who authored the definitive account of the Peloponnesian War, started writing as soon as the conflict began, “...believing that it would be a great war, and more worthy of relation than any that had preceded it.” His account has also proved valuable for evaluating ensuing conflicts through to the present day. As Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan wrote, the Peloponnesian War showed that “strategic problems remain the same, though affected by tactical difficulties peculiar to each age.” The Athenian invasion of Sicily and the American experience in Iraq were not identical, but no two wars ever are. Instead, we must look at the overarching effects the military campaigns had on political objectives.
The inability or unwillingness to recognize defeat and its implications resulted in both greater material losses and amplified the strategic consequences for inevitable failures. Strategy is a human endeavor, and prospect theory offers unique insights into another dimension of the human face of war, providing a framework for examination of paradoxical decision making and human error in strategy and tactics.
The enduring importance of The History of the Peloponnesian War resides in its ability to prepare the reader to recognise historical patterns hidden in chaos regarding the human element in war. Using the model of historical study proposed by Sir Michael Howard, the span of Thucydides’ account allows the reader to study war in width and examine continuities, trends, and patterns in human behaviour in war. By incorporating both chronological events and the speeches of key decision makers into his argument, Thucydides provides an opportunity to study in depth the chaos and uncertainty inherent in war. Finally, by expanding his analysis to include the cultures of the societies participating in the conflict, Thucydides enables the reader to study the context within which the war was fought.
Reviewing the work of scholars who have examined the Peloponnesian War gives grounds for questioning not only Thucydides’s purportedly dispassionate style, but also one of his most well-known conclusions: “The growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Lacedaemon, made war inevitable.”
Ultimately, Thucydides’ enduring relevance lies in the fact that he forces us to wrestle with the notion that war, as a contest for power, strips bare human nature under the pressure of conflict—and the results are not appealing. The Peloponnesian War shows how strategic perceptions based on the innately human frailties of fear, honour, and interest lead a state to war. Thucydides then warns us that during conflict a state’s collective morality can decline under the strain of prolonged war based on the choices it makes. He helps us understand that creating a winning strategy is all about these choices, which are shaped by a state’s strategic and military culture.
One does not intend here to attempt pithy conclusions as to who is playing Athens and who is playing Sparta in the modern geopolitical game in Eastern Europe. That is the concern of the Catch-22 addressed by Park, which I commend to you. But another question worth considering in this matter is, regardless of your geopolitical worldview, who is playing the parts of Corinth and Corcyra? And should we be more weary of the periphery?
On March 8 Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi gave his first major press conference against the background of the ongoing session of the National People’s Congress. More than 500 journalists listened to the FM for 95 minutes, but it was the very last statement that deserves the most attention. Wang outlined the three main foundations for China’s new age foreign policy and behind the traditional aesthetically sophisticated formulas one can see a pure case of Thucydidian realism.
What’s a budding young strategist to do? By all means, read the classics. Read them in full, cover-to-cover…or at least the portions written by the original authors. (I skip the hundreds of pages of forewords and afterwards.) Next thing you know, you’ll be far more adept at recognizing the obligatory gratuitous Clausewitz quote. It won’t be long before you find yourself groaning at the inevitable article which begins by invoking politics by other means.