Academic journal article Naval War College Review

The United States, China, and Thucydides's Many, Many Traps

Academic journal article Naval War College Review

The United States, China, and Thucydides's Many, Many Traps

Article excerpt

THE UNITED STATES, CHINA, AND THUCYDIDES'S MANY, MANY TRAPS Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap?, by Graham Allison. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017. 384 pages. $28.

Thucydides was a political pathologist, a student of political disease, especially as it occurs during war. This is most evident from his account of the plague in Athens. He describes the physical symptoms of the disease first, but then turns to its political effects, including the breakdown of the Athenian political order (Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, 2.47-55). Thucydides's selfunderstanding as a political pathologist is also evident in his account of the civil war in Corcyra. He begins with just the facts: the Corinthians inserted a fifth column into Corcyra to incite a revolution, in which the oligarchic faction would overthrow the democracy. The quarrel polarized the community and escalated to a struggle of extermination-while the Athenians watched, callously, from their ships at the port in Corcyra. War is a harsh teacher that reduces most of us to the necessities that war imposes on us, Thucydides said, so no means, fair or foul, were off-limits during this civil war (3.70-85).

Human beings cannot help being moral creatures, however, so the different factions had to justify their atrocities to themselves and their followers. In the process, words began to lose their customary meaning. Anticipating George Orwell's famous account of "doublespeak," Thucydides showed the worst of the disease to be a breakdown of moral, political, and strategic judgment, with murder described as justice and crime as virtue. The desire for revenge was so powerful that it overcame the drive for self-preservation (3.82). The civil war was suicidal; alas, it spread to almost every city in ancient Greece, including Athens, and contributed to Athens's ultimate defeat at the hands of Sparta.

Little distinguishes Thucydidean from modern political science more than Thucydides's disdain for rational-actor models of politics and war. His greatest contribution may have been to explain the power of the irrational passions when violence is a constant threat. If the civil war in Corcyra is treated as a microcosm of the struggle between democratic and oligarchic cities in ancient Greece, it is an apt description of how belligerents under the pressures of war often lose their minds.

The civil war in Corcyra is just one of the many traps against which Dr. Thucydides warns us. As a pathologist he diagnoses symptoms of diseases; sometimes he explains their causes; occasionally he makes predictions, or prognoses, about the likely progress of the disease at hand. He almost never offers prescriptions to cure the diseases he identifies, however. He expected the same sort of pathologies to arise again and again, so long as human nature remained the same (1.22). He had a cyclical view of history. His answer to the question in the 1960s folk-rock anthemic lyrics-"When will they ever learn?"-almost certainly would have been "They never will." Individual cities and countries might fare better or worse from time to time; some might resist the temptations, even compulsions, that lead to mutually suicidal wars; but wisdom is not cumulative. As one generation learns from the suffering of war, another forgets. So we are condemned to go through this cycle without end.

In contrast, much of modern political science is Whiggish; that is, it embraces a progressive view of history. If one treats Thucydides's greatest translator, Thomas Hobbes, as the founder of this kind of political science, the genre certainly shares Thucydides's concern with political pathology. It too diagnoses diseases (such as Hobbes's famous state of nature as a state of war-a beginning point modeled clearly on Thucydides's account of the civil war in Corcyra). It too tries to explain causes and make predictions. But it does one thing Thucydides does not: it offers prescriptions. …

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