Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Article excerpt

Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, is proud of his 'ethical' foreign policy, now being tested over Kosovo. But can it be any more successful than his rather less ethical domestic one?

The Athenian historian Thucydides (c. 460-400 sc) would have had his doubts. Thucydides thought that international relations were controlled by changes in the balance of power between states. As he says of the Peloponnesian War, fought between the growing maritime empire of Athens under Pericles and the land-based empire of Sparta (431-404 BC), 'I consider the truest reason for the war to have been Spartan fear at the growth of Athenian power.'

This analysis still makes excellent sense today in relation to Kosovo's demand for independence. Where then does an 'ethical' policy fit into such situations? Thucydides would have said 'nowhere'. He is the first historian to argue that foreign policy is by nature amoral and in a famous debate conducted at the start of the war he reports the Athenian view of the matter: that states are driven by natural human feelings to hold on to the power that they have gained, and that in such situations might excludes right (which is not the same as `might is right'). …

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