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Thucydides Takeaways

[ 10 ] February 20, 2011 |

The Thucydides conference is now over, although I still feel like a snake that’s swallowed a water buffalo.  Some takeaways; I also have thoughts on Thucydidean maritime matters at Information Dissemination, and thoughts on the utility of the iPad at conferences at iPatt.

  1. There remains healthy disagreement about numerous points of Athenian policy.  For example, we had at least a couple of people willing to make the case that the Sicilian Expedition could have worked out, given only a slightly more aggressive commitment on the part of Athens.  There was also some debate as to whether an immediate assault on Syracuse might have carried the day.  We also argued about whether Cleon was correct to reject Spartan peace treaties following the disaster at Pylos.  My position was that Cleon was essentially correct; there was nothing to prevent Sparta from rejoining the war after securing the return of its hoplites.
  2. I had not previously been aware that there was debate as to whether Diodotus (the Athenian who argued against the execution of the Mytilenes) was real or invented.  Apparently there is no independent evidence confirming the existence of Diodotus (as there is for almost all other Athenians mentioned in the account), and there is some question as to whether the Mytilene incident (in which the Athenians decided to massacre the Mytilenes, then changed their mind) occurred at all.  It’s possible that Diodotus simply slipped through the cracks, or that Diodotus might actually be Thucydides himself, but some have argued that Diodotus is a fiction, allowing Thucydides to grind some axes on Cleon and the relationship between democracy and war.
  3. It’s not at all unlikely that people will still be arguing about the Sicilian Expedition a thousand years from now, although if all of our editions go electronic there may eventually be none left.  This is less because of any profound quality that the book has (although I do truly love the text) than because of Thucydides insistence regarding the importance of his own work.  Thucydides is perhaps the single most insistent member of the Western canon, arguing explicitly for the timeless relevance of his book on several occasions.  As a few people noted, historical treatments broadly similar to that of Thucydides can be found in authors such as Tacitus, Polybius, and others, but none have the same pretense to relevance.  That pretense has helped ensure Thucydides role in the canon.
  4. In the last session a debate broke out on the nature of realism.  Some argued that the heart of realism is the pursuit of national interest over national values.  I cannot assert too strongly that I think that this is fundamentally the wrong way to think about realism.  Realism is about the elevation of certain values, including most notably certain conception of sovereignty, survival, and freedom of action, over other values, including honor, justice, humanitarian concerns, and so forth.  To think about realism as being just about the pursuit of “national interest” leads to incoherence; there is no national interest separate from a specification of the values that compose the national interest.  This is true even if we assume that coherent “national” values can be drawn out of the pool of competing values in a pluralistic society.  It may be true that we can fruitfully assume that nation-states regularly pursue particular values (to be called the “national interest”) as part of a project to construct micro-foundations for a general theory of the international system, but the utility of this assumption does not rest on its accuracy as a depiction of foreign policy formulation.  States regularly sacrifice sovereignty (accepting judicial extraterritoriality, or conceding elements of state power to international organizations) in pursuit of other values.  Indeed, there are obvious and compelling cases within Thucydides that indicate that some states are willing to risk survival in pursuit of alternative values.  Thinking about values and interests in this sense is actually good for “realism”;  it allows realists to argue clearly that the pursuit of certain national values is wrong or imprudent, while recommending the pursuit and protection of other national values (again, most often sovereignty, survival, and freedom of action).  Moreover, it makes statements such as “we are intervening in Somalia in order to improve our position at the United Nations, which we regard as in America’s national interest” both internally coherent and utterly wrong from a realist perspective.
  5. One point that I found particular interesting was the distinction between “thick” and “thin” conceptions of the international system.  I think that the Melians are arguing for a “thick” conception of international politics, one in which norms and rules have a binding or quasi-binding effect on the behavior of states in the international system.  The Athenians are notably hostile to this position.  This is interesting, because in the debate over hegemony in the international system that emerged in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, there emerged a weak consensus that hegemony depended on a “thick” international system, full of norms of behavior that inclined states towards more or less voluntary participation in the hegemonic order.  In other words, hegemonic powers generally benefitted from an international system full of norms and rules, even if their own behavior was sometimes constrained.  I think that the neocon right challenged this consensus, arguing that the United States should not be bound by these norms, and that the careful constructions of norms and rules could have no effect on certain bad actors (Iraq, Iran, North Korea).  In this sense, I think that there are points of clear agreement between the Athenian leadership and the American neoconservative right regarding the nature of the international system and the role that a hegemon plays.  Moreover, I think that there’s an important contrast between this understanding and that of the Spartans.  Even when the Spartans engage in wanton butchery (most notably of the Plateans), they maintain a certain respect for the norms of the system; they have promised a trial, and they deliver, if only in the most tenuous fashion.  The Spartans also refrained from destroying Athens after the war ended, although this falls outside of the window that Thucydides’ provides.
  6. The basic idea behind the conference was to investigate the connection between democracy and empire in Thucydides.  We didn’t really come to any solid conclusions, other than to suggest that the war itself had negative consequences for Athenian democracy.  I think that part of the problem stemmed from the fact that we never developed robust definitions of either empire or democracy, which is problematic given the obvious differences between Athenian and American practices of both.  We made the necessary comparisons of Iraq II to the Sicilian Expedition, while noting that previous generations of Thucydides’ readers made their own, similar comparisons.  I think that there remains much of value in Thucydides, but I doubt that he can provide any profound insights into America’s strategic dilemma.  To put it in a slightly different way, I doubt that Thucydides can solve any of our problems.  That said, I suspect that Thucydides would be comfortable in the notion that the dilemmas he identifies remain effectively beyond solution.

Comments (10)

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  1. Ben says:

    That was a nice synopsis of how to think about realism. In line with your argument that it helps realists themselves to think in that matter, it seems like your conception also helps with the normative vs descriptive problem that realists have (which you kind of hint at).

    “States tend to and should pursue these specific values in these specific instances because they are typically necessary for surviving in the international system” is a lot less troubling analytically than “states always pursue something called their national interest, until they don’t, but they should”.

  2. RepubAnon says:

    Re Thucides’ claims of the timeless relevance of his book: What if the only record of Gulf War 2 et al was written by Karl Rove?

  3. partisan says:

    Do people still talk about G.E.M. De Ste Croix’s “The Origins of the Peloponessian War”?

  4. […] at a Liberty Fund conference on “Strategy and Liberty in Thucydides Peloponnesian War” on the nature of realism (#4). In the last session a debate broke out on the nature of realism. Some argued that the heart […]

  5. Matt Lister says:

    In The Idea of History, a book I think is really quite wonderful, Collingwood claims that what Thucydides is doing is different in quite important ways from what the later Roman historians did, and the case seems pretty compelling to me. He manages to do this without the sort of worshipful posture to Thucydides that one sometimes gets as well, making the case seem more compelling to me.

  6. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Joseph J. Steinberg, Brad Smith, LG&M, Robert Farley, Joseph J. Steinberg and others. Joseph J. Steinberg said: Thucydides Takeaways […]

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