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Tricksy Thucydides

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In this week’s Diplomat column I think a bit about how to approach Thucydides:

If we start by acknowledging that the parts we’re taking are all archetypes, then literal fidelity to the narrative record becomes less important. And from this starting point, we can take a few important lessons; the dangers of power transition, the potentially dire effects of war on a democratic polity, the folly of strategic escalation, and the critical role that the whims of fate and human frailty play in geopolitics.

However, this approach also opens the question of why we should rely on Thucydides, rather than other available narratives. For East Asia, we have ready-made accounts that can provide the same kind of archetypes, mostly coming from ancient Chinese history. The Records of the Grand Historian detail conflicts, betrayals, and power shifts every bit as legendary in their complexity as those Thucydides describes. And perhaps we could productively understand China’s emerging A2/AD system-of-systems in the context of Mohist concepts of defensive “just war.” Such an examination might, at the least, give us a better appreciation of how policymakers themselves approach these complexities.

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