Athens, Sparta, and Strategic Miscalculation

Thoughts on Thucydides – Book I, Part III

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Nearly a century before the onset of the Peloponnesian War, on the other side of the planet, Sun Tzu wrote the scripts for The Art of War, including the famous admonishment to “know thy enemy, know thyself.” Unfortunately for the Athenians, the lesson had not yet transmitted very far from ancient China. At the very outset of the war, Athens committed three critical strategic miscalculations that would cripple the effective prosecution of the war.

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Thoughts on Thucydides – Book I, Part II: Bipolar Disorder

On the eve of the Peloponnesian War, the Hellenic world was divided between the respective alliance systems of Athens and Sparta, a geopolitical remnant of the wars against the Persian Empire. The system was bipolar, but it was not “balanced” owing to the vastly different characters of the predominant powers. Athens had acquired a maritime empire that provided revenue and external sources of food, while Sparta remained an agrarian society centered on the Peloponnesus. And though Sparta was a famously martial society, in terms of policy it was surprisingly unwarlike, with no expansionist tendencies and an almost lethargic attitude toward external affairs. Sparta’s legendary warrior tradition was a means by which to organize society rather than an instrument of policy and conquest. In contrast, Athens was aggressive and enterprising, attributes probably reinforced by its reliance on its empire for tribute and provisions. The speech of the Corinthian envoys to the Spartan assembly succinctly compare the natures of the two city-states:

The Athenians are addicted to innovation, and their designs are characterized by swiftness alike in conception and execution; you have a genius for keeping what you have got, accompanied by a total want of invention, and when forced to act you never go far enough. Again, they are adventurous beyond their power, and daring beyond their judgment, and in danger they are sanguine; your wont is to attempt less than is justified by your power, to mistrust even what is sanctioned by your judgment, and to fancy that from danger there is no release (1.70).

In the language of neorealism, Sparta was a “status quo” power and Athens was an “aspiring hegemon.” However, a fragile peace endured thanks to the independence of a lesser power, Corcyra, from either of the two alliance systems.

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Thoughts on Thucydides – Book I, Part I: The First Navalist

In the first 23 chapters of Book I (“The Archaeology”) Thucydides details the historical backdrop of the Hellas, against which the great Peloponnesian War occurred. Even at this early stage of the book Thucydides key themes are apparent, along with the titles they bestow upon the author.

As the “Father of History” he constructs the backdrop layer by layer, starting with the most elemental – soil quality (1.2.3) – in the same manner as a 20th century Annales work. His skepticism for traditional historical sources, such as the poets, is explicit (1.20). In a lament that remains just as valid today as it was 25 centuries ago, Thucydides bemoans the fact that so many of the narratives that inform and dominate our understanding of the world are demonstrably false:

There are many other unfounded ideas current among the rest of the Hellenes, even on matters of contemporary history which have not been obscured by times … So little pains do the vulgar take in the investigation of truth, accepting readily the first story that comes to hand (1.20.3).

Thucydides seemed to be aware of the magnitude of his own accomplishment, and that his work had value not for his contemporaries, but for the reader of the far distant future. At various remarkable points, he seems to be addressing that reader specifically, such as when he cautions against judging the glory of Athens and Sparta by the quality of their ruins (1.10.2), and his famous passage that presciently describes his own work:

…if it be judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the understanding of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it, I shall be content. In fine, I have written my work not, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time (1.22.4).

Thucydides as a political realist is a theme that will be emphasized throughout the discussion; however, even within The Archaeology we find one of his most important passages, which encapsulates the central argument that is threaded throughout the work:

The real cause, however, I consider to be the one which was formally most kept out of sight. The growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Sparta, made war inevitable (1.23.6).

Largely unappreciated is Thucydides’ quality as perhaps the first navalist. In the initial chapters of Book I he identifies the maritime domain and the advent of naval power as the key factor that brought the scattered and divided Hellenic peoples into regular contact with one another, enabling diplomacy, trade, the accumulation of capital, war and conquest. According to Thucydides, it was Minos who first assembled a powerful navy, expelling pirates from the Cyclades and allowing the Hellenic peoples to venture upon the sea in relative safety (1.4). This allowed each seafaring polity to gain wealth with which to secure its cities upon the land and project power abroad, escaping the confines of a fractured physical and political landscape.

The navies, then, of the Hellenes during the period we have traversed were what I described. All their insignificance did not prevent their being an element of the greatest power to those who cultivated them, alike in revenue and dominion … Wars by land there were none, none at least by which power was acquired; we have the usual border contests, but of distant expeditions with conquest the object we hear nothing among the Hellenes. There was no union of subject cities around a great state, no spontaneous combinations of equals for confederate expeditions; what fighting there was consisted merely of local warfare between rival neighbors (1.15).

Thucydides understood that it was by fleets that the sinews of war were carried; it followed that the geography of certain cities, such as Corinth, would benefit them greatly. And like any navalist, Thucydides recognized that at the level of grand strategy, there was a distinction between “continental” (1.9.4) or “military” powers like Sparta, and “naval” powers like Athens (1.18.2). The contrasting natures of continental and naval power would bedevil both Athens and Sparta through the entirety of the war, for each would struggle to project decisive power against the other.

 

 

Thoughts on Thucydides: Introduction

A few months ago I completed my first read of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian war with Robert Strassler’s Landmark edition. Only a couple of weeks ago, I learned of Zenpundit’s Thucydides roundtable and its impressive list of contributors. Two weeks is not much time to compose meaningful essay material on such a timeless work, and I would not want my own dilettantish observations to intrude on such an illustrious panel.

Still, the timing seemed auspicious, and all those hours spent reading, underlining and annotating would be wasted if I did not take this opportunity to regurgitate some of it. Thus, I will make my own spiritual contribution to the Roundtable on this blog, though I will probably not be able to keep up with Zenpundit’s ambitious schedule.

Writing about Thucydides is an intimidating prospect: when the topic is the Father of History himself, whose work grasps at truths in nearly every facet of human existence, how can one hope to add anything of value or poignancy?

And when you manage to start writing, a new challenge arises: where to stop? Thucydides is almost Biblical as a source of literary commentary, with a density that approaches singularity: peel back one theme only to find infinite layers beneath. To make any progress I had to delineate a limit, select a lens and focus primarily on the narrative of strategic and military events, which is the most accessible narrative within Thucydides and the most relevant to the traditional subject of this website.

I start my observations with Book I in the following posts.

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thucydides

Thucydides, son of Olorus

Our Thermian elites

In the 1999 sci-fi comedy Galaxy Quest, Tim Allen stars as Jason Nesmith, a washed-up egotistical actor from a long-defunct television series in the vein of Star Trek. The show was cancelled 18 years ago, so Nesmith and his fellow co-stars make a living doing skits for advertisers using their old characters, going to fan conventions and signing autographs for $15 a piece.

Unbeknownst to them, broadcasts of Galaxy Quest reached the Thermians, an alien race locked in a genocidal struggle with the evil General Sarris. Interpreting the television show to be actual historical documents, the Thermians model their entire civilization after the heroic adventures of Commander Peter Taggart and his loyal crew. Eventually they travel to earth and recruit the unwitting Nesmith and his co-stars to lead them in battle against Sarris.

The Thermians are incomprehensibly naïve, leading to this exchange as the actors try to explain that they’re not really astronauts and can’t help them in their war with Sarris:

Life imitates farce.

In recent months I have been repeatedly reminded on the hapless Thermians by the comments of Western elites concerning the unraveling world order. No matter the issue – Russian aggression in eastern Europe, the Assad’s regime’s unwillingness to make peace with rebels, Iranian adventurism throughout the Middle East, China’s territorial ambitions, etc. – American and European policymakers seem completely unable to understand, let alone respond to, events. Comments in press conferences and media interviews haven acquired notes of despair. It is not simply that Western elites are disappointed by the failure of liberal internationalism and consensus-based foreign policy to secure peace; they seem bewildered…occasionally petulant. This indicates a deeper failing, as if more realist schools of thought are not even known to exist, and therefore no contingencies were made in accordance with their proscriptions. We are witnessing the complete intellectual failure of Western institutions, at least vis-à-vis foreign policy, akin to that which occurred in the years before World War II.

Edward Hallett Carr described those years in a way that could be seamlessly transposed to the present:

The statement that it is in the interest of the world as a whole that the conclusion eventually reached, whether maintenance or change, should be reached by peaceful means, would command general assent, but seems a rather meaningless platitude. The utopian assumption that there is a world interest in peace which is identifiable with the interest of each individual nation helped politicians and political writers everywhere to evade the unpalatable fact of a fundamental divergence of interests between nations desirous of maintaining the status quo and nations desirous of changing it. A peculiar combination of platitude and falseness thus became endemic in the pronouncements of statesmen about international affairs.

Listed below is a small sampling of illustrative quotes drawn from recent newspaper articles. I encounter similar comments with such frequency that this may become a recurring feature on the blog:

Worst possible city in which to host cease-fire talks.

Russian Intervention in Syrian War Has Sharply Reduced U.S. Options

MUNICH — For months now the United States has insisted there can be no military solution to the Syrian civil war, only a political accord between President Bashar al-Assad and the fractured, divided opposition groups that have been trying to topple him.

But after days of intense bombing that could soon put the critical city of Aleppo back into the hands of Mr. Assad’s forces, the Russians may be proving the United States wrong. There may be a military solution, one senior American official conceded Wednesday, “just not our solution,” but that of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

Confusion Reigns Over Syria Cease-Fire Deal

“There’s this concern that the Russians have a broad definition of terrorists and are going to essentially continue striking what they consider to be terrorist targets,” said a senior U.S. official who took part in the Munich talks.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice…

Russia Plays Familiar Hand in Syria 

Western officials say they are losing patience with Mr. Putin, accusing Russia of in effect pushing more moderate Syrian opposition into the arms of the extremist Islamic State…the Kremlin’s pattern of obfuscation – for instance, sending troops in unmarked uniforms to occupy Crimea while maintaining deniability – have left many skeptical of the latest diplomacy.

Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.

Hospitals in Syria Bombed as Fighting Escalates

State Department spokesman John Kirby said the bombing of civilian targets “casts doubt on Russia’s willingness and/or ability to help bring to a stop the continued brutality of the Assad regime against its own people.”

Susan Rice, President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, also condemned the continued bombing. “We think it runs counter, frankly, to the commitment made in Munich on Friday,” she said.

Break out the big guns…

U.S. to have ‘very serious conversation’ with China over suspected South China Sea missile deployment

The United States is very concerned about China’s growing militarization of the South China Sea and intends to have a “very serious conversation” with Beijing after reports emerged that it had deployed suspected ­surface-to-air missile batteries on a disputed island, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Wednesday.

“There is every evidence, every day that there has been an increase of militarization of one kind or another,” Kerry told reporters when asked about the reported deployment, agencies reported. “It’s of serious concern.”

“We have had these conversations with the Chinese, and I am confident that over the next days we will have further very serious conversation on this,” Kerry said.

U.S.-Beijing Spat Escalates Over South China Sea

The Obama administration sharply criticized Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday after charging that China’s military had deployed batteries of advanced missiles on a disputed South China Sea island.

Secretary of State John Kerry said the missile deployment was at odds with a pledge made by Mr. Xi while visiting the White House last year to refrain from militarizing clusters of disputed islands throughout the South China Sea.

“When President Xi was here in Washington, he stood in the Rose Garden with President Obama and said China will not militarize in the South China Sea,” Mr. Kerry said on Wednesday. “But there is every evidence, every day that there has been an increase of militarization of one kind or another. It’s of serious concern.”

China Positions Missiles on Disputed South China Sea Island

Adm. Harry Harris Jr., the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, told reporters in Tokyo on Wednesday that he didn’t have confirmation of the missile deployment but that if true “it could be an indication of militarization of the South China Sea in ways that the president of China, President Xi [Jinping], said he would not do.”

 

 

 

 

A happy accident?

On December 10 an American B-52 bomber flew within 2 miles of Cuarteron Reef in the Spratly Islands, one of several features being expanded and developed by China to enforce its territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Apparently this was a mistake and the flight plan was not supposed to come within 12 miles of any China-occupied feature.

From the Wall Street Journal:

An American B-52 bomber on a routine mission over the South China Sea unintentionally flew within two nautical miles of an artificial island built by China, senior defense officials said, exacerbating a hotly divisive issue for Washington and Beijing.

Pentagon officials told The Wall Street Journal they are investigating why one of two B-52s on the mission last week flew closer than planned to Cuarteron Reef in the Spratly Islands, an area where China and its neighbors have competing territorial claims. A senior U.S. defense official said that bad weather had contributed to the pilot flying off course and into the area claimed by China.

Beijing filed a formal diplomatic complaint with the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, which prompted the Pentagon to look into the matter.

The notion that a B-52, equipped with a full suite of navigation systems and piloted by experienced officers, could be knocked off-course by “bad weather” is highly dubious.  But the more interesting question is why the Pentagon would disavow something that is stated U.S. policy. Just two months ago Ash Carter said that “the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, as we do around the world, and the South China Sea will not be an exception.” The U.S. does not recognize Chinese sovereignty over any feature in the Spratly Islands, and plans to conduct 2 freedom of navigation exercises in the region per quarter. Even if the flight was a mistake the Pentagon should have denied it; any expression of regret to Beijing for the incident helps to legitimize its claims in the area.

The details and paradoxes of the this story suggest that a bureaucratic turf war between the State Department and the military over U.S.-China relations is spilling into the open.

Another possibility is that the Pentagon is getting its talking points from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Wouldn’t want to upset the “delicate” and “complicated” relationship with Beijing, would we?

B-52 pilot.jpg

Sorry. We’re “lost.” Yeah, that’s it. “Lost.”