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 Language Putin Understands

Following Russia’s overt intervention in eastern Ukraine late last month the rhetoric from Kiev has dramatically shifted in favor of peace, with President Petro Poroshenko himself pushing legislation to grant the rebellious areas a high degree of autonomy. Vladimir Putin has been largely victorious, for he has accomplished his objective of weakening Ukraine, stalling its integration with Europe and keeping it subservient to Moscow. Aside from the hopelessly outclassed Ukrainian military, the only opposition faced by Putin has been a mild and entirely ineffective sanctions regime. With a ceasefire apparently holding, European leaders will hasten to remove even these limited sanctions and resume normal relations with Moscow. The liberal understanding of foreign policy that informs most EU and NATO capitals does not equip them for dealing with an outlier like Putin, who understands the world through a vastly different paradigm. The debellicized nature of European policymaking has denied the West political instruments that had the potential to resolve the Ukraine crisis on much more favorable terms. Instead of surrendering the initiative to Putin by responding to each aggression with token sanctions, the US and Europe should impose costs on Russia asymmetrically. Two possibilities come to mind immediately:

1. Transnistria

h/t The Economist

h/t The Economist

This small, heavily industrialized sliver of land east of the Dneister river achieved de facto independence from Moldova following a brief war in 1992 when Russian troops intervened on the side of Transnistrian separatists. Still host to a small garrison of Russian troops, Transnistria’s economy has major steel, agricultural, textile and criminal sectors. It also has very long and open border with Ukraine. The enclave is completely isolated from Russian territory, though the recent annexation of Crimea has closed the distance significantly. Conceivably, Ukraine could threaten to occupy the entire territory. Short of that, it could attack Russian forces in the territory, forcing them to surrender and thus giving Kiev a major bargaining chip against Moscow.

2. Kaliningrad

A thorn in NATO's side

A thorn in NATO’s side

The speciousness of the Russian pretext for intervening in Crimea and eastern Ukraine (protection of Russian minorities from neo-Nazi hordes in historically Russian territory) is thrown into sharp relief by Kaliningrad, the Russian exclave along the Baltic coast that was historically German before being conquered by the Soviet Union in World War II, whereupon the population was decimated and expelled. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the expansion of NATO eastward, Kaliningrad is now completely surrounded by NATO states. If 3 to 5 NATO brigades were to deploy to Poland for “joint exercises” near the Kaliningrad border, the Kremlin would be forced to redeploy assets away from Ukraine in order to respond and its propaganda would be undermined.

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In the last six years Russia has destabilized, invaded and dismembered two Western-leaning states along its frontier. There is a very real possibility that Putin’s next confrontation will be with NATO itself. It need not be overtly military in character; the modus operandi for revisionist powers in the 21st century is a campaign of incremental actions, each action falling below the threshold that would provoke response, which cumulatively results in a change to the status quo. Putin’s most likely course of action is to subvert the Baltic states by covertly mobilizing their ethnic Russian minorities to agitate for special political rights and possibly autonomy. Open rebellion – like what occurred in eastern Ukraine – will not be necessary. Protests, demonstrations, strikes and rioting should be sufficient. The objective is to force the Baltic capitals to grant political concessions to their Russian minorities without NATO invoking Article 5 or otherwise responding in a significant fashion. If NATO does not back them up and the Baltics capitulate, the credibility of the alliance will be shattered and the states of eastern Europe will begin aligning themselves with the Kremlin out of self-preservation, thus reestablishing a Russian sphere of influence.

The threat to NATO is significant. Pro-Russian placards and sit-ins on the streets of Tallinn will not seem a threat to most observers, but what is at stake is the future of the European order. Leaders on both sides of the Atlantic need to be prepared to move things up the escalatory ladder, beyond the level that Putin is willing to accept.

Revisionism versus Realpolitik: The Strategic Culture of Syria

The concept of strategic culture – which argues that culture can influence strategic behavior just as it can social behavior – remains somewhat controversial. On the one hand, idealists reject the notion that not all cultures share in the supposedly universal aspirations of humanity, while on the other hand, neorealists are often hostile to an alternative system of explanation that does not depend on rational calculations of the balance of power. (It is, however, very compatible with the classical realism of Hans Morgenthau)

In my opinion, neorealism is a much more flexible and inclusive paradigm than many of its critics (and proponents) give it credit for. Kenneth Waltz’s “third image” of international relations describes how the structure of the international system can itself be a cause of war and also permits wars that derive from non-systemic factors, such as megalomaniacal leaders or warlike governments; it is at these levels – the first and second “images” – that strategic culture can be a useful supplement to neorealism.

This post is based on a paper I wrote a couple years ago, which used the concept of strategic culture to identify the sources of Syrian foreign policy. I think it is a good – if amateurish – example of how the national security community tries to employ the concept, conducting extensive cultural analyses to identify key factors that influence the subject’s strategic thinking.

Syria is a difficult case study for students of strategic culture. Ever since the Assad regime rose to power in 1970, Syria’s international behavior has been largely consistent with that of a realist rational actor. However, strategic culture can help explain the origins of that behavior.

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