(Roughly) Daily

“We can learn from history, but we can also deceive ourselves when we selectively take evidence from the past to justify what we have already made up our minds to do.”*…

Brad DeLong on the dangerous misunderstanding at the root of the current discussion of the “Thucydides’s Trap,” a phrase coined by Harvard’s Graham Allison, meant to evoke the potentially deadly tensions that arise when a major rising power (read “China”) threatens to displace a major ruling power (read “the United States). Allison’s account is very pessimistic; DeLong argues that it needn’t– shouldn’t– be so..

“Thucydides Trap” claims to be shorthand way of describing the grand-strategic dilemmas of the Classical Greek city-states of Athens and Sparta in the second half of the -400s. But it is a bowdlerized version. The actual complexities of the situation have been elided.

Thus important parts of the lessons that can be drawn from Thucydides’s description in The Peloponnesian War of the start of the war have been ignored.

And lessons can be drawn. For, as Thucydides said, he had tried to write his history as:

a treasure for all time… [because] knowledge of the past… [is] an aid to the interpretation of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it…

The situation in the second half of the -400s in the Greek world was thus:

The Spartan oligarchy had held preeminence. It had conquered and continued to dominate Laconia and Messenia. Its enserfment of their populations meant that Sparta alone, among major city-states, had a large and rich enough class of landlords who could train intensively for war, since they not have to assist in the farming themselves.

But there was a big problem with the Spartan system, as Aristotle was to note: Rich Spartan men tended to marry rich Spartan women. Thus, over time, wealth inequality grew. This diminished the size of the pool of Spartan landlords who could afford the full training régimen. The number of full Spartans in the military phalanx was dropping steadily, by perhaps a quarter in each generation.

The Athenian democracy, by contrast, was gaining in strength from generation to generation.

Athens held a central place as the maritime-commercial hub of a Greek world rapidly growing in population and wealth. Each generation saw more economic activity flow through Athens. Each generation saw Athens grow bigger and richer. Each generation saw more silver flow into its treasury. Athens had—excessively cleverly—transformed other city states’ agreements to provide warships to stave off any renewed Persian invasion into cash payments to Athens, which Athens then could and did use as it wished. Thus each generation saw the power of the Athenian state grow as well. And each generation saw a greater share of other Greek city-states become what local democrats elsewhere called “allies” and local oligarchs elsewhere called “subjects”.

In 500 Athens would have had no chance in an all-out war with Sparta. In 430 it could go toe-to-toe. By 360, had catastrophic defeat in the Peloponnesian War been avoided, Athens’s hegemony would have been near indisputible.

In this situation what, from a rational perspective, should the grand strategy of Athens in the second half of the -400s have been? It is clear:

  • Do not annoy the Spartan lion.
  • Focus on growing trade and commerce
  • Focus on making alliances
  • Focus on solidifying the nascent Athenian empire.

The future was on the side of Athens.

Korkya came to Athens at the start of the 430s, and said “we will join your alliance if you well help us push Sparta’s ally Korinth out of Epidamnos”. The Athenian answer should have been this: “You have not been our friend in the past. Join our alliance first. Then, in a generation, we will back you in all your disputes. But not now.”

Instead, Athens backed Korkyra with military force. And Korinth went to Sparta. Sparta was, usually, wary of large long-term commitments outside its heartland—the main purpose of its army, after all, was to keep the helots subservient and the taxes flowing, which was hard to do if the Spartan phalanx was far from Laconia. But Athens’s choice of open military confrontation with a key Spartan ally was enough to overcome their reluctance.

And so the Athenian Empire fell.

The lesson for a rising power? Whatever you seek to do now that may be very difficult will be easy in two generations. So postpone doing anything potentially difficult and wait for the tide to bring all the good things to you.

The lesson for a declining hegemonic power it is somewhat more complex. Outside the frame of Thucydides is the Peloponnesian war, Sparta was not the beneficiary of its generation long war against Athens. The beneficiaries were in the short-run, Persia; in the medium-run, Thebes; and in the long-run, Makedon. A declining power should take a long, hard look at itself, and consider whether curbing this particular rising power is in its own long-run interest. The task for a declining power is to create a world in which it can live comfortably when it is no longer hegemon. You can argue over whether Sparta would have had a comfortable and valued place in a counterfactual Athenian Empire circa -300. But it certainly did not have such a place in the post-Athenian Ægean world of Thebans, Argaiads, and Hellenistic despots.

From his invaluable newsletter, Grasping Reality, “The Deceptive Thucydides Trap,” @delong.

Margaret MacMillan


As we heed history, we might recall that on this date in 1966, the #1 song in the U.S was The Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out.”

Written by (Roughly) Daily

January 8, 2023 at 1:00 am

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