Thucydides, 1.24-1.49

Thucydides, whose history provides many of the...

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Hey guys, I’m back. Sorry for the extended radio silence.

For at least the next month or so, I’m going to be dropping the occasional post about passages from Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War, which I’m told is an essential read for anyone who aspires to make a serious study of international relations. If anyone wants to follow along, I’ll be working from The Landmark Thucydides, which was recommended to me by several people and seems to be the most comprehensive edition out there. For those who are unfamiliar with Thucydides aren’t following along, I’ll provide enough context to take each post individually.

I’m starting at book one, chapter 24 (the chapters each run about a paragraph long) because the first 23 chapters are all setup. Called the Archaeology, they sketch out a brief history of Ancient Greece prior to when the real story begins. Here’s what you need to know: in 449, the Greeks finally beat back the Persians, who for decades had been looking to make Ancient Greece part of their vast empire. The two city-states leading the Greek resistance are the martial totalitarian state of Sparta and the proto-democracy Athens. Once the war ends, these two cities are the great powers of Greece, and nearly all of the other states become dependents of one or the other. The Spartans stand at the head of an international institution called the Peloponnesian League, whereas the Athenians reign over something closer to a traditional empire. And whereas the Spartans have the most fearsome infantry force in all of Greece, the Athenians’ exercise military dominance through their massive navy.

By 435, war between Athens and Sparta is inevitable. Thucydides — an Athenian — tells us that Athens is more powerful than Sparta can tolerate, and they are already getting ready for a protracted struggle unlike any the Greek world has ever seen.

In the midst of these rising tensions, the peripheral city-state of Epidamnus faces a political crisis that, to Athens and Sparta, should seem insignificant. The ruling party has just been formally exiled by “The People,” and joined a barbarian force which “proceeded to plunder those in the city by sea and land.” Because Epidamnus is a colony of Corcyra, they appeal to the Corcyraeans for help. And when their plea is rejected, they consulted the oracle at Delphia, who tells them to petition Corinth, the “mother country” of both Epidamnus and Corcyra.

Corinth consents to dispatch a defensive force to Epidamnus. But when Corcyra finds out, they decide that the mother country’s interference is unacceptable. They throw their support behind Epidamnus’ exiles, and a proxy war breaks out between Corinth and Corcyra.

The conflict escalates until Corcyra controls Epidamnus and the surrounding region, and the Corinthians assemble an allied force to retaliate directly. Here’s where things start to get out of hand: Corcyra is an independent state, but Corinth and its allies are all members of the Peloponnesian League. So Corcyra dispatches an emissary to ask the Athenians for help, and Corinth sends one of their own to ask Athens not to interfere.

When the Corinthians and the Corcyraeans arrive at Athens we’re treated to the first pair of speeches in the text. Speeches — reconstructed by Thucydides from a combination of memory, eyewitness accounts and pure speculation — give us some of the most vivid and colorful insight into how the Greeks conducted international diplomacy. And the Corinthian and Corcyraean speeches, with their wildly different argumentative styles, give us a lesson in politics that I think holds to this day.

The Corcyraeans speak first, and their speech is primarily concerned with material Athenian interests. They make some appeals to justice as well, but these are laughably disingenuous (for example: they call the Corinthians the aggressors, which is flatly untrue). The crux of their argument is this: war between Athens and Sparta is inevitable, and an alliance with Corcyra would give the Athenians the upper hand. Athens has the most powerful navy in Greece, but Corcyra has the second most powerful, and Corinth the third; and Corinth is already on Team Sparta.

The Corinthians present an entirely different kind of argument, loaded with words like “friendship” and “justice.” They insist that the Corcyraeans are the aggressors, and that the Athenians, through a show of good faith to a member of the Peloponnesian League, can prevent war with Sparta. They make some veiled threats about retaliation and some earlier bad blood between Athens and Corinth, but the foundations of their speech are psychological and philosophical, not concrete.

I don’t think I need to tell you who wins that debate. Athens forms a defensive pact with Corcyra, presumably reasoning that no amount of good faith will alter the fundamental geopolitical dynamics that make war inevitable. Unless they willingly prostrate themselves, the Spartans will always perceive them as a potential threat. They have reason to expect Peloponnesian aggression no matter what they do, and every reason to prepare for it.

In other words: concrete incentives win the day, romantic notions of fairness and friendship lose.

But there’s another lesson in the ensuing chapters, and one that I think is even more directly relevant to America’s current place in the world. Athens decides that the only way to assist the Corcyraeans while not breaking their preexisting treaty with Corinth is by agreeing to help only if Corcyra is attacked directly. So when they dispatch a sizable contingent of triremes to the waters outside of Corcyra, and when Corinth and her allies attack the Corcyraean fleet, the Athenian army hesitates to render assistance. Only when Corinth is clearly winning — “when the rout is becoming obvious” — does Athens finally step in, and by then it is too late.

In other words, Athens fails to effectively accomplish its goals in this battle because of the distance between its political objectives and the legal constraints by which it chooses to abide. They want a Corcyraean victory, but they’re unwilling to commit fully to that goal because it means breaking treaty with a city-state with whom they expect they’ll soon be at war anyway.

America’s mission in Libya suffers from a similar gulf between political objectives and legal realities. The explicit political objective of the United States is rebel victory and the removal of Gaddafi. But because the United States and its allies want to keep up the pretense that they are not actually at war with Gadhafi, they refuse to commit the necessary resources to see that mission through.

But there is an obvious difference between America’s situation and Athens’: the worth of their causes. Athens has good reason to seek an alliance with Corcyra, regardless of the expense. America gains little from removing Gadhafi, and in fact could incur unacceptable costs in the attempt. The Athenians are at least pursuing a goal which aligns with their interests, whereas the United States is making a roll of the dice based on a combination of bureaucratic inertia, misaligned domestic incentives and a well-intentioned but arrogant and misguided humanitarian impulse.

Another difference: the Athenians do fully commit themselves to the battle eventually. And it is over relatively quickly, though it does not end well for either the Athenians or the Corcyraeans. How they respond will have to wait for the next post.

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One Response

  1. This is where I will be arguing with you:
    http://angryvodkabadger.wordpress.com/2011/05/10/thucydides/

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