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The Thucydides Parallel
How the Lead-up to the Peloponnesian War Mirrors Our Times
“This coalition, after repulsing the barbarian, soon afterwards split into two sections…At the head of one stood Athens, at the head of the other Sparta, one the first naval, the other the first military power of Hellas. For a short time the league held together, till the Spartans and the Athenians quarreled, and made war upon each other with their allies, a duel into which all the Hellenes sooner or later were drawn, though some might at first remain neutral. So that the whole period from the Median War to this, with some peaceful intervals, was spent by each power in war, either with its rival, or with its own revolted allies, and consequently afforded them constant practice in military matters, and that experience which is learnt in the school of danger.” - Thucydides [1.18.2-3]
Note: All citations are from The Landmark Thucydides, which uses a revised version of Richard Crawley’s 1874 translation. A near identical text can be found online on Tufts University’s Perseus website.
Early last year, I made the fateful decision to re-read Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War, for I believe the first time in well over 10 years. This launched me on an intense course of study, whereby I sought to achieve a long-time goal of reading “all” of the ancient histories [I’m up to the transition from Augustus to Tiberius, that with having read Thucydides twice last year.] I also made the decision that I should read The Peloponnesian War- perhaps history’s most influential non-religious text- once per calendar year for the rest of my life. I started reading it again this week, and having made it through the first book, the relevance to the situation between NATO and Russia is stunning, even for a text which is famed for being eternally relevant.
To start, there is something that has commonly been discussed in foreign policy circles for the last several years, called “The Thucydides Trap”, which is meant to describe the hazards of US-China relations. The idea is that the following famous quote describes the situation:
“The real cause, however, I consider to be the one which was formally most kept out of sight. The growth of power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Sparta, made war inevitable.” [1.23.6]
In this analogy the United States is Sparta, and China is Athens. While there is a general relevance to the premise that powers are hostile to the growth of their rivals’ power, the comparison ends there. For one thing, China does not get to be Athens, but instead is inherently the Mede [what the Greeks incorrectly called the Persian Empire- who had overthrown the Median Empire more than 100 years earlier.] The Persians were a vast, wealthy, populous, overseas, land-based empire, where, in the Greek view, everyone was a slave but one man [the King.] Further, Persia’s main interests in the war were weakening rivals and disputes over some islands off its coast, so it is obvious this is where China falls in this scenario. Very clearly, it is the United States and NATO which fill the role of Athens and its Delian League, whereas Russia is Sparta and its allies, most notably Corinth [commonly referred to by modern historians as “the Peloponnesian League”, though this is both anachronistic and inaccurate; regardless, the Russian Federation is the Peloponnesians as a whole], Ukraine is Corcyra, and the breakaway republics of Lugansk and Donetsk are Epidamnas, and China is, of course, the Mede [though, Persia does not figure prominently in the immediate lead-up to the war.]
Before I continue, I need to emphasize that in geopolitics what leaders and countries believe about themselves and other people are profoundly important. So for example, I recently saw some idiot on the internet say, “There is no ‘red line’, it is all in Putin’s mind.” Of course it is in his mind, it is his red line. He stated this as Russia’s policy. Whether or not you think he has the right to hold that value, he does. Any reality-based diplomacy is contingent on understanding and having some degree of respect for your rival’s view- unless your purpose is to provoke war [which now, as in antiquity, it often is.] Thucydides provides many political speeches, and then, as now, they represent the position of the powers involved. Some alleged Russia experts have taken the absurd position that since Putin lies, they can make up whatever they want about his motives [which, of course, provides garbage “analysis.”] As the great realist John Mersheimer recently noted, world leaders are actually generally honest with each other about their intentions:
“One might argue that Putin was lying about his motives, that he was attempting to disguise his imperial ambitions. As it turns out, I have written a book about lying in international politics—Why Leaders Lie: The Truth about Lying in International Politics—and it is clear to me that Putin was not lying. For starters, one of my principal findings is that leaders do not lie much to each other; they lie more often to their own publics. Regarding Putin, whatever one thinks of him, he does not have a history of lying to other leaders. Although some assert that he frequently lies and cannot be trusted, there is little evidence of him lying to foreign audiences. Moreover, he has publicly spelled out his thinking about Ukraine on numerous occasions over the past two years and he has consistently emphasized that his principal concern is Ukraine’s relations with the West, especially NATO. He has never once hinted that he wants to make Ukraine part of Russia. If this behavior is all part of a giant deception campaign, it would be without precedent in recorded history.”
Of course, Mersheimer is surely highly familiar with Thucydides [Thucydides being the father of political realism], and this text should be assumed to be prominent among his examples of recorded history.
It’s entirely possible that Putin thought war was inevitable due to the growth of US power [more on that in a moment] and just used Ukraine’s refusal to commit to neutrality as a pretext, but even if that is the case, why did they give him the pretext? According to the late genuine Russia expert Stephen Cohen, Zelensky wanted peace but neo-nazis threatened to lynch him if he made peace, and the US sided with the neo-nazis instead of supporting him. Either way, in our own times, as in antiquity, leaders are generally mostly honest with each other when discussing what they will consider a cause for war.
While the main Thucydides Trap quote may not seem to fit as the US is a declining imperial power, that isn’t true as it relates to Russia. Firstly, we have extremely short historical memories compared to essentially any other people- the thirty years since the USSR fell is hardly any time at all. Though the USSR and US were enemies during the Cold War and fought proxy wars against each other, they were still in another sense allies insofar as they were victors of the last major war upholding the Post-WW2 peace treaties. Similarly, after Hellenes, under the valiant leadership of Athens and Sparta, drove the Persians back to Asia these two powers became the guarantors of security within Greece [of course, the dastardly Thebans Medized, hoping to rule Greece as a satrap.] The post-Persian Wars arrangement for security in Greece was that both sides were allowed to run alliances, but, “one of the express provisions of that treaty is that it shall be open to any Hellenic state that is neutral to join whichever side it pleases.” [1.35.2] Though the Warsaw Pact ended some time ago and NATO has since expanded greatly eastward, and that was not an express provision of the negotiations that ended Word War 2 or the Cold War, bringing in ex-Soviet States/Warsaw members into NATO is something that would understandably be seen as hostile. From Russia’s perspective, NATO’s expansion into Ukraine absolutely constitutes an alarming growth of the alliance’s power, and in a region Russia considers to be a vital security concern.
In the time between the Persian Wars and the Peloponnesian War, the Athenians and Peloponnesians were using their power in different ways, which were remarkably similar to the USSR/Russia and NATO. After the Persian Wars, Sparta had a period of supremacy, and intervened in far-flung places such as Byzantium and Cyprus. [1.94.2-1.95.3] Ultimately, the naked tyranny of the Spartans caused their further away allies to revolt in favor of the more subtle tyranny of Athens, their empire to mostly collapse, and themselves left only prosecuting successful wars close to home. Meanwhile, Athens formed the Delian League, which initially had its treasury on the sacred island of Delos. However, Athens gradually took more and more control of the alliance, until they were keeping allies by force, and those allies, besides Samos and Chios, had began contributing money instead of their own ships and soldiers. [It should be noted, according to Plutarch, the great Athenian statesmen Pericles used this money to build the Parthenon and other monuments, as a make-work scheme to buy off the public, reasoning that the allies were paying for protection, but Athens could spend the money as it saw fit as long as that protection was provided.] This high-handed and ostentatious behavior created dissent among allies over time. Thucydides writes,
“The Athenians were not the popular rulers they had been at first; and if they had more than their fair share of service, it was correspondingly easy for them to reduce any that tried to leave the confederacy. For this the allies had themselves to blame; the wish to get off service making most of them arrange to pay their share of the expenses in money instead of in ships, and so to avoid having to leave their homes. Thus while Athens was increasing her navy with the funds which they contributed, a revolt always found them without resources or experience for war.” [1.99.2-3]
Indeed, most EU militaries do more to transfer money to American arms manufacturers than they actually contribute in combat readiness [you’ll notice that NATO measures military contributions by spending as percentage of GPD, not soldiers as percentage of population.] No one has tried to leave NATO, but among NATO and non-NATO allies the US does an enormous amount to maintain control and keep counties US-aligned. But for all of this, most of these countries do not actually maintain militaries capable of protecting themselves, and it is America which does war “professionally” for the alliance, even if other nations may send small contingents of soldiers to various US-led conflicts.
In the time after Spartan power had collapsed, Athens became involved in a variety of foreign interventions with mixed success, most notably the six year war in Egypt, [1.110.1] supporting an Egyptian revolt against Persia, an intervention that ended in catastrophic failure for the Athenians. They also sent expeditions to Cyprus [1.112.2] and put down a major revolt in Euboa, which lead to the “Thirty Years Peace” treaty, fourteen years before the war began, as well as intervening in a war between Samos and Miletus. [1.114.3-1.115.3] Despite losing some of their military expeditions, Athens did not suffer in prestige, as it remained an economic powerhouse which could control people through trade and was massively stronger than any other member of its alliance. All of this mirrors the present era, the entire progression from victory as allies through uneasy peace, presumably to outright war with each other, and the trajectories closely match that of their corresponding alliances.
The character of the two peoples are also remarkably similar, with Sparta being conservative, traditional, and land-based, and Athens being liberal, innovative, and trade-based. Here is how the Corinthian ambassador describes the contrasting characters of Athens and Sparta to the Spartans:
“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. Further, there is promptitude on their side against procrastination on yours; they are never at home, you are most disinclined to leave, for they hope by their absence to extend their acquisitions, you fear by your advance to endanger what you have left behind. They are swift to follow up a success, and slow to recoil from a reverse. Their bodies they spend ungrudgingly in their country’s cause; their intellect they jealously husband to be employed in her service. A scheme unexecuted is with them a positive loss, a successful enterprise a comparative failure…thus they toil on in trouble and danger all the days of their life, with little opportunity for enjoying, being ever engaged in getting…one might truly say they were born into the world to take no rest themselves and to give none to others.” [1.70.2-9]
Though one could talk about the decline of the American character and our current domestic insanity, that clearly represents the nature of Americans. That is undoubtedly how we won World War 2, by being as this describes Athens. And Americans as individuals, and as a nation, absolutely spend far more time acquiring than enjoying. Our modern foreign policy record is one of being slow to recoil from failure. Meanwhile, like the Spartans, the Russians have a traditional “resource-based” economy, and mostly stay in their home and near abroad, motivated by a fear of losing what they have. Of course, we view Russia differently now, having done the invasion, but that is also why everyone was so surprised, because taking such a risk runs counter to Russia’s usual behavior [though launching wars against her weaker neighbors is historically very much in line with Russia’s habits.] One can imagine Putin’s advisors making nearly these exact arguments when they were deciding on the invasion. The ambassador goes on to say,
“Such is Athens, your antagonist. And yet, Spartans, you still delay, and fail to see that peace stays longest with those who are not more careful to use their power justly than to show their determination not to submit to injustice. On the contrary, your ideal of fair dealing is based on the principle that if you do not injure others, you need not risk your own fortunes in preventing others from injuring you.” [1.71.1]
This again shows the characters of both parties, as Russia’s basic stance is that it has to do this because the US has unjustly and hostilely meddled in its sphere of influence, whereas the US position is that anyone can join NATO and that the world has changed to one of ideals instead of one of power [which is of course just a mask for power.] So much for the character of both parties.
The main event which increased tensions and began the drive to war was when an out of the way northern city, Epidamnus, fell victim to faction, and “the people” expelled the oligarchs from the city. The oligarchs then teamed up with the barbarians the city had been at war against, and attacked the city. The city, which was a colony of Corcyra [modern Corfu], appealed to the Corcyraeans for help. Corcyra, itself a colony of Corinth, declined to help them [for no stated reason, though presumably out of preference for the oligarchy], causing the Epidamnians to appeal to the Corinthians, as their “grandparent.” [1.24.4-1.25.2] At this point the Corcyraeans gave direct support to the oligarchs and barbarians and helped them besiege the city.
The relations between mother cities and colonies were generally informal, but it was expected that the colony would be a subservient ally and that the mother city would provide protection; Corcyra, a powerful neutral state, neither respected its mother city nor protected “the people” of its colony. Most of these colonies had been founded at least a few hundred years before, so the situation is akin to any of the “New World” states and their parent country in Europe, both in terms of the amount of time which had passed and the varying relations they may have between them, but something like the current relationship between the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth countries was the norm.
Corinth and Corcyra had remarkably bad relations for a mother city and colony. In fact, Thucydides states that the first known sea battle in history [where ships fought each other as ships, as opposed to pirates boarding ships] was between Corcyra and Corinth 260 years before the war began, in around 700 BC. [1.13.4] Corcyra was the second strongest naval power in Greece, and had maintained independence from Corinth all of the intervening time. Corinth, partially out of duty towards Epidamnus, and partially out of spite towards Corcyra, decided to intervene to protect the Epidamnians. Thucydides writes,
“Besides, they hated the Corcyraeans for their contempt of the mother country. Instead of meeting with the usual honors accorded to the parent city by every other colony at public assemblies, such as precedence at sacrifices, Corinth found herself treated with contempt.” [1.25.3-4]
In order to assist the Epidamnians, the Corinthians would have to sail past Corcyra, something which the Corcyraeans had no intention of allowing. With the Corcyraeans blocking passage there was one last chance for negotiations. The exchange was as follows:
“If, in defiance of their protestations, war was resorted to, they should be themselves compelled by this violence to seek friends in quarters where they had no desire to seek them, and to make even old ties give way to the necessity of assistance. The answer they got from Corinth was, that if they would withdraw their fleet and the barbarians from Epidamnus, negotiation might be possible; but, while the city was still being besieged, going before arbitrators was out of the question.” [1.28.3-4]
Obviously, Russia was similarly in dispute with Ukraine about support for areas which had revolted from Ukraine which Ukraine hoped to regain control of. After a victory in a small battle, the Corinthians initially retreated, while the Corcyraeans went around punishing Corinthian settlements in their new zone of control. After this Corcyra, which had previously pursued a policy of neutrality, appealed to Athens to enter the Delian League, touting its status as the second most powerful navy in the Hellenic world [note: Ukraine has the second largest army in Europe.] They say of their prior policy,
“What once seemed the wise precaution of refusing to involve ourselves in alliances with other powers, lest we should also involve ourselves in risks of their choosing, has now proved to be a folly and a weakness.” [1.132.4]
Though Ukraine went between pro-Western and pro-Russian factions since its independence, the country had always maintained official neutrality. This changed after the civil strife in 2014, with Russia siding with the ethnic-Russian breakaway regions and outright annexing Crimea. From then, the country became more and more NATO-aligned; Russia’s demand was a commitment to continued neutrality; the US position was to refuse the principle that Russia was in a position to make such a demand. Like the Ukrainians, the Corcryaeans perceived themselves as being wronged, and did not believe they owed their mother country loyalty. As the Corcyraeans said to the Athenians,
“If she asserts that for you to receive a colony of hers into alliance is not right, let her know that every colony that is well treated honors its parent state, but becomes estranged from it by injustice. For colonists are not sent forth on the understanding that they are to be slaves of those that remain behind, but that they are to be their equals. And that Corinth was injuring us is clear. Invited to refer the dispute about Epidamnus to arbitration, they chose to prosecute their complaints by war rather than by a fair trial.” [1.34.1-2]
Indeed, this is the respective positions, though Ukraine and its supporters now deny it being a colony of Russia at all, on the grounds that Kiev is an older city than Moscow. However, though the ancients also liked to make these arguments about what was to them antiquity, the claim that modern Ukraine wasn’t founded as a Russia colony is simply false. Kiev may have been settled earlier than Moscow, but the whole region was depopulated by slave raids and turned into what was known as “The Wild Fields.” Russia, as an organized policy mimicking European colonization of the Americas, annexed the territory from the Crimean Khanate and named it “New Russia”, building most of modern Kiev and founding major cities such as Odessa, Kherson, Mariupol, and Sevastopol. None of this is to say that Ukraine owes Russia permanent allegiance- I, as an American, certainly know this- but it is absolutely true that the foundation of modern Ukraine was the result of an organized colonization policy by the Russian Empire and thus Russia is the parent country.
Following the speech of the Corcyraeans requesting to join the Delian League, the Corinthians spoke asking Athens to decline, saying,
“It may be true that one of the provisions of the treaty is that it shall be competent for any state, whose name is not down on the list, to join whichever side it pleases. But this agreement is not meant for those whose object in joining is the injury of other powers, but for those whose need of support does not arise from the fact of defection, and whose adhesion will not bring to the power that is mad enough to receive them war instead of peace; which will be the case with you, if you refuse to listen to us. For you cannot become their auxiliary and remain our friend, if you join in their attack, you must share the punishment which the defenders inflict on them.” [1.40.2-3]
Then, as now, there is no solid reason under international law why Ukraine cannot join the alliance of its choosing, “every country has the right to choose its own allies”, as the pro-Ukraine Westerners are so fond of saying [meaning, by the way, NATO can say no to Ukraine, having the right to choose its allies], but Corinth, and Russia, directly stated it would be seen as an unacceptable act of hostility. The Corinthians go on to say,
“Abstinence from all injustice to other first-rate powers is a greater tower of strength than anything that can be gained by the sacrifice of permanent tranquillity for an apparent temporary advantage.” [1.42.3]
This is exactly the advice I wish the Biden Administration would have taken, but America is far too much like Athens to ever hear such a thing. Athens ultimately decided on a separate alliance with Corcyra, “It was to be a defensive, not offensive alliance” [1.44.1] because,
“It began now to be felt that the coming of the Peloponnesian War was only a question of time, and no one was willing to see a naval power of such magnitude as Corcyra sacrificed to Corinth; though if they could let them weaken each other by mutual conflict, it would be no bad preparation for the struggle which Athens might one day have to wage with Corinth and other naval powers.” [1.44.2]
Besides that Ukraine and Russia are both primarily land powers, this action and line of reasoning is outright spooky in its relevance to current events. A short time after, there was another battle which the Athenians were not supposed to join unless directly attacked, something the Corinthians had no intention of doing, however, “Seeing the Corcyraeans hard pressed, the Athenians began at length to assist them more unequivocally.” [1.49.7] Despite getting in a small direct skirmish with the Corinthians, the broader peace temporarily held, though the skirmish was a cited cause for war. As the Spartan King Archidamus pointed out in his speech against, or at least to delay, war, it is extremely challenging to find peace in a situation dealing with large coalitions,
“Complaints, whether of communities or individuals, it is possible to adjust; but war undertaken by a coalition for sectional interests, whose progress there is no means of foreseeing, may not be easily or creditably settled.” [1.82.6]
Even in an era before the risk of nuclear war, this type of conflict between all of the powers becomes extremely complex and hard to end because every city has their own grievances and interests. After one battle was fought, the Corinthians continued to press the Spartan alliance for war, and were ultimately successful, Corinth argued,
“It is impossible for us to wait any longer when waiting can only mean immediate disaster for some of us and, if it comes to be known that we have conferred but do not venture to protect ourselves, likely disaster in the near future for the rest. Delay not, fellow allies, but convinced of the necessity of the crisis and the wisdom of this counsel, vote for war, undeterred by its immediate terrors, but looking beyond to the lasting peace by which it will be succeeded. Out of war peace gains a fresh stability, but to refuse to abandon repose for war is not so sure a method of avoiding danger. We must believe that the tyrant city that has been established in Hellas has been established against all alike, with a program of universal empire, part fulfilled, part in contemplation; let us attack and reduce it, and win future security for ourselves and freedom for the Hellenes who are now enslaved. [1.124.2.-3]
These are very much the debates going on in Russia’s Senate, where despite what you may hear, most of Putin’s opposition comes from people who think his foreign policy has been too restrained, many of whom seem to want a broader confrontation. On the America side, the war party is always ascendant and hawkish, as was the Athenian leader Pericles, saying in a famous speech,
“If we are to go to war, as I for one think we ought, to do so without caring whether the ostensible cause be great or small, resolved against making concessions or consenting to a precarious tenure of our possessions. For all claims from an equal, urged upon a neighbor as commands, before any attempt at arbitration, be they great or be they small, have only one meaning, and that is slavery.” [1.141.1]
This has become America’s position in its hubris, be it about Ukraine, Taiwan, or anything else: we don’t negotiate and following any demands is slavery. It seems both sides are already set on war, and the positions of the opposing sides on whether or not Russia is allowed a sphere of influence are intractable under the current leadership of both countries. This is all the more crazy, as internationally recognized neutrality for Ukraine would have been great for everyone, as it was for Corcyra until for some reason Corcyra had to support the oligarchic faction in a colony.
Is there an off-ramp, before we get to the point where war is declared? With our leadership, I doubt it. Though, Graham Allison, a main writer on the Thucydides Trap, writes in his book Destined for War [which I haven’t read], that of 16 “power displacement” situations analyzed in the book, war was avoided through imaginative statecraft 4 times, 3 of those being in the 20th century. Unfortunately, our leaders are neither competent nor virtuous nor imaginative, and the Russians at this point seem fatalistic and as if they’ve accepted war as inevitable. Off-ramps exist, but it seems extremely unlikely our leaders slow down and turn the wheel, the only question is if major regimes fall before we get to the outright war part- replacing our government with one that will make peace is the only viable option for avoiding a major conflict. The parallels between the build up to the Peloponnesian War and Russia-NATO are incredible, but our rulers will never take the right lessons from history, and are done talking to the Russians anyhow:
“…the envoys departed for home, and did not return again.” [1.145.1]
“The war between the Athenians and Peloponnesians and the allies on either side now really begins.” [2.1.1]
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