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"Trapped by Thucydides? Updating the Strategic Canon" Topic

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Tango01 Supporting Member of TMP29 Dec 2020 8:58 p.m. PST


"Ancient Greek roots run deep in America. "What Athens was in miniature," Thomas Paine predicted, "America will be in magnitude." From the beginning of the American experiment, Thucydides' history of the war between Athens and Sparta provided useful lessons for the nation's founding fathers. John Adams wrote to his ten year old son, John Quincy, that his future country "may require other Wars, as well as Councils and Negotiations," adding, "[t]here is no History, perhaps, better adapted to this usefull Purpose than that of Thucidides." Nearly two centuries later as an emerging Cold War threatened America's sense of security, Secretary of State George Marshall declared, "I doubt seriously whether a man can think with full wisdom and with deep convictions regarding certain of the basic international issues today who has not at least reviewed in his mind the period of the Peloponnesian War and the Fall of Athens."

The end of the Cold War did not result in Thucydides' retirement. "Whenever we get a new war, we get a new Thucydides," Joseph Lane astutely noted. Most recently, the text was repurposed in the 21st century by Harvard professor Graham Allison to describe the risks of war with a rising China in terms of a supposed "Thucydides Trap." In its latest reprise the analogy comes off more strained than illuminating. Neither the United States nor China fits neatly into the old Athens-Sparta antagonist roles, nor does the current international system resemble the system of ancient Greece: two roughly equal alliance structures vying for dominance within the confines of a zero-sum competition. Thucydides examines one possible outcome of an extended contest between two great powers not possessing powerful incentives to prefer coexistence over unilateral dominance. The persistent use (and misuse) of Thucydides has led to problematic thinking about great-power competition with China. It is time to expand our thinking beyond Western perspectives by considering historical works on strategy and rivalry in addition to Thucydides.

Fortunately, a viable candidate already exists within the Chinese canon, a work roughly contemporaneous with Thucydides. This text, known as the Zuozhuan, is China's oldest historical narrative and chronicles the decline of the Zhou dynasty from 722 to 468 BCE. Describing the machinations of various rulers, ministers, and military commanders over a span of 255 years, this complex masterpiece traces the difficult strategic choices faced by regional powers during this chaotic period as they struggled to adjust to an uncertain security structure. In particular, its description of the competition between the two greatest powers of its time, the states of Jin and Chu from roughly the mid-7th to mid-6th centuries, provides interesting parallels with the current state of Sino-U.S. relations. The Jin-Chu rivalry reflected the multi-faceted challenge of two competing powers navigating a multi-state system neither side sought to destroy or overthrow, but instead hoped to co-opt and lead on its own terms. Moreover, the length of the historical arc measured in centuries rather than decades better facilitates analysis of the long-term strategic impact of great-power competition…"
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