Thucydides, the realist

Published: July 15, 2017
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The writer served as executive editor of The Express Tribune from 2009 to 2014

The writer served as executive editor of The Express Tribune from 2009 to 2014

It is never a good policy for those living in the so-called Third World to believe everything that the US and European media say about what China is up to. Most of such stories are usually based on half-truths and usually built around fake news.

But it certainly is a good policy to closely follow these stories depicting China as the bad guy challenging the so-called ‘rules of the liberal, post-war institutional order’ that the good guys have built. Shorn of angles and slants, such stories do give a clue to the real purpose behind the propaganda.

It is in this context that one read with great fascination a recent article ‘Realism’s Illiberal Roots’ by Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins published on July 10th, 2017 in the Foreign Affairs Today which indicated that while dealing with China, the US is likely to follow the principles laid down by a Greek historian-warrior, Thucydides, some 400 BC years ago.

Here is a pertinent quote from the column: “For a US president who supposedly lacks a coherent ideology, Donald Trump has surrounded himself with political ideologues of the first order. Commentators, in turn, have shown a continued fascination with what Trump’s advisers are reading. Part of this curiosity is because of the unfamiliarity, and the perceived political danger, of the extreme-right thinkers — and the promise that their works will elucidate the intellectual currents driving Trump’s policies. There has remained a fervent desire to discover the ideas influencing the administration. The most recent case in point is journalist Michael Crowley’s highly cited Politico article ‘Why the White House Is Reading Greek History.’ Crowley reported that Trump’s advisers have a marked obsession with the writings of the ancient Greek historian Thucydides. What Defence Secretary James Mattis and National Security Adviser H R McMaster find attractive about Thucydides is his political realism. Crowley writes, “Thucydides is considered a father of the ‘realist’ school of international relations, which holds that nations act out of pragmatic self-interest with little regard for ideology, values or morality.”

In a world where US political hegemony is being challenged by China, Thucydides offers Trump’s advisers timeless wisdom on how to strategically maintain power “according to perceived self-interest.”

In times of political emergency, Steinmetz-Jenkins says, liberal democracies’ best chance of survival necessitated dictatorial decision-making for the sake of securing liberal-democratic ends. At such critical political moments only an elite group of wise statesmen and intellectuals possessed the requisite education and knowledge to decide what was best for the people.

The worst self-perceived challenge that Washington believes it is facing from Beijing today is in the South China Sea. As the main corridor between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, the sea carries one-third of global maritime trade worth over $5 trillion each year, and $1.2 trillion of it going to or from the US. The sea’s large oil and gas reserves and its vast fishing grounds provide energy and food for Southeast Asia’s 620 million people. In recent years, American China watchers believe, Beijing has begun to assert its claims more vigorously and “is now poised to seize control of the sea.”

In an essay in the July/August edition of the Foreign Affairs Weekly, the author Ely Ratner warns that should China succeed, “it would deal a devastating blow to the US influence in the region, tilting the balance of power across Asia in China’s favour.”

He suggests the US should supplement diplomacy with deterrence by warning China that if the ‘aggression’ continues, Washington would abandon its neutrality and help countries in the region defend their claims.

“Washington should make clear that it can live with an uneasy stalemate in Asia — but not with Chinese hegemony.” Seems like a policy out of Thucydides’s bag of realism.

As the Athenian historian wrote, “it was the rise of Athens, and the fear that this inspired in Sparta, that made war inevitable.” Wary of a similar outcome, US policymakers are looking for ways to reduce tensions and avoid conflict whenever possible.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 15th, 2017.

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