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The use and abuse of Thucydides in international relations

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 May 2009

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International relations scholars are prone to claiming that the ancient historian of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides, is a realist of one kind or another. Paul Viotti and Mark Kauppi tell us that Thucydides “is usually credited with being the first writer in the realist tradition as well as the founding father of the international relations discipline.” Michael Doyle writes, “To most scholars in international politics, to think like a Realist is to think as the philosophical historian Thucydides first thought.” Kenneth Waltz found in Thucydides an expression of his “third image,” in which the balance of power states find themselves in largely determines their actions. Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye use Thucydides as a representative of their “overall power model” or the “traditional” international relations paradigm. Both classical realists, who begin with an understanding of human nature, and neorealists, who emphasize the international structure, can find support for their theoretical viewpoint in Thucydides.

Copyright © The IO Foundation and Cambridge University Press 1994

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This article contains revised material from the conclusion of my book, Thucydides, Hobbes and the Interpretation of Realism, © 1993 by Northern Illinois University Press used here with the permission of Northern Illinois University Press.

1 Viotti, Paul R. and Kauppi, Mark V., International Relations Theory: Realism, Pluralism, Globalism (New York: Macmillan, 1987)Google Scholar. These two scholars recently have made an earnest attempt to deal with Thucydides in more detail in The Global Philosophers: World Politics in Western Thought (New York: Macmillan, 1992)Google Scholar. While emphasizing Thucydides as realist, they note other important “cautionary tales” in the History of the Peloponnesian War and some problems with identifying Thucydides totally with our notion of realism. They still claim, however, “One is hard pressed to find in Thucydides suggestions of alternatives to realism” (p. 50).Google Scholar

2 Doyle, Michael, “Thucydidean Realism,” Review of International Studies 16 (July 1990), p. 223.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

3 Waltz, Kenneth, Man, the State, and War (New York: Columbia University Press, 1959), p. 159.Google Scholar

4 Keohane, Robert O. and Nye, Joseph, Power and Interdependence (Boston: Little, Brown, 1977), p. 42.Google Scholar

5 See, for instance, Morgenthau, Hans, Politics Among Nations (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978), p. 38Google Scholar; Waltz, Kenneth, Theory of International Politics (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1979), pp. 127 and 186–87Google Scholar; and Gilpin, Robert G., “The Richness of the Tradition of Political Realism,” International Organization 38 (Spring 1984), pp. 287304 and especially p. 290.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

6 Keohane, Robert O., “Realism, Neorealism and the Study of World Politics,” in Neorealism and Its Critics (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), p. 7.Google Scholar

7 Ibid., p. 14. See also Dessler's, David discussion of this feature of Waltz's theory in “What's at Stake in the Agent-Structure Debate?International Organization 43 (Summer 1989), pp. 441–73 and 450–54 in particular.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

8 Loriaux rightly notes that Hans Morgenthau and other classical realists understood the limits of theory. Morgenthau, he writes, “argues that the rationalist, scientistic model of inquiry, based on monocausal, deterministic representation of things, provides very little purchase on social phenomena. Multiple causes, some of a nonmaterial nature, confer on social phenomena a good deal of contingency, making possible only a probabilistic understanding of them.” See Loriaux, Michael, “The Realists and Saint Augustine,” International Studies Quarterly 36 (December 1992), pp. 401–20. The quotation is from p. 405.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

9 See p. 329 of Waltz, Kenneth, “Reflections on Theory of International Politics: A Response to My Critics,” in Neorealism and Its Critics.Google Scholar

10 Ferguson and Mansbach have noted that as things now stand, international relations literature, especially theoretical literature, is not palatable to the political practitioner. “The sad truth, of which there appears to be growing recognition and acknowledgement, is that international relations practitioners in governments, some of whom (perhaps mistakenly) in the 1950's and 1960's looked to the academic world for guidance in matters like deterrence, find very little of either interest or relevance in contemporary theory and therefore make little attempt to read it”; see Ferguson, Yale and Mansbach, Richard, The Elusive Quest: Theory and International Politics (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1989), p. 212. It is my belief that a Thucydidean approach might serve to enlarge our readership outside of academic circles.Google Scholar

11 Thucydides, , History of the Peloponnesian War (Cambridge, Mass.: Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, 1980)Google ScholarPubMed, Book 1, section 23, line 6 (hereafter cited as 1.23.6). Compare ibid., 1.88.

12 Keohane, , “Realism, Neorealism and the Study of World Politics,” p. 8.Google Scholar

13 Gilpin, Robert, “The Theory of Hegemonie War,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 18 (Spring 1988), p. 591.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

14 Gilpin, , “The Theory of Hegemonic War,” pp. 593, 599, and 605.Google Scholar

15 Ibid., p. 595.

16 Garst, Daniel, “Thucydides and Neorealism,” International Studies Quarterly 33 (March 1989), pp. 327 and especially pp. 37.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

17 Ibid., p. 4.

18 Thucydides, , History of the Peloponnesian War 1.75.34.Google Scholar

19 Ibid., 1.75.5.

20 Ibid., 5.105.2–3.

21 Morgenthau, Hans, Scientific Man versus Power Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), pp. 191–96.Google Scholar

22 Neorealists insist that they differ from classical realists because they have a theory that excludes all factors except the structure of the international system itself-how power is distributed within the system. They concentrate on questions of how different power distributions might affect or determine the actions of states. I make the argument that this distinction is at least partially invalid in Johnson, Laurie M., Thucydides, Hobbes and the Interpretation of Realism (De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1993)Google Scholar. The literature on this question has quite a history. See, for instance, Haas, Ernst, “On Systems and International Regimes,” World Politics 27 (January 1975), pp. 147–74 and p. 149 in particularCrossRefGoogle Scholar; Kaplan, Morton, “The Great New Debate: Traditionalism vs. Science in International Relations,” World Politics 19 (October 1966), pp. 120 and p. 2 in particularCrossRefGoogle Scholar; Kratochwil, Friedrich, “Errors Have Their Advantage,” International Organization 38 (Spring 1984), pp. 305–20 and p. 309 in particularCrossRefGoogle Scholar; Gilpin, Robert, “The Richness of the Tradition of Political Realism,” International Organization 38 (Spring 1984), pp. 287304 and pp. 301–2 in particular.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

23 Waltz, , Theory of International Politics, p. 187n, which refers the reader back to p. 127.Google Scholar

24 Thucydides, , History of the Peloponnesian War 1.76.2.Google Scholar

25 Ibid., 1.90.

26 Ibid., 1.71.

27 Ibid., 1.71.

28 Ibid., 1.84.

29 Compare ibid., 3.89; also see ibid., 6.95.

30 Ibid., 5.55.4 and 5.116.

31 Ibid., 4.55.

32 Ibid., 5.82.3.

33 Ibid., 5.112–113.

34 Ibid., 8.96.5.

35 For the earlier passage, see ibid., 1.69–70. While at times Thucydides mentions that fear of a helot (slave) uprising made the Spartans less willing to extend themselves, much of the time he does not, and it is far from clear that Thucydides would attribute to this one factor the difference in the two nations' characters. For those passages mentioning the helots in this context see ibid., 1.101.2–3; 4.55.1–3; 4.80.2–5; and 5.14.4. For other passages depicting or commenting on Spartan character, see 3.29 and 3.31; 5.115.2–4; 6.93.1–3; and 8.24.5.

36 Ibid., 1.94–95.

37 Viotti and Kauppi note the effect this has on the realist assumption of the state as a unitary actor: “Thucydides' work differs from much of the behavioral literature of the 1960's and 1970's, which essentially black-boxed the state and focused on state interactions in order to uncover the causes of war. Similarly, current ‘neorealists’ who treat state actors as ‘functionally similar units’ differ somewhat from Thucydides on this point.” See The Global Philosophers, p. 51.Google Scholar

38 Thucydides, , History of the Peloponnesian War 2.65.1011.Google Scholar

39 Ibid., 2.65.7–8.

40 Ibid., 2.65.11–13.

41 Even Pericles tried to avoid suspicion by promising to donate his property to the state should Archidamus not destroy it when invading Attica. Generally, however, Pericles was more impervious to this hazard than any other Athenian leader.

42 For an analysis of this debate, see Johnson, Laurie M., “Rethinking the Diodotean Argument,” Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy 18 (Fall 1990), pp. 5362.Google Scholar

43 Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War 6.61. For a thorough portrait of the character of Alcibiades see Forde, Steven, The Ambition to Rule: Alcibiades and the Politics of Imperialism in Thucydides (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1989).Google Scholar

44 Thucydides, , History of the Peloponnesian War 7.48.Google Scholar

45 One might be tempted to say that Thucydides blamed the ignorance and volatility of the Athenian people as a whole for creating such leaders, instead of the individual leaders themselves. But Thucydides shows that the Assembly, despite its handicaps, was capable of making informed, moderate decisions, not only under Pericles but also when listening to an orator like Diodotus, even though his rhetoric had to match the baseness of his opponent to be persuasive. The people could, in a crisis, realize the necessity to surrender their democracy in order to save the state. See ibid., 8.97.

46 Ibid., 2.65.13.

47 For a description of that fear, see ibid., 1.23.60.

48 Pouncey, Peter R., The Necessities of War: A Study of Thucydides' Pessimism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980).Google Scholar

49 Cogan points this out in Cogan, Marc, The Human Thing: The Speeches and Principles of Thucydides' History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).Google Scholar

50 Thucydides, , History of the Peloponnesian War 3.40.45.Google Scholar

51 Ibid., 3.40.1–2.

52 Ibid., 3.44.4.

53 Ibid., 3.45.5–7.

54 Ibid., 3.47.4–5.

55 Ibid., 3.46.6.

56 Again, for the development of this argument see Johnson, “Rethinking the Diodotean Argument.”

57 Garst, “Thucydides and Neorealism,” especially pp. 10 and 13. Garst, however, seems to say that Athens got its empire, as opposed to simply leadership of the alliance, by persuasion and voluntary consent. Actually the empire commenced when the Athenians began to change their tactics into the international equivalent of a protection racket. One could, however, surmise that Athens' decline began as soon as its tactics changed.

58 Thucydides, , History of the Peloponnesian War 1.76.34.Google Scholar

59 Ibid., 1.77.

60 Ibid., 7.29.4–5.

61 See Edmunds, Lowell, “Thucydides' Ethics as Reflected in the Description of Stasis (3.82–83),” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 79 (Winter 1975), pp. 7392.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

62 Thucydides, , History of the Peloponnesian War 3.84.3. This passage, however, has been deemed spurious by many scholars.Google Scholar

63 Ibid., 3.82.4–8.

64 Ibid., 3.82.8.

65 The distortions of self-interest, as Connor observes, are the “drive for dominance, self-aggrandizement, and ambition.” See Connor, Robert W., Thucydides (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984), p. 102.Google Scholar

66 Thucydides, , History of the Peloponnesian War 3.82.23.Google Scholar

67 Ibid., 3.21–23.

68 Pouncey, , The Necessities of War, p. 18.Google Scholar

69 Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War 5.89.

70 Proctor writes, “Their [the Plataeans'] speech…and the Thebans' reply constitute, in fact, the only debate in the History which is conducted throughout on a purely moral plane. The fact that it is also the longest of the debates consisting of only two speeches may betoken Thucydides' recognition of its special character.” See Proctor, Dennis, The Experience of Thucydides (London: Aris and Phillips, 1980), p. 92.Google Scholar

71 Thucydides, , History of the Peloponnesian War 5.85, 5.87, and 5.89.Google Scholar

72 Ibid., 5.97.

73 Ibid., 5.101.

74 Ibid., 1.76–77.

75 Ibid., 5.111.4–5.

76 The quotation is from p. 288 of Ashley, Richard K., “The Poverty of Neorealism,” International Organization 38 (Spring 1984) pp. 225–86.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

77 See p. 31 of Gilbert, Alan, “Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy? Realism, Regimes, and Democratic Internationalism,” Political Theory 20 (February 1992), pp. 837, emphasis original.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

78 See Krasner, Stephen D., “Realism, Imperialism, and Democracy,” Political Theory 20 (February 1992), pp. 3852.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

79 Snyder, Jack, Myths of Empire: Domestic Politics and International Ambition (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991), p. 1.Google Scholar

80 Ibid., p. 19.

81 On the domino theory, see ibid., p. 273; on the Munich analogy, see p. 277.

82 Ibid., pp. 41–42; compare pp. 257 and 299.

83 Doyle, Michael W., Empires (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1986), p. 19.Google Scholar

84 Ibid., pp. 26–30.

85 Doyle does bring in other sources in his account of the Peloponnesian War, most notably Plutarch and Polybius, but he relies most heavily on the History as his classical text.Google Scholar

86 Ibid., pp. 57 and 59.

87 Ibid., pp. 60–62.

88 Ibid., pp. 68–69.

89 Ibid., p. 107.

90 Ibid., pp. 121–22.

91 Ibid., p. 126.

92 Stoessinger, John G., Crusaders and Pragmatists: Movers of Modern American Foreign Policy (New York: Norton, 1985), p. 21.Google Scholar

93 See Stoessinger's, John G. works Crusaders and Pragmatists, Nations in Darkness: China, Russia and America, 4th ed. (New York: Random House, 1985)Google Scholar, and Why Nations Go to War, 4th ed. (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986).Google Scholar