Oh God, Not the Peloponnesian War Again

Oh God, Not the Peloponnesian War Again

Western strategists need to learn some new history. Here are eight suggestions from Asia.

Last Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a major speech at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library on the U.S.-China relationship, so naturally one of the first questions, from the president of the Nixon Foundation, Hugh Hewitt, referred to ancient Greece.

“But we are, like Athens was, a naval power. America is a naval power. And as like Sparta [was], China is a land power. Do we not have to change how we approach defense spending to put more emphasis on our naval resources than on our Army resources?” Hewitt asked Pompeo.

Like Hewitt, Trump’s advisors are reportedly obsessed with ancient Greece, but they aren’t alone. The Peloponnesian War mesmerizes strategists and international relations scholars. When it comes to ancient Greece and the U.S.-China relationship, the most prominent comparison is the “Thucydides Trap,” made famous by the political scientist Graham Allison, which uses the relationship between Athens and Sparta to draw an analogy between a rising China and the threat felt by the United States today. But conflicts between city-states in a backwater Eurasian promontory 2,400 years ago are an unreliable guide to modern geopolitics—and they neglect a vast span of world history that may be far more relevant.

To be sure, Greek history is fascinating. But so is everyone else’s. Even for elites who believe themselves heirs of the classical world, the fixation on the Peloponnesian War is especially narrow. Other lessons from Greek history are strangely never mentioned; Thebes, the great power of the fourth century B.C., barely gets a mention. And no strategist has called for the formation of an elite Sacred Band of American warriors, each fighting alongside his lover so as not to appear shameful in his eyes. Thucydides is great. But he doesn’t have to hold the same grip on IR scholars that Harry Potter does on millennial readers.