Men of Honor, Men of Interest  

Posted by T. Greer in , , ,

This post was originally published as part of the Thucydides Roundtable project over at Zenpundit. I encourage you to read all of the posts in the roundtable.

The most famous episode in Thucydides’ History is found in its fifth book. Known as the “Melian Dialogue,” it is one of the best known statements of what we moderns call realpolitick. I read this passage long before I read any other part of Thucydides’History. It was one of the opening chapters in the ‘standard-readings-in-IR-theory’ primer assigned in my very first POSC class. It’s stature in that class is hardly unique. This episode has been picked apart, commented on, and excerpted more than any other in the book. In this roundtable it has already prompted three separate discussions. I will add yet one more here. But I suggest a different approach: to understand the themes and purpose of this dialogue, it is best to rewind.


….Thus as far as the Gods are concerned, we have no fear….

A recurring theme of Thucydides work is the contrast between the Spartans and the Athenians. In Book V Athens launches an attack on Melos, by blood and kinship a natural friend of Sparta. The Athenians wage devastation on the Melians knowing it is not just to do so. The same book sees the Spartans waging wars—this time on Argos, by regime and belief a natural friend of Athens. Five times do Spartan armies march to the border of Argive lands. Of the five invasions, three are ended before they begin “because the sacrifices were unfavorable.” (5.54, 5.55,.5.115). One of the two times Spartans actually step on Argive soil, Spartan leadership decides to defer bloodshed for the sake of just arbitration (5.83). Only once does the attack proceed as planned, and that only when the Spartans are threatened with the specter of a second pair of long walls extending from a powerful enemy capital to the sea.

The contrast between Sparta and Athens is found in the fifth book of Thucydides’ history, but it is not obvious. To see it you must screw your eyes up and tilt your head a little bit.

Earlier juxtapositions are more difficult to miss.


…. We see that you are come to be judges in your own cause….

Melos was not the first polis to suffer the fury of the strong. Nine years before her destruction other polis trembled in fear before the judgement of a hegemon. In Athens the polis in question was Mytilene. Her fate to be decided by a jury of the Demos, a trial not entirely different in form the sort of criminal cases Socrates’ Apology would make famous. Mytilene had rebelled. Yet before the Athenian hoplites could sack its capital, Mytilene’s ‘Many’ had removed her ‘Few,’ and surrendered their city to democrats on their doorstep. Now they waited in judgement.

A second trial would occur soon after—soon enough after that Thucydides places the stories one right after the other. Here the Spartans played the role of judge and jury, and here again the trappings of a formal trial were adopted. Standing accused were the remnants of Plataea. For four terrible years they had resisted a Theban siege. With Spartan help the Thebans were close to breaking through. But here again surrender was declared well before sacking could begin. The Plataeans turned themselves over to the Spartans and waited to see what judgement they might receive.


…You know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power…

The Plataeans and the Mytilenians both heard a case arguing for their death, as well as one arguing for their continued survival. In the Mytilenian case, both the defendant and the prosecution were represented by Athenians. In the case of Plataea, the Plataeans were forced to speak in their own defense, with the Thebans arguing for their death. The parallel is clear. It to the arguments we turn to find the contrast between the two hegemonic powers.


….What is this but to make greater enemies than you have already, and to force others to become so who would otherwise have never thought of it?

The Athenians were once a people of honor. “For glory then and honor now” was the rallying cry Pericles raised to lead his people to war (2.64.6). The Athenians began this entire drama chasing it. No longer. Athenian honor died long before the war’s close. Athenian honor could not survive the plague. Then the beastly truth was revealed: honor meant nothing but scarred skin and blistered visage. Nobility brought no recompense but rotting flesh. Eat now, drink now, be merry now, for tomorrow men will die! And die, and, die, and die. Justice, integrity, honor—mere words. Where could those words be found? Buried deep in burning heaps of flesh! Abandoned in lonely, forgotten corners where none would see them croak away! Beneath blood, phlegm, pustule, and vomit! What has honor to do with Athens?

Nothing. 


What is more, they knew it. 



…You enjoin us to let right alone and talk only of interest…


Thucydides relates the speech of two men in the debate over Mytilene, one Cleon, son of Cleanetus, the ‘most violent man in Athens.’ The other Diodotus, son of Eucrates, a more measured sort who does not appear elsewhere in this history. Cleon argues for the Mytilene’s extinction. Diodotus, for their salvation. They disagreed on almost every point. What sticks out, however, is what they did agree on. Both wanted everyone to know that their arguments had nothing whatsoever to do with justice, honor, or mercy.

Said Cleon:
I have often before now been convinced that a democracy is incapable of empire, and never more so than by your present change of mind in the matter of Mytilene. Fears or plots being unknown to you in your daily relations with each other, you feel just the same with regard to your allies, and never reflect that the mistakes into which you may be led by listening to their appeals, or by giving way to your own compassion, are full of danger to yourselves, and bring you no thanks for your weakness from your allies; entirely forgetting that your empire is a despotism and your subjects disaffected conspirators, whose obedience is insured not by your suicidal concessions, but by the superiority given you by your own strength and not their loyalty…..
I therefore now as before persist against your reversing your first decision [to kill the Mytilenians], or giving way to the three failings most fatal to empire— pity, sentiment, and indulgence. Compassion is due to those who can reciprocate the feeling, not to those who will never pity us in return, but are our natural and necessary foes: the orators who charm us with sentiment may find other less important arenas for their talents, in the place of one where the city pays a heavy penalty for a momentary pleasure, themselves receiving fine acknowledgments for their fine phrases; while indulgence should be shown toward those who will be our friends in future, instead of toward men who will remain just what they were, and as much our enemies as before.

To sum up shortly, I say that if you follow my advice you will do what is just toward the Mytilenians, and at the same time expedient; while by a different decision you will not oblige them so much as pass sentence upon yourselves. For if they were right in rebelling, you must be wrong in ruling. However, if, right or wrong, you determine to rule, you must carry out your principle and punish the Mytilenians as your interest requires; or else you must give up your empire and cultivate honesty without danger (3.37; 3.40).
In reply, Diodotus:
However, I have not come forward either to oppose or to accuse in the matter of Mytilene; indeed, the question before us as sensible men is not their guilt, but our interests. Though I prove them ever so guilty, I shall not, therefore, advise their death, unless it be expedient; nor though they should have claims to indulgence, shall I recommend it, unless it be clearly for the good of the country. I consider that we are deliberating for the future more than for the present; and where Cleon is so positive as to the useful deterrent effects that will follow from making rebellion a capital offense, I who consider the interests of the future quite as much as he, as positively maintain the contrary. And I require you not to reject my useful considerations for his specious ones: his speech may have the attraction of seeming the more just in your present temper against Mytilene; but we are not in a court of justice, but in a political assembly; and the question is not justice, but how to make the Mytilenians useful to Athens….
Only consider what a blunder you would commit in doing as Cleon recommends. As things are at present, in all the cities The People is your friend, and either does not revolt with the oligarchy, or, if forced to do so, becomes at once the enemy of the insurgents; so that in the war with the hostile city you have the masses on your side. But if you butcher them, first you will commit the crime of killing your benefactors; and next you will play directly into the hands of the higher classes, who when they induce their cities to rise, will immediately have The People on their side, through your having announced in advance the same punishment for those who are guilty and for those who are not. On the contrary, even if they were guilty, you ought to seem not to notice it, in order to avoid alienating the only class still friendly to us. In short, I consider it far more useful for the preservation of our empire to put up with injustice voluntarily, than to put to death, however justly, those whom it is our interest to keep alive. (3.44; 3.47)

Behold the men of Athens! Dead to honor, to principle, to humanity. This was a people whose hearts had hardened. Nothing was left to Athens but the pursuit of power—and its cousin, profit. The only language they spoke was the language of naked interest.

That language saved the Mytilenians. They were lucky. Interest is a fickle master. The men of Melos discovered just how twisted a master it can be.

In time, so would the Athenians.


...Do not destroy what is our common protection, namely the privilege of being allowed in danger to invoke what is fair and right...

The Spartans heard a very different set of arguments. The Spartans were a very different sort of people. In time they would believe that they lost the first war because they unjustly broke the piece. Always were their actions justified in the name of Hellenic freedom. Sparta suffered no plague. He people stuck fast to her traditions to the end of her days. Knowing all of this, the Plataeans did not defend themselves in terms of interest:
“Consider also that at present the Hellenes generally regard you as a model of worth and honor; and if you pass an unjust sentence upon us in this which is no obscure cause— but one in which you, the judges, are as illustrious as we, the prisoners, are blameless— take care that displeasure be not felt at an unworthy decision in the matter of honorable men made by men yet more honorable than they, and at the consecration in the national temples of spoils taken from the Plataeans, the benefactors of Hellas…..
“Still, in the name of the gods who once presided over our confederacy, and of our own good service in the Hellenic cause, we appeal to you to relent; to rescind the decision which we fear that the Thebans may have obtained from you; to ask back the gift that you have given them, that they disgrace not you by slaying us; to gain a pure instead of a guilty gratitude, and not to gratify others to be yourselves rewarded with shame. Our lives may be quickly taken, but it will be a heavy task to wipe away the infamy of the deed; as we are no enemies whom you might justly punish, but friends forced into taking arms against you. To grant us our lives would be, therefore, a righteous judgment; if you consider also that we are prisoners who surrendered of their own accord, stretching out our hands for quarter, whose slaughter Hellenic law forbids, and who besides were always your benefactors. (3.57-3.58)
The Thebans feared this argument. Anxious it might convince the Spartans to release their enemy, that they too rose to speak. Again, their case is argued more in terms of justice than of interest:
We will now endeavor to show that you [the Plataeans] have injured the Hellenes more than we, and are more deserving of punishment…..an invitation was addressed to you before you were besieged to be neutral and join neither party: this you did not accept. Who then merit the detestation of the Hellenes more justly than you, you who sought their ruin under the mask of honor? The former virtues that you allege you now show not to be proper to your character; the real bent of your nature has been at length damningly proved: when the Athenians took the path of injustice you followed them.”
….Such, Spartans, are the facts. We have gone into them at some length both on your account and on our own, that you may feel that you will justly condemn the prisoners, and we, that we have given an additional sanction to our vengeance. We would also prevent you from being melted by hearing of their past virtues, if any such they had: these may be fairly appealed to by the victims of injustice, but only aggravate the guilt of criminals, since they offend against their better nature. Nor let them gain anything by crying and wailing, by calling upon your fathers’ tombs and their own desolate condition. Against this we point to the far more dreadful fate of our youth, butchered at their hands; the fathers of whom either fell at Coronea, bringing Boeotia over to you, or seated, forlorn old men by desolate hearths, who with far more reason implore your justice upon the prisoners. The pity which they appeal to is due rather to men who suffer unworthily; those who suffer justly, as they do, are on the contrary subjects for triumph. For their present desolate condition they have themselves to blame, since they willfully rejected the better alliance.
Their lawless act was not provoked by any action of ours; hate, not justice, inspired their decision; and even now the satisfaction which they afford us is not adequate; they will suffer by a legal sentence not, as they pretend, as suppliants asking for quarter in battle, but as prisoners who have surrendered upon agreement to take their trial.  Vindicate, therefore, the Hellenic law which they have broken, Spartans, and grant to us, the victims of its violation, the reward merited by our zeal. Nor let us be supplanted in your favor by their harangues, but offer an example to the Hellenes that the contests to which you invite them are of deeds, not words: good deeds can be shortly stated, but where wrong is done a wealth of language is needed to veil its deformity (3.67).

The Plataeans lost their case. Thucydides, as he is wont to do, suggests that the decision to slaughter them all was made for cold geopolitical reasons.

Perhaps it was. We cannot know for sure. The Melian dialogue may just have been, as A.E. Clark argues in his latest post, “Athen’s finest hour”—the moment when all falsehoods and posturing were laid aside, and the truth of the war was revealed for all to see. The Athenians were honest. Only the Athenians could be so honest. The Spartans did not talk about war in such terms. To the end they talked and thought and fought in a world they never stopped describing with words like justice and honor.

Maybe they were deluding themselves. But note:. it was the men of Sparta, not the men of Athens, who won the war.

….The strong do what they can while the weak suffer what they must.

This post was originally published as part of the Thucydides Roundtable project over at Zenpundit. I encourage you to read all of the posts in the roundtable.

Meet Sima Qian. I hold him in high regard. You could say that this was a historian with balls.




Sima Qian is sometimes called the “Herodotus of the East.” It’s a fair title. Herodotus is one of two men who can claim to have invented history. Sima Qian is the other.

This is a rare feat. It was accomplished in exactly two places. Herodotus did it in Greece; Sima Qian did it in China. Of the other great civilizations—the Mesoamericans, the Egyptians, Summerians, and their descendants, the Andean kingdoms, the early rulers of the Eurasian steppe, the great empires that sprouted up along the Indus and Ganges rivers, along with their cultural satellites across South and Southeast Asia—history is nowhere to be found. I remember my shock when I discovered our knowledge of ancient India relies more on ancient Greek historians than ancient Indian historians. Traditional Indic civilization simply did not have any. In ancient India, playwrights, poets, lyricists, grammarians, philosophers, story-tellers, mathematicians, military strategists, religious authorities, and religious upstarts all put pen to palm frond, leaving a treasury of Sanskrit literature for the future. This literature is sophisticated. It is meaningful. Even in translation, much of it is beautiful. But search as you may, nowhere in this vast treasury will you ever find a work of history. That a great thinker could profitably spend his time sorting through evidence, trying to tie together cause and effect, distinguishing truth from legend, then present what is found in a written historical narrative—it is an idea that seems to have never occurred to anyone on the entire subcontinent. Only in Greece and in China did this notion catch hold. The work of every historian who ever lived finds its genesis in one of these two places—and with one of these two people.

Sima Qian is not just celebrated for the idea of history. He was also a wonderfully gifted historian. His skill exceeds Herodotus, that dispenser of legends and collector of hoary wives’ tales, and is matched by only a few greats in the West. Polybius. Tacitus. And of course, Thucydides.

Sima Qian had a character to equal his talents. He was the court astronomer and calendar keeper in the reign of the egotistical emperor Han Wudi. In this role he was often present at court deliberations. One court debate scarred him for the rest of his life. He told the story in a letter to a friend named Ren An:
“Events did not unfold as I had planned. I committed an egregious error.

Li Ling [a general who had just been defeated in battle and surrendered to the enemy Xiongnu] and I were both officials in the palace, but we had had no opportunity to become friends. Our duties kept us busy in different offices and we had never so much as sipped a cup of wine together or enjoyed the slightest pleasure of friendship. But I observed that he conducted himself with extraordinary self-possession. He was filial towards his parents, trustworthy with his colleagues, scrupulously honest in matters of finance, upright in exchanges with others, deferential in matters of precedence, respectful, modest, and humble. His thoughts were always animated by selfless devotion to the needs of his country—this was his way, and I saw in him the very image of a statesman. A subject who dashes to the public’s aid, risking ten thousand deaths without thought of his life as he rushes to his country’s defense, such a man rises far above the ordinary. And so when, because of a single indiscretion, courtiers whose sole concern had been preserving themselves whole and protecting their wives and children seized on his mistake to brew disfavor against him, I felt pain for him in my innermost heart…..

it happened that I was summoned to give an opinion, and in just this way I spoke of Li Ling’s merits. My hope was to broaden my ruler’s perspective and block the words of jealous-eyed courtiers. But I was myself insufficiently clear and the emperor could not perceive my sense… and believing that I was speaking as a partisan of Li Ling he had me sent down for prosecution. Not all my earnest loyalty could justify myself to my inquisitors. I was convicted of attempting to delude my ruler and the sentence received imperial approval.

….In surrendering alive Li Ling destroyed the reputation of his family. When I followed by submitting to the “silkworm chamber ” I became a second laughingstock. Oh, such shame! This is not something I could ever bring myself to recount to an ordinary person.… A man dies only once. His death may be a matter weighty as Mount Tai or light as a feather. It all depends on the reason for which he dies. The best of men die to avoid disgrace to their forbears; the next best to avoid disgrace to their persons; the next to avoid disgrace to their dignity; the next to avoid disgrace to their word. And then there are those who suffer the disgrace of being put in fetters; worse yet those disgraced by the prisoner’s suit; worse yet those in shackles; worse yet those who are flogged; worse yet those who with shaven heads and iron chains around their necks; worse yet those who suffer amputations and mutilations. But the very worst disgrace of all is castration.

…How could I have plunged myself into the ignominy of bring tied and bound? Even a captive slave-girl is capable of putting an end to herself, and surely I could have done so as well, had it been the inescapably correct path. The reason why I bore the intolerable and clung to my life, refusing to release myself from the filth into which I had been cast, was the remorse I felt at the prospect of leaving the achievement dearest my heart incomplete, quitting the world like a vulgar nonentity with the written emblem of my lifework unrevealed to posterity.”

(From Sima Qian's Letter to Ren An, trans. by Burton Watson).
To restate Sima Qian’s experience in less emotional terms: because he was principled enough to contradict the emperor in the presence of his court, Sima Qian was sentenced to castration. This was a death sentence—any self-respecting man of his day would commit suicide before submitting to the procedure. Everyone expected Sima Qian to do so. But in the end Sima Qian decided to accept the punishment and live the rest of his life in shame, because if he did not he would never finish the history he had started.

Not every historian has the balls to a challenge despot face-to-face. For despotic Wudi was—the castration of Sima Qian was hardly the most despotic thing Wudi would do before his reign ended. It is but one episode in a string of terrors, one paint-stroke in a portrait of tyranny.

But who painted the portrait? None other than the grand historian Sima Qian. We remember Wudi as Sima Qian chose to depict him. Had Wudi realized the influence his court astronomer would have on future generations, he might have treated him differently. But Wudi realized none of this. Sima Qian was published brutally and embarrassed publicly. He was a loser.

But in the end, the loser got his revenge.

We say that history is written by the winners. That is sometimes true. We have no Carthaginian accounts of their war with Rome; few historians today have much sympathy for Hitler. But the thread that seems to connect many of the great histories of the pre-modern world is that they were written by the losers.

In his roundtable post, “Treason Makes the Historian,” Lynn Rees lists a few of the type. Herodotus wrote his history only after his exile from Halicarnassus; Xenophon wrote his memoirs only after his faction was forced out of Athens. Polybius was once a general for the Archean League, but wrote his history as a hostage at Rome. The destruction of Judea was chronicled by a Josephus, a Jew.

These men abandoned their countries and people for the victors of the future. But Quislingdom was not the only losing path to historical fame. Tacitus’s loyalty to Rome never wavered—but neither did his identification with Rome’s Senatorial class, a group whose power was slowly stripped away as Tacitus wrote his chronicles. Sima Guang, the second most significant historian of Chinese history, only finished his massive Zizhi Tongjian after court rivalries had forced him to retire. The history of the Mongols was written almost entirely by their vanquished enemies. Ibn Khaldun was associated with so many failed regimes that it is a wonder he found time to write his history at all.

I am sure more examples can be found. The example most relevant to this roundtable is one Thucydides, son of Olorus. It is here in Book IV we finally learn a tad about the man behind the curtain:
The passage of Brasidas was a complete surprise to the people in the town; and the capture of many of those outside, and the flight of the rest within the wall, combined to produce great confusion among the citizens; especially as they did not trust one another.... Meanwhile the party opposed to the traitors proved numerous enough to prevent the gates being immediately thrown open, and in concert with Eucles, the general, who had come from Athens to defend the place, sent to the other commander in Thrace, Thucydides, son of Olorus, the author of this history, who was at the isle of Thasos, a Parian colony, half a day's sail from Amphipolis, to tell him to come to their relief. On receipt of this message he at once set sail with seven ships which he had with him, in order, if possible, to reach Amphipolis in time to prevent its capitulation, or in any case to save Eion (4.103).
Now pieces of Thucydides work start to click together. Few Spartans are mentioned by name; fewer still are Spartans mentioned by nams on multiple occasions. The exception is Brasidas. Brasidas, brave defender of Methone, and thus “the first man in this war to receive the official honors of Sparta” (2.25). Brasidas, whose strategems almost defeated the Athenians at sea (2.86-87). Brasidas, the daring leading who almost stormed the fort at Pylos (4.12). Brasidas, the savior of Megara (4.70-73). Brasidas, the only Spartan eloquent and wise enough to raise all of Thessaly into revolt (4.84). Brasidas, the general who defeated Thucydides.

Thucydides’ obsession with Brasidas is easy to understand once his personal relation to Thucydides is made clear. His portrayal of Brasidas as daring, brilliant, charismatic, and clever beyond measure also begins to make sense—the greater Brasidas' past feats appear, the less damning Thucydides defeat at his hands becomes.

Thucydides treatment of Brasidas is hardly unique. You can play this game with many other aspects of Thucydides’ History, from his attitude towards Athenian democracy (which voted for his exile) to his unflattering portrayal of Cleon (who replaced him). Thucydides lost battles with them all. The History of the Peloponnesian War was written by a loser.

Why have so many great histories been written by the losers?

I like Mr. Rees’ suggestion:
These men probably didn’t see themselves following in Vidkun’s bloody footsteps. They remained loyal to a political community of their birth, just not the flesh and blood political community of their birth. They pledged allegiance to a nation in being that remained moored just over the horizon in the Scapa Flow of their imaginations, waiting for Der Tag of political change.
This works for the Quisling historians well enough, but it does not explain the plain sore losers like Sima Qian. I’ll suggest something simpler. Defeat gives brilliant minds like Thucydides the two things they need to become great historians: time and motive.

Those who rule do not have the time to write about it. Occasionally history produces a Caesar or a Mao, men who can lead the masses to war on the one hand, while serving as prolific propogandists for their cause on the other. The greater part mankind is not so talented. Sima Guang would never have finished his history had he not been shunted out of Song court politics. Had Thucydides defeated Brasidas, he would be known today not as a historian, but as a military strategist, a strategist who never had the time to travel the world and collect the material needed to write his history. Even winning historians need time in defeat to write their histories—had Churchill’s party not been kicked out of power by British voters after the Second World War was over, Churchill’s famous account of that war would never have been written.

When high position is stolen from you, and access to the heights of wealth and power denied, there is little one can do about it—except write. History is thus rarely a “weapon of the weak.” The judgments of the historian do not serve the margins. They do not even serve the masses. They are a weapon in the hand of defeated elites, the voices of men and women who could be in power, but are not. What was true in Thucydides day is true in our own. The simplest explanation for modern academics' hostility to 21st century capitalism's  “structures of power” is their complete exclusion from them.

This is the motive of defeat. Intelligent enough to rule, but missing the wealth and position needed to lead, the historian continues the fight in the only domain that he or she can: the page. Here the historian wields absolute power. Given enough time, that power might bleed off the page and into reality. Those who know Cleon’s name remember him as terrible; those who recognize the name Brasidas think immediately of daring brilliance. I am sure nothing would have made Thucydides happier. As he wished they would be, this loser's scathing judgments have lasted as a "possession for all time."

Earlier this year I wrote that the Chinese do not want our liberal, rules-based order. How America should respond to this rejection was a question I left open. This week, however, in a long  two-book review essay published over at Strategy Bridge, I have returned to the question. The two books under review are Lyle Goldstein's Meeting China Halfway: How to Defuse Emerging China-U.S. Rivalry and Robert Haddick's Fire on the Water: China, America, and the Future of the Pacific, which start off with very similar goals and operating assumptions, but end up offering directly opposed policy recommendations. 

My conclusions are not optimistic: 
The fundamental difference between the two analysts is their theory of what makes the Communist Party of China tick. Reading these two books next to each other is a reminder of just how important an analyst’s inner model of Chinese decision making is. Under Goldstein's schema, fear of American power, not contempt for American weakness, is what has led the Chinese down the path they now tread. Haddick's case is built on the opposite view. Not all they have to say, but a great deal of it, follows from these opposing opening assumptions. 
It is these assumptions—these unstated models of Chinese decision making—that keep me from endorsing either argument. I have presented a different version of what makes Beijing tick. As I (along with folks like Lee Hisen Loong and Bilahauri Kaukisan) have argued, Xi Jinping’s regime believes that the Western-led liberal order and the demands it makes on those who join it are corrosive to authoritarian control, and will eventually lead to the collapse of the Party. For them the Party comes first. When translated into concrete policy, “putting the Party first” means eliminating Western influence from within and actively reshaping regional rules from without. What China is doing is not an inevitable consequence of great power competition, but the fruits of very specific fears of a specific ruling regime. 
If this explanation for China’s behavior is correct, then neither Haddick’s nor Goldstein’s proposals are tenable. Haddick's entire strategy is predicated on the idea that you can build a military machine whose might will raise the costs of conflict so high that the Chinese must eventually back down. But if Zhongnanhai serves the Party before it serves the country then none of that matters. The Communist Party of China’s  continued domination of China is justified to the Chinese public on the grounds that hostile Western forces have always sought to contain and cripple China, but under the guardianship of the Party, the Chinese people will never be forced to bow down to foreign powers again. Backing down and accepting Western order threatens their legitimacy. It is an existential threat to their continued rule. The costs of war cannot compete with this. In the worst case war scenario, Party leaders suffer the same fate they would most likely suffer in any existential crisis (violent death); at best, they get lucky and win the war. This is not a recipe for stability.
This model of Chinese decision making also makes Goldstein's cooperation spirals exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to implement. Beijing does not just fear specific American policies—it fears the entire American-led system. The Chinese can bide and endure this order, but they cannot permanently compromise with it. It is hard to compromise with a system whose existence threatens your survival.

One’s inner model of Chinese decision making thus matters quite a lot. The most disturbing thing about reading these books together, however, is that neither of these analysts, exceedingly intelligent and well respected in their field, pauses to explain where their assumed model of Chinese decision making comes from. These operating assumptions are left unstated and unproven, despite how readily everything else these authors write follow from them.
This is possibly because these analysts did not realize the importance of these assumptions. But it may also reflect just how difficult it is to prove that the model of Chinese decision making one uses is actually correct. Here I am just as guilty as every other China hand; I cannot prove that my own model of Chinese decision making is the right one. The best I can say is that it fits Chinese behavior over the last two decades better than anything else I have seen proposed. 
But in the end neither I, nor any other analyst of Chinese foreign policy, actually knows what is happening behind the walls of Zhongnanhai. There are probably less than a hundred people on this planet who actually know why Beijing does what it does. They are unlikely to share this information with American analysts.
Our analysis is built on a foundation of sand. We offer bold proclamations and precise policy proposals designed to cajole, convince, or coerce a hostile nuclear power whose decision making process is utterly opaque to us. We theorize much, and assume more, but we still do not know why the Chinese do what they do. Most critically, we do not know how to find the knowledge we lack. This is an intellectual challenge we have not begun to meet. Understanding Zhongnanhai is a wonderful methodological puzzle—but a puzzle with nuclear stakes. Until we solve this puzzle, I doubt any number of policy prescriptions will be enough to ensure peace in the West Pacific.

Read the rest of the piece here.  


Graphic source: Kevin Urmarcher, Kevin Schaul, and Dan Keating, "These Former Obama Strongholds Sealed the Election for Trump," Washington Post (9 November 2016).

T
here has been a bit of push back to my last post. A lot of it revolves around this fact: Donald Trump did not win the popular vote. Others point out that if the vote had shifted 1-2% in favor of Clinton, Trump’s stunning electoral sweep would never have happened.


That’s all true. It is also irrelevant.

When I say that large parts of the press and the Democratic establishment have lost grip on reality, I am not saying they are less in touch with ‘the popular will’ than team Trump was. Were you to line up the entire country and rank them by their preference for Mr. Trump or Mrs. Clinton, the median individual (though repulsed by both candidates) would probably lean towards the latter. That is undoubtedly true for the median voter.

It is also utterly irrelevant.

The American presidency is not decided by a popular vote. It has never been decided by a popular vote. The win must come in the electoral college. Hillary Clinton knew this. Her goal was always to win the electoral college. She organized a gargantuan super-PAC network, spent a billion dollars, hired thousands of staffers, mobilized tens of thousands of volunteers, launched one of the biggest get-out-the vote campaigns in this country’s history, and cajoled or inspired thousands of newspapers and media-hands to endorse her in order to win the electoral college. The battle she chose to fight was always about winning a certain alignment of electoral votes.

The problem is not that Clinton lost this battle. The problem is that no one had any idea that the loss was coming. Or that the loss was possible. Or even where the battle would be fought. Clinton, her team, the vast media apparatus that had grown up around it—all were soaking in the same cesspool of self-deceit. The election has shown them all for what they are: an insular network of operators and opinion-makers charmed by their own cleverness and enthralled with their own moral certitude, more comfortable exchanging clever quips and flattering platitudes than confronting the world outside of their carefully constructed echo-chamber.

To put it another way: in this election, narrative building trumped strategy making. Narrative building trumped reporting. It trumped honest assessments of the facts. It trumped everything except Trump himself.

It needs to stop.

Two days ago Michael Cieply gave us an insider’s account of how bad this problem has become, describing his stint at The New York Times:
Historically, the Los Angeles Times, where I worked twice, for instance, was a reporter-driven, bottom-up newspaper. Most editors wanted to know, every day, before the first morning meeting: “What are you hearing? What have you got?” 
It was a shock on arriving at the New York Times in 2004, as the paper’s movie editor, to realize that its editorial dynamic was essentially the reverse. By and large, talented reporters scrambled to match stories with what internally was often called “the narrative.” We were occasionally asked to map a narrative for our various beats a year in advance, square the plan with editors, then generate stories that fit the pre-designated line. 
Reality usually had a way of intervening. But I knew one senior reporter who would play solitaire on his computer in the mornings, waiting for his editors to come through with marching orders. Once, in the Los Angeles bureau, I listened to a visiting National staff reporter tell a contact, more or less: “My editor needs someone to say such-and-such, could you say that?”[1]
That’s just an excerpt. Read the whole thing. Be scandalized by it! Slavish devotion to narrative is not compatible with honest reporting. Moral posturing has no part in candid calculation. If you are serious about gaining and wielding power, then things must change.

I’ll concede that not all of this can be blamed on ideological blinders and class smugness. Secular trends in the media world have played a large part, stripping newspapers of their reporters, centering their content more and more on hot-takes and op-eds. The biases of a digitally centered media are clear. Stories marginal to the election’s end outcome—say, the rise of millennial “alt-right” twitter trolls from the morass of 4chan, PUA forums, etc.—were covered in obsessive detail, while stories central to what actually won Trump the election—say, the complete flip of traditionally left leaning communities in Minnesota(!) and Wisconsin(!)—were ignored. If most of your reporting starts on twitter, well that makes sense. It is easy to see why you might think hashtags and hate filled twitter streams were the real story of this election. Yet the world is bigger than that. The greater part of this week’s voters have never had a twitter account.

This problem is most sickening at the new brand of e-zines which dominate the liberal media scene (e.g., Vox, Salon, Slate. These places don’t do reporting. They rarely even attempt real analysis. The only thing they do well is messaging. Whether the narratives they weave have any connection to reality is, and always has been, a secondary concern to boosting their their candidates and flattering their readers. To explore a comparision I suggested in the last post, place Ezra Klein’s breathless cheerleading for Clinton (“Clinton is an extraordinarily talented politician... winning a process that evolved to showcase stereotypically male traits using a stereotypically female strategy...And it's working”) earlier this year next to a more sober critique of Clinton and her class written by Thomas Frank a few months earlier.  Frank understood what Klein refused to see. One reveled in the echo dome; the other traveled in the wilderness. One can be trusted to find and tell the truth. The other cannot.

The cesspool must be drained. Flip to Vox now and see the headlines: "We just watched Donald Trump try to be President-elect Trump. It took a few tries." Are these kids serious? Donald Trump is not trying to be President-elect. He is President-elect. The Democratic Party has been decimated. At the presidential level we have just witnessed the party's largest loss in a generation. At the state level we've seen the party weaker than it has ever been in American history. How do the good writers of Vox respond to all this?  With a self-satisfied smirk.

These people must be treated as the pariahs they deserve to be. 

There is more to say, but I've said enough for the moment. Instead I'll close with a few observations Nathan Jurgenson put up on his Tumblr earlier this week. To quote:


It was around 6-to-9pm last night, watching the first election returns, and on CNN Wolf Blitzer was continuously amazed by each new vote count in Florida, exclaiming that “Trump takes the lead!”, “Now Hillary is out in front!”, when the numbers were just arbitrary depending on what precincts had reported. CNN was openly creating a fictitious back and forth foot race out of nothing, framed by ALERT graphics and dramatic music. This happened on a major network on a day of massive ratings, and the common response was, “well, they are dumb, they do this every year.” 
At the same time, over at the data journalism site Fivethirtyeight, the early returns and exit data were characterized as “excellent news for Clinton,” “bad sign for Trump,” “long night for Trump,” and so on. At the start of the primaries, they gave Trump a 2% chance of being the nominee and somehow continued to be a source of information during the general campaign, providing very detailed to-the-decimal fake precision about a Hillary lead that didn’t exist. This persisted even after returns started to come in last night, and a few hours later, the horror of Trump’s victory came to pass. And people were, to say the least, surprised.
That people (people like me: white, coastal, liberal) were surprised by what happened last night should be read as a repudiation of the media we are consuming. We’re quick to call out right wing sites as harboring misinformation, but what is clear today is that the political press, the pundits, those providing you takes, and of course all that data, down to the tenth, are also implicated in the rise of misinformation. People spent months and months clicking on Fivethirtyeight, listening to podcasts, thinking they were being informed. Super informed. It was a massive and counterproductive waste. Something we needed to come to terms with even had Clinton won is that the right doesn’t have a monopoly on political fictions presented as fact. 
…On the right, they have what Stephen Colbert called “truthiness,” which we might define as ignoring facts in the name of some larger truth. The facts of Obama’s birthplace mattered less for them than their own racist “truth” of white superiority. Perhaps we need to start articulating a left-wing version of truthiness: let’s call it “factiness.” Factiness is the taste for the feel and aesthetic of “facts,” often at the expense of missing the truth. From silly self-help-y TED talks to bad NPR-style neuroscience science updates to wrapping ourselves in the misleading scientisim of Fivethirtyeight statistics, factiness is obsessing over and covering ourselves in fact after fact while still missing bigger truths.
…An example of this came from the start of Trump’s primary campaign, when the media tried to use Trump’s outlandishness as a way to pretend the rest of it all was “truth”, that the other campaigns and their coverage were somehow in good faith. One way they did this was by calling Trump a “troll.” Trump was never a troll, he played by the silly rules of the big reality show perfectly. If we were being trolled, it was by those selling us the fiction of this election as something genuine. 
More recently, you’ll remember the tape of Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women. This was completely on-brand for Trump, but some opportunistic Republicans pretended to be just shocked by his comments so they had an excuse to jump ship from an otherwise struggling campaign. No adult learned anything new about Trump from the tape. Meanwhile, the Editor in Chief of BuzzFeed penned a victory lap for journalism, “We Told You So: The MSM, vindicated.” 
The idea that mainstream journalists uncovered facts and changed people’s minds and took a liar down was impossibly naïve…. From beginning to end, Trump was used by political journalism as an excuse to sell fiction as fact. And, in the end, Republicans came home to Trump, despite the so-called vindication of journalism; a journalism being called “mainstream” even when much of the country finds it irrelevant. 
So many more examples could be given, but it’s getting late, and one general takeaway from the 2016 Election seems clear: our popular media, from those producing it to those sorting it with editors and algorithms, are not up to the task of informing us and describing reality. This won’t happen, but those people who got Trump sooo consistently wrong from the primaries to Election Day should not have the job of informing us anymore. And if you were surprised last night, you might want to reconsider how you get information. [2]
Go read the whole thing. Jorgenson understands what is at stake. It is time to drive the lies out


--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

[1] Michael Cieply ”Shocked by Trump, New York Times Finds Time For Soul Searching,” Deadline (10 Nov 2016).
[2] Nathan Jurgenson, "Factiness," N. Jurgenson's Tumblr account (12 November 2016).

Go, Soul, the body's guest,
Upon a thankless errand;
Fear not to touch the best;
The truth shall be thy warrant:
Go, since I needs must die,
And give the world the lie.
           ---Sir Walter Raleigh, “The Lie,” (c. 1592)

A question many of us should be asking: do I believe in lies?

But first, a confession: I did not think Donald Trump would win this election.

I was wrong. Were you?

There are those in my circle of influence—I think of John Robb and Lynn Rees in particular, though they were not the only ones—who claimed Trump would win, and claimed Trump would win in exactly the places and for exactly the reasons he ended up winning.

I discounted what they had to say. I will not be making that mistake again.

Who have you discounted? Better yet, who should you have discounted?

In demographic terms, there are two reasons Trump now claims the title President-elect. The first is that in the old Northwest he galvanized millions of people, mostly white and rarely educated, to vote for him. In days past this demographic split their vote. Many used to vote for Democrats. Even more just did not vote. That has changed.

Why and how this change occurred, and what it means for the future of this republic, is important. I will have more to say about that on a later day. Today though we need to focus in on something else—the second reason Trump won this election.

It’s a simple one: millions of people who voted for Barrack Obama would not show up to vote for Hillary Clinton.

This was true in almost every state. It was true for Latino voters. It was also true for black voters. And millennials. And women. And yes, it was true for the whites as well.

More dramatic still: this took everybody who should have known better by surprise.

I suppose that is not quite true. Some people knew. Some suggested that this would not be the electoral dream so many imagined it to be. But that wasn’t the narrative. The narrative was that this was going to be an election with record turnout, an election that mobilized the masses against the great monster of bigotry and oppression. There would be more people voting here than ever before.

It was all a lie.

Some of my readers supported the President elect. Those of you who did not are angry. You have a right to be. But time is short. If you wish your anger to matter, then it must be focused. Rage! —but channel that rage towards the places it can make an immediate impact. It is time to destroy the lies.

We heard these lies the entire election season. We repeated them. Most of us believed at least some of them. Some of us believed all of them.

The lies went like this. Hillary Rodham Clinton is a wonderful and visionary person. She is a representative for women across the world, an extraordinarily talented politician, and a true example of what makes America great. Clinton’s words are inspiring. Her political judgement is beyond reproach—in fact, given current national conditions, her political instincts are ideal. She is a good listener. She is in touch with the concerns of the nation and its ordinary people. She is a woman of the future. History is on her side.

This lie both enabled and was enabled by others: America’s economy is only getting better; because of her predecessor’s efforts, the country’s future is bright. Americans look forward to that future. Only those deceived by Fox News and the “Alt-right” could believe otherwise. In fact, if you didn’t realize it yet, the few thousand twitterers known as the ‘Alt-right’ are a critical part of the enemy coalition; when normal Americans hear about this new political force, they will care about it, remember it, and feel threatened by it. Demographics is destiny. Hispanic voters will be an electoral force to be reckoned with. Gender will be a deciding factor in this election. The concerns of working class whites do not deserve to be addressed; really, it’s an open question whether that demographic even needs to be respected. Jim Webb and Bernie Sanders were out of touch. The media isn’t actually filled with the lap dogs of the DNC. The DNC isn’t actually filled with the lap-dogs of the Clinton campaign. Clinton’s victory is so sure that she should be spending her time in Arizona and Georgia, not in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The Democratic Party is in the best shape it has ever been in. Sharing John Oliver videos makes a difference.

It was all a lie.

Time for some truths: America’s governing class is bound together more by geography, education, and manners than anything else; it does not understand and cannot relate to the lives of most of their countrymen. Socially and economically the led and the leaders are distinct. In less than two decades, this elite has launched this country into three wars, and lost each of them. None were punished or held accountable for doing so. They plunged the earth into recession, a recession entire regions still feel--but none were punished or held accountable for doing so. This class is fundamentally unaccountable: bankrupt Americans, bankroll cartels—in the end, none of that matters if you’ve made the right connections and you speak the right shibboleths. The gateways into this class are shrinking. The privileges it claims grow larger. Amid all this walks in a woman who embodies it all, Davos Man in the flesh, avatar of establishment orthodoxy. She is the author of one war, supporter of two others; devoted to the poor of other nations but aloof to the poor of her own; friend of the banks, paid by Wall Street when not in government service, and financed by it when on the campaign trail; undeserving darling of a slavish media, uncrowned queen of a slavish party, beloved by all the institutions Americans have grown to distrust and hate; unable to keep rules she demands of her subordinates, and excused for failings that would crush the careers of the less connected. Onto this stage walks this ghoul, and you expected America to be excited about voting for her.

It is time to destroy the lies.

You lost because your party chose a messenger and a message five million of your own voters—not Fox News Acolytes, not the Breitbart junkies, but your own voters---could not stomach. You lost because the party elites and their press hanger-ons lied to themselves, to each other, and then to you. Hillary Clinton was unfit to be the President of the United States. The majority of Americans believed this. The majority of Americans still believe this. An enormous amount of self-deceit is needed to claim otherwise.

Some of you aren’t ready to hear this. Some of you are not willing to concede it. I am sorry I must speak to you so bluntly and so roughly, but time is short. You just lost three branches of government in one night. You don’t control the Senate, and you don’t have the House. You’ve only managed to keep a hold on five state governments—the lowest number in the entire history of your party. You were a percentage point away from losing Minnesota. Minnesota! Yet you thought you were about to win it all.

The time has come to drive out the lies.

Normally this is where you start hearing calls to “spend time in the wilderness.” Your party elites deserve this. Maybe you do too. There just isn’t time for it. Look folks, I am no Democrat. I’m much more comfortable in an America where the court leans 5-4 to the right than the other way around. But I’m also an honest checks-and-balances sort. The prospect of Trump unchecked is unnerving. Many of you go further—you express abject terror.

If that feeling is genuine, then I plead with you, cast out the lies.

Events will move quickly. The Democratic Party is without a leader. The President and his administration are packing up shop. Clinton is a dead letter. Harry Reid is gone. The DNC is a mess. A civil war is brewing. The battle for your party’s soul is coming—and when it is over, the winners must be people with better judgement than those who ran the last campaign.

That is only the first part. The second may be more important—the cadre of “thought leaders” who led you all into this mess must be cast aside. Nate Silver and the modelers like him deserve to be treated like the cultic shamans they are. Ezra Klein, Zack Beauchamp, Dylan Matthews and the Vox set, who did so much to establish the false narratives that dominated this cycle, must be called out, talked down, and driven out. The campaign’s go-to propaganda disseminators (e.g. Joan Walsh, Greg Sargent, etc.) should be treated like pariahs; reporters who could have pushed back on emerging narratives, but instead let DNC and campaign team members vet their reporting (e.g. Mark Leibovich, Glenn Thrush, etc.) should be treated no better.

These men and women are drunk on their own cool-aid. They built an echo chamber and mistook its confines for the world outside it. They sold their self-deceptions to you as fair and reasoned truths—but they are and always were deceptions. You and I were fed a diet of lies. Now the liars and those who believed them both find themselves locked out of power, utterly unprepared for the age about to dawn. These people need to be held accountable. You are the only one who can do that to them.

Politics is not about signaling disgust or praise. Politics is a contest over the division of power. To win this contest you need men and women tethered to reality, not to shibboleths. Those people do exist on the left. Among elected officials, Tulsi Gabbard comes to mind. Adam Elkus recently endorsed David Auerbach and Chris Arnade as media personalities who fit the bill; I might add Thomas Frank to that list. There will be others. The time has come to put them up front.

As for the rest? Do as Raleigh directs: “give them all the lie.”


This post was originally published as part of the Thucydides Roundtable project over at Zenpundit. I encourage you to read all of the posts in the roundtable. 

All the world trembles at the dreaded "Thucydides trap."

Of late this phrase has been all the rage. It was first popularized by Graham Allison in 2012, and has only become more popular since. Read American debates about China’s future, and you will see it; read Chinese debates about America’s future, and you will find it there as well. On the lips of all is Thucydides’ famed assessment of the origins of his war. It might be the punchiest pronouncement of the entire book:

The growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Lacedaemon, made war inevitable. (1.23.5)
It is not clear to me that Thucydides intended this theory to be a general theory of why all great powers go to war, though many take it this way. The other famous phrase from this book—the Athenian declaration that they were motivated to build their empire by “fear, honor, and interest” (1.76)—has a far better claim to this title, followed as it is by the note, “it has always been the law the weaker should be subject to the stronger.” Thucydides invokes no laws in his famous one liner on the “real cause” of the war. Notice too that only one leg of his trinity is invoked to explain the Spartan decision for war. Were Thucydides serious about conflating the cause of this war with the cause of all wars, it would make sense to include the other two legs in his explanation.

But whether or not Thucydides hoped his statement might be a template for all time, it is being treated as such. Here it used to explain all great power wars of the last four centuries:


Graphic created by the Harvard Belfer Center's "Thucydides Trap Case File" page

This roundtable's journey through Thucydides’ History gives us the chance to assess whether the   "Thucydides trap" metaphor helpfully explains the historical events it is drawn from. To approach this question is to first ask another: can we untangle the events of the war itself from the narrative of the man who chronicled it? This is the  issue at the center at this post; no one can appraise the work and words of Thucydides without carefully working through it.

Thucydides is celebrated today as a man who articulated and developed grand principles of politics and conflict. However, Thucydides was not an explicit theorist of war. His book has themes, not theses. He does not prove, but impresses. These impressions are made through narrative art. The order in which Thucydides introduces ideas and events has great meaning; the amount of space he devotes to some events (but not to others) changes how readers perceive them. These subtle decisions of placement and length develop Thucydides’ main themes far more powerfully than his occasional editorial comments. Perceptive readers of Thucydides time, aware of the narratives Thucydides hoped his work would displace and familiar with the events he passes over, would understand exactly what Thucydides was doing. With us the challenge is harder. We don’t come to Thucydides’ History with preexisting knowledge of the war. Our only guide to Thucydides is Thucydides himself. We thus must read with utmost care. If we do not, we risk mistaking Thucydides' judgments about the war for the events of the war itself.

Nowhere is more careful attention demanded than Thucydides’ treatment of the Megarian Decree. Like all Greeks of the age, the Athenians had long memories. Their enmity for Megara began a generation earlier, when Athenian blood was lost as consequence of Megarian betrayal. The Megarian betrayal came during a day of war, Athen's first life-and-death struggle with the men of Sparta. The proximate causes of the this dispute were more recent, however. Thucydides reports that Athens “accused the Megarians of pushing their cultivation into consecrated ground and the unenclosed land on their border, and of harboring runaway slaves.” Thucydides’ description of the Athenian response: a “Megara Decree, excluding the Megarians from the use of Athenian harbors and of the market of Athens.” (1.139.2)

The Megarians declared that this degree stood “in defiance of the treaty (1.67), and the Spartans apparently agreed. The decree was the price of peace; the Spartans informed the Athenians that “war could be prevented if they revoked the Megara decree” (1.139.2) and it was on the question of whether or not to revoke the decree (for, said those against it, there was “folly [in] allowing it to stand in way of peace” (1.139.4). In face of these questions Pericles was dismissive:
I hope that none of you think that we shall be going to war for a trifle if we refuse to revoke the Megara decree, which appears in front of their complaints, and the revocation of which is to save us from war, or let any feeling of self-reproach linger in your minds, as if you went to war for slight cause. Why, this trifle contains the whole seal and trial of your resolution. If you give way, you will instantly have to meet some greater demand, as having been frightened into obedience in the first instance; while a firm refusal will make them clearly understand that they must treat you more as equals. Make your decision therefore at once, either to submit before you are harmed, or 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 legal settlement, be they great or be they small, have only one meaning, and that is slavery. [1.40.4, emphasis added]
The argument that Thucydides puts into Pericles’ mouth is simple: the coming war is not really about the decree at all, but more fundamental questions of power and rank. Is Athens subordinate to Sparta? Or are the two polis equal in rank? That was the real question being decided by this war. Any “ostensible cause” to get things rolling would do—in this case that ostensible cause just happened to be the embargo of Megara.

Readers will notice a similarity between Pericles’ talk of “ostensible causes” and Thucydides’ earlier distinction between “immediate” and “real“ causes of the war. This cannot be coincidence, though it is difficult to tell if Thucydides places this argument in Pericles’ mouth to strengthen his own argument about the cause of the war, or if Pericles’s understanding of the war’s origins is part of the reason Thucydides admires him so. By the time Pericles made this statement he was probably correct. That the Spartans hoped to use the issue as a stand in for the competition between the two polis was proven by the uncompromising demand that followed it:
“"Lacedaemon wishes the peace to continue, and there is no reason why it should not, if you would leave the Hellenes independent.” (1.39.3)
But how did the Athenians get into this position, handing the Spartans such an easy cause to justify their war with? We do not know. Thucydides’ editorial decisions have made the Megarian decree something of a mystery. The Megarians and the Spartans maintained that the decree was a violation of the treaty of peace, though just how it was a breach in the treaty we are not sure. The Megarians formally listed their reasoning during the 431 conference of the Peloponnesian allies (1.67.4), but Thucydides does not relate the speech, nor tell us anything about it except that it was given. Of the debates that led the Athenians to enact the degree even less is written. We do not, in fact, even know what year the decree was enacted, or whether it came before or after the disputes with Corinth. Though we are told some Athenians argued for its repeal in the face of Spartan demands, their arguments, like that of the Megarians, are only mentioned in a sentence or two of narrative, as mere context for the speech given by Pericles that I have quoted above.

See this for what it is: Thucydides has omitted from his history a central cause of the war! This was not an oversight. It may have been the entire point of Book I. In Thucydidean terms, the Megarian decree was (as Thucydides has Pericles say) “a trifle.” It was an “ostensible cause” of the great war, but not its true one. A war of this magnitude could not be caused by trifles, and to drive home the point of just how trifling and irrelevant this causus belli was to the war’s actual conduct, Thucydides crafts a narrative of the war that does not include it at all. This is clever, and Thucydides' contemporaries, quite aware of the decree’s details, probably considered the omission quite artful.

While we don’t know the details of the debates surrounding the decree, it is easy to see how reporting those debates in detail might have undermined Thucydides’ narrative. Did the Athenians enact the decree in ignorance of its long-term consequences—was it merely an angry and reflexive response to a localized spat with the Megarians? If that was the case, then many would say that the Athenians stumbled into the war blindly, unaware of the import their actions would have on broader Hellas. What better caricature of bumbling democracy could there be? This image of Athens would serve Thucydides well later in his narrative, but it is at odds with his idealized portrait of Athens under Pericles, a time when "what was nominally a democracy became in his hands government by the first citizen” (2.65). This was the clear-sighted visionary whose guiding hand might have led Athens to victory! Bumbling into a great war does not match the narrative.

On the other hand, if the Athenians knew exactly what they were doing in enacting the decree, then the decree was a challenge—a deliberate attempt to humiliate the Spartans, weaken their alliance, and goad them into war. If this is true then Thucydides’ grand narrative is weakened even more than if the Megarian degree was a simple, bumbling mistake. Sparta’s decision for war would then be less a fearful reaction to forty years of growing Athenian power than a measured response to a deliberate insult.

Thanks to Thucydides, we do not know which of these is the true story. What we do know is that we do not have the true story. We cannot trust Thucydides to give us an honest picture of the past.

The gaps in Thucydides’ account of the Megarian Decree are not unique. They appear again and again in the first book of the History, and creep even into the beginning sections of Book II. Many of these are moments Thucydides would have observed first hand. Thucydides reports that the Athenians debated the alliance with Corcyra twice before agreeing to dispatch two ships to the island’s defense. But his description is terse: “in the first assembly there was a manifest disposition to listen to the representatives of Corinth; in the second, public feeling had changed and an alliance with Corcyra was decided on.” (1.44.3). What the arguments of each side were, and why the public feeling changed so forcefully in favor of Corcyra (perhaps the influence of Pericles?), is never revealed. The debates where the Athenians decided their demands on Potidaea are also ignored. And as mentioned earlier, the speeches against the general war, though noted, are not described in detail. Indeed, in all of Book I’s eighty pages, Thucydides includes only one speech from Athens’s internal debates, the speech in which Pericles declares that Sparta “always had designs against us” and that the time for Athens to go to war in defense of their rank had come, “without caring whether the ostensible cause [for war] be great or small” (1.141.4).

Clever, is it not? Thucydides first book is a polemic. It is designed to prove that this was a war decades in the making, a product of Sparta’s growing fear over Athens growing power. For this scheme to work the growth of Athenian power must seem incessant and inevitable; it must be a trend beyond the control of individual men. But the actual course of events preceding the war suggests that this was hardly the case—before 433 BC, there was a rough balance of power between the two blocs.  Athens was the master of the sea. Sparta was master of the land. With a few exceptions codified during the last peace, Athenian activities were restricted to Ionia and the Aegean. The Athenians had no interests in the Peloponnese, nor on the Adriatic coasts or in Sicily. In these regions their power was not growing. What threat the Athenians presented was to Spartan pride and self-esteem. The Athenians put all of Greece to shame with their massive temples and marble monuments. The Athenians built structures that surpassed Pan-Hellenic temples in Delphi; they hosted festivals no one in Greece could compete with. But until the affair in Corcyra, the Athenians showed no new geopolitical ambitions. The expedition to Corcyra almost did not happen. What if it hadn’t?

It is a question worth asking. Opposition within Athens to the decisions of these years was constant, though it is difficult to know for what reasons this opposition arose. Perhaps it was because many in Athens earnestly did not wish a war with Sparta? If Thucydides’s glowing picture of Athen's first citizen is to be trusted, it is likely that events proceded as they did only because the leadership of famed Pericles. If Pericles had died years before, would there have been a war with Sparta? Had the opposition kept Athens out the Corcyran affair, would the Corinthians still have dragged the rest of the Peloponnesian League to war? Had the Athenians not directly challenged Sparta through the insult of the Megara decree, would the Spartans have been so eager to listen to the Corinthian call?

We cannot know the answer to these questions. This is no accident: we cannot know the answer to these questions only because Thucydides does not want us to dwell on the answers to them. This suggests that the answers to these questions, if known and considered, would place a dent in his explanation for the war. Thucydides is not a historian to be trusted.

Much more could be said on this theme. The Spartan decision for war seems no more inevitable than the Athenian one. It was Corinthian interests, not Spartan ones, at stake in Corcyra and Potidaea. Sparta could sacrifice these without the loss of anything but face. (Indeed, when the war began it was not clear to the Lacedaemonians that complete control of the littoral to their west and north would have damaged Sparta in any real way. Athens had complete control of the sea during the last war, after all, but she still lost it). The Corinthians had embarked upon a “private enterprise” (1.66) against the Athenians for the sake of “sectional interests” (1.82.6)—e.g., an enterprise whose profits would go to no one but themselves. The Spartans were clearly divided on the wisdom on helping them; it took substantial Corinthian lobbying of all the allies (1.119), direct insults to Sparta (1.68-1.71), two separate councils of war, and, as Joe Byerly has pointed out earlier in this roundtable, a manipulative method of voting, before the the Spartan war party took control. Even then Spartans were slow to act. A little less than a year would pass between the Spartan decision to go to war and the actual waging of it, and it was not Sparta, but her ally Thebes, who fired the first shot. In contrast to the quick moving Thebans, eager to take their enemies by surprise, Thucydides reports that it was not until the Thebans launched their attack on Plataea that the Peloponnesians began to truly “prepare for war.” The Spartans then sent to the Athenians yet another herald in search of peace (2.12), and followed this up by campaigning and marching with special slowness in hope that the Athenians might change their mind (2.18).

The image of Sparta painted here is quite different from that suggested by Thucydides’ claim that the war was waged by a frightened Sparta. The Spartans did not fear the Athenians enough to immediately launch her full fury against Attica before the Athenians had time to prepare a defense. Giving the Athenians a last chance for peace was more important to the Spartans than dealing a crushing opening blow when the war began. Perhaps this is because they thought they could easily defeat the Athenians (in which case, what was there to fear?); perhaps it was because they did not see the war as inevitable at all. The total picture one gets of Sparta on the eve of war is of a people divided, dragged into a war many did not care for because of the machinations of their allies and the deliberate insults of their enemies. It was less fear that drove Sparta to war than honor (see esp 1.86.5); their aim was not to rob Athens of her power, but of her pride.

On this count the Athenians were not so different. Pericles says the Athenians must go to war to prove to the Lacedaemonians—and, we assume, the rest of Hellas—that they were the equal of great Sparta. But this was tacitly acknowledged in the treaty of the Thirty Year’s peace, which divided the Hellenic world into discrete spheres of influence, one led by Sparta, the others by Athens. Only in the immediate years preceding the war did the Athenians do anything that might challenge this arrangement. Why weren’t the Athenians willing to accept this status quo? The answer is not found until Book II, when Thucydides puts the answer into the mouth of Pericles:
Athens alone of her contemporaries is found when tested to be greater than her reputation, and alone gives no occasion to her assailants to blush at the antagonist by whom they have been worsted, or to her subjects to question her title by merit to rule. Rather, the admiration of the present and succeeding ages will be ours, since we have not left our power without witness, but have shown it by mighty proofs; and far from needing a Homer for our panegyrist, or other of his craft whose verses might charm for the moment only for the impression which they gave to melt at the touch of fact, we have forced every sea and land to be the highway of our daring, and everywhere, whether for evil or for good, have left imperishable monuments behind us. Such is the Athens for which these men, in the assertion of their resolve not to lose her, nobly fought and died; and well may every one of their survivors be ready to suffer in her cause (2.41).
A review of the origins and first moments of this war suggests that it was less a matter of growing fear and growing power, than a matter of tarnished honor and quests for glory. Athens’ growing wealth was a necessary condition for the war, but it was hardly the only or the most important cause of it. Had Athens’ quest for glory been less ambitious, had Sparta not tied herself to an ally hellbent on forcing her private wars and narrow interests onto the entire league of Spartan allies, and had the Greeks not been a people obsessed with insults, rank, and honor, this war may never have occurred. It was not an inevitable clash of fear and power that brought war to Hellas, but a very specific set of decisions made by a very specific set of leaders in the years before the war.

In some ways this is a heartening conclusion. The war was not inevitable—it was not the preordained result of some inhuman “Thucydides trap.” If this war was not inevitable then conflicts between the rising and settled powers of our day are not inevitable either.

 Not all of the implications of this conclusion are so heart-warming. The war between Athens and Sparta is misunderstood. It was not a war between a rising power and an existing hegemon. It was not, as is so often told, caused by a hegemon who failed to find a place for a growing newcomer in the existing order. That better describes the first war between Athens and Sparta. The war of Thucydides' day was different. It was a war between two powers who had already reached a rough state of bipolar equilibrium. The Spartans had already accommodated the rise of Athens; at the end of their last war they had not torn down their walls, nor compelled them to give up their empire. Instead they had given the Athenians a secure place in the Greek world, a sphere of interests in which the Spartans agreed not to interfere. The lesson of the Peloponnesian War, may actually be the opposite of what many who invoke “Thucydides traps” intend! ‘Accommodating’ a rising power does not promise peace. The stability of such an accommodation depends very much on the nature of the power being accommodated.

What exactly prompted the Athenians to change tack in the 430s is hard to discern. Though the Athenians did not formally break the treaty, they instigated more than one “event… which [was] equivalent to a breach of the treaty and matter for war,” especially the decisions to embargo the Megarans and war against the Corinthians in defense of Corcyra (1.146). It is possible that the Athenians stumbled into these decisions unaware of their consequences. But if Athens was truly led by one man, and that man was half the leader that Thucydides claims he was, then this is unlikely. It is from the mouth of Pericles, not that of the Spartan war party, that we hear the claim that the war was inevitable. Pericles was quite clear about his priorities: what he sought was Athenian glory, glory to be remembered through the ages. He believed that Sparta would never let Athens seize such glory unmolested. Thus the Athenians were to persist in war, despite any peace offers received before it began or destruction wreaked upon their fields and homes afterwards. The Athenians could not reconcile their ambitions with Spartan hegemony—or even a rough and tacit parity. What tore apart Hellas, then, was not a hegemon caught in a Thucydidean trap of fear, but a polis whose quest for glory could not be sated by stable equilibrium.

Take from that what lessons you will.