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The good, the bad and the ugly aspects of Thucydides in the Trump administration

The White House is interested in Thucydides. Uh-oh.

President Trump sits with his delegation during a meeting at European Union headquarters in Brussels in May. (Reuters)

The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts is fond of Thucydides. His History of the Peloponnesian War had made repeated appearances in this space in recent years. As I noted last year:

One could argue that an awful lot of the models in international relations are contained in Thucydides’ history. There hasn’t been a time in the post-1945 era when something from it doesn’t seem relevant to American foreign policy. For 2017, I’d suggest that the incoming president to pay close attention to the erosion in Athenian democracy, and Greek civil society, over the course of the long war.

The great thing about reading a text over two millennia old is that it can make you sound prescient about the future.

I bring this up because over the past month it seems like it’s been hard to escape the clutches of the eminent Greek general-turned-historian. Earlier this month, David Brooks wrote, “I wish H.R. McMaster was a better student of Thucydides.” That is a pretty damning thing to say about a general officer in the United States.

Meanwhile, Graham Allison has converted his catchphrase “Thucydides Trap” into a new book, “Destined for War,” about the Sino-American relationship.  The book has received good, bad and ugly reviews, but there is no denying that people are talking about it.

I bring all of this up because Politico’s Michael Crowley wrote yesterday about how the current White House is suddenly smitten with Thucydides:

In recent months, both Mattis and McMaster have publicly cited Thucydides’s diagnosis of the three factors that drive nations to conflict. “People fight today for the same reasons Thucydides identified 2,500 years ago: fear, honor and interest,” McMaster wrote in a July 2013 New York Times op-ed that argued for bringing historical perspective to military challenges. Mattis also endorsed the universal power of “fear, honor and interest” during his confirmation hearing (prompting Maine Senator Angus King to announce that he had stored the quote in his phone).

This is hardly the first time a White House has discovered the history of the Peloponnesian War. The reason this text is used so much in international relations courses is because some aspects of the war between Athens and Sparta usually resonates with current foreign policy dilemmas. Of course, the problem is that sometimes readers take away the wrong lessons from the text.

Crowley’s story contains good, bad and ugly elements of this administration infatuation with Thucydides. The good part is that McMaster arranged for Allison to brief the NSC staff about his latest book. This is a good thing! Whether one calls it the “Thucydides trap” or the “long cycle” or a “power transition” or “something smart that Robert Gilpin wrote,” the point is the same: the United States must cope with a rising China very carefully. I can think of far worse outside advisers than Allison on this topic.

Also good is that Mattis is so familiar with Thucydides. According to Crowley:

Allison’s theory is just one application of the Greek historian’s insight. There are others, as Schake notes—including lessons focused more on a nation’s internal threats than on external foes.
“Most of all, Thucydides’s history is a story of the devastation that political disunion brings to a vibrant republic,” she says, “something Secretary Mattis often talks about and every American should worry about.”

The bad is what Rosie Gray referred to as peak Anton, as in Michael Anton, spokesman for the NSC and author of “The Flight 93 Election.” That essay was devoid of any sense of Thucydides’s prudence, but Anton nonetheless tells Crowley that he owns two copies of Thucydides’s history, and that, “The acid test for me is: Do you read the Hobbes translation? If you’ve read that translation, you’ve got my respect.” For me, a good acid test for whether someone is too pretentious for their own good is when they start bandying about acid tests on translations.

The ugly, however, is Steve Bannon’s obsession with Thucydides. Bannon appears to be keen on all sorts of violent drama, but his interest in the Greek tragedy stands out. As Crowley notes:

A history buff fascinated with grand conflict, Bannon once even used “Sparta” — one of the most militarized societies history has known — as a computer password. (“He talked a lot about Sparta,” his former Hollywood writing partner, Julia Jones, told The Daily Beast. An unnamed former colleague recalled for the New Yorker Bannon’s “long diatribes” about the Peloponnesian War.)

This is, well, odd. Although there have been times when international relations scholars have analogized the U.S. position in the world to Sparta’s position in the run-up to the Peloponnesian War, I have never read of anyone outside of the alt-right who thinks Sparta’s domestic model is worthy of emulation. Indeed, as Slate’s Osita Nwanevu notes, Sparta’s nominal victory in the war is overshadowed in history by the spread of Athenian values as espoused by Pericles across Europe.

Crowley also cites one of the last things Bannon wrote for Breitbart, which referenced the Peloponnesian War as an analogy to Breitbrt’s relationship with Fox News. In the analogy, Bannon believes that Breitbart is Sparta:

In this modern-day version of the epic Peloponnesian War, the incumbent Athenians might as well know that the Spartans are coming for them, and there’s not a damn thing they can do about it; indeed, more Spartans are joining us every day. As Thucydides would warn them, if the leaders of Fox choose to pipe Mickey Mouse aboard and give him command on the bridge, well, that will only accelerate Fox’s fall.

What’s disturbing about this paragraph is Bannon’s blinkered attempt to retcon the cause of the Peloponnesian War. There are debates over whether it was due to the structural tension imposed by a rising Athens, or the sanctions imposed on Megara, or the manipulation of Sparta and Athens by their allied states. There is absolutely no way to read the start of Thucydides’ history and conclude that Sparta was the rising power. As I wrote a few years ago:

Sparta was never the hegemonic power prior to the war — at best, they were a co-equal of Athens….
Sparta was scolded by its allies — and implicitly, by Thucydides himself — for excessive caution when confronted with a rising power. Throughout the History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides contrasts Athenian energy and dynamism with Spartan conservatism and risk-aversion. Spartan fear was triggered by past Spartan inaction and caution.

Bannon’s man-crush on all things Spartan seems more derived from Zack Snyder’s 300 version of “THIS. IS. SPARTA!!!” than anything in Thucydides itself.

This would be fine if Bannon was a military history hobbyist. Instead, he  occupies an office in the west wing of the White House. That is ugly.