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What Thucydides teaches us about the current state of world politics

Thucydides was a realist. He was other things as well.

A playground is seen next to a burned-out apartment building in Makariv, Ukraine, on Tuesday. After unsuccessfully trying to take Kyiv and surrounding areas, Russian forces began a new offensive in the Donbas region. (Alexey Furman/Getty Images)
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I closed Tuesday’s column with the following sentence: “To go all Thucydides on this conflict, Russia thought it was invading Melos; it turns out it was invading Syracuse.”

Longtime readers of Spoiler Alerts are by now accustomed to occasional columns referencing or analyzing Thucydides’s classic history of the Peloponnesian War and its relevance to the modern world. So it should surprise none of them that I was keenly interested in Patrick Porter’s recent essay on the Greek historian. Porter is one of the smartest and most acerbic scholars of international relations in the business, and those are two adjectives I do not use frequently.

Porter’s conclusion is that modern takes of Thucydides have become too clever by half. He writes, “For all the caveats, Thucydides was still a realist … he was one of the founders of a pessimistic intellectual tradition that believes the world, like the one he endured, is inherently a cold, harsh, dangerous place in which power and its acquisition is paramount. In this world, interests diverge and clash, and cooperation is bound to be impermanent.”

As arguments about Thucydides go, Porter makes a strong one. There is a lot going on in his history, but when it comes to the causes of war and the hubris that comes with efforts to maximize power, Thucydides sounds awfully realistic.

If I have a quibble with Porter, it is one of emphasis. He acknowledges that an important aspect of his realism is that “while states should be continuously prepared for war, they should also be mindful that unleashed, war can destroy everything.”

Thucydides’s point about the costs of war needs to be emphasized a lot more. While most realists tend to focus on the causes of the Peloponnesian War, it is his description of its effects on all of the Greek city-states that always resonates the most during a time of war. Consider this passage:

Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question, inaptness to act on any. Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting, a justifiable means of self-defense..... The fair proposals of an adversary were met with jealous precautions by the stronger of the two, and not with a generous confidence. Revenge also was held of more account than self-preservation.

Does that sound like any country currently embroiled in a conflict? Consider my Washington Post colleague Robyn Dixon’s article from last week: “On state television, a military analyst doubled down on Russia’s need to win and called for concentration camps for Ukrainians opposed to the invasion … Russia’s astonishing shift toward genocidal speech has been swift and seamless.”

Does the Russian public embrace this kind of eliminationist rhetoric? According to a recent Chicago Council on Global Affairs-Levada Center poll: “For the most part, Russians think these actions are being taken to protect and defend fellow Russians and Russian speakers in Ukraine, to protect Russia itself, or to ‘denazify’ Ukraine — storylines that have been amplified by the Russian government’s media apparatus.”

And a European official told Politico’s Alexander Ward and Quint Forgey: “We do expect the complete destruction of the city and many civilian casualties. My fear is that it is going to be worse than Bucha.” Such an outcome would not be surprising, since we know Vladimir Putin awarded honors to the regiment responsible for the atrocities in Bucha.

Russia was far from a liberal democracy before its invasion of Ukraine. It has taken less than two months, however, of war for Russia to reach the “frantic violence” phase of wartime society.

One can only hope other great powers read Thucydides as carefully as Porter did, so as to avoid the tragedy that befell Greece more than two millennia ago.