Thucydides Hates “Realists”
Published on: February 24, 2011
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  • Luke Lea

    Contrast with early Burke: “In looking over any state to form a judgment on it, it presents itself in two lights; the external, and the internal. The first, that relation which it bears in point of friendship or enmity to other states. The second, that relation which its component parts, the governing and the governed, bear to each other. The first part of the external view of all states, their relation as friends, makes so+rifling a figure in history, that, I am very sorry to say, it affords me but little matter on which to expatiate. The good offices done by one nation to its neighhour;1 the support given in public distress; the relief afforded in general calamity; the protection granted in emergent danger; the mutual return of kindness and civility, would afford a very ample and very pleasing subject for history. But, alas! all the history of all times, concerning all nations, does not afford matter enough to fill ten pages, though it should be spun out by the wire-drawing amplification of a Guicciardini himself. The glaring side is that of enmity. War is the matter which fills all history, and consequently the only, or almost the only, view in which we can see the external of political society is in a hostile shape; and the only actions to which we have always seen, and still see, all of them intent, are such as tend to the destruction of one another.”

    He then goes on: “The first accounts we have~oF”mankind are but so many accounts of their butcheries. All empires have been cemented in blood; and, in those early periods when the race of mankind began first to form themselves into parties and combinations, the first effect of the combination, and indeed the end for which it seems purposely formed, and best calculated, is their mutual destruction. All ancient history is dark and uncertain. One thing however is clear. There were conquerors and conquests in those days; and, consequently, all that devastation by which they are formed, and all that oppression by which they are maintained.”

    Of course things are more interesting when we see what is going on internally — democrats vs. ologarchs, barons vs. the king — and while these factional struggles go far to explain the shifting alliances between, say, England, France, and Spain in early modern Europe, they do not alter the fact that until 1776 history has been little more than a history of warring states in a relentless competition for power.

    What I want to know is whether the United States (and since 1945 I suppose the European Union) are exceptions to that rule? What about China a generation from now?

    Realism? Idealism? Where do they meet?

  • Luke Lea

    OT, but given the fluid state of the Middle East, Walt and his readers might enjoy this old Maria Muldaur blues-gospel tune (I think she wrote it herself) the last 2 verses especially:

  • Luke Lea

    I just read that first Rapporteur’s Report: The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides. Wow! It was a terrific, nuanced discussion.

  • CatoRenasci

    Interesting essay. Whenever I reread the Greek historians, especially Thucydides, my admiration for the statesmen who guided British foreign policy in the 18th and 19th centuries (their shortsightedness on America in the late 18th century aside) grows.

  • Mikey NTH

    I think you and Thucydides just answered Thomas Franks’ question – “What Is The Matter With Kansas?”. Different people have different interests, and just because you think something is important does not mean others do. I t does not mean that anything is the ‘matter’ with them, it just means that they are not you.

  • Lou Gots

    “Realist” must remain in quotation marks when we describe critics of reality-based foreign policy. Those so-called “realists” are criticizing policies not for their true intentions or objectives, which are quite realistic, but for their pretexts.

    When a great power proclaims that it wishes to confer peace and democracy on the Middle East, it is all too easy to snipe at the assertion as not “realistic.” We can hardly expect that power to confess that now that its peer competitor no longer keeps it in check, it unilaterally reaches for dominance over the heartland of the world island.

    No, that power will, as great powers do, put forth pretexts, such as Polk’s “American blood has been shed on American soil,” or weep over the predations of Beast Wyler, or those Belgian babies spitted on German bayonets, or whatever floats its Dreadnaughts.

    So it is that the so-called “realists” pretend to condemn starry-eyed idealism, while all the while attacking the mere pretexts for genuine geopolitical realism.

    Fast forward from Thucydides to the present. Much of the condemnation of this or that policy as not in accordance with “realism” vanished like a puff of smoke after the ’08 election, because domestic political considerations no longer drove it.

  • gooch mango

    Today’s “realists” are crippled by their woeful educations. They see everything in the world through one lens: the exploiters vs. the exploited. Sometimes the tool of control is money, sometimes raw power, but the relationship remains the same.

    This is, of course, because the base philosophy at the root of pretty much all of the humanities/social “science” educations in the West today is Marxism, and Marxism is best understood as “intellectualism for lightweights”… it is neither deep nor true, and all who worship at its feet are second rate at best.

    Whether acquired directly from Marxism itself, or indirectly through one of its hunchbacked offspring like critical theory, most of today’s “educated elites” have a stunted understanding of the world because they cannot accept that there is more to the world than the exploiter/exploited power dynamic described in basic Marxist analysis.

    Thucydides would have rolled his eyes and shown them the back of his hand, and I suggest we do the same — some things never go out of style.

  • Carl Eric Scott

    Have them read Raymond Aron to see what a truly principled and yet appropriately nimble approach to foreign relations involves, and what it involves in contemporary times as opposed to ancient ones. The key writings on this topic are chapters 19 and 20 from his Peace and War, which is elsewhere excerpted a “The Morality of Prudence.”

    The books to get are:

    1)Thinking Politically, 2) Dawn of Universal History, and 3) Peace and War

    The first two can be read as the Thucydidean account of how Europe destroys its power in the 20th Century.

  • Magnificent. There is a lot of wisdom here.

  • Thomas Nix

    I’m not sure that I follow where realists don’t take internal factors into account. More explanation may be in order there. Apart from that, events in the Middle East still seem a bit overhyped to me. No regimes have yet fallen and the revolts have likely done little but help resolve existing rifts within the regimes in the directions they were headed anyway. In the long run, if this proves to be the moment when people took ownership of their countries in their own minds which paved the way for more dynamic societies and more responsive governments that leave extremist movements in the dust,, it will all have been worth it.

  • Shelby

    “What Is The Matter With Kansas?”

    Shorter Thomas Franks: Anyone who does not agree with my analysis of their internal politics is stone-stupid.

  • fred baumann

    You are quite right about Thucydides’ differences with the “realists.” He sees the necessary link between foreign and domestic policies; they wish to deny them. The reason for that difference may be worth mentioning. What academics now call realism is in fact a moralism. It begins with the peace of Westphalia, and the profound and reasonable longing to avoid religious (and later ideological) wars. The “is” the realists assert is really an “ought.” “National interest rules” means “national interest ought to rule” in foreign policy. And it should be conceived in purely power politics terms. Thucydides’ form of realism I think has its own underlying morality, which is something vaguer, something on the order of “what goes around comes around.”

  • Will

    The point about the limits of academic realism are very well taken and merit broader discussion. It’s an approach that’s more ism than real, as Mead notes. James Kurth published a fine essay on this point entitled “Inside the Cave: The Banality of IR Studies” for the National Interest in 1989. It’s worth revisiting in the context of the grand strategy courses that have proliferated over the past few years

  • cassander

    To be fair, there is an empirical case for realism. England is perhaps the best example. Despite massive changes in governance, they pursued essentially the same foreign policy from at least Elizabeth I until 1945, forming coalitions against whomever was the strongest continental power.

    What I would want to ask Thucidides is whether the internal politics of the state were the cause of their conflicts, or merely expressions of their different interests. If Athens had been an oligarchy, does anyone doubt it would have still come into conflict with Sparta?

  • Don Cox

    Small point: your illustration is not a “statue” of Alcibiades. It is a detail from a painting by the late-Victorian painter Alma-Tadema, who specialised in Roman and Greek subjects.

  • lombarmz

    The author wrote: “In a famous analogy, realist theory takes states as “billiard balls” knocked about the geopolitical pool table by impersonal and predictable forces.”

    The modern approach to realism is just another attempt to render all things “empirical,” an extension of Newtonian determinism to the realm of politics (just like the invisible hand supposedly guides the market). This form of scientific determinism applied to “the arts and humanities” is not only outdated, but it is also reductionist. However, it does serve the purpose of alleviating fear and unpredictability by rendering comprehensible, and controllable, impersonal forces. In this sense, the cosmology offered by “science” replaces that of religion. Of course, free-will gets in the way of such tidy compartmentalizations of reality. Unless, you eliminate free-will as yet another illusion in the grand narrative of the deterministic universe.

  • Snorri Godhi

    This essay is very helpful. I’d just like to suggest a change of terminology: instead of realist vs realistic, I think it best to distinguish between realists (like Thucydides, Sun Tzu, Machiavelli, and the middle books of Aristotle’s Politics) vs “realists”. The quotation marks indicate that the “realists” are fantasists, as indicated in some of the previous comments.

    May I also suggest a few axioms for true realists:
    * political actions are to be judged solely on the basis of their likely consequences (Machiavellian consequentialism): the intentions of the political actors are irrelevant;
    * always keep in mind the difference between politics as it is and politics as it should be (hat tip to Aristotle);
    * always keep in mind the distinction between what you can change and what you can’t;
    * people respond to incentives.

  • miguel cervantes

    Interesting I was reading Donald Kagan’s ‘Thucydides’ and he sees that the latter idolized Pericles, too much, and consequently
    sought to paint his successors like Nicias and Cleon, as much more inept or brutal, than they
    actually were; I recall the last, because that
    premise, about Cleon as damagogue was in ‘Mortal Splendor’

    • Walter Russell Mead

      even discounting for Thucydidean bias, Cleon could be a bit over the top.

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