The other Thucydides' Trap: In democracies under stress, factional interest can bury common good

The other Thucydides' Trap: In democracies under stress, factional interest can bury common good
© Thinkstock/Istock
Graham Allison, as early as 2013 but also last year in his book, “Destined for War,” created quite a buzz with his concept of the Thucydides’ Trap: “When one great power threatens to displace another, war is almost always the result.” He also describes it as “the severe structural stress caused when a rising power threatens to upend a ruling one.” 
 
Allison draws the concept from the ancient Greek historian, Thucydides, who stated in his book, “The History of the Peloponnesian War,” that the fundamental cause of the war between two great powers of ancient Greece was “the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta.”
 
ADVERTISEMENT
Though based on an incorrect assessment of the power relationship of that time — Athens had a much greater population, treasury coffers brimming over, a much larger navy, and a vast maritime empire — it remains a useful concept to help understand the initiation of war between great powers. Today it also serves as a warning to U.S. and Chinese policymakers to proceed with caution in their mutual affairs.
 
  
Allison, however, does not go far enough. In Thucydides’ book there is to be found another “trap,” one which deals with not why the war began but why Athens lost: what can happen to a great democracy when it is under prolonged stress. Its citizens can come to place individual and factional interest over the common good, and this can lead to poor choices in leadership and strategic decision-making. From a great, exceptional state which provides leadership to a greater international community based on common ideals toward common ends, it can evolve into an “ordinary,” unexceptional power which selfishly and single-mindedly pursues its own interests and coerces rather than leads its allies. Call it the Thucydides’ Trap of civic deficiency.
 
The Peloponnesian War pitted Athens, the dominant maritime power heading the Delian League, against Sparta, the dominant land power heading the Peloponnesian League. This was a great Hellenic civil war which lasted intermittently for 27 years (431-404 BCE) and which, Thucydides tells us, at one time or another involved the entire Greek world. In the end, Athens, the world’s first great democracy, was defeated.
 
Two years into the war and with Athens now confronting not only an invincible Spartan land force but also a devastating plague, Thucydides recounts Pericles’ frank speech to bolster the sagging Athenian spirits and to clarify the nature of their empire. He exhorts the Athenians to stay the course: “You cannot decline the burdens of empire and still expect to share its honors.” Besides, turning back is not possible. “What you hold is, to speak frankly, a tyranny [also translated as ‘despotism’]; perhaps it was wrong to take, but to let it go is unsafe.” Rather than a loose confederation of states which willingly followed Athens to guard against renewed Persian aggression, it had now become a more coercive Athenian empire.
 
This more coercive foreign policy of Athens suggests it was falling into the other trap — placing personal interest and gain before the needs of the city-state and its alliance members. Instead of keeping to the “moderate and conservative policy” of Pericles, a man of “known integrity” but now fallen in the plague, what the people “did was the very opposite, allowing private ambitions and interests, in matters apparently quite foreign to the war, to lead them into projects unjust to both themselves and to their allies — projects whose success would only conduce to the honor and advantage of individuals, and whose failure entailed certain disaster on the country in war.”
 
With Pericles gone, the Athenians squabbled and pursued individual gain: “More on a level with one another, and each grasping at supremacy, they ended by committing even the conduct of state affairs to the whims of the multitude.” This led to many blunders, most significantly, the Sicilian expedition in 415 BCE.
 
However, Thucydides explains, even this expedition might have succeeded if the Athenians at home had followed up well. They choose “rather to occupy themselves with private cabals for the leadership of the democracy. This not only paralyzed operations in the field but also first introduced civil discord at home.”
 
Finally, Thucydides argues that even with the disastrous Sicilian expedition, nearly all their allies in revolt and the hated Persians funding a Spartan navy to challenge Athenian maritime dominance, Athenians only succumbed when “they fell victims of their own intestine [sic] disorders.”
 
Allison’s Thucydides’ Trap focuses on the causes of war between two great powers. However, in Thucydides 2,400-year-old book, there is another trap into which democracies under stress may fall: the trap of civic deficiency. In this trap, individual interests of un-civic-minded citizens dominate collective interests.
 
While the United States cannot control the rise of the many formidable, global challenges it faces, this other Thucydides’ Trap is one which American citizens have it in their complete control to avoid. The world’s first great democracy eventually losing to a more authoritarian land power over a long conflict provides a close enough analogy to the present that American citizens should fight the prevailing culture of self and re-commit themselves to civic virtue.
 
Fred Zilian, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University, Newport, R.I. He is the author of “From Confrontation to Cooperation: The Takeover of the National People’s Army by the Bundeswehr.” Follow him on Twitter @FredZilian.