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Are The Theories Of Thucydides Relevant?

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Published: Thu, 11 May 2017

Are Thucydides and his History of the Peloponnesian War still relevant for the analysis of contemporary international relations? Why? It can surely be said that the realism school of thought was created by the great Greek historian Thucydides after his studies on the Peloponnesian Wars. His main assumption, which embodies the realist school of thought, is that relations between states are not based on right but rather on might, and that a state of anarchy prevails. To answer this essay question, the essay will dispute the degree of relevance of Thucydides theories and ideas in the modern world politics, by mainly using the Melian Dialogue as an insight of comparison.

Thucydides’ observations begin during the Peloponnesian Wars between the different Greek city-states (polis). His first recognition was that there was a certain degree of pattern between the strategies adopted by these city-states concerning the relationship between them. He points out a hierarchical system of actions, while a change in smaller states will not make a difference, a change in stronger states car arguably unbalance a whole system. The following quote exemplifies this: “What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta”.

Two reasons can be identified of why the start of the Peloponnesian War. The first reason is the amazing growth of Athens in all spheres, and the second, the release of the Megarian Decree. Athens did this due to its preoccupations about the loyalty of its colonies. The Megarian Decree was essentially an economic sanction towards Megara in order to break its alliance with Sparta, which in turn becomes a threat to Sparta’s and Corinthian security (Gilpin, 1991: 34). The next chain of events was that the Corinthians made an ultimatum to the Spartans, suggesting a front against the Athenians, otherwise they would form a new alliance, thus harming Spartan security. In response, the Spartans demanded the annulment of the Megarian Decree, however Athens’ refusal to do so was probably the direct cause of war. Thus the ‘security dilemma’ can be said to have driven the two powers into an undesired war (Lebow, 1991:127). To compare it with a modern example it has to be mentioned the sudden change in US perception of Soviet power after the Soviet Union launched its first ICBM. This action led to a growing US insecurity, Kennedy’s concern to maintain US power led to an increase in US strategic build up (Lebow,1991:142). However Kauppi states that there are intervening variables preventing the shifting balance of power leading to war in the cold war world. He cites modern examples of the restraining effect of nuclear weapons, and the existence of neutrals as having a stabilizing influence by not entrapping the superpowers in a zero sum game. He also cites the role of ideology as convincing both superpowers that they could win without war (Gilpin, 1991: 47). Moreover, it has to be mentioned that while power transition theory and the resultant fear may explain the stress imposed on the states, other factors can avoid fear from resulting in war. Lebow matches the power transition theory by arguing that Athens reached the peak of its power twenty years before the war started, he concludes with the notion that it is the perception of power that is vital to power transition theory and war, the effect of middle powers like Corinth is another factor to consider (Lebow, 1991: 128). Again, during the Cold War, even though there was not a direct confrontation, the large defence spending and the development of weapons of mass destruction demonstrates that both superpowers used fear to dissuade each other and acting on fear by arming themselves, the MAD doctrine comes into consideration.

Self interest is also one of the main features of Thucydides thought, according to Gilpin, Thucydides thought that human nature was unchangeable and since human beings were determined by interest, fear and pride, they always look for to augment their wealth until others driven by the same, try to stop them (Welch, 2003: 304). In the Melian dialogue the Athenians say: “Our opinion of the gods and our knowledge of men lead us to conclude that it is a general and necessary law of nature to rule wherever one can” (Brown, Nardin, Rengger, 2002: 57). The speech by the Athenians shows that their only worry is of preserving their empire, and they try to convince the Melians that it is in their best interest to surrender. They ask the Melians to ignore the matter of justice and claim that it is not in Sparta’s interest to interfere on their behalf (Brown, Nardin, Rengger, 2002: 57). It can be stated very confidently that the Melian dialogue reflects the law of nature of self interest being the most useful strategy. To give a modern example of self interest, the statist concept or the national interest, observed in the Mytilenian debate. Both Diodotus and Cleon try to deal the situation to Athens’s benefit, even though they have diverse opinions, as Diodotus’ considerations of justice are inapplicable to interstate relations (Welch, 2003: 76). An example of self interest in US doctrine on Space (Oct 2006): “The United States will preserve its rights, capabilities, and freedom of action in space… and deny, if necessary, adversaries the use of space capabilities hostile to US national interests” (BBC News. (2006). US adopts tough new space policy. Available: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/6063926.stm. Last accessed 20 Dec 2009). In modern times the principal of self interest still guides the actions of states, however, it may not always be that of a single state, as states may cooperate to pursue their common self interest. This is highly considered by the states, as they understand that in a more globalised world they must re-think their actions of self interest. The expansion of international law, above all, humanitarian law, indicated that there are rules of non intervention and human rights that states are coerced to pursue. Disapproval from the international community in case of their infringement would not be in a state’s national or self interest. Therefore, while the national interest is an important constituent of state decision making, in the present day, the knowledge f two world wars and the predominance of liberal ideas indicate that the national interest is still imperative but not the only motive for state behaviour.

Power politics is the effect of fear and self interest. To engage in power politics, the Athenians conclude: depends on strength: “The standard of justice, depends on the equality of power to compel and that, in fact, the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept” (Brown, Nardin, Rengger, 2002: 52). Therefore, the skill of imposing your demands depends on relative power. As the quote from the Melian dialogue demonstrates, Athens warns Melos to submit as they are too weak to oppose. In view of the fact that there is anarchy between the states’ relations, the command that exists is created and continued by the powerful that inflict their power inside their sphere of influence. States, resembling to individuals, are encouraged by self interest and fear, and plea to justice only when their interest is provided. The natural right of the stronger to rule over the weaker is a rather simplistic explanation of imperialism (Brown, Nardin, Rengger, 2002: 75). A present day example is that of US warning countries that they were either “with us or against us”. It can be said that this is a warning to force unity in the war on terror. Thucydides adds that an actor’s power determines his treatment thus showing the essential nature of the balance of power in international relations. “This is the safe rule – to stand up to one’s equals, to behave with deference towards one’s superiors and to treat one’s inferiors with moderation.” (Brown, Nardin, Rengger, 2002: 58) A quote from US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about nations that didn’t support the war on Iraq illustrates this: “Punish France, ignore Germany and forgive Russia.” (Reuters. (2003). Rice Quoted Saying U.S. to Ignore Schroeder. Available: www.commondreams.org/headlines03/0525-09.htm. Last accessed 20 Dec 2009.) Thucydides finds that it is a law of nature that the weak become subject to the strong and when the opportunity of aggrandisement is offered by superior strength considerations of right and wrong are sacrificed to self interest (Welch, 2003,75). The notion of universal justice is not denied by Thucydides, he merely admits that for better or worse it has no limiting strength in a system composed of states not equal in power (Welch, 2003:75). On the other side, Bagby disputes that not all states choose to maximise power. The example of Sparta and how the Corinthians call them shy and weak in contrast to Athens, comes to mind. These national differences are established by King Archidamus when he tells the Spartans: “be not ashamed of the slowness and dilatoriness for which they censure us most.” (Bagby, 1994:138) Doyle points out that the political ideologies of Athens and Sparta and the dissimilar sectors of society they attract were a significant constituent of their conflict. Doyle reveals that Thucydides’ stress on the national character of Athens, in its impatient culture and its democratic institutions (Doyle, 1997:150-152). Consequently, the aim of maximising power can be understood as a powerful encouragement, but domestic pressures and domestic character are also vital.

In conclusion, Thucydides was one of the first to create three assumptions of classical political realism: states are the main players, they take power as an end in itself or as a means to other ends and act in ways that are rational. (Keohane, Bagby, 1994:132) Although Thucydides has been interpreted in many ways, his theories about human nature: self interest, power maximisation and fear, are lasting. They describe the strains acting on states in today’s world pushing them to take decisions. Even though there are many differences between today and his time Thucydides successfully makes clear the psychological and social propensity in strategy and is therefore relevant today, as the Athenians state: “And it is not as if we were the first to make this law, or to act upon it when made: we found it existing before us, and shall leave it to exist for ever after us; all we do is to make use of it, knowing that you and everybody else, having the same power as we have, would do the same as we do.”


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