Thucydides and Post Soviet America

Something I found on my computer that I wrote about two years ago, forgive any parts that are a little dated, but I think the main ideas still stand.

            Thucydides, a general from ancient Athens, wrote A History of the Peloponnesian War over 1,500 years ago, yet unlike many other books from distant era’s that have long been forgotten, Thucydides work is still read and debated.  One reason for this is that the human nature that Thucydides describes in his History is not ephemeral, but rather perennial, occurring whenever a new empire rises up.  Thucydides himself notes the timeless quality of his work by stating “I have written my work not as an essay with which to win the applause of the moment but as a possession for all time” The great empires throughout history have all followed a similar trajectory, from their rise to power to their eventual collapse.  Perhaps the reason for these similarities can be found in the way that power influences human thinking and behavior.  One situation where the lessons of Thucydides are currently relevant can be found in American foreign policy after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

After the Cold War, America occupies a unique position in the international system.  America is unquestionably the sole superpower, with the most technologically advanced military in the world.  America is currently the only state that has the capability, and will, to act unilaterally as it sees fit.  America’s standing in the world can easily be compared to Athens in the time period leading up to, and during, the Peloponnesian war.

During the Cold War America’s arch enemy was the Soviet Union.  For ancient Athens, and the rest of the Hellenic states, their historic enemy was Persia.  Athens was the key state when it came to defeating, and repelling, the Persian army.  After the Persian army, led by king Xerxes, left Hellas, Athens quickly became the most powerful Hellenic state.  One reason for this is Athens had the most advanced technology at the time, as seen by their defensive walls and superior navy.  Even Athens enemies, the Corinthians, acknowledge the Athenians superior military science by stating the Athenians “superiority in science must be removed by our practice.” (Thucydides 2004, 42)  Athens, like America after the cold war, was aware of their superiority and did not shy away from proclaiming it, or acting on it.  There are many parallels between Athens’ time as a super power and modern America, but while Athens’ history has already been recorded and lived, the history of the American empire is still being written, and the ending is as of yet unknown.  One possible reason that Thucydides called his History a possession for all of time is that it contains lessons that could help a nation avoid the eventual fate of Athens.

One thing that seems endemic to great empires throughout history is their grandiloquent rhetoric that outlines their sense of purpose in the world.  This trait seems to be a defining one of Athens throughout Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War.  Whenever Athenians are given a chance to speak, they expound on a set of key themes about the specialness of the Athenian people, and the Athenian empire.  Thucydides would surely recognize the impetus behind the modern day American exceptionalism  movement as being the same in spirit as Pericles words at his famous funeral oration.

American exeptionalism is the belief that America is unique in the world, and that America has a special mission to spread its values of liberalism and democracy throughout the world.  While the term dates back to the 1920’s, and was even first used by Joseph Stalin, it has gained a new prominence and importance after it was co-opted by the neo-conservative movement, and came to symbolize a desire for a new American empire based upon spreading democracy to illiberal nations.   In 2009 Obama acknowledged his belief in American exceptionalism, as well as its link to past empires, by saying “”I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” (Shear and Wilson, 2009)  The concept of American exceptionalism is taken seriously by pundits and American leaders, the presumptive Republican Party nominee Mitt Romney has criticized President Obama’s lack of commitment to American exceptionalism, and former Republican speaker of the house, as well as former candidate in the current Republican primary, Newt Gringrich designed a university class on American exceptionalism for Liberty University.

During the time period leading up to, and during, the Peloponnesian war the Athenians had a similar concept of their own unique place in the international system, and their own unique virtues.  One of the most famous Athenian speeches recorded by Thucydides is Pericles’ funeral oration.  The oration was a speech that was given for the Athenian soldiers who died in the beginning stages of the Peloponnesian war.  In the speech Pericles outlines the exceptional character that Athens possesses.  The entire speech is best summed up by this quote, “In short, I say that as a city we are the school of Hellas, while I doubt if the world can produce a man who, where he has only himself to depend upon, is equal to so many emergencies, and graced by so happy a versatility, as the Athenian.” (Thucydides 2004, 64)  Pericles isn’t alone in his estimation of the superior character of the Athenians, in nearly every speech given by an Athenian, of those recorded by Thucydides, the greatness of Athens and the Athenian empire is discussed in great detail.

Another way in which the speeches between ancient Athens and modern America are similar is that they both place emphasis on their ability to perform on the global stage as a lone actor.  The presence of this attitude in modern American thinking took its most famous form during the lead up to the Second Gulf War in Iraq.  President George W. Bush’s attitude towards international organizations was well known for being tepid; as was his you’re either with us or against us world view.  Pericles, an Athenian general and leader during the Peloponnesian war, was known to have a similar attitude about the need for allies or for international organizations.  In his funeral oration speech Pericles makes it clear what he thinks of countries, such as Sparta, that rely on allies by saying, “In proof of this it may be noticed that the Lacedaemonians do not invade our country alone, but bring with them all their confederates; while we Athenians advance unsupported into the territory of a neighbor, and fighting upon a foreign soil usually vanquish with ease men who are defending their homes.” (Thucydides 2004, 63)

The Athenians viewed being a lone actor as a virtue, and regarded friendship among states to be a sign of weakness.  During the Melian dialogue, the Melian elite offer Athens their friendship and neutrality, but the Athenian delegates respond by saying “No; for your hostility cannot so much hurt us as your friendship will be an argument to our subjects of our weakness, and your enmity of our power.” (Thucydides 2004, 195)  As the Melians pointed out during the dialogue, this attitude of the Athenians is what made the rest of the Hellenic states fear and hate them and that valuing subjugation over friendship leads to insecurity rather than security.  This attitude can also possibly help explain why many of Athens’ allies, such as the Lesbians, rebelled.

Although under the Bush administration there was a move to a more unilateralist strategy, it never took on the same tone or extremity of the ancient Athenians.  While President Bush was running for office in 2000, he said “If we’re an arrogant nation, they’ll resent us; if we’re a humble nation, but strong, they’ll welcome us.” which is a far different approach than the Athenians took when they dealt with Melos. (Bush 2000)  Also, while much was made of President Bush’s unilateralism, over 40 countries took part in the military action against Iraq, including small countries such as New Zealand and the Fiji Islands.  America values friendships and relationships with other countries, and has a massive foreign aid budget to maintain and strengthen friendships and relationships throughout the world.  It is hard to imagine Athens offering aid to a weaker state, yet what the Athenians thought of as a weakness has become a foundation of American power.  President Obama has increased America’s integration even more, and has shown willingness to participate in coalitions that isn’t lead by America, such as the air strikes in Libya.  America remains enmeshed in the international system through bodies such as the United Nations, even if it is more capable, and in many cases, more willing to act on its own than other nations.

One of the causes of the fall of Athens was the moral degradation of the citizens of Athens.  This can be seen in the popularity of a leader like Cleon who called for the rule of Athens’ empire through despotism, along with calling for the execution of every male in Mytilene.  Ultimately the height of Athenian moral corruption can be seen during the Melian dialogue.  The Melian dialogue took place on the island of Melos, and during the dialogue the Athenians explain that they have to subjugate Melos or their own people would think of them as weak.  The depths of Athenian moral corruption can best be summed up by this quote from the Melian dialogue, in which the Athenian envoys explain the morality on which Athens bases their actions, “right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” (Thucydides 2004, 195)

The attitudes of the American people are both a cause of hope, and a cause of concern.  After the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, the moral character of the United States became degraded.  One way this is evident is the changing nature of the powers of the state, and the people’s acceptance of these changes.  One major aspect of this is the passing of the Patriot Act in 2006 which authorized indefinite detention for immigrations and a vast increase of state surveillance, both domestically and internationally.  Another way this manifested itself was in the treatment of Muslim Americans, who suffered from both hate inspired violence, as well as being subjected to domestic spying by governmental groups like the NYPD and the C.I.A.  One of the most notorious examples of the moral degradation was the leading of America into the war on Iraq on false pretenses, and the willingness of the American people to support the war.              Despite the degradation of the moral character following the September 11th, 2001 attacks, there is increasing cause for hope to be found in the attitudes of the American people.  One reason for this is the American peoples changed attitudes about wars abroad, for example polls have shown that since 2005 a majority of Americans have felt that the invasion of Iraq was a mistake, and polls also show that a majority of Americans want a faster withdrawal from Afghanistan.  Also, despite the general hawkishness of many leaders and pundits on the issue, most Americans do not want to be militarily involved in Iran, and the President and the leaders of the Armed Forces are taking a much more cautious tone about military strikes than they did in the lead up to the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars.  Despite America’s willingness to act unilaterally, America is still involved in international organizations, and any leader who used the moral justification of the Athenians instead of talking in terms of freedom and justice would be removed from power, rather than being seen as strong by American citizens.

The difference between ideals and actions showed themselves in foreign affairs as well as domestically.  One of the places that this is most readily apparent is how countries treat prisoners of war.  In the case of both modern America and Athens we can learn about how the treatment of prisoners of war falls far short of both states national ideals.  Before the Peloponnesian war, at the Congress of the Peloponnesian Confederacy at Lacedaemon, the envoy from Athens had this to say about the nature of their foreign policy, “Our abatement of our rights in the contract trials with our allies, and our causing them to be decided by impartial laws at Athens, have gained us the character of being litigious.” (Thucydides 2004, 29)

Thucydides deals with the Athenian treatment of prisoners of war several times in his History of the Peloponnesian War.  In each case, the Athenian standard of justice falls well below the impartial laws described before the Peloponnesian War.  One notable example of Athenian justice occurred after the Mytilenean revolt.    Mitylene had been a colony of Athens, but had decided to revolt.  Athens was able to crush the revolt, and took many of the Mitylenean prisoners back to Athens.  Upon arriving in Athens, the Athenians            put to death a Salaethus, a Spartan who had been in Mitylene, without trial.  That same day the Athenians declared that all the males in Mitylene, including those currently being held in Athens, should be put to death and the women and children should be enslaved, the Athenians even sent forth a ship to carry out the sentence.  The next day the Athenians felt guilty about the harshness of the decree, and only through the wise words of Diodotus, that the decree was overturned, but the Mitylenans who were already in Athens, more than a thousand of them, were put to death without a proper trial.  Later, in Melos, the Athenians executed all of the Melain men and enslaved all of the women and children because the Melians had refused to be subjugated by the Athenians.  The litigious character that Athens once was proud of had the potential to get in the way of the Athenians empire, so rather than maintain it they dropped the pretense of justice in favor of the power of the strong over the weak.

Modern America has also had the experience of not being able to live up to its words in regards to justice for prisoners of war.  America is a signatory to the Geneva Convention, which protects prisoners of war, and in 2003 President Bush said “The United States is committed to the worldwide elimination of torture and we are leading this fight by example.” (Bush 2003)  In 2004 it was revealed that members of the United States Army were involved in multiple acts of prisoner abuse and torture at the Abu Ghraib detention center in Baghdad.  The abuses at Abu Ghraib included physical, mental, sexual abuse, rape and homicide, all committed by U.S. soldiers and contractors.  The Americans use of torture was not limited to the unsanctioned torture at Abu Grahib, but acts like water boarding, in which a prisoner suffers from simulated drowning, were sanctioned by the Bush administration.

Another issue in which America is infamous in regards to prisoners of war is the Guantanamo Bay Prison in Cuba.  Since 2002 the Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba has been used to house American prisoners, and was chosen because it was outside of American territory and the prisoners there wouldn’t have to be afforded American legal rights.  There have been many allegations of torture at the prison, and most of the prisoners there are held without trial.  In 2008, during his election campaign, President Obama promised to close the prison, but has failed to do so thus far.  When the United States acts hypocritically in its foreign affairs it is in danger of increasing its negative perception in the eyes of the rest of the world.  One reason that the Peloponnesian League attacked Athens was its foreign policy, which engendered fear and hatred.  The Athenian precedent is frighteningly relevant because when extremists attack the United States, they typically use the American foreign policy as justification for their hostility.

One thing that every great empire from the past has in common is its eventual collapse.  The biggest factor in the collapse of these empires is over reach and moral and cultural corruption.  Athens Empire collapsed at the end of the Peloponnesian War, and they never regained their power or prestige.  The main cause of the Peloponnesian War, and thus the collapse of Athens, was Athens own over reach and push to expand their empire as much as possible with little regards given to the costs or consequences, which led the other Hellenic people to either fear or hate Athens.  Modern America is unique in that it is a great empire, perhaps the most powerful empire ever, which has not yet collapsed.  Despite this, if America will not learn the lessons of history, it may soon join the rest of the inglorious group.  There are some signs that America may indeed collapse if its direction doesn’t change, but there are also some reasons to be hopeful about its chances for success.

Over reach is what causes most empires to collapse, and after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks America began to over reach militarily.  Since 2001 America has continually been at war in the Middle East, in Afghanistan and until December 18, 2011 in Iraq, where it has spent over a trillion dollars.  Aside from Iraq and Afghanistan, the American military has led strikes in countries such as Yemen, Libya, and Pakistan.  There are American Special Forces in at least 70 foreign countries and American soldiers are deployed in more than 150 countries around the world.  From 2000 the United States defense budget has continually grown while the public debt went from a surplus in 2000 to a massive deficit currently.  While all of this is troubling, there is reason to feel hopeful that the United States will not continue to over reach, such as the withdrawal of American troops in Iraq and the increasing unpopularity of the war in Afghanistan.  One reason to remain concerned are the leaders and political figures, such as presumptive Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and powerful Senators like Lindsey Graham,   calling for possible military action in Iran, and other leaders like President Obama and defense secretary Panetta alluding to no options being off the table.

There are many lessons in Thucydides work that American’s should pay close attention to.  While there are many parallels to be found between ancient Athens and modern America, they don’t have to share the same fate.  The American empire is currently standing at the edge of a precipice, where in the last decade there has been an economic collapse while the American military has been involved in virtually every area of the globe and the international opinion of America has increasingly been negative.  If America doesn’t change its present course it may soon lose its privileged position as the only great empire not to collapse due to its own hubris.   Thucydides wrote the History of the Peloponnesian War for future generations to learn the lessons of Athens through literature, rather than by making the same mistakes.  Any American who believes that America will always remain a super power should remember the lessons of Athens, where in modern times instead of being a beacon of wisdom and power it has become associated with corruption, bankruptcy and rioting.


Bush, George W. “Presidential Debate” Moderated by Jim Lehrer, October 12, 2000

Bush, George W. “United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture” Office of

The Press Secretary, June 26, 2003

Shear, Michael D. and Wilson, Scott. “On European Trip, President Tries to Set a New,    Pragmatic Tone” The Washington Post, April 5, 2009, World Section

Thucydides. The History of the Peloponnesian War. Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition, 2004


About Leon Whyte

I'm a recent graduate of the Fletcher school of Law and Diplomacy. My interests include Pacific Asia and Security. I am looking for related opportunities.
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