Thucidides Not In The 19th Century Essay

Thucidides, Not In The 19th Century Essay, Research Paper

Jeremy Foust


Thucydides, Not in the 18th Century

Thucydides wrote the History of the Peloponnesian War believing that it was a good picture of “the past and which (humane nature being what it is) will, at some time or other and in much the same ways, be repeated in the future.”(Thucydides 48) In this paper a comparison between the time of Thucydides and the classical balance of power in 19th century Europe will be examined. It will attempt to address the possibilities of oncoming systemic war, concepts of trust, and the earlier statement of Thucydides.

Key terms that are important to this argument are Anarchy, the Security Dilemma, and the Balance of Powers. Anarchy is the system that world politics work under: as there is no one controlling government, any state can do what ever it choose. The Security Dilemma rises out of the fear of other states building up their forces and thus becoming more of a threat to any other states. The tie between Anarchy, the Security Dilemma, and life in a sovereign state is the Balance of Powers; which “aims at primarily to preserve peace and the status quo.”(Gulick 35)

Thucydides’ balance of power involved two states: Athens and Sparta. After the Persian war, Athens had become a very powerful military state, and began to assimilate the states they had recently saved in that conflict. They justified their actions by suggesting that, having won the war, they saw it as their right to become an empire. They then built walls around their new territories and continued to increase their military power. This worried the Spartans because if Athens were to attack them it would be dificult to counter attack.

Sparta, however, did not respond by building up their forces to maintain the balance. The Spartans acted slowly and tried to avoid the conflict. However, when the smaller states went to Sparta and pleaded for aid, the Spartans agreed, (for reasons described later) to defend against hostile Athenian actions. Sparta and its smaller allies soon engaged the Athenians and were eventually victorious over the Athenian threat of hegemony.

The underling cause of Spartan engagement originated in the pleas of the fleeing allied city-states. They claimed that since Sparta was the only other major power that it was Sparta’s duty to protect the smaller states. These states also created the fear in the Spartans that Athenians would develop enough power to create a hegemony, and that they all would lose their sovereignty. They stated that an Athenian attack was inevitable. The Spartans began to position troops to defend themselves, as it was better military strategy to stop Athenian forces before they gained any more power. This was considered an aggressive by the Athenians and sparked the beginning of the Athenian-Spartan conflict.

In comparison Gulick’s 19th century balance of powers involved England, France, Russia, Austria, and Prussia. These five powers through communication and shared interest created a system in which they managed to maintain stable international relations. The larger powers were responsible for maintaining the independence of the smaller states’ sovereignty. This system, though there were many small wars over territory and maintaining the balance, managed to avoid any systemic wars for ninety years after the Napoleonic war. In this alliance, England had taken on the role of a balancer and joined any side necessary to maintain the balance.

The European system ran on many concepts that allowed for its stability. Their system was designed to ensure that all independent states would survive, preserve the system, and that none would control the others. The nature of their trust allowed each state to maintain a balance of power where none had to worry about the rise of hegemony. War was inevitable on a small scale to maintain the balance and status quo but due to the nature of the structure, the group interest superseded the need for any state to take over others.

Thucydides was correct in his assumption that some of his understanding of human nature would last through into the future. The structure of the system in both examples are remarkably similar even after almost two thousands years they still have many of the same underling principles. In both systems, the main powers were responsible for the weaker states. Since the security dilemma was a concern of all the states, they mostly all strove to maintain the balance and ensure their survival. However trust and the inevitability of war differ greatly. This was most likely due to the differences in polarity of the structure.

The Greek city-states were bipolar having only two main powers in the area. This was quite different than Europe’s multi-polar system of five main. The actual political differences arose out of the availability of trust. Athens and Sparta had no other strong states to rely on incase the other became too strong. It was up to the two states to control the system. That made any action of one of the states an immediate concern to their opponent. In the Multi-polar system if one state began to grow too threatening, one or more of the other four states could be trusted to unite and control the first power. This managed to keep all states relatively equal and make a large systemic war very implausible.

The one systemic conquest in the European system was that of Napoleon’s French nationalist. Napoleon no longer saw that the balance of power was in France’s best interests, and therefore went against it. The Napoleonic war would not have succeed if not for the rise of French nationalism, which created a much stronger attacking force than any of the other powers combined. In addition, Napoleon’s brilliant ideas of foreign conquest played heavily in his success. Napoleon was eventually brought down because the other powers in the system united against him. After Frances defeat, the European system brought France back to an equal power and restored the balance of five powers back into order.

It appears that Thucydides was unable to predict the effects of human nature in a system other than a bipolar one. The same underling concepts of governments in an anarchical system were present but it was dealt with differently in the new order. Europe’s five powers were able to develop more trust and have less fear of systemic wars. Is Thucydides work therefore useless in modern international politics? Not at all, as it still clearly underlines the basics affects of anarchy, the importance of self-sovereignty, and the security dilemma.

Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War. Penguin. New York: 1972

Gulick, Edward. Europe’s Classical Balance of Power. Norton. New York: 1967


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