China and America are still feuding over a drone that was dispatched in international waters in the South China Sea by the US Navy and that was subsequently seized by Chinese sailors. President elect Donald Trump, who has been talking tough against China and the plans he has in store for the regime, took to Twitter to voice his objections, calling the act “unpresidented.”
Is it really? These shenanigans seem as old as time itself. The entire saga is redolent of Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War and the ancient Greeks from thousands of years ago – circa 424 B.C. There is nothing “unprecedented” about the type of conflict that is brewing between the United States and China. It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out where this is heading and how it will end.
Who is the modern day Sparta? And which one is modern day Athens? It is hard to say but the phenomena at play today were the same in the Peloponnese “democracy and imperialism, the class struggle, the revolutionary spirit, the technique of aggression, cynical real-politik, and the importance of sea-power…jealousy…”
Corinth, Corfu, Athens, Sparta, America, China, Japan, Philippines, Taiwan…the South China Sea…
What is the underlying emotion that rules all of the above? Fear. Mounting fear. The good news is that it looks like the Chinese have agreed to return the device to America and the matter may have been resolved before serious conflict took hold over something so trivial but it should be noted that the ceasefire did not come before several people with knowledge of the matter have voiced their opinions. One of those people is retired Chinese admiral Yang Yi, who, according to New York Times report had this to say:
“If Trump and the American government dare to take actions to challenge the bottom line of China’s policy and core interests,” he said, “we must drop any expectations about him and give him a bloody nose.”
Tough talk by any standard and scary too, when one considers that tensions have been mounting lately between the two superpowers, and between the superpowers and neighbouring countries in the South China Sea and the Korean Peninsula.
A Yale Historian named Donald Kagan recounted the story of the Peloponnesian War as written by Thucydides – in 2003. According to the Chicago Tribune at that time:
The basis of Kagan’s account is, of course, Thucydides — at least up to the point, nearly seven years before the war ended, where his account leaves off in midsentence. Thus, to some extent, Kagan is writing as Thucydides might have, had he known the outcome of the war when he wrote.
That does not mean Kagan always agrees with Thucydides. Following the historian’s account of the Athenian defeat in Sicily, Kagan notes that most historians agree with Thucydides in blaming the continuation of the Sicilian campaign “on the greed, ignorance, and foolishness of the direct Athenian democracy.” But, Kagan argues, the “constancy and determination to carry through what they had begun, in spite of setbacks and disappointments,” shows just the opposite.
Suggesting the enduring value of a study of the Peloponnesian War, Kagan writes that the Athenian error was “one common to powerful states, regardless of their constitutions, when they are unexpectedly thwarted by an opponent they anticipated would be weak and easily defeated.”
If, god forbid, the US and China continue this trajectory toward conflict over the next four years of Mr Trump’s presidency, is it even conceivable that China could defeat America? Clearly, in the mind of Mr Trump, the answer is a resounding “no.” he sees the Chinese as ipso facto weaker than the Americans and more easily defeated. If history is any teacher, Mr Trump could be making a sizable mistake – one that could lead to the destruction of the United States. On his watch, in four short years, America could become, or get well on its way to becoming, the modern day Athens. But don’t worry. Even if China becomes the last superpower standing, this status will not last very long.
In the introduction to Sir Richard Livingstone’s Thucydides The History of the Peloponnesian War, the author was prescient:
In any case, the Athenian Empire, short-lived as it was, lasted longer than the hegemony of the oligarchic states of Sparta and Thebes.
But there is no analogy between England and America with their mixture of good intentions and inertia and Athens, ruined by an energy which overtook tasks beyond its strength.
She has none of the faults we associate with democracy.
Her decisions were quick – perhaps too quick. She did not sacrifice the safety of the state to social services. She was active and aggressive.
The Conservatives were the peace party, and the masses were for a forward policy.
In any case there is no analogy between modern democracy, with its representative system and Athens where the policy of the state was decided by direct voting of a mass meeting in which all the citizens could take part.
We can, however, learn from Thucydides two most important truths about Democracy. First, that to succeed it must have good leaders.
Athens was ruined by bad leadership.
It was her politicians who lost the war.
In Pericles we have a picture of the ideal democratic leader. He was an idealist and as we should say a highly educated man. He was deeply interested in the philosophy and science of this time, a friend of the philosopher, Anaxagaras and the sculptor Phidias. To him the world owes the building and sculptures which, in their ruins, are perhaps the greatest artistic treasure of the world. He was a far-sighted practical statesman; there is little doubt that if Athens had followed his policy, she would have won the war. But also he had the character necessary to lead a ppeople and the rarest gift of a democratic politician – courage. By his rank, ability, and known integrity, he was able to exercise an independent control over the masses — to lead them instead of being led by them. He never sought power by improper means, so he was never compelled to flatter them.
On the contrary, he enjoyed so high an estimation that he could afford to anger them by contradiction.
Among his successors we see two types of disastrous leadership –Alcibiades, brilliant self-seeking, reckless, and unscrupulous; and Nicias, honest, well-meaning, trusted because he was respectable and religious, but without the courage to tell the people the unpalatable truths. It is difficult to say which of these two very different men contributed most to the ruin of his country.