Mackinder Forum Seminar #40: Professor Michael Desch, “Will the Real(ist) Thucydides Please Stand Up?”

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On Sunday, September 26, 2021, Professor Michael Desch presented a paper entitled “Will the Real(its) Thucydides Please Stand Up? Reading Restraint at the Heart of the Paradigm’s Ur-text to Avert the Thucydides Trap with China.”

BIOGRAPHY:  Michael C. Desch is Packey J. Dee Professor of International Relations at the University of Notre Dame and Brian and Jeannelle Brady Family Director of the Notre Dame International Security Center. He served two terms as chair of the Department of Political Science. He was also the founding Director of the Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs and the first holder of the Robert M. Gates Chair in Intelligence and National Security Decision-Making at the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University from 2004 through 2008. From 1993 through 1998, he was Assistant Director and Senior Research Associate at the Olin Institute. He spent two years (1988-90) as a John M. Olin Post-doctoral Fellow in National Security at Harvard University’s Olin Institute for Strategic Studies, among other positions. He received his B.A. (With honors) in Political Science (1982) from Marquette University and his A.M. in International Relations (1984) and Ph.D. in Political Science (1988) from the University of Chicago. He is the author of When the Third World Matters: Latin America and U.S. Grand Strategy (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), Civilian Control of the Military: The Changing Security Environment (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), Power and Military Effectiveness: The Fallacy of Democratic Triumphalism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), and Cult of the Irrelevant: The Waning Influence of Social Science on National Security (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018); co-author of Privileged and Confidential: The Secret History of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2012); co-editor of From Pirates to Drug Lords: The Post-Cold War Caribbean Security Environment (Albany: State University Press, 1998), and editor of Public Intellectuals in the Global Arena: Professors or Pundits? (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2016) and Soldiers in Cities: Military Operations on Urban Terrain (Carlisle, PA: U.S. Army War College, 2001). He has published numerous scholarly and broader interest articles. He has worked on the staff of a U.S. Senator, in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the Department of State, and in the Foreign Affairs and National Defense Division of the Congressional Research Service.

ABSTRACT: Most analysts of international relations regard the fifth century BCE Athenian historian Thucydides as the founding father of the realist approach to the theory and practice of international affairs.   “To most scholars in international politics,” notes Michael Doyle, “to think like a Realist is to think as the philosophical historian Thucydides first thought.”   But what, precisely, does thinking like Thucydides mean? There are at least three possible ways one could think about power in the context of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War.  The first of these is the later Athenian thesis as articulated most starkly by their representatives in the Melian Dialogue: “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”   This famous line fromt he Melian Dialogue is widely interpreted to mean not only that in relations among political groups might makes right, but also that for political actors to survive and otherwise advance their interests, the optimal strategy is for them to maximize their relative power (PM).  But there is a second way to think about power in Thucydides’ story.  Rather than paraphrasing the Athenians at Melos at roughly the mid-point of the Peloponnesian War, one could read Thucydides on power as endorsing the earlier views of the Athenians who debated the Corinthians at Sparta before the outbreak of the war in Book I.    Like their fellow citizens at Melos, the Athenians at Sparta defend their hegemony.  But instead of simply asserting that might makes right, the pre-war Athenians emphasize how they behave more justly with their power, how their hegemony benefited all the Greeks, and the initially voluntary nature of their empire after the Persian War.   Finally, still another reading of Thucydides on power is as a cautionary tale in which changes in the balance of power produce fear among declining and other weaker powers and tempt new hegemons to overreach.  Rather than identifying Thucydides with either the Athenians of Book I or Book V of his history, such a reading emphasizes the similarity, though not identity, between the historian and the Athenian leader Pericles at the beginning of the war.   His eulogy for Pericles makes clear the reason for their affinity: “For as long as he was at the head of the state during peace, he pursued a moderate and conservative policy; and in his time [Athens’] greatness was at its height.”   The Periclean thesis, which modern balance of power (BoP) realists ought to find congenial, is that great powers should seek only as much power as they need (usually a balance suffices) to protect their vital interests.   And they ought to use it sparingly so as to reassure other actors who might otherwise take steps to counterbalance against them as modern restrainers anticipate.  Various readers have purported to find evidence for each of these three positions in The History while others, in contrast, argue that Thucydides was not a realist at all.   Given the striking inconsistencies among these interpretations, it is necessary to read Thucydides again with an eye toward nudging the real(ist) Thucydides to please stand up.  Briefly, I will make the case that Thucydides was a realist by our modern standards but that contrary to common readings he was not a power maximizing realist, either in the narrow interest of the hegemon or in the broader interest of other powers.  Rather, he comes closest to being a modern balance of power realist.  And balance of power, in turn, favors a restrained grand strategy.

Reading: A draft of an article. Post to the link will appear when the article appears in print.