Mackinder Forum Virtual Seminar #51: Professor Athanasios Platias, “Leadership, Grand Strategy, and the Limitations of Neorealist International Relations Theory: The Case of Themistocles

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On March 5, 2022, Professor Athanasios Platias, University of the Piraeus, delivered a talk on “Leadership, Grand Strategy, and the Limitations of Neorealist International Relations theory: The Case of Themistocles.”

Abstract: The assigned reading addresses the historical case of Themistocles to contradict the current “structural orthodoxy” that regards leaders as either theoretically immeasurable or heavily conditioned actors that lack transformative agency. Specifically, we use the case of Themistocles to illustrate six interrelated causal mechanisms that lucidly link both leadership and strategic agency to international outcomes. We argue that leaders may indeed have a consequential and measurable impact upon strategic issues, such as the diagnosis of national threats, the generation of domestic power resources, military organization and reform, alliance formation and alliance management, the outcome of wars, and ultimately the very distribution of power in the international system.

As Themistocles’ case-study provides both a hard test and an extreme test regarding the impact of leadership upon strategy, it demonstrates quite paradigmatically that leadership can generate power, affect power differentials among states, and ultimately reshape the international balance of power—that is, change the very polarity of the international system. We hope that a structured, analytical study of Themistoclean leadership will not only demonstrate the historical pivotal constributions of Themistocles to the salvation of Greece and the West, but also “bring leadership back in” to the study of international politics and help drive a new and rigorous “Leadership-centric” theoretical investigation in the discipline. 

Reading: A. Platias, & V. Trigkas, “Themistocles: Leadership and Grand Strategy,” in E. Economou, N. Kyriazis, A. Platias (eds.) Democracy and Salamis: 2500 Years After the Battle That Saved Greece and the Western World (Berlin: Springer, 2022). 

Biographies of authors: Athanassios Platias is Professor of Strategy at the University of Piraeus. He is also the Chairman of the Department of International and European Studies.

He holds a Ph.D in International Relations from the Department of Government at Cornell University (1986). He has been a Ford Foundation Fellow with the Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University, and a MacArthur Fellow in International Peace and Security at the Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. Professor Platias held several senior policy advisory positions in various Greek Ministries during the last 35 years. He was also a member of the Supervisory Council of the University of Piraeus (2012-2017) and Director of the graduate program in International and European studies (2008-2020).

Professor Platias is the author of numerous books and articles. He has written in five principal areas: i) Grand Strategy and Strategic Theory ii) Geopolitics and Geoeconomics iii) International Security iv) Theory of International Relations v) International Relations and Strategy in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. His most recent books on strategy are: Thucydides on Strategy: Grand Strategies in the Peloponnesian War and Their Relevance Today The Art of War, an analysis of the ancient Chinese treatise Sun Tzu’s Art of War, and the The Art of Strategy, an effort to develop a holistic theory on strategy.

Vasilis Trigkas is a postdoctoral teaching fellow at the Schwarzman College, Tsinghua University. Vasilis’ research and teaching focus on comparative strategy, China’s foreign policy, Sino-US relations, and international security. Previously, he has been a Research Fellow at Tsinghua’s Belt & Road Strategy Institute, an Onassis Visiting Scholar at Columbia University’s European Institute and a WSD Non-Resident Handa Fellow at the Pacific Forum CSIS. He has also done research for the Delegation of the European Union in the USA, the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy and the Jean Monnet Center of Excellence at the National and Kapodestrian University of Athens. While at Tsinghua Vasilis has spearheaded the initiative for the establishment of an endowed visiting chair on Hellenic and European Studies. A published author and regular invitee to conferences on global affairs, his writings have appeared in the Journal of Contemporary China, the Chinese Journal of International Politics, the Global Policy Journal, Columbia’s Journal of International Affairs, the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, the South China Morning Post, the Diplomat, and in edited volumes through Springer and Emerald, among others. Vasilis holds a PhD in Political Science, and an MLaw in Chinese Politics & International Relations from Tsinghua University where he studied as an Onassis scholar.