Report: Trump White House Turns to Ancient Greek Historian for Insights on U.S.-China Relations

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

Trump administration officials are seeking insight into U.S.-China relations from an unlikely source – the ancient Greek historian Thucydides who chronicled the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta.

Michael Crowley reports in Politico Magazine that Professor Graham Allison of the Harvard Kennedy School met with Trump’s National Security Council staffers last month to discuss the “Thucydides Trap” – a term he coined to explain how the fear of an emerging power can spark conflict with an established power. In Thucydides’ telling, “What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta.”

According to Crowley, the Thucydides enthusiasts in Trump’s White House include chief strategist Steve Bannon, national security adviser H.R. McMaster, Defense Secretary James Mattis, and National Security Council spokesman Michael Anton (who during the 2016 campaign wrote in the Journal of American Greatness under the pen name “Publius Decimus Mus”). Bannon, Crowley notes, once penned an op-ed for Breitbart comparing “the conservative media rivalry between Breitbart and Fox News to the Peloponnesian War, casting Breitbart as the disciplined warrior state of Sparta challenging a decadently Athenian Fox.”

From Politico Magazine:

The subject [of Professor Allison’s meeting with Trump officials] was America’s rivalry with China, cast through the lens of ancient Greece. The 77-year-old Allison is the author of a recent book based on the writings of Thucydides, the ancient historian famous for his epic chronicle of the Peloponnesian War between the Greek states of Athens and Sparta. Allison cites the Greek scholar’s summation of why the two powers fought: “What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta.” He warns that the same dynamic could drive this century’s rising empire, China, and the United States into a war neither wants. Allison calls this the “Thucydides Trap,” and it’s a question haunting some very important people in the Trump administration, particularly as Chinese officials arrive Wednesday for “diplomatic and security dialogue” talks between Washington and Beijing designed, in large part, to avoid conflict between the world’s two strongest nations.

Thucydides is considered a father of the “realist” school of international relations, which holds that nations act out of pragmatic self-interest with little regard for ideology, values or morality. “He was the founder of realpolitik,” Allison says. This view is distilled in the famous Melian Dialogue, a set of surrender talks that feature the cold-eyed conclusion that right and wrong means nothing in the face of raw strength. “In the real world, the strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must,” concludes an Athenian ambassador—a Trumpian statement 2½ millennia before The Donald’s time.

The conservative military historian and Thucydides expert Victor Davis Hanson knows McMaster, Mattis and Bannon to varying degrees, and says they can apply useful lessons about the Peloponnesian War to a fracturing world. “I think their knowledge of Thucydides might remind them that the world works according to perceived self-interest, not necessarily idealism as expressed in the General Assembly of the U.N.,” Hanson says. “That does not mean they are cynical as much as they are not naive.”

Read the rest here.


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