Afghanistan and the Thucydides Trap

As we look at the images from Afghanistan from this past week, it is always helpful to remember why things happen. I thought my posts on Plato and his truly nefarious influence on humanity were done, but then things happen, and the printing press rolls again.

Consider the Think Tanks, the nexus between government power, international corporations, and . . . academia. Yes, the nexus of financialized and weaponized ideas. Like, “wouldn’t it be a good idea if we . . . ?” Afghanistan, against the wishes of Platonists and all variations thereof, is Exhibit A for us that re-wiring shepherd societies does not work, no matter how many books, papers, or counter-insurgency manuals are written and discussed.

But what I want to focus on today is an idea promulgated by American think tankers called “The Thucydides Trap.” It’s a pseudo-intellectual “idea,” really, a half-idea, that uses the ancient Athenian historian Thucydides to justify American foreign policy today. It was, as Thucydides explained, the rise of Athenian power that caused fear in Sparta, and not the other way around.

The Thucydides trap is named after the first serious historian, Thucydides the Athenian, who set out to explain the destruction of Athenian society as a consequence of a very long war against Sparta and its allies. During the Cold War, some American academics used The History of the Peloponnesian War as a kind of blueprint. They saw America as Athens and the USSR as Sparta; in their mindset, the one a democracy, the other a closed society; the one a naval power, the other a land power.

Whatever the facile comparisons, the Trap is up and running again, this time between the US and China, with the same comparisons.

The problem is that, well, one wonders how well the promulgators of this idea . . . actually paid attention to what Thucydides actually wrote. Why do I say this? Because Athens lost the war, and did so because of the same kind of policies we are seeing today — expeditionary warfare, brutal occupations, internal societal tension, and poor leaders (including demagogues), among other things (yes, there was also a plague). In short, they were eliminated by their own empire.

It’s hard, because empires, following the Scriptural approach to these matters (see Tasks), always build too high. It’s the internal logic of empire. Their builders do not realize it’s a fool’s errand to begin, and simply do not know when to stop once they’ve begun.