Book Review:Thucydides on Strategy Athenian and Spartan Grand Strategies in the Peloponnesian War and Their Relevance Today

It is a common vice of some IR pundits to willingly imprison themselves in a safe so-called ‘conceptual framework’, thinking that they can then express what they want relevantly. Thus they go in for model-building, picking and choosing among the historical literature to prove their hypotheses, unlike the historian, who does not have to prove his relevance, given that all centuries are, in the words of Ranke, ‘equal in the eyes of God.’


thucydides on strategy

Just as some PR pundits, in their quest for academic respectability, claim that the Bible, particularly the story of Peter and Paul, is an example of early PR, so some IR people latch onto, and re-interpret, Machiavelli, Hobbes and Thucydides to promote their theories of power politics, which more often than not involves promoting unilateral war, on the primitive ‘might is right principle’. This book does this with a vengeance, claiming (p.xi) that Thucydides’ text on the Peloponnesian War is a masterpiece of strategic analysis, ‘vying with Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and Clausewitz’s On War’.

Strangely, the authors forget to mention Machiavelli’s The Art of War. Perhaps the renowned Florentine diplomat’s comment in his preface that the military had become completely corrupt and far removed from the ancient ways would not have fitted well into the thrust of Platias’ and Koliopoulos’ book, since it would have highlighted Eisenhower’s nightmare of the military-industrial complex. At any rate, the authors transmogrify Thucydides into an IR theorist on strategy, as if the world were unaware that he was himself a general who took part in the war. This approach of course detracts from the fact that Thucydides was primarily an expert chronicler of a dreadful and pointless war, and that he hardly ever ventures to give his own judgments. If he does, and it is a big if, it only comes out by default, through his record of what other people have said.

The book itself is divided into five chapters, the first being ‘Grand Strategy: a Framework for Analysis’, which includes five simplistic tables and figures, and tries to tell the reader the difference between ‘strategy’ and ‘grand strategy’, saying (p.5) that ‘the highest level of strategy is grand strategy’, and that it ‘refers to the use of all available means (military, economic, diplomatic, etc.) at a state’s disposal, in order to achieve the objectives set by policy in the face of actual or potential conflict’. In other words, when a state goes to war, it adopts a strategy; whether one calls it ‘grand’ or not is hardly a crucial matter. Trying to differentiate between different levels of strategy arbitrarily is perforce a risky matter, and can confuse people in its very simplisticness, usually with the aid of simple diagrams, which take the reader away from the oft-ignored human factor. The second chapter, by extrapolating from Thucydides, gives a potted version of ‘Athens and Sparta: Power Structures, Early Conflict and the Causes of the War’, as do the third and fourth ones, ‘Periclean Grand Strategy’, and ‘Spartan Grand Strategy’. What the precise difference between ‘grand strategy’ and ‘strategy’ is, is anyone’s guess, since military chaps normally consider sub-strategies as ‘tactics’. And do not high level politicians also mix strategies and tactics, just as they often confuse the ugly terms ‘geopolitics’ and ‘geostrategy’? The final chapter, more interesting, sets out to look at ‘Thucydides and Strategy in Perpective’ (without, however, saying what the perspective is), bringing in, inter alia, NATO expansion, the Cold War, the Battle of Waterloo, Spanish hegemony, and the Great War, and saying in its conclusions (p.117) that ‘the vice of underestimating an enemy will not be eradicated in the future’, and that ‘it might even be argued that each side will tend to view itself as the more determined or the one with the higher morale.’ These are hardly earth-shattering revelations.

*Published in Journal of Global Analysis (JGA) Vol. 3 | No. 1
© Copyright 2012 by CESRAN
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