Why is Thucydides so frigging relevant?

You probably get plenty of Thucydides in your daily readings (if you are into IR stuff), and here comes some more.  Realists like to use him as a source and even when he is not directly quoted his reasoning tends to usually be there.  In addition, whether people identify as realists, idealists or whatnot, whether they agree or disagree with the theories etc. is completely irrelevant to the fact that Thucydides continues to be…well, relevant.

Today, New York Times had this article on Iran’s navy holding war games in the crucial sea lane of the Strait of Hormuz. You can sense it from the reading itself that things are heating up as they have increasingly been for decades between the United States and Iran.  Each side seems to make the other a little nervous and as nervousness increases so does the sense of insecurity.  With that comes the need to show some muscle and in the process of doing so things become sensitive to the point where one incident could trigger confrontation.

So, think of this statement from Thucydides as you follow further developments, “It is better to have the initiative in these matters – to take our own measures first, rather than be forced to counter the intrigues that are made against us by others”. Then it follows, “When one makes concessions to one’s enemies, one regrets it afterwards and the fewer concessions one makes the safer one is likely to be”.

Iran has not shown itself willing to make concessions on the nuclear issue, and U.S. remains firm in its position against a nuclear theocracy.  Each side has done the best they could to achieve their ends without resorting to war (one not going all the way to become nuclear and the other seeking regime change short of open conflict), however, neither will be able to succeed in that tempo indefinitely precisely because the interest of each player is in complete opposition to the other’s, concessions are considered weaknesses and weakness is last thing one wants to project in the eye of its rival.

Hence, as clock ticks and things change in an environment where neither actor is willing to concede, knowing that initiatives will be taken from both to “counter the intrigues that are made…by others”, one is forced to ask, “Are we in an irreversible course that will ultimately lead us to war?”  Okay, this does not mean that war is inevitable and that there won’t happen something along the way which will change the outcome of the story (like a pro-democracy revolution in Iran, or a U.S. decision to contain rather than strike), nonetheless, it would be naïve to not recognize the direction towards which this whole thing seems to be moving.

You can read some interesting discussions on the subject here, here and here.

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