My Take

Uncanny contemporary parallels from ancient text of war

Given the alarm about North Korea’s behaviour and the bombastic responses of Trump, I am surprised no one has mentioned the parallel universe in the Peloponnesian War

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 August, 2017, 12:50am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 August, 2017, 12:50am

Someone kindly sent me a copy of Destined For War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?, by Harvard political science guru Graham Allison. It’s all the rage among certain elite policy circles in the United States. I couldn’t make it past the first 20 pages, but it did send me back to the original. I dug up my old copy of the Thomas Hobbes translation and started digging in.

Boy, what a relief! The 17th century English takes some getting used to, but it’s really quite elegant, like reading Shakespeare.

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There have been so many reviews of Allison’s book. But at a time of worldwide alarm about North Korea’s behaviour and the bombastic responses of erratic US President Donald Trump, I am surprised no one has mentioned – or at least I haven’t read – the parallel universe in the Peloponnesian War. Okay, it’s not Allison’s fault; he published his book before the current crisis.

Just one word: Megara. See if you recognise the uncanny contemporary parallels. Megara (Korea) was a city state that was once colonised by Corinth (imperial Japan) but was subsequently freed by democratic Athens (the US). Later, Megara (North Korea) allied itself with totalitarian Sparta (China) and made all sorts of trouble (nuclear armaments and missile testing) for Athens.

Fed up, Athens imposed heavy trade sanctions on Megara. Megara’s ally Sparta hesitated at first, but then switched to playing hard ball with Athens, demanding an end to the Athenian harassments.

Thucydides attributed that as one of the immediate causes of the war between China and the US, sorry, I meant Sparta and Athens.

So are we going to have a cataclysmic war over fat boy Kim Jong-un? Who knows?

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I admit my comparison is not quite exact. The Athenian statesman who imposed the sanctions was Pericles, and no one would ever compare him with Donald Trump. But then, my comparison is at least rooted in the history of the war, whereas the high concept of the “Thucydides trap” was based on a single short sentence (Book 1, section 23): “And the truest quarrel [deepest cause of the war] I conceive to be the growth of the Athenian power, which putting the Lacedaemonians [Spartans] into fear necessitated the war.”

I grant you China is a rising power, but as much as I am proud of my country, I would not describe it as Athenian or President Xi Jinping as Periclean.