Friday, February 25, 2011

Thoughts on Thucydides

For some, the good of the commonwealth is the highest good.  

These people are willing to sacrifice themselves 
and everything else for the good of the state.  

While they sometimes take harsh actions to 
protect the state, Thucydides looks on people 
like this with a certain amount of moral admiration.  

He does not see them as coldblooded, cynical calculators: 
he sees them as honest patriots and even idealists in a 
world of lesser, more selfish actors.  

The modern realist is something of an idealist 
in the Thucydidean universe, and his innocent 
even naive goodwill is frequently exploited by 
the cynical schemers who would happily sell their 
whole city to the enemy in exchange 
for a big bag of gold....

Even if everyone agreed to seek the ‘best interest’ 
of the state as a whole, it is not always easy to 
figure out what that is.  

People may intend 
to follow the smartest foreign policy for 
their country, but international life is so complicated and the 
true national interest is so hard to determine 
(and so hedged about by unknowable future possibilities) 
that very few people ever figure out what it actually is.  

More, once somebody has figured it out, their 
chances of persuading the key decision makers 
in their country to follow this course 
of action — and do it in the right way — are extremely small.

from the blog of political scientist 


Thucydides is regarded as the father of historians.

He lived during the Peloponnesian Wars between
Athens and Sparta, a period similar to
the bipolar world that existed during
the Cold War between the America and the Soviet 
Union. He perceived that in international relations 
might often equals right, but he was
equally willing to make 
moral judgments.


Our nation (has) a duty to defend the security of free 
peoples if it wanted to preserve its own; that 
to resist challenges to the equilibrium in the 
early stages is an inherently ambiguous task. 

For if one waits till the challenge is clear, 
the cost of resisting grows exponentially; 
in the nuclear age it may become prohibitive.

            A nation and its leaders must choose between 
moral certainty, and the willingness to act on 
unprovable assumptions to deal with challenges 
when they are manageable. I favor the latter course.

            The statesman's duty is to bridge 
the gap between his nation's experience 
and his vision. If he gets too far ahead of his people 
he loses his mandate; if he confines 
himself to the conventional he will lose control over events. 

The qualities that distinguish a great statesman are 
prescience and courage, not analytical intelligence. 
He must have a conception of the future and the 
courage to move toward it while it is still 
shrouded to most of his compatriots.

 Henry Kissinger