4 Critique on the Neorealist Appropriation of Thucydides

In chapter 1 it was shown how Thucydides has been used to support neorealism. This second chapter will now turn attention to the substantial criticism that this appropriation of Thucydides has met. In what has now become a ‘cottage industry’ (Welch, 2003, p. 307) to pick up on misreading’s of Thucydides, discourse on the matter has proliferated, and scholars of varying viewpoints are now urging students of international relations to look at Thucydides’ History (1979) differently. This chapter will now evaluate these arguments. First, the chapter will look at the key works of Bagby (1994), Forde (1995) and Garst (2000). These scholars argue that Thucydides does not subscribe to the core tenets of neorealism. Although substantiating their arguments with different passages and different examples from Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, the scholars aforementioned all argue that the prominence Thucydides’ gives to the first and second levels of analysis suggest he could not be adequately classed as a neorealist. Then, secondly the chapter will turn to the deeper language-laden arguments of White (1984), Garst (1989) and Lebow (2001). These authors argue that Thucydides’ teaches through Athens’ demise hegemony must be sustained through ideas, language and conventions – not simply through material and economic supremacy as neorealism would suggest. Finally, the chapter will summarise its findings and reiterate the methodology to enable the dissertation to develop critical analysis of Thucydides’ History in the third and fourth chapters.

4.1 Bagby (1994), Forde (1995) and Garst (2000)

Bagby (1994) will be the first used in this chapter to show that Thucydides’ is not simply reducible to third image arguments, and that rather, he supplements the third image with first and second levels of analysis. Bagby (1994, p. 138) highlights that Thucydides’ use of the first level of analysis can be seen with the importance he gives to individuals in determining state behaviour. Sparta’s decline in hegemony and thereafter Athens’ rise, for instance, is said to have been down to Pausanias’ imperialistic style that made Sparta unfavourable to the allies after the Hellenic war with Persia (Bagby, 1994, p. 138). Likewise, leaders’ personalities and characters were instrumental in Athens’ performance in the war (Bagby, 1994, p. 139).

Post-Periclean leaders are explicitly mentioned as responsible for Athens’ ultimate demise in the Peloponnesian War. Cleon, Diodotus, Nicias and Alcibiades are presented as inferior to Pericles and to blame for Athens’ over expansive foreign policy. Bagby (1994) then turns to Thucydides’ use of the second image. This Bagby (1994, p. 133) argues can be seen through the differences seen in the internal make-up and character of Athens, Sparta and other city states. For instance, Bagby (1994) uses Sparta’s response to Athens’ growing military might to substantiate his claim. Thucydides makes it clear that Sparta was aware of Athens’ growing military capability and yet ‘like the proverbial ostrich, chose to stick its head in the sand until its allies became abusively insistent that Sparta defend itself and its allies’ (Bagby, 1994 p. 38). This therefore illustrates the importance of the character of the city states Thucydides’ History, with Sparta’s national character determining the reason for delaying war against Athens.

Forde (1995, p. 143) also highlights that Thucydides does not agree with some of the core assumptions of neorealism such as state-centrism and the rationality of international actors. To start with, alike Bagby (1994), Forde (1995) argues that Thucydides cannot be tied to a state-centric view of international relations as the role of non-state actors in his History are paramount in determining the outcome of the Greek city-states (Forde, 1995, p.145). Furthermore Thucydides’ does not correlate with the principle of rationality of international actors - violations of rationality are frequent in Thucydides’ work. Forde (1995, p. 145) uses the example of the Melians’ failure to surrender to the overwhelming superior power of Athens in the Melian dialogue. Coerced into making the choice between becoming an ally of Athens, or ultimate destruction, the Melians remarkably choose the latter. This goes against the core tenet of neorealism that posits that states’ always act rationally seeking security. Moreover whilst in Thucydides History there are examples of where he can be seen to have striking structural tendencies, these are not as clear-cut as neorealists would like them to be (Forde, 1995, p. 146). Whereas neorealism aspires to build a theory on the Waltzian anarchy problematic, Thucydides, amongst other classical realists, supplements this with an account of human nature. For instance, this can be seen in a passage in Thucydides’ first book (Thucydides, 1979, p. 133), where Thucydides is arguing along structural lines, but supplements structuralism with human nature. Speaking of their empire, the Athenians assert that they were forced to take up their empire, first by fear, but then also by honour, and finally by profit and self-interest (ophelia) as well. Fear in this context derives from the ‘security dilemma’ created by the anarchy of international relations, and thus corresponds to the structural argument of realism. But the attribution of honour and profit adds an ethical dimension to Thucydides’ structuralism. The Athenians thus, are interested in more than just security, and assert that every powerful state will be interested in much more (Forde, 1995, p. 148). Consequently Forde (1995, p. 147) argues that the addition of human nature separates Thucydides from neorealists’ reductionist structural theories but still locates him within the classical realist camp.

Finally, in a more intelligibly put study, Garst (2000) argues that the third image simply does not correlate with the story Thucydides tells. For instance if neorealist theory shows why Sparta reluctantly went to war - the main claim that neorealists use to show that Thucydides adhered to the Third Image (Waltz, 1979; Keohane 1988) - it can shed no light on why the Spartans voluntarily relinquished hegemony after the Median War (Garst, 2000, p. 95). Even at this time, the growing power of Athens and the potential long-term threat it posed to Sparta were clearly recognised by its allies. Thus, neorealism’s emphasis on the international system for state behaviour is therefore of little use in explaining how Athens claimed hegemony from Sparta and why the disequilibrium of power in Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War developed (Garst, 2000, p. 94). Garst also points to another flaw in applying the neorealist theory of power balancing to Thucydides. According to Waltz (1979, p. 176) if smaller states unable to defend themselves align, in contrast to the neorealist prediction that these smaller state would support the weaker side, it is the stronger Athens, not weaker Sparta whom they tend to side with. Garst (2000, p. 97) concludes that if The Peloponnesian War is a possession for all time, it is not due to its alleged affirmation of the recurring patterns and continuities emphasized in neorealism’s static and ahistorical view of international politics. But rather, in underscoring limitations of neorealism’s one-sided emphasis on international structures in explaining the behaviour of states in global politics (Garst, 2000, p. 97).

4.2 White (1984), Garst (1989) and Lebow (2001)

Authors advocating a closer reading of Thucydides’ use of language will now be discussed. Since the end of the Second World War, social scientists have, inter alia, urged Thucydides to be rethought of as a positive and politically engaged reader instead of the scientific historian he is usually taken to be (Wallace, 1964; Bowersock, 1965; Stahl, 1966). For Connor (1984 p. 18), Thucydides is a masterful postmodernist who carefully structured his text to evoke an intended set of responses. He uses omissions, repetitions and inconsistencies in the form of arguments and judgements that are ‘modified, restated, subverted, or totally controverted’ to tell a more complex story and convey a more profound understanding of the human condition (Connor, 1984, p.18). Ultimately, Connor argues, that the ‘work leads the reader - ancient or modern - far beyond the views and values it seems initially to affirm’ (Connor, 1984, p. 18). Thucydides’ careful attention to language was also the starting point of another seminal study, When Words Lose Their Meaning by James Boyd White (1984). According to White, people act in the world by using the language of the world. To understand their behaviour and the social context that enables it, we need to track the ways in which words acquire, hold, or lose meanings and how new meanings arise and spread.

Daniel Garst (1989) builds on White’s (1984) arguments to accuse neorealists of having a narrow definition of power - and projecting this view onto Thucydides. Garst (1989, p. 4) argues that Thucydides cannot be applied to neorealism and is found rather in a contested terrain for realist and critical approaches to international relations theory. This is evident in Thucydides insights on political power and hegemony (Garst, 1989, p. 4). Waltz (1959; 1979), Gilpin (1984; 1988), and Keohane (1986), according to Garst (1989, p. 5) overlook the central importance of the close interplay between Thucydides’ narrative and paired speeches that recur in the text. Thucydides’ insights into power and hegemony are embodied in these paired speeches, and if these paired speeches are analysed correctly, one will see how Athenian discourse changes (Garst, 1989, p.8). In the later stages of Thucydides’ History these changes are clear. The Melian Debate and the Sicilian Debate mark the turning point in Athenian policy (Garst, 1989, p. 14). Their policy became a policy of coercion limitless expansion. Thucydides clearly suggests through the dialogue that the brutality imperialist policy pursued by Athens carries the seeds of its own destruction. The Athenians destroyed rhetorical culture through which their interests as an imperial power were intelligibly expressed in the earlier speeches of the history. Thus on the topic of Hegemony Garst (1989, p.24) argues, Thucydides differs from neorealism in the respect that whether a state is hegemonic or not depends on the ‘moral authority it is able to wield’. Richard Lebow (2001) elaborates on Garst’s (1989) argument above noting that Thucydides’ history, akin to other fifth-century Greek sophists, was a tragedy teaching about the rise and fall of civilization and what might be done to salvage it (Euben 1990; Alker 1988, 1996; Bedford and Workman, 2001). Adding that Thucydides, whilst not a sophist (Kokaz, 2001), was ‘greatly attracted to their style of argument, which he adopted for his own and quite different purposes’ (Lebow 2001, p. 549). Sophists dominated Athenian philosophy during the second half of the fifth century. At their deepest levels, their arguments were left implicit to encourage students to draw the intended conclusions for themselves (Lebow, 2001, p. 549). Lebow (2001) argues that Thucydides’ History, taught in a sophistic style to implicitly reveal the destructive consequences of domestic and foreign policies framed outside the language of justice. Thucydides’ History, according to Lebow (2001, p. 547) marks the decline in convention and law with the change in language meaning. Lebow (2001, p. 550) reminds the reader that in Book One Thucydides noted that civilization in 5th century was only possible when communication combined to undertake common action. Greeks established men from animals by their ability to speak (Thucydides, 1972, p. 87). The Greeks however, as the war progress became increasingly irrational and inarticulate (alogistos) and, like animals, no longer capable of employing the logos (rational facilities and language) necessary for communal deliberation (Lebow, 2001, p. 555). This degradation of language is therefore synonymous with Athens’ change in political rhetoric.

Thucydides, according to Lebow (2001p. 555) distinguished between hegemonia (legitimated leadership) and arkhê (control), both of which are translated as hegemony. Athens, beside its contributions in fending off Persia, earned its hegemonia because of its intellectual and artistic accomplishments made the state ‘school of the Hellas’. Arkhê, on the other hand connotated something akin to our notion of political control, and initially applied to authority within a city state (Lebow and Kelly, 2001, p. 594). By 416 BC, when the assembly voted to occupy Melos and subdue Sicily, Thucydides makes it clear that the Athenian empire was an arkhê based on military might - thereafter is where the Athens’ demise can be seen. Thucydides marks this decline in convention and law with the change in language meaning. For this reason Thucydides, Lebow (2001, p. 545) argues that Thucydides can be seen as constructivist, as he shares emphasis on the importance of language and ideas, which he thought enabled the shared meaning and conventions that make civilization possible.

4.3 Summary

Thus summarised concisely, analytical critique of Thucydides neorealist appropriation can be narrowed down two broad critical analytical camps: Those who believe that Thucydides’ use of the First and Second Images make him incompatible with realism, and those who believe that through a study of Thucydides’ Athenian discourse that Thucydides would have differing conception of power and hegemony to neorealists. Now in the third and fourth respective chapters of this dissertation, these claims will be substantiated through a case study of Thucydides’ primary source History of the Peloponnesian War (1972). Chapters 3 and 4 will focus on six key dialogues. The debates at the congress of the Peloponnesian confederacy at Lacedaemon, the first two speeches of Pericles, the Mytilenian Debate, the Melian Dialogue (only in 4th Chapter) and the debate between over the invasion of Sicily. Chapter 3 will use these extracts to show how Thucydides employs both first and second levels of analysis in his History, and Chapter 4 will use the extracts, but focusing specifically on the Athenian discourse to show that Thucydides has different conception of power and hegemony to the neorealists.