Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Thucydides on Democratic Imperialism

Guest Blogger

Alan Gilbert

I agree with the content of Mark Graber's earlier post on Thucydides but not on the attribution. Kant is the author of the notion that democratic citizens are slow to go to war and do so only for good cause (in his essay on Perpetual Peace). His contrast is with monarchical subjects, sacrificed in the "pleasure party" of war by kings who never fought. Are the latter not Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld? And even our professional military is utterly at odds with the administration's practice of torture. Inverting the cliche about the Constitution, the civilian tyrants are blocked mainly by the military, the last refuge of decency and democracy.

In Pericles' funeral oration, he praises Athens for the eccentricity (we would say individuality) of its citizens who still rally to the public good. But he also praises Athenian empire and says that it is the splendor of Athens which makes the more timid, defeated subjects of its empire accept its rule. He was an imperialist, not a leader who avoided imperialism. There is no element in Thucydides's account of Athenians being slow to fight. Quite the contrary, as the Corinthian ambassador says (an ally of Sparta), they are restless, ever seeking new conquests, even "above their reason" (a phrase that will haunt Athens in its decadence, at the conclusion of the History).

The striking parallel with Thucydides is in the decline in public debate in Athens and its ever more crazed imperial adventures, wiping out peoples (its murder of the men at Melos and enslavement of the women and children) and war against a large democracy - Syracuse - of which it was ignorant. That aggression ended in the slaughter of the Athenians in the Syracusan quarries. "And this" Thucydides says, "is the greatest event in history so far seen. Few of many returned home. And thus ended the episode at Syracuse." At the beginning of the book, Thucydides praises the
Athens-led defeat of the Persian Empire (a just war) as the "greatest event so far seen." Here is the remarkable irony of Thucydides in the construction of the History.

W. Robert Connor in his 1984 Thucydides talks about how the Jonathan Schell's reporting during the Vietnam War brought home to him the full meaning of Thucydides (I comment on this in Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy? ch. 4). American democratic imperialism or aggression led in Vietnam to a debacle. But the situation of public corruption today - the arrogance and lying of Tyrant Bush and the inability of Democrats, with the exception of John Murtha, representing the military, to mount any principled response - has led to the debacle in Iraq; the horrifying and
counterproductive Israeli devastation of Lebanon, and the even crazier prospect of Bush bombing Iran (in October or soon after the election). Thucycides writes of the effect on producing tyranny at home of aggressions abroad (what I call the anti-democratic feedback of imperial adventures in a democracy). There is, sadly, every reason to think that this - the centerpiece in the tragedy of Athenian democracy - is being repeated by America today.


I find this comparison fascinating. I have always felt that the invasion of Iraq had some absolutely eerie Syracuse Invasion comparisons.

We can also look a bit more recently to Jefferson's notion of the newly United States as an "empire for liberty," which Peter Oluf nicely analyzes in his essay in Negotiated Empires as a hope for a republican form of empire that would improve on the British Empire and by Anders Stephanson in Manifest Destiny: American Expansion and the Empire of Right; debates over American imperialism sparked by the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, various 20th C interventions in the western hemisphere, and the Vietnam War; and debates among academics like Niall Ferguson, Tony Hall, and Charles Maier on American imperialism, picking up where William Appleman Williams and a host of more recent analysts of Europeans' colonizations of the new world and their effects on and implications for US history leave off.

I guess what I'm wondering is the value of historical parallels/analogies in general, given that people are likely to choose ones that support the conclusions they've already arrived at rather than use them to analyze similarities and differences between past and present situations....

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