Traditional Theory: Thucydidesin, Hobbes in Today’s World

While neither Hobbes nor Thucydides had much to say about international relations directly, their commentaries on human nature and war (and peace) have been applied to international relations for quite some time. Hobbes himself “expressly licenses the translation of his analysis of the state of war among individuals to the level of international rivalry” (Hanson, 331). Thucydides doesn’t often comment on events (possibly why there is not much directly said about relations between city-states), but Larry Pratt asserts that “His [Thucydides’] narrative and the carefully crafted speechesâÂ?¦draw the reader into a deeper understanding of the warâÂ?¦.” (Pratt, 442). Hobbes, himself a student of Thucydides (also the first to translate him into English) agrees with this point and states that the reader is instructed subtly, and this is more effective.

It does not necessarily follow that just because there isn’t much overtly said about international relations that the writings of Hobbes and Thucydides are not applicable in today’s modern world. Hobbes’ and Thucydides’ (who Hobbes actually takes many of his ideas from) observations and assertions, especially on international dealings through the medium of war, can still be applied to current international relations. Both contend that the driving forces behind relations on an international level, especially war, are the forces of human nature.

Hobbes’ theory purports “that humans seek their self-preservation above all.” (Hanson, 340). When applied to states, it can be said that this is still the primary motivation behind international relations. Each state then has a goal of survival, and acts accordingly in its dealings with other states. Thucydides would also point out the same thing. In his detailing of the Peloponnesian War illustrates that survival is what prompted the Spartans to go to war: “âÂ?¦the growth of the Athenian power could no longer be ignored, and their own confederacy became an object of its encroachment” (Thucydides, 75). According to Pratt’s interpretation of Thucydides, Athens’ dealings with the other city-states under her influence were also governed by the notion of survival. “It was fear of the revenge of these statesâÂ?¦that made the Athenians unwilling to dismantle the empire” (Pratt, 447).

This very desire for survival can be applied to international relations today. Today this survival includes economic dominance and influence on the world stage. What is the first justification presidents give to the American public when they send soldiers off to war? While they add moral obligations and flowery phraseology later, the primary reason given is usually something to the effect of “it is in our best national interest.” That was the reason for intervention in Kuwait and even in Vietnam, to reach further back into the annals of somewhat recent history. (The assumption was that a Communist Vietnam would add more power to Communism while detracting from Democracy.)

Thucydides theory is that “âÂ?¦cities and statesmen are repeatedly driven to fearâÂ?¦.” (Pratt, 441). This seems to be echoed by Hobbes whose very idea that individuals war with each other in order to ensure their survival speaks to a fear that someone else will be the means of undoing one’s survival. Fear also seems to be a factor in today’s international dealings. When pressure is put on sovereignties by others, standing in the world community is at stake. Some states (though Iraq apparently isn’t one of them) live in fear of being slapped with sanctions. While this is not exactly war in the traditional military sense, it can be considered a warfare of sorts.

Fear of Western cultural imperialism is the reason given by those who bombed the World Trade Center. Fear of the “axis of evil” prompt many of the United States’ foreign policy actions today. Fear is also at the heart of the current outbreak of violence between Palestinians and Israelis. The Palestinians are afraid they will never have their own territory (protecting the interests of perhaps an identity) and the Israelis fear that if they allow the Palestinians to have land and a recognized country it will threaten their interests. Really, as illustrated by Thucydides account (and pointed out by Dr. Stathis), neither of the warring parties will likely turn out to be winners in this particular conflict.

But what about preventing war? Thucydides and Hobbes both have some insights into this area of international relations. Thucydides would argue that since war is mainly caused by bad decisions made by men, good statesmen are needed to make vital decisions regarding relations with other sovereignties. Therefore, according to Stathis, great statesmen take into account the boundaries of human nature. “History does not repeat itself, but there are certain parameters that limit human behavior which could be anticipated, allowing a sense of prognosis, or foresight” (Stathis, 11).

This might work in today’s world, but the contention of Henry Kissenger, as represented by Dr. Stathis, is that there are no great statesmen making much policy in the world of international relations today. However, there seems to be a number of world leaders today who might have this sense of prognosis, but quite frankly ignore it or use it to their personal advantage. This is indicative of other causes of war: “love of powerâÂ?¦greed and ambition.” (Stathis, 5). One such leader could conceivably be Israel’s Prime Minister Sharon. His policies seem calculated to inflame, and his motivation appears to be greed (not wanting to share with the Palestinians). The fact remains however, that Thucydides seems to view politics as the answer to problems.

Hobbes, however, views politics as the cause of war, rather than its solution. “âÂ?¦this politics is war, and that is whyâÂ?¦[it] must be confined to the sphere of private life” (Hanson, 353). The idea behind Hobbes concept of a Leviathan is that the people must choose a government and then adhere to a code of strict obedience to the chosen rule. The Leviathan would promote peace at home and a world full of Leviathans would have peaceful international relations because they “might themselves be, at the least, consistent with the general peace of mankind and, at the most, provide some hope of securing it.” (334).
This solution doesn’t seem very likely for today’s world. Hobbes does advocate an educate populous within the Leviathan, but does not account for the many possibly contrary uses of this education, or why the truly educated would want to subject themselves completely to one or a few people. This seems to me a good start down Thucydides’ road of ‘stasis,’ or “war against one’s own people” (Stathis, 18).

While Thucydides’ and Hobbes’ theories on the causes of war and the general motivations behind human behavior (and consequently international relations) are very relevant to today’s world, their theories of pursuing peace don’t seem to fit well with the realities of modernity. And that brings up the next question. Is traditional theory useful today?
It is certainly useful and relevant in today’s world as many of these theories (especially Thucydides’) remain viable. Thucydides provides us with a case study that clearly outlines the state of relations between sovereign entities and their basis in human behaviors. “Thucydides has remained relevantâÂ?¦because of the validity of his particular conclusionsâÂ?¦all of which flow from his general appraisals about human nature” (Stathis, 21). There is much to be learned and applied from past theories.

After all, if human nature has remained essentially unchanged, as Thucydides thought it would, there is application to be found applying his case study of the Peloponnesian Wars to events that take place centuries and centuries later. It has been done numerous times, evidence to the fact that traditional theory still holds significance. For example: “Hans Morgenthau’sâÂ?¦Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and PeaceâÂ?¦[replaces] the historical examples of the Peloponnesian Wars with more recent events” (4).

The other great advantage is that traditional theories allow modern students of international relations a base from which to work. By building on the foundation of traditional theorists, some students may be able to develop their own theories. At the very least, traditional theory can be used to help those involved in international relations to make policy based on what has been observed (and relatively unchallenged, although some, such as Donald Hanson, would take issue with the idea of a common human nature, as mentioned in “Thomas Hobbes’ ‘highway to peace.'”). These observations can be adapted for the circumstance, which Thucydides (in his continuing observation of human interaction on the international level) says changes even though the general factors of human nature do not.

But there are problems with using traditional theory in modern times. Stathis asserts that one of these problems is the possibility of “blatant efforts to twist classical thought to fit contemporary questions that may never have occurred to the original theorist” (5). Whether or not the original theorist addressed questions of modernity is, however, irrelevant. Is it so wrong to adapt a theory so that it better fits the current circumstance? My contention is that it is not. Generally, whenever something is written, especially if it has been written for quite some time, all sorts of interpretations will arise as to what it means. I would assert that the fact that we don’t precisely know the intent of the author, it is an advantage to be able to interpret these traditional theories to our liking. It adds to a pool of ideas and can facilitate new perspectives.

Another stated problem is that of context. Traditional writers like Thucydides and Hobbes did not live in our time. The times they lived in were quite different than this. The problem is in trying to transport a traditional theorist to the current date. “âÂ?¦a great care must be taken to understand Thucydides in the context of his world, not ours.âÂ?¦” (Stathis, 2). It is important to look at the conditions in which theorists like Thucydides and Hobbes wrote. Looking at the circumstances that contribute to the development of a theory actually helps us understand it better. It is important to understand why traditional theorists thought the way they did (i.e. knowing that Hobbes saw the aftermath of a terrible war caused by not totally sustaining the government gives the modern student insight as to why his theory demands a government with absolute power).

However, it can be useful to think of theorists in modern terms. It makes them seem more assessable and even more applicable. Once we see the parallels between their context and ours, it becomes easier to understand them. We even feel safe in explaining what these theorists would have agreed with: “His [Raymond Aron] modern solution is one that Thucydides would have favoredâÂ?¦.” (Stathis, 1).

Indeed, as we look at traditional theory relevance to our current international situation can be found. The fundamental dealings between states seem to be based on the very same premises as in the time of Thucydides and Hobbes. Their assertion that international relations is based largely on human behavior seems as true now as it was to them in their times. Traditional theory allows us a way to learn from the past, and to build a base that will hopefully help us adapt to the future.

Hanson, Donald W. “Thomas Hobbes’ ‘highway to peace.'” International Organization
38:2 (Spring 1984)
Pratt, Larry. “War and Empire: Thucydides and International Politics” in David G.
Haglund and Michael K. Hawes, eds. World Politics: Power, Interdependence, and Dependence. Toronto: Harcourt Brace Javanovich, 1990.
Stathis, G. Michael. “Thucydides: Still Relevant in Post-Cold War International
Relations. Paper for delivery at annual meeting of The Utah Academy of Arts and Letters, 2001.
Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War. Richard Crawley trans., Ernest
Rhys, ed. London: J.M. Dent and Sons LTD & New York: E.P. Dutton and CO. INC., 1940.

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