University of Georgia undergraduates used to look at me quizzically when I told them you can learn ninety percent of what you need to know about diplomacy and war by studying a war fought two millennia ago, in a postage-stamp-size theater, between alliances armed with—as my colleagues in Newport like to joke—spears and rowboats. Yet it’s true. War and politics are human endeavors. The dynamics of human interaction endure from age to age. The remainderis mere technological change.
That’s why Thucydides’ chronicle of the Peloponnesian War still captivates readers. Including policymakers, I hope. As Japanese and American emissaries revise the U.S.-Japan defense cooperation guidelines for the first time since 1998, they could do worse than crack open Thucydides’ history. Tokyo and Washington intend to open discussions early next month, presumably in hopes of adapting the guidelines to China’s military rise. A zero-based review of alliance relations ought to incorporate some historical perspective. Who better to consult than the father of history?
Thucydides proffers numerous insights into the workings—and dysfunctions—of alliances and coalitions. How lesser allies relate to greater ones—and vice versa—is of acute interest to him, as it should be for Washington and Tokyo. Alliance relations is about more than power. The strong cannot simply dictate to weaker partners, lest they provoke rebellion or passive-aggressive cooperation. Mutual accommodation is the rule among successful alignments.
The historian designated fear, honor, and interest the prime movers impelling human actions. Weaker parties can manipulate stronger ones using these basic motives, whereas the strong have options of their own. It’s a reciprocal relationship.
Before the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, for instance, delegates from Corcyra and Corinth, two city-states waging a naval war, plead for help from Athens, the foremost sea power of the day. The Corcyraeans insist they have been wronged, appealing to justice; pledge future assistance, appealing to interest; and incite fear, warning against the consequences should Corinth prevail and Corcyra’s navy—the second-strongest in Greece—fall into Corinthian hands. Honor, interest, fear: they’re all there. The Corinthians deliver similar entreaties to discourage the Athenian assembly from backing their enemy.
After mulling things over, the Athenians resolve… to have it both ways. The assembly commits the city—tepidly—to Corcyra’s cause. Members vote to send a small detachment of warships to accompany the Corcyraean fleet yet forbid Athenian commanders to fight except in dire peril. Athenian mariners end up battling the Corinthians—who have taken league with Sparta, Athens’ great rival—anyway. Twenty-seven years of war ensue, with fateful repercussions for the Athenians, the leading democratic and commercial power of Greek antiquity.
As Thucydides observes, war is a harsh teacher. When they convene next month, it behooves Japanese and U.S. leaders to take a frank, Thucydidean look at their security pact. Like classical Athens, America could find itself dragged into conflict or war against a peer competitor if it commits itself too firmly to a smaller ally for secondary—to Washington—objectives. The law of unintended consequences applies. Or, like Corcyra, Japan maybe better off building up its own naval might, and thus its capacity to act independently, rather than entrusting its interests to a strong yet ambivalentpatron.
Washington would doubtless honor its promise to defend the Senkaku Islands, for instance. But it would fight less to perpetuate Japanese control of some flyspecks on the map than to preserve an alliance that anchors the U.S. forward presence in Asia. That’s a significant difference, implying different priorities and serious prospects for discord in stressful times. Discerning, candidly acknowledging, and working around such disparities will serve the allies well. Let’s take the long view of alliance politics.