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Ukraine and the Thucydides Trap

Frederick Lauritzen

5th August 2022


Thucydides is a great writer and may teach us something about Ukraine. His history of the war between classical Athens and Sparta (431-404bc) is a literary masterpiece. His rendering of Pericles’ Funerary Oration, probably the greatest praise of democracy ever written, is stunning. (Thuc. 2.35-46). One may quote his discussion on laws in Athens: “But while the law secures equal justice to all alike in their private disputes, the claim of excellence is also recognized; and when a citizen is in any way distinguished, he is preferred to the public service, not as a matter of privilege, but as the reward of merit. Neither is poverty a bar, but a man may benefit his country whatever be the obscurity of his condition.” (Thuc. 2.37.1)

The Thucydides trap is a modern expression, employed by Graham T. Allison in an article published in the Financial Times in August 2012, to describe the inevitability of war between great powers. The military build-up of Athens and Sparta led to war between them. "The real though unavowed cause I believe to have been the growth of the Athenian power, which terrified the Spartans and forced them into war” (
τοὺς Ἀθηναίους ἡγοῦμαι μεγάλους γιγνομένους καὶ φόβον παρέχοντας τοῖς Λακεδαιμονίοις ἀναγκάσαι ἐς τὸ πολεμεῖν).

Thucydides got it wrong. He forgot about Persia. He presented the power of Athens as being maritime and then had to explain that the decisive campaigns were by land (Brasidas and Alcibiades). He thought that the Sicilian expedition was the main problem of Athens forgetting the question of Persia. The Comedian Aristophanes made fun of Athenian embassies begging for money at the Persian court already in 427.

The dispute between NATO and Russia is a debate on who can obtain China’s support. NATO is a military alliance like that which Athens led, the Delian League. The demise of Athens occurred when one after the other, its allies became neutral or changed sides, out of neglect or frustration. Sparta also headed a military alliance, the Peloponnesian League, whose motto was to go wherever Sparta said by land or sea (
hεπόμενος hόπυι κα Λακεδαιμόνιοι hαγίονται καὶ κατὰ γᾶν καὶ καθάλαθαν ; “following wherever the Spartans may lead by land and by sea”). Russia also seems to be bossing around countries like Belarus or trying with others like Kazakhstan.

Ukraine has become the playground for NATO and Russia. Neither party is interested in this country’s welfare. It has been referred to as a proxy war. The aim of both parties may be to make sure China does not colonize Ukraine entirely. If transportation costs rise to an unsustainable level, China will need factories and industries in a country under its control within Europe, to be able to sell its products without long distance transport. NATO and Russia may be offering the entire reconstruction of Ukraine, social and economic, to China. It may be the only country which will be able to foot the bill once the conflicting sides are worn out by unreasonable and pointless military expenses.

China remains the deciding factor. Chinese wealth will tip the balance, like Persian money defined the Spartan victory over Athens in 404 BC. This may not be in China’s interest. Within 80 years of the defeat of Athens and the Spartan victory, Persia was conquered by Alexander the Great. As Clausewitz had said, being worn out is the real danger in a war. The Thucydides trap incorrectly points to the inevitability of war, but forgets the political, cultural, and economic void which automatically follows warfare.

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