Thucydides claimed that ‘The strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must’. What does this mean for a multipolar world?

This essay will attempt to show that Thucydides’ claim that “the strong do what they will and the weak will suffer what they must”, produces multipolarity through regional hegemonic stability. First, the historical backdrop and interpretation of Thucydides’ statement will be given. Next, it will be shown how the claim translates into offensive realism with qualifications. Then, the essay will deal with regional hegemonies, their incentives, and a modern example of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. It should be clear, if the essay makes its case, that both the strong and weak have incentive to endorse Thucydides’ claim in the pursuit of regional hegemonic stability.

Thucydides’ claim, as found in his “History”, reflects on the Athenian invasion of Melos during the Peloponnesian war, 416 BCE. “The Athenian envoys presented the Melians with a choice, destruction or surrender, and from the outset asked them not to appeal to justice, but to think only about their survival. In the envoys’ words, “We both know that the decisions about justice are made in human discussions only when both sides are under equal compulsion, but when one side is stronger, it gets as much as it can, and the weak must accept that” (5.89)” (Korab-Karpowicz 2018). This is an essential context for Thucydides’ claim that “the strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must”.

Given that world history generally displays a dominance narrative: the strong conquer the weak, realism’s view of history can be misinterpreted as that history “itself”, is simply cyclical. Thucydides, “In thinking of the utility of a work of history, he was not implying that the past simply repeats itself. He understood that the circumstances in which men live and act are too varied and too much affected by chance, the irrational, and the incalculable for the movement of history to be either a repetition or subject to prediction.” (Zagorin 2008).

Based on the conception of reality that history is essentially too complex to calculate, realism offers the substrate of rational risk aversion to its theoretical progeny. For example, even “Neorealists conclude that despite mankind’s best efforts, it cannot extract itself from the morass of history and the defined parameters of the international system. At best, states can manage the effects of anarchy by adhering to the timeless wisdom of neorealism.” (Collard-Wexler 2006). In other words, today’s international political system must deal with realist history: humans and their affairs are too unpredictable to fully understand. To realists, this is the only cyclical observation humans seem to be able to posit about history.

Obviously, this does not imply people should simply give up, for fear of ending the human story under something as depressing as Hobbes’ “state of nature” where a “a perpetuall and restless desire for Power after power, that ceaseth only in death” (Hobbes 1651). In fact, the world can partially appeal to offensive realism within multipolarity to avoid a scenario that makes life, as Hobbes says, “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short” (Hobbes 1651). However, this is a delicate application. Therefore, it is important to see how Thucydides’ claim translates first into offensive realism and then into a necessary regional hegemony system. This system consequently carves out an emerging world of multipolarity.

Graham Allison sees Thucydides’ claim as leading to something he calls the “Thucydides Trap” where “Rising powers understandably feel a growing sense of entitlement and demand greater influence and respect. Established powers, faced with challengers, tend to become fearful, insecure, and defensive.” (Allison 2017). Allison recognizes this sentiment in Thucydides’ own words, “According to Thucydides, “It was the rise of Athens, and the fear that this instilled in Sparta, that made war inevitable.” (Allison 2017). Indeed, this is captured by other theorists like Kenneth Waltz who define states themselves as “unitary actors who, at minimum, seek their own preservation and, at a maximum, drive for universal domination” (Waltz 2010).

In preserving the anarchic quality of realism and the international system, Jonathan Monten responds to Waltz’s definition. “By positing that at minimum all states seek survival,” Monten says, “Waltz contends that a system of decentralized competition creates powerful incentives for all states to behave in the self-regarding, power-political manner captured by the Athenian thesis” (Monten 2006). If these definitions and incentives are true, as produced by something like Allison’s “Thucydides Trap” and the preservation of an international anarchical backdrop, how can both Hobbes be avoided and dominance of the strong over the weak be dodged? Well, Hobbes can be avoided but, one cannot entirely dodge Thucydides’ claim. The effects can only be mitigated by developing satisfied, regional hegemonies. Thus, the precisely defined truth of Thucydides’ claim, is essential to developing multipolarity through great powers.

In “The Tragedy of Great Power Politics”, John Mearsheimer says, “Great power, I argue, are always searching for opportunities to gain power over their rivals, with hegemony as their final goal. This perspective does not allow for status quo powers, except for the unusual state that achieves preponderance” (Mearsheimer 2001). The focus here is on “the unusual state that achieves preponderance”. This preponderance is the multitude that regional hegemonies can substantiate in a multipolar system. Mearsheimer starts to develop this, “Thus, one can distinguish between global hegemons, which dominate the world, and regional hegemons, which dominate distinct geographical areas” (Mearsheimer 2001).

After distinguishing, Mearsheimer continues the thought that, “The principal impediment to world domination is the difficulty of projecting power across the world’s oceans onto the territory of a rival great power. The United States, for example, is the most powerful state on the planet today. But it does not dominate Europe and Northeast Asia the way it does the Western Hemisphere, and it has no intention of trying to conquer and control those distant regions, mainly because of the stopping power of water” (Mearsheimer 2001). Due to oceans and lack of military projection power to overcome them summarily, Mearsheimer contends that global hegemony is unlikely.  In fact, “The best outcome a great power can hope for is to be a regional hegemon and possibly control another region that is nearby and accessible over land” (Mearsheimer 2001).

So, if it is true that the international system’s states are so defined by realists, caught in the Thucydides trap, as well as that global hegemony is impossible, could nuclear weapons present a challenge? It doesn’t seem true that superior nuclear capability can truly exist (even with unequal possession of warheads) given the shear payload potency of nuclear weaponry (at least amongst rational actors). Even if one state had superior launching architecture, it doesn’t seem likely that retaliatory nuclear strike(s) could be stopped soon enough. Nor could superpowers legitimately threaten weaker states with nuclear war, for if they did, the international community would immediately align against the superpower on shared survival principles alone (environmental damage, thwarting nuclear strikes becoming a norm). Likewise, from a game theory perspective, these shared incentives of rational actors would produce an alliance against nuclear equipped, eschatologically motivated actors as well. Therefore, due to mutually assured destruction, it seems unlikely that any actor would use such weapons. This is evidenced by a lack of nuclear deployment post the U.S.A. retaliation on Japan.  Additionally, the Cold War between U.S.A. and Soviet Union did not result in nuclear fallout.

Now that Thucydides statement has been translated into offensive realism with qualifications, this essay will shift to discuss how his claim works with multipolarity and regional hegemony. If regional hegemony is first limited by that it will not pursue global hegemony, one would have to agree, value wise, that separate, multipolar regional hegemonies are preferable to a tyrannical global hegemony. Regional hegemons simultaneously have shared and conflicting interests that check one another. So, this naturally restricts and produces multipolarity. However, it seems true that for a regional hegemony to exist, it must both exert power over its weaker, regional constituents as well as cooperate with them to a point. This is to say that yes, the strong will do what they will and the weak will suffer what they must, up to a point where they profit and share in hegemonic stability. Some regional hegemonies have improved the quality of life of their weaker constituents, like in the case of the Americas benefiting from the United States’ military protection or in the case of the trade of natural resources Africa supplies to its internal constituents and other regional hegemonies.

Just in the way that democratic peace theory posits that democracies are less likely to attack one another because of shared values, it could be likewise stated that regional hegemonies do not attack each other for shared security concerns (mutually assured destruction, for example). Therefore, there is a kind of peace potential in hegemonic stability. “Pax Romana” was one of the earliest examples of hegemonic stability. Literally translating to “Roman Peace”, the empire enjoyed relatively peaceful control of Europe and Northern Africa for over 200 years. As Joseph Grieco et al. note in “Introduction to International Relations”, “The historian Edward Gibbon coined the term Pax Romana to refer to the Roman Empire of the first and second centuries CE, when Rome maintained political control over vast reaches of Europe and Northern Africa (Gibbon 1996)” (Grieco 2015).

As regional hegemonies evolve from unipolar to multipolar, peace can be preserved by appeals not just to security but economics as well. “For example,” Grieco et al. report “after World War II, Western European countries and Japan joined the United States to jointly manage the capitalist world economy. Cooperation between these countries was not simply a result of American power. It was also manifest in their common interests and values and the way they shared leadership responsibilities” (Grieco 2015). Simply said, there is empirical justification for world stability predicated on regional hegemonic stability. In ancient or near contemporary cases, Thucydides’ claim holds true to an extent, but not in the sense that the strong can become so powerful that multipolarity is destroyed. In fact, as it has been shown, the strong often play an essential role in defining multipolarity.

This multipolarity, however, is not without cost, as forewarned by Thucydides. In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and occupied Sevastopol in an (successful) effort to bring Crimea into the Russian federation. As Tim Marshall notes in “Prisoners of Geography”, “The annexation of Crimea showed how Russia is prepared for military action to defend what it sees as its interests in what it calls its ‘near abroad’. It took a rational gamble that outside powers would not intervene and Crimea was ‘doable’” (Marshall 2016). This rational gamble paid off due to that the UN Security council did not start a major military conflict with Russia. More specifically, “Many politicians in the West breathed a sigh of relief and muttered quietly, ‘Thank goodness Ukraine isn’t in NATO or we would have had to act” (Marshall 2016).

It is unclear as to whether the Crimean annexation will serve the Ukraine’s interest as a weak state compared to Russia in the future. What is clear however, is that Russia’s successful annexation demonstrated regional hegemon balancing in that there was no dire incentive for other great powers to take serious, overt military action against Russia. Without endorsing Russia’s actions, this is unfortunately, due to a lack of grand hegemonic war, a modern example of regional hegemonic stability. Russia has suffered consequences from the international community in the form of sanctions and international image, demonstrating that regional hegemons are not immune to some reasonable punishment. Even if the strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must in the negative sense, hegemonic stability can still be salvaged as a result. If Russia’s gamble had not paid off, for example, the strong would have aligned against the weak: Russia without allies. It may be that Russia was never in any immediate danger of such a consequence. Such posture however, has had and will continue to have behavior calculating restrictions for the regional hegemony.

In conclusion, this essay has attempted to show that upon deep consideration of Thucydides’ claim, that “the strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must” is, with qualification, the essential progenitor of an emerging multipolar system. By grafting aspects of this claim’s relation to offensive realism onto the world stage, regional hegemony presents the means of peace by way of hegemonic stability, where both the weak and the strong are benefited. In the case of Russia, for example, even the strong have incentive to maintain rather than subvert the order brought about by preserving the anarchic backdrop of international affairs and the essence of Thucydides’ claim. Even when the weak are disadvantaged in specific cases, greater hegemonic stability for both the weak and strong at large can be achieved. It is not idyllic, but it is pragmatic for the strong to not want to become the weak. When examined with nuance, this incentive seems to prop the world up.

Featured image credit: “Bust of Thucydides, Undated” by nathanh100 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Disclaimer: This essay was originally written in November 2018

Bibliography

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