Essays & Reviews

Colin S. Gray on Thucydides and the Definition of Future Threats

Colin S. Gray, Professor of International Politics and Strategic Studies at the University of Reading, England, published a monograph with the Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, on “Thucydides was Right: Defining the Future Threat.” Gray’s analysis is more in the spirit of Thucydides than a close reading of his Peloponnesian War, but here are some points worth contemplating:

The United States should not seek, because it would not find, specific instructions in Thucydides as to what should be defined as threatening. But, what it can and should find is education both on how great powers behave and what the hazards may prove to be in that behavior. The definition of future threat should encourage prudential defense planning in line with the country’s desired, albeit self-disciplined, role and responsibility in the international system.

Risk and danger cannot be eschewed and thereby avoided conclusively, but the whole record of strategic history offers education in the high value of balancing power. I must add hastily that history also warns of the practical difficulty in achieving such balance, and especially of the risks and danger that are apt to beset the pursuit of immoderate greatness. Preeminent uni­lateral hegemony will always be challengeable sooner or later, typically the former, but it need not be effect­ed in a power transition process fatal for world order.

Power transition necessarily has characterized all of strategic history, but to date, of course, it has never been coerced or negotiated in the context of nuclear armament. American preeminence as a, and then the only, superpower for a while in the 1990s is particular­ly peril-prone both because of its nuclear backstop and the reluctance or even inability of many Americans to see themselves as they need to in the great stream of human history. U.S. superstate prominence has been a physical and psychological reality since 1943–44, but this reality requires understanding as a passing dynamic episode contextual in history.

When, as here, we think about future threat, we have to consider how the United States may best con­tinue to perform a benign hegemonic role in interna­tional security. There is a problem in that Americans have difficulty understanding that their country, not­withstanding its unique features, in the last analysis simply is yet another state that has no practicable choice other than to play the game of nations along with everyone else. There is only one game, and it has proceeded through all of strategic history from the time of Athenian and Spartan competitive preemi­nence until today. Contemplating the future threat to security, we should proceed unconfused by our do­mestic ideology of uniqueness. Future threat will lurk in the malign influence of foreigners’ fear, their ener­getic determination to protect their reputations, and in their definition of national interests that may not be compatible with our own.

Thucydides wrote about the great war of his life­time, on the safe assumption that there would be other great wars in other times involving other polities. He was unsparing of human folly and error, and he be­lieved that his revelation of such might have some useful benign educational effect.

Following the Greek author in spirit at least, I believe that a robustly and sufficiently evidenced grasp of how states need to be­have in order to balance power is key to preserving the international order vital to future security. Ironically perhaps, America’s ability to define future threat in a way conducive to the protection of important values is hindered by the experience and legacy of extraordi­nary national hegemony. This is understandable, even if not well understood currently. An important source of difficulty lies in the relative modernity of active American participation in the game of nations. The genuine risks and dangers of the Cold War served in practice to hide the fact that the great Soviet–Ameri­can Cold War was far from unprecedented in strategic history, save only for the uniquely challenging addi­tion of weapons of mass destruction to the equation of high risk.

Thucydides leaves us no doubt that the principal threat to the security of Athenians flowed more from the distinctly flawed working of the empire’s democratic politics, especially its procliv­ity to promote crowd pleasing demagogues who were short of competence, high ethical standards, or both, than from vengeful Persians or strategically pedestrian Spartans. Political ruin tends to begin and end at home. Students of international relations need to remember this plain warning from the historical record.