Plato, Laches (Fourth Century BC)

One might wonder what someone as supposedly “abstract” or “metaphysical” as Plato could offer by way of strategic insight. Why should practical men, not philosophers, read Plato? Although one could point to a number of examples showing both the speculative and practical worth of the Platonic corpus, the Laches stands out for two reasons. The first is that it is a dialogue on courage, or more literally “manliness,” which seems a quality above all necessary for the successful conduct of warfare.

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Polybius, The Histories (circa 150 BC)

Polybius’ origins as a servant of the Achaean League is interesting in part because he offers a vision of international politics between world domination and total anarchy—a sophisticated alliance system of similar democratic regimes that fended off, on both the strategic and diplomatic level, domination by the more powerful Sparta, Macedon, and Rome. The corollary to the rise of Rome is the decline of the Achaean League, and the Histories of Polybius marks out various possibilities for how we can envision the ordering of international life. Political history reveals that there are far more possibilities to political life than those straitjacketed by modern theory may suppose. In this regard Polybius continues the tradition of classical political science and the classical approach to political history as expressed by Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon.

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Reading “On War” for the First Time

Where to begin? Authors felled forests in pursuit of analyzing On War, the seminal work of Carl von Clausewitz. Renowned strategic thinkers in the ages since its publication expanded on, clarified, or critiqued its insights into the conduct of war. In this light, the vast collections of materials associated with On War hardly seem to call for another addition to their midst. What else is there to say? As it turns out, there is a great deal to discuss with one particular group – first-time readers of the classic.

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Rudyard Kipling, Kim (1901)

Rudyard Kipling is known today as the poet laureate of British imperialism and of the "White Man's Burden" – titles that are no longer much in fashion, although Kipling’s literary reputation has recovered in recent decades. His body of work includes the great novel, Kim, the story of an orphaned Anglo-Indian boy who is drawn into the Great Game – the geopolitical contest in the 19th century between Britain and Russia for the domination of Asia. For the British at least, this contest ultimately meant the control of India. Kim is a classic of the espionage genre – former CIA Director Allen Dulles had a well-read copy on his bedside table at the time of his death – but it is also a chronicle in miniature of the Great Game and the ethnography of the Indian subcontinent.

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Sun Tzu, The Art of War (c. 500-300 B.C.)

This classic of Eastern thought draws from Taoist philosophy and addresses the conduct of war and competition between states with poeticism unlike any classic of Western military theory. Thought to be the transcriptions of a general’s advice to his king, The Art of War emphasizes the use of the unorthodox and deception to overcome adversaries without jeopardizing the dynasty’s existence during a period of increase lethality of warfare.

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Tacitus, Agricola (circa 98 AD)

The Agricola (On the Life and Character of Julius Agricola) is a riveting read. A classic work crafted by the Roman politician and historian Cornelius Tacitus at the very end of the first century AD, modern students of strategy and diplomacy continue to find the account of Roman general and politician Agricola’s exploits in Britain timely and relevant. Part eulogy, part history, part anthropological study, and part military analysis, among other things, the short work explores diverse topics while ostensibly being Tacitus’s way of honoring his father-in-law. Three topics stand out – Agricola as a study of leadership, politics, and counterinsurgency strategy.

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Tacitus, The Annales (early Second Century AD)

Like many of the great historians and thinkers of antiquity, Tacitus was renowned as a rhetorician and capable in the use of language, a skill that no doubt aided him as a writer of political history during the reign of the tyrannical Domitian. Indeed, his cognomen, meaning “the silent” is both ironical and true. For while Tacitus was known for speaking, in the Annales we see a deft use of omission and quietness in discussing the banal brutality of a Tiberius or a Nero, as well as double-meaning and discreet satire. Tacitus’ project is the problem of tyranny, and the possibility of virtue under tyranny.

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Thomas Hobbes, On the Citizen (1642)

Hobbes’s contribution to international relations theory is, for all its significance, rather indirect. Hobbes sets out to give an account of the origin and preservation of internal political order. His practical intention is to foster peace, primarily within and only secondarily among nations. Yet Hobbes invites us to draw lessons about international relations from his political theory when he identifies the state that countries find themselves in as the state of nature. The way to Hobbes’s theory of international relations is therefore largely inferential in character.

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