The Thucydides Trap and the importance of context

At this highly unpredictable time in world politics, commentators are increasingly turning to the past to make sense of the present (I’m just as guilty as many far more eminent figures). As part of this trend the so-called ‘Thucydides trap’ has recently come to prominence, thanks to a project run by Harvard University’s Belfer Center and a forthcoming book by its director, Graham Allison. Allison is interested in the Greek historian Thucydides’ statement (at 1.23.6 of the History of the Peloponnesian War) that the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta (431-404 BC) was inevitable, because of the fear felt by the Spartans, an established power, of the rising Athenians. For him, this handful of words is a key to more recent historical confrontations, and the project website contains brief analyses of 16 other rivalries between ruling and rising powers between 1500 and today, making the point that 12 of these ended in war; readers can suggest other examples to be considered as part of the second phase of the project. Allison’s main thesis is that what happened with Sparta and Athens is a cautionary tale for today’s US and the threat allegedly posed to it by an ascendant China: it is in fact ‘the best lens for understanding the most critical foreign policy issue of our time’.

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EU countries and expat voting: united in diversity?

In a year of significant elections, this week has been particularly eventful in electoral terms, with the Turkish referendum, the surprise announcement of a UK general election, and the first round of voting for the next French president. In each country, overseas voting has made headlines, whether because of the contribution made by Turkish expats to the referendum result, the fact that the controversial 15-year limit on British non-residents’ right to vote will not be lifted in time for June 8, or the fear of cyber-attacks which means that French citizens overseas will not be able to vote online in legislative elections scheduled for mid-June.

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For people who live in democracies where they hold citizenship, voting is generally a fairly straightforward process (although there are exceptions). For long-term residents abroad (generally excluding those posted as diplomats or similar), it can be much more complicated. The UK is not the only country to limit the franchise for expatriates, although amongst current EU member states it is in a minority of five. Moreover, each country has its own ways of enabling expats to cast their ballots: the sheer diversity of this is impressive. I decided to look further into the different arrangements for overseas EU voters.

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Gesture politics: Beata Szydlo and Bibulus

This week the European Council met in Brussels. At the beginning of the summit, the reappointment as President of Donald Tusk, former Prime Minister of Poland, was blocked by Beata Szydlo, the current Polish Prime Minister, for domestic political reasons. Nevertheless, Tusk’s re-election was carried by 27 votes to one. In response, Szydlo refused to endorse the summit’s conclusions, which meant that for the first time ever the document summarising them was ‘supported by 27 Members of the European Council, but it did not gather consensus, for reasons unrelated to its substance’ (credit to whoever drafted that nicely understated turn of phrase). Cue strong words on the Polish side, more measured ones from Brussels, and headlines about ‘EU unity in ruins’.

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‘They believed that worse was still to come’: 2016 in Roman historiography

I’ve had a lot of new experiences since I left academic life a couple of years ago. One has been the realisation that the ancient historians I used to research and their presentation of politics and politicians are not as far removed from the contemporary world as they sometimes used to seem. One question I kept asking myself in 2016 was ‘how would Tacitus [the subject of my thesis] and his peers have described the year’s events?’ Over Christmas, I decided to ‘reconstruct’ one possible answer – in English and Latin.

(For anyone whose Latin is a bit rusty: plays on words in the Latin version are highlighted – unfortunately it’s all but impossible to translate these exactly, but I’ve marked what they literally mean in English.)

natio Belgarum divisa est in partes tres, quarum unam incolunt Flandrici, aliam Wallones, tertiam Bruxellani. urbem eorum, sicut ego accepi, condidere atque habuere initio pauci Germanorum Gallorumque quod, compluribus bellis gestis, quandam concordiam in varietate petebant. hi postquam in una moenia convenere, dispari genere, dissimili lingua, alii alio more viventes, incredibile memoratu est quam facile coaluerint. sed ubi labore atque iustitia res publica crevit, nationes magnae sine bello consociatae, aemula pactio Varsoviae ab stirpe interiit, decretum denique omnes eodem auro uti, saevire fortuna ac miscere omnia coepit.

The country of the Belgians is divided into three parts, one inhabited by the Flemish, one by the Walloons, and the third by the people of Brussels. Their city, I hear, was initially founded and occupied by a few Germans and Gauls, since after several wars they were seeking a kind of unity in diversity. After they had come together in one place, with their divergent origins, different languages and individual ways of life, the story of how easily they became unified is incredible. But when their state had grown through hard work and fair dealing, great nations had joined them without any fighting, their rival the Warsaw Pact had been completely obliterated, and finally it had been decided that everyone should use the same currency, fortune began to rage and to throw everything into confusion.

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Hostes publici and #enemiesofthepeople

It’s been another day of sweeping comparisons between the past and the present: this time, the slew of hysterical headlines responding to the UK high court’s ruling that a parliamentary vote will be required to trigger Article 50 have been seen to echo similar diatribes from 1930s Germany (and, interestingly, contemporary Poland). As I make clear every time I write about this, there are plenty of differences as well as similarities, although as 2016 goes by the feeling that we are living in a chapter of a history textbook is becoming more and more real. But the idea of ‘enemies of the people’ is not confined to Nazism: it goes back via the Russian and French revolutions all the way to ancient Rome. In that context it is often associated with the emperor Nero, who was declared a hostis publicus, or public enemy, after being deposed in AD 68 and died an ignominious death as he fled the city. But this was not the first or the most significant time someone was designated in this way.

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The republic restored? Horace, Augustus and Theresa May

This weekend I went to Xanten, near Duisburg in Germany, to visit its archaeological park, a large-scale reconstruction of an early Roman imperial settlement on the Rhine (the site is unlike any other I’ve been to and I highly recommend it). One of the recreated buildings juxtaposed politically-themed quotations from Latin authors with a photo of a modern parliament.

Explicit connections between past and present were not made and the visitor was left to draw his or her own conclusions: as I argued a few months ago when writing in the aftermath of Jo Cox’s murder about events in late republican Rome, it is not generally helpful to ask history to provide exact lessons for today. Developments in British politics in the last few days (and weeks, and months…) have been truly alarming, and I was particularly struck by the resemblance of Theresa May’s criticism of those ‘international elites’ who see themselves as ‘citizens of the world’ to passages in a speech made by Adolf Hitler in 1933, but once again the differences are as important as the similarities. The likelihood that the UK will go the same way as Germany in the 1930s is very low, not least as we have that awful warning. Still, at Xanten my attention was particularly drawn to the quotation quid leges sine moribus (see the picture above): what good are laws without morals? It is from the Odes, four books of poetry on a range of themes written by Quintus Horatius Flaccus (known in English as Horace) in the 20s and 10s BC.

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