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What Thucydides Can Teach Us About Today’s Multi-Matrixed World

“The History of the Peloponnesian War teaches that victory in such a war comes at enormous cost to both sides, so much so it can blur the distinction between victor and loser: everyone loses. This is the same lesson the conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza impart.”

The age of American hegemony in place since the end of the Cold War is over. The United States will remain an economic superpower and, if it navigates an incredibly divisive and legally complex election later this year, it can look forward to internal prosperity, but its role as global hegemon is coming to an end. While President Joe Biden asserts that “America n leadership holds the world together,” funding for Ukraine to fight back Russia’s invasion remains blocked in a partisan political system. There is a cumulative tiredness and disillusionment around America’s foreign interventions. A second Donald Trump presidency would rapidly accelerate America’s retreat from the global stage and seriously undermine alliances like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), foundations of the post-1945 international system.

A fear that the United States will abandon Ukraine is causing much consternation in European capitals, but also in Taiwan and with all of America’s allies worldwide. We are moving into a new era, in which international norms are fragmenting, and new dynamics of power are forcing violent change. Øystein Tunsjø, at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies, argued in 2020 that the world had entered a new United States–China bipolar international system. While China’s domestic stability and prosperity usually takes precedence for Beijing, and there are challenges to both on the horizon, when it comes to foreign policy, Beijing’s priority is managing its superpower rivalry with the United States. Graham Allison of Harvard University’s Kennedy School has suggested that this emerging superpower rivalry will lead to conflict more often than not.

Allison turns to a passage in Greek historian Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, the fifth century B.C. conflict between Athens and Sparta. Thucydides writes: “The growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Lacedaemon, made war inevitable.” In his book, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?, Allison defines the Thucydides trap (a term he coined in a 2012 article) as a tendency toward war when an emerging power threatens to displace an existing great power as the hegemon. Allison does not argue that war is always inevitable but, rather, that it is a strong and increasing possibility, claiming, “When a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power,” as China arguably threatens to displace the United States, “the resulting structural stress makes a violent clash the rule, not the exception.” Allison is not the only person to warn of a potential conflict. In 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping cautioned, “We all need to work together to avoid the Thucydides trap.”

More recently, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, French President Emmanuel Macron, and Russian President Vladimir Putin have all claimed we are moving into a multipolar world where, instead of American hegemony, states cluster around three or more regional and global powers, motivated by survival and mutual benefit rather than any specific ideology. The European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, asserts a system of “complex multipolarity” has been in place since the 2008 financial crisis.

For me, Indian journalist M.J. Akbar, former Minister of State for External Affairs in the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is closer when he claims we are in a system of multi-alignment. According to Akbar, Prime Minister Modi envisions India as a great power among other great powers, aligning with different partners on different issues. I believe a better description is a “multi-matrixed” world. It is not news that the world is interconnected and interdependent.

The extent and complexity of this interconnectivity and interdependency is only now being understood, as the world goes through a period of fragmentation. States are exposed to the complex matrices of relationships they belong to as some of them begin to break apart. This fragmentation is pushing us into an era of polycrisis, where local and regional crises often become global, and seemingly unconnected crises compound each other. International norms of justice and accountability are being shattered by leaders acting with impunity. Disparate crises interact such that the overall impact far exceeds the sum of the parts.

An anchoring of security, trade, and energy policies onto one or more new “poles” will not be enough for states to thrive or even survive in this new era. Instead, states need to develop complex matrices of new relationships with different and sometimes contradictory partners, both other states and multinational institutions, while mitigating interplaying risks outside of the control of any single state or intrastate body. The most powerful of these is climate change.

We see climate change interacting with other threats, with diminishing land and water resources putting pressure on historic fault lines of conflict and leading to increasingly frequent  clashes. Climate-driven migration creates second-order consequences and compounds existing social tensions. Journalist Robert D. Kaplan suggests “Indeed, because ‘those at the margins’ now constitute the centre of history, no place—be it the interior of Morocco or north-eastern Libya or the African Sahel—is obscure anymore. We are all in this together, as the natural world acts as a trigger for the geopolitical one, and as a planetary, ecological history competes with national histories.”

There will be upsides, though, for countries with the right connections and resources. There will be new opportunities as we attempt a transition away from fossil fuels, and the transformative power of artificial intelligence (AI) allows some countries to leap ahead. However, while new virtual worlds will promise an end to scarcity, AI will likely increase inequality between those who have access and those who do not, those whose jobs are enhanced by AI and those whose jobs are replaced by it. The data centers built to support this growth will require new sources of energy as their needs accelerate past what existing national grids can supply, undermining commitments to expensive green pledges. Services formerly provided by states are increasingly provided by private enterprises. AI may give those previously seen as the disruptive fringe outsized means to influence audiences and swing votes through data populism. Again, those at the margins may constitute the center of history.

While the multi-matrixed world is more complex than a bipolar world, United States-China tensions will still be a key driver of geopolitical uncertainty. There is still much to learn from Thucydides, who hoped his book would be useful to “those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future.” He wanted the History to be “a possession for all time.”

For Thucydides, war occurs through the interaction of human nature, our agency, and chance. He believed human nature is unchanging and does not vary appreciably from one place to another. Former United States National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster agrees: “War is human. People fight today for the same fundamental reasons the Greek historian Thucydides identified nearly 2,500 years ago: fear, honor, and interest.”

Thucydides was a political realist and saw fear, honor, and interest as the strongest motives of state decision making in peace and war, rather than ideological notions of the common good or justice. During a debate in Sparta the Athenians claimed, “it has always been the law that the weaker should be subject to the stronger” and accused the Spartans of appealing to justice out of  “calculations of interest.” Thucydides makes no comment on how people ought to be but aims to describe them as they are. His insights can help us understand a growing number of autocratic leaders who today feel they can act with impunity as they perceive the superior strength of the United States waning.

While there could be universal characteristics across ages and geographies, we are also creatures born into a specific place and time, and Thucydides’ characteristics need to be understood through the lens of these specifics. Despite all we have in common, conflict is often the result of misunderstanding. In his review of Allison’s book, Arthur Waldron, Lauder Professor of International Relations at the University of Pennsylvania, claims much of the tension between the United States and China is not due to a Thucydidean conflict of rising powers but, “the pervasive lack of knowledge of China—a country which is, after all, run by the Communist Party, the police, and the army, and thus difficult to get to know. This black hole of information has perversely created an overabundance of fantasies, some very pessimistic.”

Sparta’s mistrust and fear of Athens were in place decades before the 431 B.C. date Thucydides identifies as the beginning of the war. Fear of Athenian intentions prompted the Spartans to dismiss Athenian troops sent to provide aid following the earthquake in Sparta in 465 B.C. By 454 B.C., the expansion of Athenian power was already well established, when they transferred the treasury of the Delian League from Delos to Athens, demonstrating that the Greek “alliance” against Persia was now no more than an Athenian empire.

Waldron cites the work of classicists Donald Kagan and Ernst Badian, who both note that the thousand-plus Greek city states of the period grouped into shifting alliances around Sparta and Athens, had already been locked in almost continuous low-level conflict for more than fifty years prior to 431 B.C. but had managed to avoid large-scale war. They argue that, even though their peoples were not acquainted, their leaders formed a web of friendships that maintained alliances and quelled the passions for war caused by fear, honor, and interest. They suggest it was not until 429 B.C., two years after Thucydides’ start date for the war, when the Athenian leader and the key man in this web, Pericles, was killed by plague, that uncontrolled popular passions took over, and the war spiraled out of control.

Despite leaders in the United States and China being aware of the Thucydides trap, there is still a gulf of understanding between them. For both, it is important to understand each other’s modes of decision-making: what generates fear, what could be seen as a slight to honor, what their key interests are. This will not just require leaders of both nations to engage in regular dialogue and take time to understand the specific lens through which each other sees the world, but for this to be repeated at every level of government. In a multi-matrixed world, this is true for all nations. At a time when countries like the United Kingdom are reducing their diplomatic services, they need to increase their ability to understand an increasingly complex world, and build new alliances as old ones become fragile.

The making, maintaining, and breaking of alliances were key in the Peloponnesian War. It was alliances that brought states together on the battlefield, and alliances that eventually decided the victor. Sparta allied with Persia to gain the resources they needed to build a navy strong enough to defeat a weakened Athenian navy at Aegospotami in 405 B.C. European countries will need to increasingly rely on a patchwork of alliances to deal with threats. Some within existing wider alliances, such as the deals signed by Baltic and Nordic nations within NATO focused on the threat from Russia, are starting to develop, as are new alliances such as AUKUS, the trilateral security partnership for the Indo-Pacific region between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

We also see the increase in alliances that do not include Western powers. For example, this year the BRICS bloc (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) expanded to include Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Similarly, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, founded in 2001 by China, Russia, and several former Soviet republics, has grown since 2017 to include India, Iran, and Pakistan. Traditional intergovernmental bodies (like the United Nations Security Council) are becoming increasingly irrelevant. Western powers will need to consider how to develop the best relationships with these new alliances.

New alliances will also be needed with private companies, especially companies that control essential technologies. Ukraine has done this with several American tech companies to protect its communications during the war with Russia. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ministers took time in November to meet with Elon Musk to persuade him to reduce anti-Semitism on X, and not to deploy Starlink communications in Gaza unless the Israeli government gives permission.

As it becomes more and more difficult to predict second- and third-order impacts in chains of cause and effect, Thucydides reminds us of the role of chance in human affairs, especially in the conduct of war, that most chaotic of human activities. An Athenian delegation visiting Sparta before the war provides one example: “consider the vast influence of accident in war, before you are engaged in it.” Pericles tells the people of Athens: “Sometimes the course of things is as arbitrary as the plans of man; indeed this is why we usually blame chance for whatever does not happen as we expected.” Chance regularly intervenes, such as the eclipse during Nicias’ retreat from Syracuse that prompted the soothsayers warning which prevented their escape, and the storm following the Athenian naval victory at Arginusae, to deliver what Thucydides calls, “the surprises which upset human calculations.”

Perhaps the most important lesson Thucydides imparts is that wars between great powers are not won by one key battle but usually result in drawn-out attrition warfare. The History of the Peloponnesian War teaches that victory in such a war comes at enormous cost to both sides, so much so it can blur the distinction between victor and loser: everyone loses. This is the same lesson the conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza impart. In the years leading up to the war, no one on either side could have imagined that events were leading to such a devastating war. But even over the temporary six-year peace which ran from 421-416 B.C., the people of Athens seemingly forgot the true impact of the preceding years of fighting when, after the successful Athenian invasion of Melos in 416 B.C., in lust for more glory they quickly supported an invasion of Sicily which would surely reignite wider war:

“All alike fell in love with the enterprise. The older men thought…with so large a force, meet with no disaster; those in the prime of life felt a longing for foreign sights and spectacles, and had no doubt that they should come safe home again; while the idea of the common people and the soldiery was to earn wages at the moment, and make conquests that would supply a never-ending fund of pay for the future…With this enthusiasm of the majority, the few that liked it not, feared to appear unpatriotic by holding up their hands against it, and so kept quiet.”

The Melian Dialogue, which describes the overpowering of Melos, is one of the best-known passages of The History. The Athenian envoys give the Melians a choice of destruction or surrender, telling them not to appeal to justice, but to think only about their survival, claiming, “you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” The Athenians believe that by “extending our empire we should gain in security by your subjection.”

The Melians argue that “you [the Athenians] should not destroy what is our common protection, the privilege of being allowed in danger to invoke what is fair and right.” Their appeal to a sense of justice that benefits all falls on deaf ears, and they are crushed by the Athenians, suggesting Thucydides wants to show us the naivety of their idealism. But Athenian overreach on the Sicilian Expedition weakens them, contributing to their defeat at Aegospotami. Thucydides shows us that states that follow the logic of power without moderation or considerations of justice eventually make themselves vulnerable to superior forces, and all empires are eventually defeated.

It is an example President Putin could learn much from. But all states can learn from it, as well. As international norms break down, more autocratic rulers will follow the Athenian logic of superiority, if they can do so with impunity. States need to ensure they can provide their most basic service to their people: that of security. To do so they must invest in the alliances and institutions that hold those who break these norms accountable. But, as Thucydides shows us, the belief in one’s own power is intoxicating. States must also invest in their own capabilities to counter the threats of hybrid war from adversaries and build the right alliances with others whose interest it will be to join their defense.

As the Peloponnesian War heralded the end of the Golden Age of Greece, the wars of the next few years could herald the end of the post-1945 period in a similarly brutal shift, one that sees violence and atrocities becoming an everyday occurrence for many. The Greek civilization Thucydides portrays cannot imagine the elimination of war from human experience, and neither must we. His vivid description of war, its causes, and its destructive effects has resonated across the millennia. In a multi-matrixed world, traps abound. Perhaps the greatest trap is believing one can isolate himself from the global risks we face. Instead, it is more important than ever to build a matrix of friendships and alliances, while seeking to understand the fears, honor, and interests of rivals. Misunderstandings, human nature, and bad luck will combine to trigger some of the traps we face, but if we learn from Thucydides, we may find they are not all inevitable.

Andy Owen is a former soldier who writes about the philosophy and ethics of war and geopolitics. He has been published in TIME, Aeon, The Spectator, The New European, and The Critic. His fictionalized memoir, Land of the Blind, which tells the story of the intelligence war in Afghanistan, is due to be published next month. 

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