Sunday, February 20, 2011

Thucydides and the Maritime Sphere

Since Thursday I’ve been in San Antonio attending a Liberty Fund conference on Thucydides. I have some thoughts on our approach and on the general thrust of discussion over at LGM (and some thoughts on the utility of the iPad during conferences at iPatt), but here I thought that I’d talk a bit about a couple of the strategic and political issues we identified that had maritime implications.

  1. What accounts for the passivity of Athens initial strategy, and could a better strategy have been chosen? Even the primary advocates for war against Sparta pressed for a passive, peripheral strategy that avoided direct confrontation with Athenian land power. This led to the odd and potentially contradictory combination of Periclean rhetoric that emphasized passion, honor, duty, and sacrifice with policy that was coldly calculated, and that viewed the repeated Spartan depredations of Attica with dispassion. It is unclear that the Athenians ever had a clear, robust theory of the Spartan center of gravity. We get hints of such a theory occasionally, as when the Athenians feint toward supporting a helot revolt, or when Cleon emphasizes the need to humiliate Sparta in front of its allies following the disaster at Pylos. One of the reasons that the Sicilian Expedition seems poorly thought out is that it lacks a clear and obvious connection to the defeat of Sparta and Sparta’s allies. Indeed, the debate over the Sicilian Expedition seems characterized in large part by the need to use the greater portion of Athenian military power in some fashion, without a particularly well thought out idea of the connection between operations and strategy. At the conference, we theorized that the Athenian democracy may have been poorly constructed on this point, and not very good at linking operational capability to a broader strategic theory. We wondered whether this was generally the case with democracies, but didn’t come to any solid conclusions. For my own part, I’m quite skeptical that the Periclean strategy pursued by Athens at the outset of the war could have produced “victory” in any meaningful sense. I think that in the case of the Second Punic War, you do see a state pursuing a passive, peripheral strategy (at least after Cannae) to a successful conclusion, but it’s difficult for me to see how the Athenian strategy in the Peloponnesian War leads to a Spartan Zama.
  2. What was the relevance of Athenian seapower? Athens was obviously the major maritime power in the Peloponnese, although the Spartan coalition eventually defeated Athens at sea. The fleet was, in essence, Athens center of gravity; destruction of the fleet meant that the Athenian war effort could not survive. A question that emerged in one of the sessions was whether Athenian seapower had any “soft power” implications. Thucydides talk a bit about trade and about piracy, but he doesn’t provide a robust theory of seapower. We can probably assume that, as the dominant navy in the region, the Athenian fleet provided some of the collective goods that we associated with modern seapower. This is to say that it deterred the Persians, quelled piracy, facilitated trade, and probably carried out some basic relief and rescue functions. The Athenian navy obviously lacked big deck amphibs, and it probably lacked any kind of sophisticated theory of common goods, but simply by the weight of its numbers must have played a large role in such operations as rescuing shipwrecked sailors, carrying VIPs and merchants to new locales, and even resolving some maritime disputes. One might expect that some form of “soft power” would flow from this regulatory function. In Thucydides, however, this effect is nowhere in evidence. For the most part, people don’t like Athens, don’t see Athens as a necessary regulator, view Athenian military power in zero-sum terms, and often take risks in order to hurt Athens. This leads to a few questions. First, does Thucydides not see the soft power effect of maritime strength because he’s not looking for it? The idea that naval power can be positive sum is a relatively modern development, so the effect of Athenian systemic regulation might exist without anyone noticing its impact. This leads to a second question, however. Does the development of “soft power” through maritime means require a robust theory of the relationship between strong navies and system regulation? In other words, do we need a compelling theory of how navies create soft power in order for the effect to happen? If Athens allies didn’t have a vocabulary with which to understand the value of Athenian naval hegemony, and if Athens itself also lacked that vocabulary, then whatever positive effects Athenian power had might have been lost. Third, can we read Thucydides as a challenge to the idea that naval power (or really any power) can be understood in positive sum terms? Broadly speaking, the Athenians, their allies, and their enemies seem quite skeptical about the idea of positive sum interactions. Even the alliance against Persia is positive sum for the Greeks only. I wonder if Thucydides would be dismissive of the ideas that a cooperative seapower strategy could hold any benefit for a power with hegemonic aspirations.

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