The triumph of American hegemony following the fall of the Soviet Union caused the United States to take a new and awe-inspiring role on the world stage. Standing alone as a uni-polar superpower, the nation’s post-Cold War foreign policy was emboldened by an ambitious confidence in American power and an unwavering belief in the universal applicability of liberal principles. Embodying the high spirit felt among Western leaders just before the Soviets formally dissolved their Union, political scientist Francis Fukuyama theorized that the end of the Cold War symbolized not only a temporary peace, but “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” In this assumption, Fukuyama disregarded the first lesson of Thucydides: that power is best entrusted to those “who enjoy a healthy skepticism regarding their own (and humanity’s) capacity for clever strategy.” Fukuyama later revised his revolutionary hypothesis, but the retreat of liberal democracy across the world in modern times coupled with the rapid ascendancy of an authoritarian China, renders everything short of a “rescindment” a half-measure.
Graham Allison, a renowned political scientist, has argued that the successful mitigation of direct confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union was not the result of haphazard policy, but the product of deliberate concessions and careful diplomacy conducted by both American and Soviet leaders over the course of a 40-year timespan. While the superiority of America’s liberal democratic form of government certainly contributed to its ultimate victory, it was far from its guarantee: as the United States was reminded during the Vietnam War, “overwhelming economic might” and societal superiority does not guarantee victory when one possesses “a fundamentally flawed strategic vision.” As Allison and his team of Harvard researchers discovered, the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union was one of four instances, out of sixteen, in modern history that a great power competition ultimately did not end in full-on armed conflict. An example of the necessary strategic cunning that it took for the United States to ultimately defeat the Soviets without formal war ever being declared was Henry Kissinger and President Richard Nixon’s famous trip to China and pursuit of détente with the Chinese in order to counterbalance the U.S.S.R. American leaders would be well-advised today to remember that the Cold War was won not by some inevitable historical arc, but by the diligent and reasoned behavior of diplomats and strategists who carefully weighed the interests of the nation and its values.
Later in the intra-Hellenic war the threat of Athenian domination loomed over Corcyra as Spartan soldiers roamed its streets. As the Athenian empire amassed naval forces that lurched towards the polis, the Spartans chose to strategically withdraw from Corcyra, convinced that they could not properly stave off a siege. With their withdrawal came revolution: the oligarchs installed by the Spartans were pit against common folk, and soon enough “The People” — as Thucydides would refer to them — overturned the oligarchy via revolution. Death, destruction, and war befell Corcyra, and the moderate virtues which inhabited the wisest among them fell out of fashion. Religious and social mores became irrelevant, temples no longer warranted their designation as holy places, and mob violence overtook the polis. Worse yet, this chaos sown began to spread across the Hellenes, inspiring revolutions across the region’s patchwork of interdependent city-states. Another plague beset the divided Hellenes, albeit one which spread by word-of-mouth and not viral infection.
The collapse of order is not an orderly process. It is often, as Thucydides indicates, a largely slow process that accelerates all at once, much like the outbreak of a viral disease. It encompasses all of society, leading to bizarre sights such as modern-day Visigoths occupying the United States Capitol, not because the government lacks the power to stop them from entering the complex, but because they never expected such an occurrence to be within the realm of possibility. When Pericles died, Thucydides remarked of it in a single line, without much emphasis. It gives the reader pause but also the sense that his death, however shocking to the people at the time, was a sudden and surreal experience. Similarly, former President of the Czech Republic Vaclav Havel has remarked that the rapid rise of China in the post-Soviet period has been so fast that “we have not yet had time to be astonished”. Such moments of compounded crisis extract the depth warranted by deeply impactful moments, necessary for genuine reflection, and accelerate a cycle of chaos without properly accentuating the moral weight of the moment. This, in turn, leads to the systematic misanalysis of events which would normally invoke prudence and humility.
In the same way that Pericles’ death to the plague did not sharpen Athenian resolve to proceed deliberately, the rapid ascendancy of China and the diminution of domestic American sociopolitical order has only worsened domestic turmoil and the strategic capacity of Western leaders to “lean back” and rationally analyze the global landscape. Kinesis has been placed into overdrive, and it will take not just one but many Diodotus-like figures to strike the necessary balance between American prowess and a measured, realistic approach to current affairs. Proper judgement can be viewed as “cowardice” amid chaos and unrest, but the plague of pride’s trajectory is well-known, and eventually all under its spell fly too close to the sun. The hazard of temporary unpopularity in pursuit of grand strategic success is a risk worth taking according to Thucydides, especially when the stakes are so high.
Allison, Graham (2015, September). The Thucydides Trap: Are the U.S. and China Headed for War? The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/09/united-states-china-war-thucydides-trap/406756/
Fukuyama, Francis (1989). The End of History? The National Interest, 16, 3-18. https://www.jstor.org/stable/24027184
Loriaux, Michael & Monsoon, S. Sara. The Illusion of Power and the Disruption of Moral Norms: Thucydides’ Critique of Periclean Policy. The American Political Science Review, 92(2), 285-297. https://doi.org/10.2307/2585664 Thucydides. The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War (Strassler, R. B., Ed.). Free Press: A Division of Simon & Schuster.
 Loriaux, M. & Monsoon, S. S. The Illusion of Power and the Disruption of Moral Norms: Thucydides’ Critique of Periclean Policy. The American Political Science Review, 92(2), 295. https://doi.org/10.2307/2585664
 Allison, G. (2015, September). The Thucydides Trap: Are the U.S. and China Headed for War? The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/09/united-states-china-war-thucydides-trap/406756/
 Bernstein, A., Knox, M., & Murray, W. (Eds.). (1994). The Making of Strategy: Rulers, States, and War. Cambridge University Press. 19.
 Thucydides, 199-201.
 Thucydides, 195.
 Graham, 5.
 Loriaux & Monsoon, 291.
 Thucydides, 179-183.
 Thucydides, 199-201.