Walter Russell Mead: Is Fear The Father Of Us All?

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Walter Russell Mead is Henry A. Kissinger senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World. He blogs at]

If a specter haunts the chancellories of America, it isn’t communism and it isn’t Karl Marx. It’s Thucydides, the chronicler of the 30 year Peloponnesian War between ancient Sparta and Athens that led to the comprehensive defeat of the world’s first great democratic power. The assumptions most Americans bring to the study of foreign policy — that there are win-win solutions for most problems, that democracy makes for a more peaceful world, that international law can prevail and that power need not be the final arbiter in human affairs — strike Thucydides as pious, nonsensical claptrap.

Unfortunately, he was a very smart man, and much of what he wrote makes sense.

Democracies are as likely to fight as oligarchies and perhaps more so, says Thucydides. The mob loves glory as much any tyrant, and tyrants and oligarchies will sometimes refrain from foreign adventures because they want to keep the army at home. Worse, democracies are not only likely to go to war, once at war they are likely to fight more brutally and more ineffectually than their enemies. Ruled by unscrupulous and incompetent demagogues with no real understanding of the world, democracies are slaves to the passing fads of the moment. Their moods swing from arrogance to despair and they are unable to stick to a coherent long term strategy.

The American love of commerce and the faith that growth in trade will limit war cuts no ice with this hard headed Greek. Trade breeds empire and war, not prosperity and peace, Thucydides finds....

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