James R. Holmes: Thucydides, Japan and America

Roundup: Media's Take

James R. Holmes is a defence analyst for The Diplomat and an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College where he specializes in US, Chinese and Indian maritime strategy and US diplomatic and military history. 

University of Georgia undergraduates used to look at me quizzically when I told them you can learn ninety percent of what you need to know about diplomacy and war by studying a war fought two millennia ago, in a postage-stamp-size theater, between alliances armed with—as my colleagues in Newport like to joke—spears and rowboats. Yet it’s true. War and politics are human endeavors. The dynamics of human interaction endure from age to age. The remainderis mere technological change.

That’s why Thucydides’ chronicle of the Peloponnesian War still captivates readers. Including policymakers, I hope. As Japanese and American emissaries revise the U.S.-Japan defense cooperation guidelines for the first time since 1998, they could do worse than crack open Thucydides’ history. Tokyo and Washington intend to open discussions early next month, presumably in hopes of adapting the guidelines to China’s military rise. A zero-based review of alliance relations ought to incorporate some historical perspective. Who better to consult than the father of history?

Thucydides proffers numerous insights into the workings—and dysfunctions—of alliances and coalitions. How lesser allies relate to greater ones—and vice versa—is of acute interest to him, as it should be for Washington and Tokyo. Alliance relations is about more than power. The strong cannot simply dictate to weaker partners, lest they provoke rebellion or passive-aggressive cooperation. Mutual accommodation is the rule among successful alignments...

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