The Pacific countries have tended to look to the USA for protection in territorial disputes and general security, stimulating their peaceful economic expansion. But the more powerful China becomes, the more unacceptable it may find America’s involvement in the region, and the question has been posed: will it be the Peloponnesian War (431-404 bc) all over again?
The great contemporary historian of that war, the Athenian Thucydides, produced an analysis of its outbreak that has a terrifyingly plausible ring to it: ‘In my view the real reason, true but unacknowledged, is that the growth of Athenian [Chinese] power and the fear this generated in (the original super-power) Sparta [USA] made war inevitable.’ But then — significantly — he goes on to give ‘the apparent reasons expressed on both sides at the time’, which had their origins much earlier.
In 446 bc the Athenians and Spartans, knowing that war between them was all too possible, had tried to preclude it with a 30-year peace treaty. The consequence was that Greece was basically divided into two ‘empires’ — a land-based one, led by Sparta, and a maritime one, led by Athens. Let each side stick to its own domain, and peace was assured.
But Athens started picking away at territory where, if Sparta had no direct interests — the Black Sea, its approaches and Corcyra [Corfu] — one of Sparta’s main allies, Corinth, did. Eventually Corinth could take it no more, and appealed to Sparta to protect it (‘while Athens can get away with it because of your inattention, they will be careful; when they know that you simply do not care, they will go for it’). Sparta agreed, and the war began. Sparta had technically broken the treaty; but there is little doubt that Athens provoked it.
Thucydides saw that the ‘apparent’ reasons for war (Athens’ chipping away at the spirit of the treaty by provoking Sparta’s allies) disguised Athens’ ‘real’ intent, i.e. to lure Sparta into breaking the treaty. If China and the US can reach an accord, but China then starts ‘apparently’ seeing what it can get away with, Thucydides’ analysis may become all too horribly prescient.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 20 October 2012