This one almost ended up as another channel trailer. I initially produced a video making fun of the Thucydides Trap when it was first publicized in the Atlantic over five years ago. I thought it was a profoundly silly concept from the start. Unfortunately, it’s become a phenomenon. Just go to Google News and type in “Thucydides Trap” and you’ll find that it is mentioned at least weekly in one article on US-China relations or another. This misuse of the concept is quite sad, because Thucydides actually does have a very useful story to tell policy-makers in the United States. In today’s video, I lay out that story, and use it as the foundation for my pitch for the third of three options for this channel’s next new project. You now have the all the information you need to vote!
Video Transcript after the jump…
Hey there! We’re down to the last ten days of voting on this channel’s next big topic. It looks like a clear favorite is emerging, but we’ve still got half the votes uncounted, and there’s plenty of time to sign up and make your voice heard. Today we’ll lay out the last of the three options, one that actually includes the other two options, and really, everything else. Today I want to talk about US empire. And to do that, I want to talk Thucydides. Thucydides was a historian, writing about 2400 years ago. His topic was a decades long war between Athens and Sparta that he had participated in. Now, you may think it’s ridiculous to look to these ancient agrarian slave states for examples that determine the fate of world-spanning empire. And I would agree with you completely. I have a five year old video talking about how stupid the comparison is, but the US military industrial complex persists in using it, so let’s try to do a better job with it than they do. It won’t be hard.
In the Washington, DC version we keep getting sold, The United States is Sparta, the old established power. And China is Athens, the new, surging power. Because these slave driving majority pre-literate societies couldn’t figure out how to live within 150 miles of each other, the United States and China are destined to fight. LIke I said. Stupid. But this infantile approach is also pretty insulting to Thucydides, who had a much richer story to tell. And if you actually read Thucydides, as I admittedly haven’t for like two decades, it becomes very clear that the United States fits much more easily into the role of Athens than Sparta. Let me tell you the way I see this story.
2500 years ago the Greek world faced an existential threat. The Persians wanted to swallow it whole both with overwhelming force, and with an ideology of submission that the Greeks found repellent. The movie 300 has cemented the idea that beating Persia was all about the Spartans but in truth the Athenians were probably more than equal partners in this. Like the Russians against the Nazis in World War II, or the Chinese against the Soviets if the Cold War had turned hot, the Spartans provided indispensable land armies. But it was Athens that provided the logistics, the Navy, the wealth and the diplomacy that tied all the other Greek city states together. The United States sounds a lot more like Athens than Sparta to me.
Like the Allies in World War II and the US block in the Cold War, the Greeks ended the Persian threat to their lands, with a bunch of battles you may have heard about. What Thucydides documents is what happened after Marathon and Salamis. You see, Athens got to like the league of allied city states it had put together. And Long after the Persian threat had faded, Athens kept getting harsher and harsher to the Greek political units that didn’t want to play along. The Athenian led alliance became the Athenian empire. Does that sound at all familiar?
Like the Athenians, the US got so used to leading a fight that they refused to stop leading after the fight was over. Athens asserted it’s dominance in very straightforward ways, with open theft and genocide. In our modern post-industrial society, the weapons are usually more subtle. Innocuous Acronyms like FATCA, OFAC, and CFIUS may not mean much to you, but honest attorneys recognize the power grabs they represent. US laws are slowly becoming the world’s laws. We used to let other countries have big companies, but that’s not the case anymore. And countries that refuse to bend the knee are subject to consequences just as horrific as the ones that the Athenians imposed.
This is the story of US empire I would like to tell. Not just the more obvious one of pointless destruction in places like the Middle East and Latin America, but the tale of diminished freedom everywhere, as US institutions continue to use technology and law to force our way of life on the world. This is a vital story, not just because of its titanic scale, but because it is getting worse.
Three decades ago, we used the principle of freedom from aggression to justify our occupation of the Middle East. We couldn’t let Iraq use military force against its snaller neighbor. As of today, we have spent five years defending Saudi Arabia’s invasion of its neighbor, and we just recognized Morocco’s annexation of war won territory in return for minor favors for a client state.
That’s how far we have fallen in just thirty years. What will things look like in another thirty? The war that thucydides documented came about, not because a Sparta or a China, got uppity, but because everybody else got sick of Athenian bullshit, and gravitated towards Sparta to help rid them of it.
Athens lost that conflict miserably, which also led, within a few decades, to the end of the classical era of Greek freedom. A conflict like that involving the United States could very well lead to the end of human civilization. It’s not like the US world system doesn’t provide benefits, it absolutely does. Any series on US Empire would have to acknowledge that, but the power and prosperity the US has brought also leads naturally to attempts to consolidate and abuse that power. There isn’t enough media out there that talks about both sides of the equation.
It’s a bit disingenuous for me to suggest a new series on US empire. Like all 500 videos on this channel are already about US empire to some extent. But if you choose this option I would be able to step back and look at the big picture of the past century. It’s a story I intend to tell eventually. You get to decide if I tell it next.
Thanks for watching, please subscribe. Only ten days left to vote. If you want to help choose this channel’s future you can sign up to do so at the Patreon link here, then click on the link to the poll in this video’s description. Thank you!