Why is Thucydides so Important in our Studies of International Relations Theory

Reading from his writings, one of the most important statements he wrote was, “what made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta,” this was the reason why the Spartans in turn voted for war, because they were afraid of the further growth of Athenian power” (Thucydides, 1954; 49, 97). So this statement alone brings again another aspect in the realist agenda, ‘preventive war’. The fact that we study Thucydides today isn’t a coincidence, for knowing the importance of his recounts on the Peloponnesian war, as has never been done before; he added that “My work… was done to last always (1.22)” (Thucydides, 1954: 48). We should recall that Thucydides’ work doesn’t just focused on the activities or on the war between Athens and Sparta (bilateral) as hegemons, but expanded in a system showing the various contributions of other subordinate city-states, displaying the part each played both in the outbreak and also the course of the war proper. Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian war thus is very important because it sets a complex image of how wars fought today reflect what the past witnessed, displaying how the alliance system between nations have pulled states to leave their comfort zones either to support their allies of go into direct war against a rising enemy to protect their interests.

Thucydides’ text on the Peloponnesian war has contributed on several dimensions to the development of todays’ theories of International Relations. Based on the explication and analysis of the war between Athens and Sparta, revealing their alliance system, Martin Wight1 evaluates that views on this text have varied across time and events, thus considers it as one of the ideal texts on ‘power politics’ (Wight and Bull, 1986; 24) and in this analysis, uses it to mean that might makes right2. The alliance system of both Athens and Sparta has also been used by Knutsen (1992; 32) to explain the concept of balance of power between states, while others (Wheeler and Booth, 1992; 35)3 see it as the out-right consequences of the idea of security dilemma. This view tries to explain the ways in which states interpret the intensions of other states’ actions and thus resolve to either defensive or offensive reactions.

Of great importance, the works of Thucydides is its contributions also to the analysis of the reasons for wars, that is; why do wars occur?

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From this juncture, we can gladly conclude, that the writings of Thucydides have been profoundly contributive to the construction of modern political thought as providing the foundations upon which realism as a theory explaining the relations between states in the international system behave is concerned. Great caution however should be made while using his ideas as he also carefully delineates every idea, trying as much as possible to clearly project human behavior and its intended and expected consequences. Serving as a handbook for power politics thus analyzing wars, he concluded the though ‘Sparta came out of the war triumphantly, it was severely weakened while Athens was ruined, utterly and entirely defeated, with everything being destroyed…’ (7.87)4


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