Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Historical Parallels?

I've been reading Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War. It's a fascinating journey into early balance-of-power politics as well as normative structures within the Greek polis system marked by the bipolarity of Athens and Sparta. If you haven't touched it before, it's a good read.

One of the things I've taken away from it is how easy Athens slipped from relative democratic norms ( after all Athens did benefit from slave labor and incomplete franchise) that justified their power and its extension to justifying their power in terms of self-interest only. Ultimately it was their downfall as tenuous alliances crumbled and Athens was left isolated against the too powerful alliance between Sparta and Persia. As value-laden rhetoric about the benefits of democracy and commerce shifted to pure self-interested aggrandizement and power for power's sake, Athens hegemony suffered and it eventually lost the Peloponnesian War. As Richard Ned Lebow writes, paraphasing an argument from James Boyd White's When Words Lose Their Meaning:
As the [Peloponnesian]War progresses, the discourse shifts and changes until the language and community it constituted deteriorate into incoherence. Athenians can no longer use the traditional language of justification for their foreign policy. Struggling to find an alternate language, they resort to assertions of pure self-interest backed by military clout. Such a language is not rooted in ideas, is unstable and deprives its speakers of thier culture and identities. In using it, Athenians destroy the distinction among friend, colony, ally, neutral and enemy, and the make the world their enemy through a policy of limitless expansion.
We're not there yet, but I fear this is what could occur in the United States if democrats (small D) don't steer the conversation back towards the convergence of values and material capabilities. Let's be honest, many people see through the veneer of Bush Administration justifications for the Iraq War, at least in honestly entertaining the possibility that national security rationales disporportionately led to the war in Iraq and not idealist concerns of democratization.