What Are the Implications of Thucydides’ and/or Machiavelli’s Writings for Us Hegemony Today

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 26 September 2016

What Are the Implications of Thucydides’ and/or Machiavelli’s Writings for Us Hegemony Today

Thucydides and Machiavelli’s analysis of power can be applied to contemporary US foreign policy regarding the exercise of power and a diminished respect for law or ethics. Both philosophers play an important role in the Realist theory where they are generally taken to prove the mutually exclusive nature of ethics and politics as well as the inevitability of war. Firstly this essay will discuss arguments for the existence of US hegemony today and how Thucydides and Machiavelli’s writings support this.

Following this, the possibility of the diminished existence of US hegemony will be argued, again using the argument’s of the two ancient philosophers to reinforce this claim. Finally, a conclusion will be made on the discussed implications of Thucydides and Machiavelli’s writings for US hegemony today. When looking at the definition of ‘hegemony’ and the way it has been applied throughout human history there is an argument for the existence of US hegemony.

During the 21st Century, imperial dominance, instead of being a result of military strength, tended to be established more indirectly through cultural imperialism, shown by the apparent existence of a dominant western culture. However unilateral military action is still applied worldwide. Rebellion from within allied states is eliminated by co-optation or by suppression without direct intervention. Military and cultural dominance as well as a general geopolitical dominance can be applied to descriptions of US hegemony. The US is described by Wohlforth as an ‘indispensable nation… ecause the international system is built around American power’ (Wohlforth, pg40, 1999); a statement which exudes hubris.

Machiavelli approves of the method of expansion which undertakes ‘forming alliances in which you reserve to yourself the headship, the seat in which the central authority resides, and the right of influence’ (Discourses, ii. 4, p284). This can be seen to relate to the method of geopolitical influence that America holds over it’s allies and to the existence of the United Nations. It is important to add in claims that the ‘US did not choose hegemony; it was forced to accept the responsibility’ (Lebow, pg606, 2001).

This disputes the classical theory that hegemony should come with honour. ‘Interventions in Somalia, Haiti, Kuwait, Iraq and Kosovo were motivated by commitments to uphold humanitarian assistance to those in need’ (Lebow, pg607, 2001), displaying that American foreign policy since the Cold War has been a mix between power and principle both attributes of hegemony. ‘For Machiavelli imperialism is merely the extension of the natural impulse to want more, and to get it if one has the capacity to do so’ (Boucher, pg101, 1998).

This justifies the nature of US hegemony as something which benefits America largely in terms of economics. Instead of military power, as within early centuries, economic power is arguably the most important quality for a successful hegemon to posses today. Thucydides presents assumptions of political realism which claim that ‘states should be considered the primary actors in international relations, that they should be assumed to consistently seek power, and that they should be assumed to act rationally’ in terms of self-preservation and ‘security through the pursuit of power’ (Bagby, pg134, 1994).

This idea relates to the realist school of thought in international relations and can coincide with US foreign policy in terms of economics. The US seeks economic power world wide to cement its influence and to preserve its hegemonic status. Machiavelli disapproves of the method of expanding an empire which involves making ‘states subjects instead of allies’ (Discourses, ii. 4, p284). Athens followed this approach and did not successfully keep power over subjected states due to these states being accustomed to self-rule and the difficulty in maintaining a strong armed forces.

America mainly ‘wields influence by informal and indirect means’ (Lebow, pg605, 2001) which arguably is due to an era of more worldwide and staunch democratic practices compared to the early centuries. Although Athenian’s did claim hegemony through honour which was brought about through their defeat of the Persian empire in the name of freedom, the Melian slaughter discussed by Thucydides, showed that their influence over their allies was non-democratic and ultimately shows leadership through arkhe.

Lebow and Kelly suggest that currently, ‘hegemonia is even more important than it was in the Cold War’ (Lebow, pg605, 2001) for the US. Wohlforth states that the US is the ‘first state in modern history… with decisive preponderance in all the underlying components of power’ (Wohlforth, pg7, 1999). When discussing power it is important to think about America’s possession of ‘soft power… which is increasingly important in influencing international behaviour’ (Lebow, pg605, 2001) in terms of promoting western dominance in mainly cultural and ideological domains.

American’s would like to believe their influence was democratic and embodies the cultural and ideological ‘benefits’ of liberalism. Joseph Nye, Jr. stresses the increasing importance of soft power, relative to more traditional forms of power that rely on coercion (Nye, 1999) which moves away from the realist school of thought that relates to Machiavelli’s and Thucydides’ ideas of power. On the other hand it is argued that, while still overwhelmingly powerful, America no longer occupies the role of hegemon.

The USA, like Athens after the defeat of Persia, can no longer, with the end of the Cold War, legitimately base it’s hegemony on the existence of a serious military threat to itself or to its allies. The nation’s leader’s have made efforts to highlight the threat of terrorism but this seems weak as it can be argued that America is a main target for such acts and its allies are at much less risk. Whereas Athens imposed tighter controls on neutral and allied states, this method would be unacceptable for the US to employ as it would not be ‘palatable to the American people’ (Lebow, pg605, 2001). In the Prince and The Discourses Machiavelli emphasises that the actions of leaders have to be suited to the times. When fortune changes you must be capable of adapting your actions to accommodate it’ (Boucher, pg133, 1998). This goes against realist beliefs and can apply to the prospective future of America’s role in the world which is likely to be less influential or otherwise involve applying a more thorough system of rewards and coercion which is unlikely to be acceptable to world opinion despite hurting government foreign policy prowess.

In general, it is almost safe to say that Europe feels very differently to the US on the topic of America’s world status. The very fact that France wanted the EU to develop an independent foreign and defence policy shows that there are calls for a non-unipolar and non-culturally uniform sphere of international relations in which there is no unilateralism of a single hyperpower, making it hard for any potential hegemon to exist. ‘One reads about the world’s desire for American leadership only in the US. Everywhere else one reads about American arrogance and unilateralism’ (Zakaria, 1998, pg55).

In terms of US involvement in international disputes, instead of being principally humanitarian as previously mentioned, world elites view many instances as the US pressing reluctant nations to intervene in order to display its own power. The Gulf war can be described as the ‘last, almost spastic twitching of US supremacy’ (Lebow, pg608, 2001). It is Thucydides’ view that ‘subordinates are never really reconciled to their status and are readily angered by treatment that reminds them of it’ (Lebow, pg608, 2001).

Melian Dialogue is a ‘literary and philosophical construction’ of Thucydides and is considered ‘the climax of his realism’ (Walzer, pg5, 1992). ‘He wants to show us the inner meaning of war’. The Athenian’s are, according to Walzer, set up to use language that would not have been typical of the hegemon, demonstrating that the empire was no longer the honourable power that defeated Persia ‘in the name of freedom’ (Walzer, pg7, 1992). Instead they represent the loss of ethical motivations.

This can be related to the American situation in terms of the power no longer being pedestalled as the nation that contributed largely to the success of the allied side in World War Two. It can be argued that both the Melian’s and Athenians are driven by necessity; the Melian’s are driven through fear of invasion and being stripped of self-rule and their freedom, whereas the Athenians are driven by the belief that they ‘must expand their empire… or lose what they already have’. The neutrality of Melos was seen to be a symbol of the Athenian empire’s weakness and of the hatred that subjects have for their conquerors.

The Athenians feared it would inspire rebellion and ‘by a necessity of nature’ (Thucydides, pg3, 1985) conquer what they can. The slaughter of Melos is ‘explained by reference to the circumstances of war and the necessities of nature’ (Walzer, pg7, 1992). The Melian’s face destruction if they do not surrender and ‘value freedom above safety’ (Walzer, pg5, 1992). They believe fortune will be on their side, given to them by the gods because they are morally right and that power will be on their side in the form of military assistance from the Spartans.

The argument resulted in the invasion of Melos by Athen’s and no help was sent from the Spartans; all men were executed and women and children made slaves. Thucydides’ work is interesting as although the main dialogue depicts the demise of Melos, the result is the eventual downfall of Athens. In terms of the US, this can be related to US intervention in the middle east which disputably caused more damage than good and then the slow demise of the country’s status as an economic power after 9/11.

In an article on the Financial Times website, the countries economic decline can be demonstrated by the following figures: ‘oil price hovers around $115 a barrel, the US is projected to run a budget deficit for 2011 of $1,580bn, the largest in its history; the economy remains deeply troubled after the financial crash of 2008; and America’s military and intelligence services remain at war, battling insurgency and radical Islamic terrorism, from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Niger and Yemen’ (Barber, 2011).

Overall, ‘Machiavelli’s theory is not one of the balance of power, but one of attainment and preservation of power. The attainment of power must be commensurate with one’s ambitions, that is, the pursuit of a policy of expansion must appear both credible and feasible’ (Boucher, pg126, 1998). This quote aptly explains why America might have once been a powerful hegemon, but is unlikely to be one now. Filled with honour placed on them by the allied countries after the World War Two, the US felt a responsibility to take a lead on the international stage.

Some of the effects are still felt today in the form of the UN, which arguably can now be considered obsolete and undemocratic due to the inability to get unified action and the more money, more voting weight system put in place which clearly advantages the USA. It is unarguable that the US is still very significant as a world power but in recent history it has not been championing liberal democracy and the benefits of capitalism like it once did.

However it largely contributed to the world wide stock market in 2008 and continually invades countries to install democracy despite these actions being against international opinion. The implications of the writings of Thucydides and Machiavelli for US hegemony today are only slightly relevant as although both pieces can clearly relate to the American situation, they mainly focus on only the realist school of thought which is inept when studying the existence of US hegemony as a whole.


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  • University/College: University of Arkansas System

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 26 September 2016

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