Travels and Meet Ups  

Posted by T. Greer in

One quick announcement for the readership: posting will probably be light over the next three weeks, as I will be spending that time away from Beijing, instead criss-crossing my way across America. I will certainly spend at least a week in Utah, and a week in DC, and possibly a bit of time in Texas as well. If you would like to meet up--or if you know anyone in these places you think I ought to meet--please send me a message and we will see if we can make it happen. You can contact me on twitter here, or through my e-mail, which can be seen on the right side-bar. 

A map of "Khmer Krom," territory once dominated by Khmer speakers before it was conquered by Vietnam in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Image Source: Douc Sokha, "​សហគមន៍​ខ្មែរក្រោម​ថា​រកឃើញ​ឯកសារ​ជាង​៤០០០​ទំព័រ​ ទាក់ទង​នឹង​ការ​កាត់​ទឹកដី​កម្ពុជា​ក្រោម​ឲ្យ​វៀតណាម​​", Vod Hot News (15 February 2015)
Folks, I have a piece up at Foreign Policy on two of my favorite topics--Cambodian politics and China's international relations. Most analysts see the relationship between the two countries purely in terms of money. Hun Sen wants it, the Chinese are willing to give it, and Chinese money doesn't come with the -its-time-to-promote-human-rights type conditions Western aid does.


There is a great deal of truth to that narrative. However, I argue that is one an element critical to Sino-Cambodian ties that tends to get overlooked. It will remain a factor regardless of who is running the show in Phnom Penh: the Vietnamese.

Here are a few quotes:
Ethnic disharmony is not hard to spot in Southeast Asia, but few of its prejudices — outside of the Myanmese hatred toward the Rohingya, at least — can match the distrust and disgust the average Khmer feels toward the Vietnamese. Recall how conservative Americans talked about the Soviet Union at the height of communist power, add the way their counterparts in modern Europe discuss Arab immigration now, and then throw in a dash of the humiliation that marked Germany in interwar years, and then you might come close to getting a fair idea of how wild and vitriolic a force anti-Vietnamese rhetoric is in Cambodian politics....

Although both Vietnamese immigration and government influence has waned since Hanoi ordered its troops to withdraw from Cambodian territory, distrust of Vietnam’s government and disgust toward Cambodia’s Vietnamese minority remain. You can see this even in the Khmer communities of the United States. To walk the streets of an American Cambodiatown is to see a half-dozen posters warning of Vietnamese aggression, or (if you speak Khmer) be pressed to attend activist get-togethers or donate to help fight Vietnamese imperialism.


Many of these donations go straight into the coffers of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the opposition to Hun Sen’s ruling regime. The CNRP faces a stacked deck when squaring off against hostile authorities, but anti-Vietnamese agitation is a game they can’t lose. When the Vietnamese overthrew the Khmer Rouge, the man they chose to head their new puppet regime was none other than Hun Sen. The party he now heads is a direct descendant of the party the Vietnamese created to rule Cambodia. While Westerners sometimes call Hun Sen a Chinese puppet, his domestic enemies are far more likely to attack him as a Vietnamese figurehead....


The United States, a longtime ally of the Thais and newfound courter of Vietnamese affection, could not be trusted to put Cambodian interests above the other powers in the region. In Beijing, the Cambodians see a more reliable great power — an ally that not only has a fractious relationship with Cambodia’s traditional enemy, but one that has demonstrated a willingness to go to war with that country to preserve a favorable balance of power in Southeast Asia. Indeed, the last war China waged was not only against the Vietnamese, it was against them in defense of Cambodia. Beijing’s decision to send troops across Vietnam’s northern border as the bulk of the Vietnamese army was fighting an insurgency in Cambodia, and then to keep a threatening military presence on that border through the next decade, badly hampered the Vietnamese push to become the premier armed power in Southeast Asia. For Cambodia, the strategic benefits of friendship with China could not be clearer. Playing spoiler in ASEAN meetings is a small price to pay to guarantee this friendship. [1]
and then the conclusion:
In Cambodian terms, Hun Sen’s decision to tilt Cambodian foreign policy toward Beijing is quite moderate. Other voices in Cambodian politics advocate even closer ties to China in hopes of generating more leverage vis-à-vis the Vietnamese. Rainsy declared in 2014 to a group of CNRP party supporters that his party is “on the side of China, and we support China in fighting against Vietnam over the South China Sea issue. … The islands belong to China, but the Viets are trying to occupy them, because the Viets are very bad.” He would later defend these comments in a post on his Facebook page, arguing, “when it comes to ensuring the survival of Cambodia as an independent nation, there is a saying as old as the world: the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
The CNRP, acutely aware of its image in Western circles, has since distanced itself from Rainsy’s comments, but his logic is solid. If Vietnam truly does threaten the sovereignty of Cambodia, closer relations with China is a geopolitical imperative. Cambodia’s politicians have depended, since French colonialism if not earlier, on foreign sponsors. But being tarred as a friend of the Vietnamese is the most toxic slur in Cambodian politics. For Hun Sen or Rainsy, leaning toward China doesn’t send a message of dependence on Beijing, but of hostility toward Hanoi.
Even radical changes in Cambodia’s internal politics are unlikely to produce a revolution in Cambodia’s foreign relations. Hun Sen’s patronage machine requires huge influxes of money to maintain. China provides that. It does so without asking Hun Sen to protect the liberties of average Cambodians in return. But even if the machine were to fall apart and the opposition were to rise to power, Cambodia’s new leaders would face strong political pressure to give Beijing pride of place.
Cambodia is a small country tucked between its historical enemies. The grip anti-Vietnamese sentiment has on the Cambodian masses only strengthens this geopolitical anxiety. As long as Cambodian nationalism defines itself in opposition to the Vietnamese, Cambodian politicians will never stop searching for a great power that can stand as a bulwark against Vietnam. For the foreseeable future, that country will be China. Next to this, the perceived balance of power between China and the United States will never be anything more than a sideshow. (emphasis added, hyperlinks not included) [2]

I encourage you to go over to Foreign Policy and read the whole thing.

One of the themes that I touch on in this piece, but don't fully develop for reasons of space, is that we sometimes focus too much on the grand drama of great power rivalry when looking at regions like Southeast Asia and don't narrow in on the smaller domestic pressures that might force politicians to choose one great power over another. This is probably because most analysts who focus on things like Sino-American rivalry don't have much experience or interest the domestic political squabbles of small countries on the Pacific periphery. But this is and always has been a major part of the 'why' behind who joins one side or another in great power competitions. It is a pattern that stretches all the way back to the Peloponnesian War. If you think the Bangkok's decision to work more closely with the PLA, or Duterte's unremitting efforts to undermine the U.S.-Philippines alliance have nothing to do with the domestic political economy of each country, then you are foolish. There is much more afoot here than a simple calculation of Chinese and American power, and if we refuse to recognize this we will be continually blind-sided by events to come.

Some folks have suggested on twitter that it is a bit silly to call Hun Sen "hostile" towards Hanoi, and I agree with this. Hun Sen is not hostile towards the Vietnamese--but he does benefit from appearing to be so when the occasion demands it. This is Hun Sen's special skill: an ability to appear to be exactly the person his wants his audience wants him to be. I cannot think of very many other actors on the international stage who are as talented at, well, acting, as he is. The best way to judge Hun Sen, then, is from his record. That record suggests Hun Sen has long been accustomed to accommodating Hanoi, while slowly building up the strength of Sino-Cambodian ties in the background in case Hanoi ever asks too much of him. 

The CNRP is harder to judge, for the simple reason they have never actually been in charge of Cambodian foreign policy, and thus have no real track record to judge from. All we have to go on for them is rhetoric, and as the article notes, that rhetoric is mixed. I reached out to the CNRP to get a clarification of what official party policy is at the moment. Monovithya Kem,  Deputy Director-General of Public Affairs for the CNRP, sent me a response, but it came too late to make it into the article's final draft. As I had extreme trouble finding any statement from the party on the South China Sea problem issued in the last year, it will be a public service to publish :
The CNRP official position on foreign affairs is a non-alignment one, meaning Cambodia will not be a client state to any foreign power. Our position on any international matters would take into account regional security and Cambodia's interests. We believe in the empowerment of ASEAN to be a stronger institution so that through this platform ASEAN nations can address critical regional issues together. [3]
I suspect there will be need to quote this in the future. 



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[1] Tanner Greer, "Cambodia Wants China As Its Neighborhood Bully," Foreign Policy (6 January 2015)

[2] ibid

[3] Personal correspondence with  Monovithya Kem, dated 3 January 2017.

Every Book I Read in 2016  

Posted by T. Greer in

Image Source

New Year's Day has come and gone, meaning that it is time, per established tradition, to report the full list of books that I read over the last year. This tradition is now four years old, but I am still surprised with its popularity. These posts have not generated the highest hit counts the Scholar's Stage has seen (that honor is a near tie between this year's "History Was Written by the Losers" and last year's "Pre-modern Battlefields Were Absolutely Terrifying"), but they still bring in an outstanding amount of traffic. I suspect this just reflects the unusual size of these lists. This year's post will prove an interesting test of the theory: whereas the lists for 2013, 2014, and 2015 all had more than 70 separate titles to their name, the 2016 list does not reach 50. 

I have puzzled over this result the entire year, for it was clear to me by February that I was reading at a far slower pace than before. While I can partly blame the low total on the extreme length of many of the books I did read (Menon's adaptation of the Mahabharata, Toland's Rising Sun, Carver's China's Quest, etc.), I think the main reason I read less this year is that I have devoted so much of my time to language study. Time is the currency of language learning; the more you spend using and reviewing a language, the better you get. My Chinese improved a great deal this year. The cost of progress was the personal study time I normally would spend reading. 

As in past years, I have bolded and linked to the Amazon page of the ten best books I read for the first time this year. All titles are listed roughly in chronological order--from the date when I finished them, not when I started them. (Before any Thucydides Roundtable readers ask: This is not the first time I have read the Landmark Thucydides, so it does not make the cut. However, it shall be added forthwith to my quantum library). 

The stand out books of 2016 were written by Michael Bazzell. How I originally came across Bazzell's body of work I've forgotten, but I am incredibly grateful that I did. Here was what I put up on Facebook the day I finished Personal Digital Security:
I am already declaring this the best book I have read in 2016. It will take a very, very good book to top this; it is probably the most useful thing I have read in two or three years.

I am not a techie. I have assumed that because I am not a techie that truly protecting my computer, my online profiles, and my digital information was beyond my capacity, and that all I could do is keep to some common sense rules and hope my low profile would keep me and my data safe.
This was wrong. It is completely possible for you or anyone to learn how to secure their digital assets. In this book Michael Bazzell, a former FBI cybercrime investigator, shows you how to do that. He teaches both the broader principles of digital security and the concrete specifics, down to the names of specific programs and screenshots of specific procedures. If you have the technical literacy to use Microsoft Excel then you can read this book--and likely you will find yourself far more technically literate at the end of it. The language is accessible but not dramatic and his instructions are clear even though methodical. I cannot recommend this book more highly.
I still stand by this. I can also confirm that this helpful approach is repeated in his other books, Hiding from the Internet and Open Source Intelligence Techniques

If it makes you more excited to buy these books (or listen to the podcast version for updates), Mr. Bazzell is also the main technical adviser for the hit-TV show Mr. Robot

What was the best book you read in 2016?


EVERY BOOK I READ IN 2016

Nathan Thompson, Bobe Cone, and John Kranz, Society's Genome: Genetic Diversity's Role in Digital Preservation (Spectra Logic, 2016).

Peter Harmsen, Nanjing 1937: Battle For A Doomed City, (Philadelphia: Casemate, 2013).

David Ochmanek, Andrew R. Hoehn, James T. Quinlivan, Seth G. Jones, Edward L. Warner, America's Security Deficit: Addressing the Imbalance Between Strategy and Resources in a Turbulent World: Strategic Rethink (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2015).

Marija Babovićc´ and Danilo Vukovićc, Cambodia: A Survey of Livelihood Strategies and Expectations for the Future (San Fransisco: Asia Foundation, 2016).

Vishakhadatta, Rakshasa's Ring, trans. Michael Coulson (New York: New York University Press, 2005).

Kalidasa, The Recognition of Sakuntala: A Play in Seven Acts, trans. W.J. Johnson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

Hans van de Ven, War and Nationalism in China, 1925-1945 (New York: Routledge, 2004),

Shudraka, Little Clay Cart, trans. Diwakar Archarya (New York: New York University Press, 2009).

Michael Barnhart, Japan Prepares for Total War: The Search For Economic Security, 1919-1941 (Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1991).

Ye Deming, Fan Huizhen, Liu Xiuzhi and Xiao Meimei, Shiyong Shiting Hanyu 3 [Practical Audio-Visual Chinese 3], 2nd ed,  (Taipei:Cheng Chung Book Co, 2007).

Stanley Chao, Selling to China: A Guide to Doing Business in China for Small- and Medium-Sized Companies (Bloomington: iUniverse Books, 2012).

Arthur Waldron, From War to Nationalism: China's Turning Point, 1924-1925 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

Jonathan Adelman and Chu-yu Shih, Symbolic War: Chinese Use of Force, 1840-1980 (Taipei: Institute of International Relations, 1994).

Asian Productivity Organization. APO Productivity Databook 2015 (Tokyo: APO, 2016).

John Toland, The Rising Sun: The Rise and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1937-1945 (New York: Modern Library, reprint, 2003; or. ed. 1971).

R. Taggart Murphy, Japan and the Shackles of the Past (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Taylor Pearson, The End of Jobs: Money, Meaning, and Freedom Without the Nine-to-Five (Amazon Digital Services, 2015).

William Shakespeare, King Lear in Globe Illustrated Shakespeare: The Complete Works Annotated (New York: Greenwhich House Publishing, 1984).

Ye Deming, Fan Huizhen, Liu Xiuzhi and Xiao Meimei, Shiyong Shiting Hanyu 4 [Practical Audio-Visual Chinese 4], 2nd ed, (Taipei:Cheng Chung Book Co, 2007).

A.C. Graham, Disputers of the Dao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China (Chicago: Open Court, 1988).

E. G. Pulleyblank, The Background of the Rebellion of An Lu-Shan, (London: Oxford University Press, 1955).

Yukiko Koshiro. Imperial Eclipse: Japan’s Strategic Thinking About Continental Asia before August 1945 (Ithica: Cornell University Press, 2013).

Michael Bazzel, Personal Digital Security, rev. ed. (Amazon Digital Services, 2016).

BP p.l.c., BP 2016 Energy Outlook (London: BP p.l.c., 2016).

Canadian Security Intelligence Service, 2018 Security Outlook: Potential Risks and Threats (Ottawa, 2016).

Peter Mattis, Analyzing the Chinese Military: A Review Essay and Research Guide on the People’s Liberation Army (Washington DC: Jamestown Foundation, 2015).

Zhang Xiaoming, Deng Xiaoping’s Long War: The Military Conflict Between China and Vietnam, 1979-1991 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2015).

Mark Edward Lewis, Writing and Authority in Ancient China (Albany: SUNY Press, 1999).

Michael Bazzel, Hiding From the Internet: Eliminating Personal Online Information . (Amazon Digital Services, 2016).

Robert Haddick, Fire on the Water: China, America, and the Future of the Pacific (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2014).

Hans Georg-Moeller, Daoism Explained: From the Dream of the Butterfly to the Fishnet Allegory (Chicago: Open Court Publishing, 2004).

David C. Gompert, Astrid Cevallos, and Cristina L. Garafola, War with China: Thinking Through the Unthinkable (Santa Monica, RAND, 2016).

Edward Slingerland, Effortless Action: Wu Wei and Conceptual Metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in Ancient China (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

Rob Robideua, The Incognito Toolkit (Creative Commons: 2014).

Lyle Goldstein, Meeting China Halfway: How to Defuse the Emerging US-China Rivalry (Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 2014).

J.E. London, Song of Wrath: The Peloponnesian War Begins (New York: Basic Books, 2014).

Paul Goodwin and Alice Miller, China’s Forbearance Has Limits: Chinese Threat and Retaliation Signaling and Its Implications for a Sino-American Military Confrontation (Washington DC: Institute for National Strategic Studies, 2013).

Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1847).

Donald Kagan, The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1964).

John Ferling, Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War for Independence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

James C. Bennet, A Time for Audacity: New Options Beyond Europe (self published, 2016).

George Orwell, Animal Farm 

James Madison, The Constitutional Convention: A Narrative History from the Notesof James Madison, Edward Larson and Michael Winship, eds., (New York: Random House, 2005).

Sebastian Strangio, Hun Sen’s Cambodia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014).

Ma Qianfei, Hanyu Kouyu Sucheng (Zhongjipian) [Short-Term Intermediate Course in Spoken Chinese], 2nd ed, (Beijing: Beijing Language and Culture University Press, 2007).

Shi Ji, ed., Hanyu Fenji Yuedu 3 [Graded Chinese Reader 3], (Beijing: Singolingua, 2009).

David Smyth, Colloquial Cambodian: The Complete Course for Beginners (New York: Routledge, 1996).

Robert Strassler, ed., The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War, Richard Crawley, trans. (New York: Free Press, 1996).

Jonathan Slack, Genes: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

Read in part, but not in whole:

John W. Carver, China’s Quest: History of the Foreign Relations of the People’s Republic of China; Zhu Ziyi, Hanyu Yuedu Sucheng, 2nd ed; Peng Guanqian, Zhao Zhiyin, and Luo Yong, Zhongguo Guofang [China’s National Defense]; Charles and Mary Beard, History of the United States, China reprint; Archie Barnes, Chinese Through Poetry: An Introduction to the Language and Imagery of Traditional Verse;  Elizabeth Becker, When the War Was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge Revolution;  Michael Bazzell, Open Source Intelligence Techniques: Resources for Searching and Analyzing Online Information; Gordan Bing, Due Diligence Techniques and Analysis; S.C.M. Paine, The Wars for Asia, 1911-1949; A.E. Poe, Complete Tales and Poems; Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics; Ramesh Menon, Mahabharata: A Modern Retelling; Christopher Lew, The Third Chinese Revolutionary Civil War, 1945–49: An Analysis of Communist Strategy and Leadership.

Image source.

Now that the heat of the election season has passed, it is possible to examine the heat itself.  The election's aftermath was a grand spectacle. Some convulsed in desperation and despair. Others surrendered to frenzied, twitter-fueled fits of rapture. In the midst of all this noise, a pattern arose. 

In simplest terms: there is a 1:1 correspondence between what a person thought was America's biggest problem before the election, and what that same person now believes was the root cause of the election's result. Did you think that America's most serious problem is that the Federal government is not built on the Scandinavian mold? Then was obviously if Sanders had been the nominee none of this would have happened! Were you more annoyed by Sanders attacks on the DNC and the integrity of its favorite candidate than anything else last season? Then obviously it was these very attacks which kept millennials out of the voting booth! Is America's big problem racism? Then it was obviously uber-racism that brought Trump his victory! Long critic of American trade practices? Then it was Trump's promises to the working class workers that brought him success. Is political corruption and the Beltway-insider game the thing that makes your blood boil? The obviously it was the nomination of a crook that made the GOP sweep secure. NeverTrumper? Then the real problem was liberal over-reach, and this kind of thing was going to happen no matter what.

I am not immune from this. Ask me what I thought about the Vox kids before election day.

Here is the interesting thing in all this: in November, 2016, America witnessed a potentially era-defining political transition. It was a huge shift in the distribution of power. It was also a shift that almost no one saw coming. Yet somehow, every single person's reaction to the election (and I really mean every. single. one.) is to double down on whatever narrative and guiding beliefs they were committed to before it all went down, despite the inability of said narratives and beliefs to prepare them for the event. This election's unexpected result is not opening minds. It is slamming them shut.

This makes sense in it's own way. Power has been disrupted; those who can obtain a share of it now get to determine the narrative for the next few years or so. We are hard wired to avoid self-doubt in times of anger.  Victory goes not to the strong, nor to the brave, nor to the carefully reasoned, but to the assiduously self assured. Power does not exist for the sake of reason; reason exists for the sake of power. Now is the time for the ambitious to seize it. 

I suspect it will be many years before Americans will be able to look at the election of 2016 with a more open mind than they had going into it. 

Beware the Alcibiades Point  

Posted by T. Greer in , ,

A supposed bust of Alcibiades.

 I
spent the later part of my teenage years in the forbidding climes of southeastern Minnesota. In those days I’d often hear a joke that I sometimes still repeat:



“In Minnesota we have four seasons: near-winter, winter, still-winter,... and road construction.”

Minnesota’s northern reaches are pockmarked with lakes and marshes. Its southern parts have a few of those as well, but the landscape is different: timber forests and cat-tail bogs give way to broadleaf groves and corn-rowed farms. Flat and stagnant marshes are replaced by rivers and streams set between rolling hills. If the characteristic geographic feature of central and southern Minnesota is the lake, then the dominating feature of her southeast is almost certainly these wooded hills.

In Minnesota winters, these hills suck.

It was on those sucky, icy hills I first learned how to drive. I still remember the first 40 foot climb I made after an ice storm had struck the town. For those of you who don’t know—and outside of the Great Lakes and New England, ice storms are uncommon—an ice storm is a bizarre but dangerous sort of storm where water falls from the sky just as it normally does, in large liquid drops. As soon as those drops hit the ground, however, they freeze immediately on whatever they land on. In place of a layer of snow or hail is a glistening sheet of ice. Heavier than snow, the ice soon caves in homes, topples trees, and snaps power lines. More slick than hail, it turns driveways into skating rinks and highways into death traps. It also makes driving up a Minnesota hill very, very difficult.

The key to making the ascent is a slow and steady climb. If you go forward too fast your snow tires will find no grip. But you must move forward. If you take your foot off the gas pedal. even for the smallest moment, you invite death (or an expensive insurance claim) to your door. When the road is that slick, the car cannot stay in place. In that day not even your parking breaks will be of any use to you. Either you press forward, or you find yourself in a terrifying, uncontrollable slide back down the hill.

This moment—the moment where you are offered an unfeeling binary between surging forward and crashing backward—is the Alcibiades point.

Alcibiades, son of Cleinias, defended the Athenian invasion of Sicily with an interesting argument:
“ Moreover, we cannot fix the exact point at which our empire shall stop; we have reached a position in which we must not be content with retaining what we have but must scheme to extend it for, if we cease to rule others, we shall be in danger of being ruled ourselves.” (6.17)
Pericles famously argued that the Athenians should “attempt no new conquests, and expose the city to no new hazards” (2.65). Alcibiades was too young at the time of Pericles’ reign to debate him then, but his rebuttal came nonetheless. In Hellas there cannot be a sated power. Athens was not a polis “inactive by nature [and] could not choose a quicker way to ruin itself than by suddenly adopting such a policy” (6.17). Both Athenian culture and regime type awarded the daring and bold; this daring must be turned outwards before it turned inward. Her wealth was won through the spoils of empire—an empire whose strength was only as staunch as its subjects believed it to be. It was an empire built for war and conquest—and if this carefully constructed constellation of oppression did not keep spinning, it satellites would careen out of orbit.

The spinning top is an intriguing metaphor here, for unlike the van on the hill the top is designed to stay in one place. But to maintain balance the top must spin—the faster, the better. If the spinning slows the top will topple. A top’s stability requires constant motion. It is not difficult to imagine counterparts in the social world. Perhaps it is a company. Possibly it is a political party or an insurgency. Maybe it’s a country. Maybe it is an empire. Whatever it is, it must move. External expansion is the only way to maintain its internal equilibrium. It must be kept in motion, or it will topple.

One of the clearest examples of this sort of system was the ancient Chinese kingdom of Qin. The House of Qin reigned in an age of contending states; it is remembered as the most terrible kingdom in a most terrible age. Qin was by modern measures tyrannous; some scholars have termed it the world’s first totalitarian society. Qin philosophers wrote of politics in terms so bleak they make Thucydides' pronouncements sound like the script of a Disney musical:
“If virtuous officials are employed, the people will love their own relatives, but if wicked officials are employed, the people will love the statutes. To agree with, and to respond to, others is what the virtuous do ; to differ from, and to spy upon, others is what the wicked do. If the virtuous are placed in positions of evidence, transgressions will remain hidden ; but if the wicked are employed, crimes will be punished.

In the former case the people will be stronger than the law; in the latter, the law will be stronger than the people. If the people are stronger than the law, there is lawlessness in the state, but if the law is stronger than the people, the army will be strong. Therefore is it said: "Governing through good people leads to lawlessness and dismemberment; governing through wicked people leads to order and strength.”[1]
Bottom to top, the state of Qin was a society ordered for war. “Optimize everything” is a 21st century phrase the Qin would understand. Every man was plugged into an elaborate 13 rank social hierarchy, his position determined entirely by his martial accomplishments. The old aristocracy was seen as superfluous, and so were suppressed; independent artisans, ritual masters and musicians, philosophical schools, and wealthy merchant clans won no wars, and so were rooted out and eliminated. Those who farmed more and fought more prospered. Those who failed to do either were punished. Roads, coins, letters, measures, and laws were standardized in the name of efficiency. The shape and size of houses and farming plots were dictated by the state to maximize crop production and taxation. A mammoth bureaucracy—the largest of the pre-modern era—was created to impose all of this on the wider population. Families were organized into collective responsibility groups to enforce these measures; failure to report the failings of your neighbors meant everyone in the group would be punished for them.

The Qin built their empire on a nightmare. But it was a nightmare that worked. The Qin fought war after war after war—more wars, in fact, than any other Warring State—and incorporated what they conquered into their system. They went from strength to strength. After a century of constant conflict there was no one left to oppose them. The Qin rode their nightmare straight to universal empire. For the first time in history, all of inner China was in the control of one man. The Qin imagined they had established a dynasty that would last through the millennia.

It was a vain vision. It had taken 150 years for the House of Qin to conquer China. They would rule it for 15.

The story of the rebellion against Qin is too long, and its details too complex, to relate here. It is sufficient to say that part of the dynasty’s problem was a structural one. They had built the ultimate conquest state, but had run out of places to conquer. As historian Mark Edward Lewis comments:
So why did the Qin dynasty fail? The most insightful discussion of this catastrophe is also the earliest. Writing only a couple of decades after the Qin collapse, the early Han scholar Jia Yi argued: "One who conquers the lands of others places priority on deceit and force, but one who brings peace and stability honors obedience to authority. This means that seizing, and guarding what you have seized, do not use the same techniques. Qin separated from the Warring States period and became ruler of the whole world, but it did not change its ways or alter its government. Thus, there was no difference in the means by which they conquered and the means by which they tried to hold it."

For all the ambition of the Qin reforms, with their vision of a new world where measures, laws, and truths flowed from a single source, the implementers of these reforms carried the basic institutions and practices of the Warring States unchanged into the empire. The direct administration of peasant households who were mobilized for military service continued as the organizing principle of the state, with a large servile labor pool formed from those who violated any of the numerous laws. No longer necessary for inter-state warfare, this giant machine for extracting service had become a tool in search of a use.

To occupy these conscripts, the Qin state engaged in an orgy of expansion and building that had little logic except employing Warring States institutions that had been rendered obsolete by their own success. Armies were launched on massive, pointless expeditions to the south, north, and northeast. Colossal projects to construct roads, a new capital, and the First Emperor's tomb were initiated. Laborers were dispatched to the northern frontier to link old defenses into the first Great Wall. A state created for warfare and expansion, Qin wasted its strength—and alienated its newly conquered people—by fighting and expanding when there were no useful worlds left to conquer. Mutinies by labor gangs led to a general rebellion of Qin officers and people against their rulers, and the first Chinese empire went down in flames only fifteen years after it was created. [2]
The Qin had shot past the Alcibiades point. They realized too late that they had no way to keep the tops spinning.

It is not clear if Alcibiades actually believed the argument Thucydides put into his mouth. It is an unusually self-serving one. Given the outcome of the Sicilian Expedition, it is easy to dismiss it. I would not be so quick to do so. Alcibiades needed something convincing to inspire his fellow citizens to war, and at this point in the contest the Athenians had fallen deep into the cold rhetoric of realpolitik. Alcibiades made a compelling point—the Athenians were a people who could not sit still. Her empire was built on fear of her power and strength of her word. What could maintain that fear in times of plenty and peace? “Take one’s character and institutions for better and for worse,” he advised, “and to live up to them as closely as one can” (6.18).

Athens had reached its Alcibiades point. The Athenians would now either climb the hill or come crashing down it.


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[1] Book of Lord Shang, Book 5, Par 1. Translated in J.J.Duyvendak, The Book of Lord Shang, (London: Arthur Probsthain, 1928), 117.

[2] Mark Edward Lewis, Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 71.

Men of Honor, Men of Interest  

Posted by T. Greer in , , ,

This post was originally published as part of the Thucydides Roundtable project over at Zenpundit. I encourage you to read all of the posts in the roundtable.

The most famous episode in Thucydides’ History is found in its fifth book. Known as the “Melian Dialogue,” it is one of the best known statements of what we moderns call realpolitick. I read this passage long before I read any other part of Thucydides’History. It was one of the opening chapters in the ‘standard-readings-in-IR-theory’ primer assigned in my very first POSC class. It’s stature in that class is hardly unique. This episode has been picked apart, commented on, and excerpted more than any other in the book. In this roundtable it has already prompted three separate discussions. I will add yet one more here. But I suggest a different approach: to understand the themes and purpose of this dialogue, it is best to rewind.


….Thus as far as the Gods are concerned, we have no fear….

A recurring theme of Thucydides work is the contrast between the Spartans and the Athenians. In Book V Athens launches an attack on Melos, by blood and kinship a natural friend of Sparta. The Athenians wage devastation on the Melians knowing it is not just to do so. The same book sees the Spartans waging wars—this time on Argos, by regime and belief a natural friend of Athens. Five times do Spartan armies march to the border of Argive lands. Of the five invasions, three are ended before they begin “because the sacrifices were unfavorable.” (5.54, 5.55,.5.115). One of the two times Spartans actually step on Argive soil, Spartan leadership decides to defer bloodshed for the sake of just arbitration (5.83). Only once does the attack proceed as planned, and that only when the Spartans are threatened with the specter of a second pair of long walls extending from a powerful enemy capital to the sea.

The contrast between Sparta and Athens is found in the fifth book of Thucydides’ history, but it is not obvious. To see it you must screw your eyes up and tilt your head a little bit.

Earlier juxtapositions are more difficult to miss.


…. We see that you are come to be judges in your own cause….

Melos was not the first polis to suffer the fury of the strong. Nine years before her destruction other polis trembled in fear before the judgement of a hegemon. In Athens the polis in question was Mytilene. Her fate to be decided by a jury of the Demos, a trial not entirely different in form the sort of criminal cases Socrates’ Apology would make famous. Mytilene had rebelled. Yet before the Athenian hoplites could sack its capital, Mytilene’s ‘Many’ had removed her ‘Few,’ and surrendered their city to democrats on their doorstep. Now they waited in judgement.

A second trial would occur soon after—soon enough after that Thucydides places the stories one right after the other. Here the Spartans played the role of judge and jury, and here again the trappings of a formal trial were adopted. Standing accused were the remnants of Plataea. For four terrible years they had resisted a Theban siege. With Spartan help the Thebans were close to breaking through. But here again surrender was declared well before sacking could begin. The Plataeans turned themselves over to the Spartans and waited to see what judgement they might receive.


…You know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power…

The Plataeans and the Mytilenians both heard a case arguing for their death, as well as one arguing for their continued survival. In the Mytilenian case, both the defendant and the prosecution were represented by Athenians. In the case of Plataea, the Plataeans were forced to speak in their own defense, with the Thebans arguing for their death. The parallel is clear. It to the arguments we turn to find the contrast between the two hegemonic powers.


….What is this but to make greater enemies than you have already, and to force others to become so who would otherwise have never thought of it?

The Athenians were once a people of honor. “For glory then and honor now” was the rallying cry Pericles raised to lead his people to war (2.64.6). The Athenians began this entire drama chasing it. No longer. Athenian honor died long before the war’s close. Athenian honor could not survive the plague. Then the beastly truth was revealed: honor meant nothing but scarred skin and blistered visage. Nobility brought no recompense but rotting flesh. Eat now, drink now, be merry now, for tomorrow men will die! And die, and, die, and die. Justice, integrity, honor—mere words. Where could those words be found? Buried deep in burning heaps of flesh! Abandoned in lonely, forgotten corners where none would see them croak away! Beneath blood, phlegm, pustule, and vomit! What has honor to do with Athens?

Nothing. 


What is more, they knew it. 



…You enjoin us to let right alone and talk only of interest…


Thucydides relates the speech of two men in the debate over Mytilene, one Cleon, son of Cleanetus, the ‘most violent man in Athens.’ The other Diodotus, son of Eucrates, a more measured sort who does not appear elsewhere in this history. Cleon argues for the Mytilene’s extinction. Diodotus, for their salvation. They disagreed on almost every point. What sticks out, however, is what they did agree on. Both wanted everyone to know that their arguments had nothing whatsoever to do with justice, honor, or mercy.

Said Cleon:
I have often before now been convinced that a democracy is incapable of empire, and never more so than by your present change of mind in the matter of Mytilene. Fears or plots being unknown to you in your daily relations with each other, you feel just the same with regard to your allies, and never reflect that the mistakes into which you may be led by listening to their appeals, or by giving way to your own compassion, are full of danger to yourselves, and bring you no thanks for your weakness from your allies; entirely forgetting that your empire is a despotism and your subjects disaffected conspirators, whose obedience is insured not by your suicidal concessions, but by the superiority given you by your own strength and not their loyalty…..
I therefore now as before persist against your reversing your first decision [to kill the Mytilenians], or giving way to the three failings most fatal to empire— pity, sentiment, and indulgence. Compassion is due to those who can reciprocate the feeling, not to those who will never pity us in return, but are our natural and necessary foes: the orators who charm us with sentiment may find other less important arenas for their talents, in the place of one where the city pays a heavy penalty for a momentary pleasure, themselves receiving fine acknowledgments for their fine phrases; while indulgence should be shown toward those who will be our friends in future, instead of toward men who will remain just what they were, and as much our enemies as before.

To sum up shortly, I say that if you follow my advice you will do what is just toward the Mytilenians, and at the same time expedient; while by a different decision you will not oblige them so much as pass sentence upon yourselves. For if they were right in rebelling, you must be wrong in ruling. However, if, right or wrong, you determine to rule, you must carry out your principle and punish the Mytilenians as your interest requires; or else you must give up your empire and cultivate honesty without danger (3.37; 3.40).
In reply, Diodotus:
However, I have not come forward either to oppose or to accuse in the matter of Mytilene; indeed, the question before us as sensible men is not their guilt, but our interests. Though I prove them ever so guilty, I shall not, therefore, advise their death, unless it be expedient; nor though they should have claims to indulgence, shall I recommend it, unless it be clearly for the good of the country. I consider that we are deliberating for the future more than for the present; and where Cleon is so positive as to the useful deterrent effects that will follow from making rebellion a capital offense, I who consider the interests of the future quite as much as he, as positively maintain the contrary. And I require you not to reject my useful considerations for his specious ones: his speech may have the attraction of seeming the more just in your present temper against Mytilene; but we are not in a court of justice, but in a political assembly; and the question is not justice, but how to make the Mytilenians useful to Athens….
Only consider what a blunder you would commit in doing as Cleon recommends. As things are at present, in all the cities The People is your friend, and either does not revolt with the oligarchy, or, if forced to do so, becomes at once the enemy of the insurgents; so that in the war with the hostile city you have the masses on your side. But if you butcher them, first you will commit the crime of killing your benefactors; and next you will play directly into the hands of the higher classes, who when they induce their cities to rise, will immediately have The People on their side, through your having announced in advance the same punishment for those who are guilty and for those who are not. On the contrary, even if they were guilty, you ought to seem not to notice it, in order to avoid alienating the only class still friendly to us. In short, I consider it far more useful for the preservation of our empire to put up with injustice voluntarily, than to put to death, however justly, those whom it is our interest to keep alive. (3.44; 3.47)

Behold the men of Athens! Dead to honor, to principle, to humanity. This was a people whose hearts had hardened. Nothing was left to Athens but the pursuit of power—and its cousin, profit. The only language they spoke was the language of naked interest.

That language saved the Mytilenians. They were lucky. Interest is a fickle master. The men of Melos discovered just how twisted a master it can be.

In time, so would the Athenians.


...Do not destroy what is our common protection, namely the privilege of being allowed in danger to invoke what is fair and right...

The Spartans heard a very different set of arguments. The Spartans were a very different sort of people. In time they would believe that they lost the first war because they unjustly broke the piece. Always were their actions justified in the name of Hellenic freedom. Sparta suffered no plague. He people stuck fast to her traditions to the end of her days. Knowing all of this, the Plataeans did not defend themselves in terms of interest:
“Consider also that at present the Hellenes generally regard you as a model of worth and honor; and if you pass an unjust sentence upon us in this which is no obscure cause— but one in which you, the judges, are as illustrious as we, the prisoners, are blameless— take care that displeasure be not felt at an unworthy decision in the matter of honorable men made by men yet more honorable than they, and at the consecration in the national temples of spoils taken from the Plataeans, the benefactors of Hellas…..
“Still, in the name of the gods who once presided over our confederacy, and of our own good service in the Hellenic cause, we appeal to you to relent; to rescind the decision which we fear that the Thebans may have obtained from you; to ask back the gift that you have given them, that they disgrace not you by slaying us; to gain a pure instead of a guilty gratitude, and not to gratify others to be yourselves rewarded with shame. Our lives may be quickly taken, but it will be a heavy task to wipe away the infamy of the deed; as we are no enemies whom you might justly punish, but friends forced into taking arms against you. To grant us our lives would be, therefore, a righteous judgment; if you consider also that we are prisoners who surrendered of their own accord, stretching out our hands for quarter, whose slaughter Hellenic law forbids, and who besides were always your benefactors. (3.57-3.58)
The Thebans feared this argument. Anxious it might convince the Spartans to release their enemy, that they too rose to speak. Again, their case is argued more in terms of justice than of interest:
We will now endeavor to show that you [the Plataeans] have injured the Hellenes more than we, and are more deserving of punishment…..an invitation was addressed to you before you were besieged to be neutral and join neither party: this you did not accept. Who then merit the detestation of the Hellenes more justly than you, you who sought their ruin under the mask of honor? The former virtues that you allege you now show not to be proper to your character; the real bent of your nature has been at length damningly proved: when the Athenians took the path of injustice you followed them.”
….Such, Spartans, are the facts. We have gone into them at some length both on your account and on our own, that you may feel that you will justly condemn the prisoners, and we, that we have given an additional sanction to our vengeance. We would also prevent you from being melted by hearing of their past virtues, if any such they had: these may be fairly appealed to by the victims of injustice, but only aggravate the guilt of criminals, since they offend against their better nature. Nor let them gain anything by crying and wailing, by calling upon your fathers’ tombs and their own desolate condition. Against this we point to the far more dreadful fate of our youth, butchered at their hands; the fathers of whom either fell at Coronea, bringing Boeotia over to you, or seated, forlorn old men by desolate hearths, who with far more reason implore your justice upon the prisoners. The pity which they appeal to is due rather to men who suffer unworthily; those who suffer justly, as they do, are on the contrary subjects for triumph. For their present desolate condition they have themselves to blame, since they willfully rejected the better alliance.
Their lawless act was not provoked by any action of ours; hate, not justice, inspired their decision; and even now the satisfaction which they afford us is not adequate; they will suffer by a legal sentence not, as they pretend, as suppliants asking for quarter in battle, but as prisoners who have surrendered upon agreement to take their trial.  Vindicate, therefore, the Hellenic law which they have broken, Spartans, and grant to us, the victims of its violation, the reward merited by our zeal. Nor let us be supplanted in your favor by their harangues, but offer an example to the Hellenes that the contests to which you invite them are of deeds, not words: good deeds can be shortly stated, but where wrong is done a wealth of language is needed to veil its deformity (3.67).

The Plataeans lost their case. Thucydides, as he is wont to do, suggests that the decision to slaughter them all was made for cold geopolitical reasons.

Perhaps it was. We cannot know for sure. The Melian dialogue may just have been, as A.E. Clark argues in his latest post, “Athen’s finest hour”—the moment when all falsehoods and posturing were laid aside, and the truth of the war was revealed for all to see. The Athenians were honest. Only the Athenians could be so honest. The Spartans did not talk about war in such terms. To the end they talked and thought and fought in a world they never stopped describing with words like justice and honor.

Maybe they were deluding themselves. But note:. it was the men of Sparta, not the men of Athens, who won the war.

….The strong do what they can while the weak suffer what they must.