International relations theory is both a very young and old discipline. It is very young because the first chair of international relations theory was established nearly 100 years ago after the first world war.
Why is international relations theory old?
Because of the very origins of the classical realist tradition, the ancient Greek historian, philosopher, and author of a History of the Peloponnesian War can be found in the work of Thucydides.
Thucydides himself was fighting on the side of Athens in this war. He was the Athenian general. But later, he retired and had a chance to conceptualize the reasons for the war, about why these ancient Greek states started this war between them, which finally destroyed their greatness.
He made the first conclusions, the first general observations about the reasons and causality in their international relations and regarding the most critical problems, such as the problem of the actress.
Who is the leading actor in IR?
That’s a problem of the reasons for war and reasons for peace and many others.
Unlike Herodotus and other great ancient Greek philosophers, we can find the very origins of the classical realist tradition in the work of Thucydides, the ancient Greek historian, philosopher, and general author of the History of the Peloponnesian War.
Many other historians of that time, like; Thucydides, aimed to study fundamental laws of history and politics rather than describe the past as the others did. So when we look at his work, the History of the Peloponnesian War, we will find that it consists of two major sections.
The first content of the work describes the sequence of events of the Peloponnesian war, and the other is his editorials and explanations of (Why do things happen in a certain way and don’t happen in another way?).
His work’s essential task and most important purpose were to understand the origins of war. Thucydides said history is philosophy teaching by examples, and this quotation we can still use as one of the main characteristics of our discipline.
We never say that theory of international relations is disconnected from the practice. The theory of international relations is one of the most connected to the practice disciplines as it has started by Thucydides. But first, we must know a few words about the Peloponnesian War.
Thucydides was not young when the Peloponnesian war started. We all may know from history that the ancient Greek democracies have been fighting for their liberty against their invasions from Persia for many years.
Most of all, see the movies about the 300 Spartans and the continuation movies. We all know how brutal and how cruel this war was. But finally, the Greeks won the war, and two significant powers emerged in ancient Greece. One power was their naval union led by Athens, and the other was a land-based union led by Sparta. The Peloponnesian war occurred between two major powers of ancient Greece, Athens and Sparta, leading to broad coalitions of city-states. By then, ancient Greece didn’t know these states in our modern contemporary understanding.
The city-states were based either on the islands or the continents. The international system of the Peloponnesian peninsula and ancient Greece before and during the war represented a model of bipolar order, and Thucydides was the first to describe the patterns that drove such international structure and reasons. Why did the two major parts of this bipolar order finally end in a cruel war between them?
The Peloponnesian war was the most significant conflict in the history of Europe. Many people have been fighting, many people died, and the outcome of the conflict reshaped the ancient Greek war entirely.
Athens was the strongest city-state in Greece before the war, whereas beginning, it lost its power, while Sparta became the leading power of Greece. Therefore, This transformed a bipolar system into the unipolar one. But we should also not forget that soon after the end of the Peloponnesian war, the Macedonian invaders came from the north and took over both Sparta and Athens.
So, the final consequence of this war was weakening both fighting parties and taking them over by the third party. We can find many other examples in human history when the stupidity of the war leads us to these sorts of consequences.
The Peloponnesian War was the grandest scale and most devastating conflict between Greek city-states of that time, emphasizing the necessity of understanding the nature of war and peace.
The primary purpose of the work of Thucydides was to explain the war, which he explained perfectly, which seems to be very well known and used. Later, their theories use his explanation, called the “Thucydides trap”.
He wrote that the real cause of war considers being one which was formerly most kept out of sight. The growth of Athens’s power and the alarm that inspired Sparta made war inevitable.
According to Thucydides, the beginning of the war was driven by the fear associated with a shift in the balance of power. Sparta was afraid of losing its pre-eminent role in the Hellenic world. Thus, it took countermeasures to build up its military strength. The Thucydides trap can be applied to many situations in the history of international relations.
He points out that the main reason for war is “fear” because we never know our partners’ intentions. It creates the situation of a security dilemma, he wrote.
We always assume that our partner is getting stronger not because of any other reason but because of fear that he will attack us, and we always fear.
According to Thucydides, “Fear” is a major driving force that brings nations to war. Thucydides emphasizes the limited room for manoeuvre available to the statesmen. When leaders perceive the balance of power is shifting to their disfavour, they have to control it, and they have no other options.
They cannot respond to this shift in the balance of power by decreasing their strength. They can only respond by increasing their strength. But when they do it, the other countries perceive that these measures are offensive, and they start increasing their strength, which drives nations to the conflict.
Therefore, Thucydides concludes that international politics, politics between the states, is driven not by individuals but by laws of history. This is a critical observation. After all, often you can see in the newspapers that a certain conflict seldom was emerged because somebody is guilty.
International policy is driven not by individuals but by laws of history. There are many examples in the future which belong to the classical and realist tradition of international relations theory. We read Thucydides’s examples and valuable explanations of this fear, which makes states suspect others of betrayal and power themselves for self-defence.
Whenever we power ourselves for offence, we always think about self-defense, which brings us to conflict. That is the driving pattern of international politics which also explains the emergence of an alliance-based bipolar system before the war.