The Real Thucydides Trap: Will Red and Blue America Go to War?

Statue of Thucydides in Vienna. Flickr/Creative Commons/Chris JL

Thucydides warns us to not discount the possibility of war between red and blue states.

In the aftermath of the 2016 elections, an intense and widening divide resurfaced among Americans. While initial fissures in U.S. society revealed themselves over twenty years ago, the split increased into culturally distinct and regionally localized areas during that time. Today, the rift is generally peaceful and manifests itself in words and demonstrations. However, it resides along significant geographic, economic and ideological lines that may not withstand future stress and pressure. 

Such an internal division is not a unique circumstance. In fact, ancient Greek history provides us a fitting analogy for reflection. Senior military leaders and historians study The Peloponnesian War, written by the Athenian historian Thucydides, as a footnote for strategic thought in foreign affairs. However, that war was chiefly about internal conflict in Greek society. Today, Thucydides’ relevance to America’s domestic political landscape is minimal under an assumption the United States is a unified society. Clearly, the 2016 elections and reactions give cause to question the strength and depth of our society’s unity. That and other similarities warrant a review of the context and causes of the Peloponnesian War, if only as an analogy, for consideration.

The thirty-year-long Peloponnesian War did not start overnight. Greek casus belli intensified gradually over a fifty-year span as selfish agendas became acceptable through the slow creep of greed, pride and suspicion. Ironically, the very peace Athenians and Spartans secured against Persia enabled the widening of attitudes. Tragically, Greek divergence metastasized into open conflict and, ultimately, mutual ruin.

Why? A key message of Thucydidean history is that without mutual effort for unity, a people of common heritage but different perspectives will develop oppositional interests over time. This was the case with Athens and Sparta and is occurring in “blue” and “red” segments of America’s populace.

From a geographical perspective, America’s socio-political affiliations coalesce in distinctive regions such as urban areas next to oceans and rural heartlands. While geography does not predetermine societal destiny, it is a feature that influences its culture and end results. Although separated by era and ocean, the geographic and societal disposition of today’s “blue” and “red” American states have stark similarities to that of Athens and Sparta.

As example, in 450 BC, Athens resided within a great walled city with access to the Aegean Sea. Facing seaward, it used its powerful navy to spur trade and enlarge its influence abroad bringing it into cooperation with other cultures. Similar to America’s “blue” populations on the Pacific and northeastern Atlantic coasts and in major metropolitan centers, Athens was mercantile, inclusive, cosmopolitan and urbane. As with Athens, “blue” populations view themselves as exemplars and vanguards for Western civilization’s progress at home and abroad.

Athens’ rival was Sparta, principally an agrarian society husbanded within the countryside and without continual contact with overseas cultures. Sparta maintained a formidable army and militant ethos to protect its land’s resources against enemies. Comparably, “red” states dominate the American heartland where its populations view foreigners with skepticism and espouse greater comfort with the Second Amendment. Sparta subjugated a Helot slave population allowing only native Spartiates to govern. Regrettably, a similar legacy still exists in “red” southern states. Rustic, trusting religious oracles, and zealous when threatened, Sparta and “red” states regard tradition and military might as touchstones to national prestige.

For Athens and Sparta, as in “blue” and “red” states, their way of life and worldview were justified and noble; it served them well in the face of challenges and became an indelible aspect of their identity. However, then as now, time and distance have widened attitudinal fissures where former mutual respect devolved into disdain and distrust. As these differences in cultural outlooks exist today, then how, and why, did Athens and Sparta resort to war? More importantly, what should we learn from it?