Looking beyond the Peloponnesian War in internal affairs

By Mozammil Ahmad

While the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a speech at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library on the US-China relationship on July 23, 2020, he received a question from Hugh Hewitt: “But we are, like Athens was, a naval power. America is a naval power. And as like Sparta [was], China is a land power. Do we not have to change how we approach defense spending to put more emphasis on our naval resources than on our Army resources?”

As a student of international relations, you are first introduced to the subject through its history. In most of the cases, one starts with the ancient Peloponnesian War. Though the field of international relations began with it, it was not the only ancient great war with serious ramifications. The Asian history has seen many wars and conflicts since the beginning. The world must look at the rich Asian history now to seek lessons for the contemporary foreign policy strategy.

Going back to history to understand and deal with the present is considered the sole purpose of history. However, there is no single history but many histories. The history of ancient Greece is nothing short of fascinating. While strategists have moved away from Athens, they have not done so completely in their writing or concern.

British historian Thomas Babington Macaulay wrote, “A single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.” Macauly’s statement unfortunately still represents the Eurocentric worldview today. The US-China relationship has been analyzed through many lenses. However, the history of Asian conflict and military history goes unmentioned. The world is made of not one but many nations and histories. To throw a bit of light on the Asian histories, I have assembled a collection of events from the Asian history so that we can all look beyond Europe for lessons from the past as historical analogies aren’t always relevant. The past does impart a useful lesson.

The Seleucid-Mauryan War (305-303 B.C.)

The war between Seleucids and the Mauryans can probably wake up the West to the fact that Asia has been empowering Europe since long. While Alexander is considered one of the greats, the Asian greats find no mention. The founder of the Mauryan Empire, Chandragupta Maurya defeated the Seleucids with the help of the treatise of Arthashastra, an Indian text on statecraft. This victory may not be in popular memory anymore; nonetheless it should be remembered to tackle modern day international affairs.

The Jin-Song Conflict (1125-1234 A.D.)

The Song Empire had the confidence and arrogance to believe itself to be the world’s natural leader. With the emergence of the Jin, the Songs were forced to accept that it could not be the world’s only leader and would have to share power. This is akin to the situation of the United States, which must now accept the rise of China and form ways to understand the empowered China. Like the Songs, the United States must learn to share power in a multipolar world.

The Fall of the Chola Empire (1027-1279 A.D.)

One of the greatest empires of Asia, the fall of Chola Empire was as dramatic as its rise to power. The Cholas were seen as the great stabilizer of the region, offering free trade, much like the United States. The people who were forced to comply with the Cholas, sided with the Pandya Empire and overthrew the Cholas.

The Disturbance of the Three Ports (1510 A.D.)

Korea in the sixteenth century could be a lesson for both the US and China to formulate better policies for each other. Korea faced a lot of issues with Japan in the 16th century. Korea’s crackdown on Japan led to more antagonism, resentment, and destruction of all relationships between these two countries. As a result, there were no trades between these two countries for decades. The current American-Chinese crackdown on each other could similarly result and destroy a productive relation between each other.

The Sui-Goguryeo War (598-614 A.D.)

China’s Grand Canal is a UNESCO world heritage site, a source of national prosperity for centuries. Built to expand the power of Sui Dynasty, it led to mass rebellion and the toppling of Sui Empire. The canal was initially a frontier and then used to transport men and weapons against Gogureyo, the Korean kingdom. Infrastructure, as rewarding and a matter of pride it is, has underlying capacity to impact beyond its original purpose. Could we see China’s BRI initiative in the same manner?

Akbar’s Nine Jewels (1556-1605 A.D.)

The greatest Mughal Emperor Akbar’s greatness was built by his reliance on advisers ranging from scholars, poets, artists, ministers, musicians, etc. These nine most trusted men were Akbar’s own jewels, known as the Nine Jewels of Akbar’s court. All political leaders need trusted advisors and this is a lesson even the US President Trump could use once a while. Isn’t it also said that to lead is to listen?

The Turtle Ships (1590 A.D.)

The ‘turtle ships’ were invented by the Korean Admiral Yi Sun-shin. It was the world’s first ironclad warship that defeated the Japanese who were unaware and unprepared. With this technological achievement at their back, Korean ships took the reign of the sea against the Japanese assaults. In a similar fashion, strategists should be wary of overhyping single technologies, such as China’s ship-killer missiles, when it comes to any potential conflict in the South China Sea.

The Modern day US-China conflict must come out of the Thucydides trap. The Asian history may be much more complex and difficult to grasp, but they are more relevant than ever to understand the continent’s contemporary geopolitics. Greek history is certainly fascinating but there are other Asian precedents. Even for elites who consider themselves heirs to the classical world, fixation with the Peloponnesian War is particularly narrow.

Mozammil Ahmad is a freelance researcher and currently pursuing LLB from Campus Law Centre, University of Delhi. His research interests are international relations, international law, and environment. He has recently started working on assessing the impact of Covid-19 in Bihar. His work has previously appeared in Dhaka Tribune and The Diplomat.


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