The Thucydides Trap in the White House

Remember my post a few days ago on two new books about a possible Sino-American war? Well Graham Allison, one of the authors, recently discussed his book with a group of White House staffers.


The 77-year-old Allison is the author of a recent book based on the writings of Thucydides, the ancient historian famous for his epic chronicle of the Peloponnesian War between the Greek states of Athens and Sparta. Allison cites the Greek scholar’s summation of why the two powers fought: “What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta.” He warns that the same dynamic could drive this century’s rising empire, China, and the United States into a war neither wants. Allison calls this the “Thucydides Trap,” and it’s a question haunting some very important people in the Trump administration, particularly as Chinese officials arrive Wednesday for “diplomatic and security dialogue” talks between Washington and Beijing designed, in large part, to avoid conflict between the world’s two strongest nations.

It might seem curious that an ancient Greek would cast a shadow over a meeting between a group of diplomats and generals from America and Asia. Most Americans probably don’t know Thucydides from Mephistopheles. But the Greek writer is a kind of demigod to international relations theorists and military historians, revered for his elegant chronicle of one of history’s most consequential wars, and his timeless insights into the nature of politics and warfare. The Yale University historian Donald Kagan calls Thucydides’ account “a source of wisdom about the behavior of human beings under the enormous pressures imposed by war, plague, and civil strife.”

There are some big fans of Thucydides in the White House too, including Steve Bannon:

Thucydides is especially beloved by the two most influential figures on Trump’s foreign policy team. National security adviser H.R. McMaster has called Thucydides’ work an “essential” military text, taught it to students and quoted from it in speeches and op-eds. Defense Secretary James Mattis is also fluent in Thucydides’ work: “If you say to him, ‘OK, how about the Melian Dialogue?’ he could tell you exactly what it is,” Allison says—referring to one particularly famous passage. When former Defense Secretary William Cohen introduced him at his confirmation hearing, Cohen said Mattis was likely the only person present “who can hear the words ‘Thucydides Trap’ and not have to go to Wikipedia to find out what it means.”

That’s not true in the Trump White House, where another Peloponnesian War aficionado can be found in the office of chief strategist Steve Bannon. A history buff fascinated with grand conflict, Bannon once even used “Sparta”—one of the most militarized societies history has known—as a computer password. (“He talked a lot about Sparta,” his former Hollywood writing partner, Julia Jones, told The Daily Beast. An unnamed former colleague recalled for the New Yorker Bannon’s “long diatribes” about the Peloponnesian War.)

In an August 2016 article for his former employer, Breitbart News, Bannon likened the conservative media rivalry between Breitbart and Fox News to the Peloponnesian War, casting Breitbart as the disciplined warrior state of Sparta challenging a decadently Athenian Fox. There’s also NSC spokesman Michael Anton, a student of the classics who owns two copies of Thucydides’ fabled work. (“The acid test for me is: Do you read the Hobbes translation?” he says. “If you’ve read that translation, you’ve got my respect.”)

Resort Town Built by Third Reich Redeveloped and Reopened

A Third Reich-era resort town built on the Baltic Sea is now open to the public after years of renovations.


More than 75 years after Adolph Hitler’s commissioned a dream tourist destination nestled near the Baltic Sea, the Nazi-era resort has been redeveloped for the general public.

Prora, which is located on the north eastern German Baltic coast on Rüegen Island, was originally commissioned by Hitler as a massive, 4.5 kilometers long beach holiday resort complex for German workers, under a program called “Strength through Joy.”

The original plans called for a festival hall and rooms located in eight, 450 meter-long blocks to accommodate 20,000 guests, with each room facing the sea. However, construction halted in 1939, and during World War II the complex housed Soviet soldiers. Decades later, the German government, which assumed administration after 1989, sold the five existing blocks to private investors.

Fast forward to 2017, and Prora is now a massive real estate development. While some parts are still in ruins, others have been rehabilitated to include a hotel, holiday apartments, a museum and a youth hostel.

“Strength Through Joy” was the world’s largest tourist program in the 1930s but fell by the wayside due to the Second World War. The massive project had a pragmatic goal in spurring the German economy and an ideological goal in fostering the Volksgemeinschaft, the National Socialist ideal of bringing Germans of all classes together into a single national (and thus racial) purpose.

Go here to check out Prora. Plenty of pictures!

Is a Sino-American War Inevitable?

The authors of two new books I just ordered argue that it could very well happen if both sides aren’t careful: “Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power” by Howard French and “Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?” by Graham Allison.

New York Times:

The Chinese superpower has arrived. Could America’s failure to grasp this reality pull the United States and China into war? Here are two books that warn of that serious possibility. Howard W. French’s “Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power” does so through a deep historical and cultural study of the meaning of China’s rise from the point of view of the Chinese themselves. Graham Allison’s “Destined for War: Can American and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?” makes his arguments through historical case studies that illuminate the pressure toward military confrontation when a rising power challenges a dominant one. Both books urge us to be ready for a radically different world order, one in which China presides over Asia, even as Chinese politicians tell a public story about “peaceful rise.” The books argue persuasively that adjusting to this global power shift will require great skill on both sides if conflagration is to be avoided.

Read the rest here. 88 percent of those who reviewed French’s book on Amazon gave it five stars, and 93 percent gave five stars to Graham’s book.

New Orleans: First of Three Confederate Statues Comes Down

Although we knew it was coming, it’s still tragic to read. Workers removed Jeff Davis’ statue in New Orleans early this morning. Also scheduled for removal are the city’s statues of Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard.

I strongly condemn this development. It’s the whitewashing of history, plain and simple. Note that the removal of the statues isn’t based on the misguided idea that “these men were traitors and therefore do not deserve to be honored,” but on the equally misguided idea that they represent “racism, slavery, and white supremacy.”

You could, using the same logic, make the argument that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson also represent “racism, slavery, and white supremacy.” Yet sane Americans understand there’s so much more to them than the fact that they owned slaves.

Insane Americans, like leftist activist Malcolm Suber, make that argument and support the suppression of Founding Father history. New York Times:

On Thursday, Mr. Suber chuckled mischievously and said he would be delighted to see the statue of Washington over by the New Orleans Public Library come down, too.

“He was a slave master,” he said. “Right?”

A dangerous precedent has been set. Why stop at Davis and Lee when Washington and Jefferson embody “white supremacy” too? That’s the mentality of Suber and his ilk. They are by no means a majority, but any student of history knows that change often stems from a very vocal minority.

Davis, Lee, and Beauregard are as American as apple pie, whether you like it or not. They’re three-dimensional historical figures. Mayor Mitch Landrieu and leftist activists erroneously see them as two-dimensional historical figures. And they’re erasing their history in the name of progressivism. Whose monument will be next?

Five Exceptional Thinkers Who Frequently Took Long Walks


Although I don’t necessarily consider walking—at least not normal pace walking—to be exercise per se, there are still several reasons you should incorporate a daily walk into your routine. Regular walks improve your cardiovascular health, improve your sleep, brighten your mood, and increase your longevity, among others. Equally important are the creative benefits, too: a 2014 Stanford study confirmed that walking does boost creativity and productivity.

I can attest to this. On my daily walks I often find inspiration for new article ideas as well as developments on previous ideas. When this inspiration strikes, I just type it into my phone’s Evernote app. I even write parts of articles on my walks oftentimes (including parts of this article!).

So it’s been clearly substantiated that walking, thinking, and creativity go hand-in-hand. But great thinkers and writers have known this for hundreds of years; they didn’t need a scientific study to confirm it. These five remarkable minds in particular viewed walking not as exercise, but as a crucial aspect of their intellectual and creative life:

1. Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson was a politician, Founding Father, third president of the United States, farmer, architect, inventor, writer, philosopher, scientist, and linguist (I’m probably forgetting a couple more!). He touted both the physical and mental benefits of walking in a 1785 letter to his son-in-law Thomas Mann Randolph Jr.:

Of all exercises walking is the best. … No one knows, till he tries, how easily a habit of walking is acquired. A person who never walked three miles will in the course of a month become able to walk fifteen or twenty without fatigue. I have known some great walkers, and had particular accounts of many more; and I never knew or heard of one who was not healthy and long lived.

Jefferson had a lifelong penchant for recording and collecting data, and he even closely measured his walking, as evidenced by this undated memoranda from the 1780s:

I step a French mile of 1000 toises = 6408 Eng.f. in 1053 double steps. This yields 3f. & 1/2I. English to the step and 1735 steps to the mile. I walk a French mile in 17 1/2 minutes. A French mile is = 1.21 or 1 1/4 Eng. miles. I walk then at a rate of 4 3/20 miles or 4.mi.264 yards an hour.

Walking moderately in the summer I walked a Fr. mile of 1000 T = 6408 f. in 1254. steps and in 26′. That gives 2.55 f. to the step and
2066 1/2 steps to the Eng. mile
1735 the brisk walk of winter
331. difference.

Although Jefferson gradually quit walking and turned to horseback riding due to old age, all the steps he accumulated undoubtedly contributed to his long, creative, and productive life.

2. Henry David Thoreau

That Stanford study also discovered that the act of walking itself is what counts, not the environment in which its done. Thoreau would’ve taken issue with this. His Transcendentalism—a philosophy of life associated with minimalism, self-reliance, and naturalism—compelled him to live among, and therefore walk through, untamed nature. But whatever your preference, you can still appreciate Thoreau’s lecture on walking, which he titled, well, “On Walking.” Excerpt:

I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks—who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering, which word is beautifully derived “from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretense of going a la SainteTerre,” to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a Sainte-Terrer,” a Saunterer, a Holy-Lander. … He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all; but the saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea. … [E]very walk is a sort of crusade, preached by some Peter the Hermit in us, to go forth and reconquer this Holy Land from the hands of the Infidels.

The idea of walking without a destination in mind is certainly an important one. On my walks, I’m not seeking to go anywhere specific, nor to walk for a specific amount of time. I just walk, stimulate the right side of my brain, turn around at some arbitrary point, continue to let the inspiration flow, and arrive home. It may take a half-hour, forty five minutes, or even an hour or more. No me importa.

3. Soren Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard was an odd duck. But so are most geniuses, after all. In between his morning and his evening/late night writing sessions, Kierkegaard would spend much of his afternoon walking the streets of Copenhagen, frequently stopping to converse with strangers. No doubt this fueled his brain and his creative output: the Danish philosopher composed dozens of works and left behind several volumes worth of journals and manuscripts.

In an 1847 letter to his niece, Kierkegaard wrote the following about walking. I couldn’t have put it better myself:

Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Everyday, I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it. But by sitting still, and the more one sits still, the closer one comes to feeling ill. Thus if one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right.

4. Friedrich Nietzsche

One of the 19th century’s most important—and most idiosyncratic—philosophers was Friedrich Nietzsche. He wrote numerous quotable aphorisms and thoughts, at least one of which was related to walking: “Only thoughts that are reached by walking have value.”

In his biography of Nietzsche, Curtis Cate spelled out the philosopher’s typical morning and early afternoon, which included a great deal of walking:

With a Spartan rigour which never ceased to amaze his landlord-grocer, Nietzsche would get up every morning when the faintly dawning sky was still grey, and, after washing himself with cold water from the pitcher and china basin in his bedroom and drinking some warm milk, he would, when not felled by headaches and vomiting, work uninterruptedly until eleven in the morning. He then went for a brisk, two-hour walk through the nearby forest or along the edge of Lake Silvaplana (to the north-east) or of Lake Sils (to the south-west), stopping every now and then to jot down his latest thoughts in the notebook he always carried with him.

Two hours isn’t bad! I’m sure not all of us have the time to spend two hours a day walking, but as I mentioned above, the duration matters not.

5. Charles Darwin

Darwin is of course best known for his “On the Origins of Species” and numerous contributions to evolutionary science. He would take two walks per day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. For Darwin, walking was “an exercise in reflection — a kind of moving meditation.” And like every other thinker on the list, it was an integral part of his intellectual life, not solely his health and fitness life.


Even if you aren’t a writer, blogger, or thinker, that doesn’t mean you can’t reap the creative benefits of walking. Daily walks will increase your long-term productivity, help you wrestle with big ideas, solve problems, and get your creative juices flowing. Add those to the scores of physical and emotional benefits, and it’s evident that regular long walks can make you a better human being overall.

Will the Real Casanova Please Stand Up?

casanovaI recently read Laurence Bergreen’s new biography of Giacomo Casanova, the 18th century Italian libertine best known for being an incessant seducer of women. This is what the vast majority of people associate him with, but he was much more than that: an ex-priest, adventurer, gambler, writer, violinist, spy, mathematician, and alchemist, to name a few. Excerpt from Anthony Gottlieb’s review, via the New York Times:

Casanova moved with ease in all strata of society. As well as hordes of nobility, he met Benjamin Franklin, Bonnie Prince Charlie, Frederick the Great, Catherine the Great, Pope Clement XIII, Rousseau, Voltaire and Mozart. He mixed with financiers, ambassadors, Freemasons, magicians and government ministers, in addition to an awful lot of gamblers, rakes, actors, dancers, courtesans and common prostitutes.

He also wrote poems, a translation of Homer into ottava rima, librettos, some pamphlets on mathematics, historical studies on Poland and Venice and — among other things — a five-volume work of science fiction set in the Earth’s interior. He envied the literary fame of Goethe and Voltaire, and could not quite understand why they were more highly regarded than he was.

Buy Bergreen’s biography here.