Just as Herodotus is the father ofhistory, Thucydides is the father ofrealism. To understand thegeopolitical conflict zones of the 21stcentury, you must begin with the ancientGreeks. Among the many importantlessons Thucydides teaches in his Historyof the Peloponnesian War is that whatstarts a war is different from what causesit.Thucydides chronicles how thePeloponnesian War began in the latterpart of the late fifth century B.C. withdisputes over the island of Corcyra innorthwestern Greece and Potidaea innortheastern Greece. These places werenot very strategically crucial in and ofthemselves. To think that wars must startover important places is to misreadThucydides.
Corcyra and Potidaea, amongother locales, were only where thePeloponnesian War started; not whatcaused it. What caused it, he writes in thefirst book of his eight-book history, wasthe growth of perceived maritime powerin Athens and the alarm that it inspiredin Sparta and among Sparta’s allies.Places like Corcyra and Potidaea, and thecomplex alliance systems that theyrepresented, were in and of themselvesnot worth fighting a war over — a war thatwould last more than a quarter century,no less. That didn’t matter. They werepretexts.No one understood this distinction,which was perhaps made first inliterature by Thucydides, better thanThucydides’ most distinguishedtranslator, the 17th century Englishphilosopher Thomas Hobbes.
Hobbeswrites that a pretext for war over someworthless place “is always an injuryreceived, or pretended to be received.”Whereas the “inward motive to hostility isbut conjectural; and not of the evidence.”In other words, the historian or journalistmight find it hard to find literaldocumentation for the real reasons statesgo to war; thus, he often must infer them.He often must tease them out of thepattern of events, and still in many casesbe forced to speculate.In applying the wisdom of Thucydidesand Hobbes to conflict zones across Asia,a number of insights may be obtained.The South China Sea conflict, forexample, becomes understandable.
Hereare geographical features which, in theirown right, are valuable because of themeasurable energy deposits insurrounding waters. They also fall in thepath of sea lines of communications vitalfor access to the Indian Ocean in onedirection, and the East China Sea and Seaof Japan in the other, making the SouthChina Sea part of the word’s globalenergy interstate. Nevertheless, let’sassume one is somewhat dismissive ofthese facts and says such specks of dryland in the middle of a great sea are inany case not worth fighting a war over.Thucydides and Hobbes would pronouncehim wrong. They would say that it is theperceived rise of Chinese sea power — andthe alarm that it inspires amongAmerica’s formal allies and de facto allies– that, in turn, could be the real cause ofconflict sometime over the coming decade.
Thus, the features in the South China Sea,as important as they might be, wouldmerely be the pretext.Indeed, nobody would prefer to say theyare provoking a conflict because of risingChinese sea power; rather, they would saythey are doing so because of this or thatinfringement of maritime sovereigntyover this or that islet. All the rest mighthave to be conjectured.The same is true with the conflictbetween China and Japan over theSenkaku/Diaoyu islands in the EastChina Sea. Even if one argues that theseislets are worthless, he or she would missthe point. Rather, the dispute over theseislets is a pretext for the rise of Chinesesea power and the fear that it inspires inJapan, helping to ease Japan out of itsquasi-pacifistic shell and rediscovernationalism and military power. (And bythe way, the rise of Chinese sea powerdoes not mean that China is able toengage the U.S. Navy in fleet-on-fleetbattle.
It only means, for example, thatChina can use the placement of warshippatrols, along with economic anddiplomatic pressure and the staging ofprotests at home, all together in a seriesof “combination punches” to underminethe Japanese and other East Asian rivals.)Then there is North Korea. With a grossdomestic product of only that of Latvia orTurkmenistan, it might be assumed to beanother worthless piece of real estate.Geography tells a different story. Juttingout from Manchuria, the KoreanPeninsula commands all maritime trafficin northeastern China and traps in itsarmpit the Bohai Sea, home to China’slargest offshore oil reserve.
China, as I’vepreviously written, favors an economictakeover of the Tumen River region –where China, North Korea and Russiaintersect, with good port facilitiesfronting Japan. The fate of the northernhalf of the Korean Peninsula will helpdetermine power relationshipsthroughout northeastern Asia, therefore.Of course, all of this, as Thucydides andHobbes would say, would have to beinferred, conjectured. North Korea’serratic behavior could start a conflict, butthe causes might also lie elsewhere.India and China have territorialtripwires in the Himalayan foothills, anarea which, again, might be judged bysome as worthless. But these tripwiresbecome more meaningful as Indiapartially shifts its defense procurementsaway from confronting Pakistan andtowards confronting China.
It is doing sobecause the advance of technology hascreated a new and claustrophobicstrategic geography uniting India andChina, with warships, fighter jets andspace satellites allowing each country toinfringe on the other’s battle space. If aconflict ever does erupt between these twodemographic and economic behemoths, itprobably will not be because of thespecific reasons stated but because ofthese deeper geographical andtechnological causes.As for India and Pakistan, I rememberdecades ago sitting with a group ofjournalists in Peshawar, reading aboutPakistani and Indian troops confrontingeach other on the Siachen Glacier inKashmir, terrain so high the troops had towear oxygen masks.
Could such territorybe worth fighting over? Again, theconflicting claims were merelysymptomatic of a deeper dispute over thevery legitimacy of these states arising outof the partition of the subcontinent in1947.Of course, Israel fears for its ownsurvival, were Iran to develop adeployable nuclear bomb. This is a casewhere the start of a conflict (by theUnited States, acting as Israel’s proxy)may largely overlap with its cause.Nevertheless, Israel has other fears thatare less frequently expressed.
Forexample, a nuclear Iran would make everycrisis between Israel and Hezbollah,between Israel and Hamas, and betweenIsrael and the West Bank Palestiniansmore fraught with risk. Israel cannotaccept such augmentation of Iranianpower. That could signal the real cause ofa conflict, were Israel ever able to dragthe United States into a war with Iran.In all these cases, and others, the mostprofound lesson of Thucydides andHobbes is to concentrate on what goesunstated in crises, on what can only bededuced. For the genius of analysis lies inquiet deductions, not in the mereparroting of public statements. Whatstarts conflicts is public, and thereforemuch less interesting — and less crucial –than the causes of conflicts, which arenot often public.
(The author is Chief GeopoliticalAnalyst for Stratfor, a private globalintelligence firm, and a non-residentsenior fellow at the Center for a NewAmerican Security in Washington. Hehas been a foreign correspondent forThe Atlantic for over a quartercentury. He is the author of 14 bookson foreign affairs and traveltranslated into many languages.)