In his most recent article, former CIA official Henry Crumpton discusses the work of the ancient Athenian historian, Thucydides.Specifically, Crumpton discusses the importance of pride and how it can influence military considerations. This article will briefly explore another pertinent lesson contained in Thucydides: how an international power, such as the United States, should constitute and support its military.
Currently, this issue has cropped up in the Presidential nomination process. Candidates have discussed how the U.S. should handle the burden of maintaining an international military presence. As an example, take the follow exchange between current Republican front-runner, Donald Trump, and an interviewer:
INTERVIEWER: Should we force Germany and Japan to start carrying their load, build up their own military, and start funding their own defence, instead of the United States?
TRUMP: At a minimum, I think it’s fine what we’re doing, but they have to at least pay us for it, they have to pay us so we don’t lose tremendous amounts of money.
In Thucydides, the Hellenes encountered a very similar question. Following the defeat of the Persians in Greece, Athens took a leading role in liberating Hellenic islands and coastal cities from foreign rule. These cities banded together under Athenian leadership, forming an institution which effectively transformed into an Athenian empire. This empire required a large and expensive navy, which left people with the question of how to recruit and pay for such a force.
Thucydides tells us that initially, the individual cities often supplied their own men and boats, sharing the burden of military service. As time progressed, however, increasing numbers of cities decided to pay money rather than perform military service. While this allowed the people to stay at home and avoid conflict, it also greatly enriched Athens financially and militarily. By taking the money and replacing foreign sailors with its own citizens, Athens ensured that it had the best trained and largest naval presence. This in turn gave them great power over the allies, who, with few exceptions, now lacked the military expertise and readiness to challenge Athenian authority.
In discussing whether the United States should adjust its relationship with its military allies, the candidates would do well to consider the development of Athens’ naval empire. By encouraging foreign allies to carry more of the manpower burden, a leading power might become relatively weaker. However, by accepting sums of money and employing its own citizenry, a nation may find itself increasingly powerful, wealthy, and influential. Americans should also consider the warning of Pericles, who stated that although it might have been immoral to seize hegemony, it would be very dangerous to relinquish it.
This article was originally posted in 2016