The Sicilian Expedition and the Dilemma of Interventionism

| March 2019
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In late February Johanna Hanink, associate professor of classics at Brown University, visited Carnegie Council to record a podcast on her new book, How to Think about War: An Ancient Guide to Foreign Policy. In her discussion of Thucydides and the ancient Greek classics, she touched on lessons Americans can draw from the history of the Peloponnesian War.

Like ancient Athens at its peak, the United States enjoys unmatched military might and a privileged position in global affairs. Hanink goes a step further, comparing the two, “in terms of not just having this military strength but considering itself as having moral hegemony and being primary in the world in moral terms.”

The United States used its Athenian-like position to justify foreign intervention while touting American exceptionalism. However, as highlighted in the U.S. Global Engagement Program’s recent interim report, there has been a decline in public support for this narrative. One of the contributing factors is the inability for politicians to take responsibility for the failures of U.S. foreign policy—most prominently reflected in public opinion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Here too, ancient Athenians have wisdom to share. During the Peloponnesian War, Athenian statesmen were divided over a proposed intervention into Sicily. Alcibiades and his camp were overly confident of Athens’s prospects in this military expedition, arguing, “How could anybody ever defeat us? We’re Athens!” However, the elder general and statesman Nicias foresaw problems with Athenian intervention. Nicias told Alcibiades that the best way to demonstrate Athenian power to the Sicilians was not to intervene at all. Ultimately, the Sicilian Expedition went forward, and Athenian expeditionary forces were obliterated in battle.

What can we draw from the debates of Alcibiades and Nicias? Hanink reminds us that the debate over moral exceptionalism and interventionism is nothing new. As a portion of the American electorate pushes back against the bipartisan foreign policy consensus that justified foreign intervention, we ought to renew this dialogue and address the concerns voiced by Nicias in the fifth century BCE.

Billy Pickett is a program assistant for Carnegie Council’s Public Affairs, Ethics Matter, The Living Legacy of the First World War, and U.S. Global Engagement Programs.

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