Beyond Thucydides: More Classical Political Texts for the White House

International Relations Twitter lost its mind yesterday when it was revealed that the Trump White House is reading Thucydides; or at least, they are reading people who have read Thucydides (see Dan Drezner on what this means for the administration, and Authur Waldron for a nice critique).

Now, there is a debate within IR about whether or not students should have to read the Melian Dialogue for any reason other than to pass PhD comprehensive exams. If you’re one of the IR faithful who has made his or her way through the assigned reading, well, I find Thucydides probably as boring as you find Thucydides. He’s a little bit long-winded, and he doesn’t translate very well into our generation. The History of the Peloponnesian War is part of the IR canon, almost certainly, for reasons of intellectual history rather than because Thucydides is the only classical thinker worth reading.

What other classical texts IR scholars ought to read to learn the deep lessons of history, war, and the state? By far the most common classical text to appear on IR syllabi other than The History of the Peloponnesian War is The Art of War by Sun Tzu. Beyond that…almost nothing. There are certainly important lessons on statescraft from Ibn Battuta or one of his contemporaries, but this lies beyond my area of expertise. But I do happen to know of two criminally neglected classical sources from Southeast Asia, though: the Nāgarakṛtāgama and Hikayat Abdullah.

The Nāgarakṛtāgama, attributed to one Mpu Prapañca, records the Majapahit Empire, one of the great empires of Asia, during its golden age. It contains descriptions of the court, its ceremonies, and—importantly—relations with neighboring empires and lessons learned from them. Hikayat Abdullah is an account by Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir Munsyi of the Malay world in the early 19th century. It catalogues the international relations of the colonial era from the perspective of a colonial subject who is a thoughtful observer of both indigenous leaders and the colonial administrations extending their authority through the region.

What of their political lessons for modern IR? I used a passage from one of each as an epigraph for my first book* (scroll to page 4 [PDF]), and each is relevant today.

If the fields are ruined, then the city too will be short of sustenance.
If there are no subjects, then clearly there will be other islands that come to take us by surprise.
Therefore let them be cared for so that both will be stable; this is the benefit of my words to you.
– Mpu Prapañca, the Nāgarakṛtāgama

The lesson to learn is about the domestic foundations of state strength, something that President Trump’s White House might take seriously.

Many are the places and lands which have been destroyed by the depredations of the young scions of the ruling house, whose rapacious hands can no longer be tolerated by the people.
– Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir Munsyi, Hikayat Abdullah

The lesson here is quite obviously about the political foundations of internal state weakness, a reflection of both “first-image” arguments about what leaders do with, implicitly, a “second-image” argument about what types of regimes allow them to behave that way. It is perhaps not a lesson that likely to influence the current administration.


* In the earliest drafts of the manuscript I included a third epigraph that might be relevant to today’s White House, from The First Circle. I am not making this up.