Power and Hegemony in International Politics: Examining Thucydides, Garst, and Sophocles

by Howard Fienberg

November 2, 1995 for Professor Mark Neufeld (PO420: IR Theory)

Thucydides' The Peloponnesian War, Daniel Garst's article "Thucydides and Neorealism", and Sophocles' play Antigone all play a part in the contention over the main foci of the realist tradition: power and hegemony. Both Thucydides and Sophocles' pieces can be interpreted to support different traditions, depending on how they are read, and Garst's essay comes up as a mostly pluralist critique of the usual realist reading of Thucydides.


Power, from the realist point of view, is ubiquitous. The critics seem to have overlooked this point. Power is wide-ranging in its characteristics. Garst believes that realists, particularly Waltz and Gilpin, have it wrong, that they are missing the most important aspect of power when it is defined by them. He finds that they focus on capabilities, which he classifies as intrinsic power. The claim made is that realists allow no room for contingent power, such as that which is based on the recognition of the exerciser's legitimacy.

Garst thinks that Thucydides makes hardly a worthy mention of the former kind of power, and shoots exclusively for the contingent explanation. Garst may not be so far off, if he were referring to domestic politics, but in this case, he has it wrong. The reason is that his reading of Thucydides' definition of power is geared towards the wrong system. It is designed to fit a hierarchical structure where "the exercise of political power is contingent upon the existence of well-defined and widely accepted social conventions and institutions." (Garst 64) Where is such a hierarchical structure apparent but in a domestic scene? With the international system being a horizontal realm, one of anarchy, such a definition cannot apply to international relations.

However, Garst cannot be sidestepped because he is still highlighting a typical oversight in realist theory. The contingent is not given the attention it needs. Waltz failed to explicitly include it in his conceptions of power. Robert Keohane in Neorealism and Its Critics brings similar fault to Morgenthau's definition of power. He says that Morgenthau "failed to distinguish between power as a resource... and power as the ability to influence others' behavior." He notes the shoddiness of Morgenthau's theory due to his vagueness, since "theories based solely on definable power capabilities have proven to be notoriously poor at accounting for political outcomes." (Keohane 11) That this all would equivocate the failure to fully explain the realist understanding of power with the fallacy of realist theory overall is a deficient notion.

Power is not so simple. Garst has gone to the opposite extreme of what he claims the likes of Waltz state. Instead of all power being intrinsic, he finds all power contingent. Such is why pluralists are often dubbed idealists: such fantasies have little to do with reality. It is true that even in an anarchic international realm, contingent power plays a role, sometimes a very important one. It cannot work on its own; if it could, the world would be a far different place.

A decent case example is that of the Vatican. Stalin scoffed at it, asking how many legions the Pope led. Contingently, the Pope leads all Catholics, a sizable portion of the world populace. He has been commended for taking the premier role in bringing down the Polish communist regime. But the moral legitimacy and authority, what gives him his power, is often insufficient. Most nations are not wholly Catholic and will not openly march along with the Vatican. In fact, many are predominantly non-Christian, making the Pope's legitimacy unknown to them. When the Church had intrinsic power, it used it to establish its contingent power. It didn't guide by example, it led inquisitions, burned heretics, and persecuted the unfaithful with any means necessary. It led armies across the western world. As Thucydides writes, "the strong do what they can and [the] weak suffer what they must."

The Melian dialogue is of great consequence for discussing power and realism. The Melians make grand hay of the point that they are being driven by the Athenians to forsake justice and to pursue a narrow self-interest. This is easily countered: in declaring their neutrality, they are making a decision based on self-interest anyhow, because they wish to remain untouched by the war. No state will simply throw itself into the fray without consulting its own interests. Justice remains an issue for the pluralists, and the Melians are not pursuing justice; nor are the Athenians. Both are pursuing their perceived national interest. For Athens, that means felling a state which remains a potential threat since it is neutral, and not on their side, and the maintenance of their legitimacy through it. For Melios, that means keeping safely out of the war.

Garst contends that Thucydides includes the speeches and dialogues throughout the piece for a particular purpose, to illustrate the internal workings of the states, how their decisions are made, which is a pluralistic standpoint. John Ruggie's article "Theory of World Politics" in Robert Keohane's Neorealism and its Critics demonstrates a keen reasoning behind the inclusion of the dialogues, that of rational reconstruction: imagining oneself as a rational individual in an authoritative position and reflecting on what one would do if faced with similar problems as the actual decision makers. (Keohane 163) In addition, the Melian dialogue is most relevant. It demonstrates a realist outlook through the dialogue on both sides, who both use rational argument. The Melians note that the Athenians will be hurting their contingent power by attacking a neutral, and may bring upon themselves "the heaviest vengeance" from other powers. The Athenians advise the Melians to "aim at what is feasible," and that Athens will not waste anyone's time with "specious pretenses."

The arguments Garst undertakes dealing with the concept of hegemony are intimately related to the former ones on power. He relates the importance of contingent power to this area, rather than the traditional emphasis on intrinsic power made by realists. Again, he only half makes his point. If the moral legitimacy is the only true basis, then why doesn't Canada have hegemony? Canada has none of the intrinsic power of the United States (the generally accepted post-war hegemon), represents most of the same ideals and a similar way of life, and carries none of the taint of numerous bloody fowl-ups on the international scene (Guatemala in 1954, the Allende coup, the debacle in Vietnam). Yet still, the US reigns hegemonic. Because contingent power is not enough, and in many cases is ultimately responsible to intrinsic power.

Sophocles' Antigone can be interpreted in different manners. However, it would seem that the basic 'moral of the story' is in keeping with pluralism. Antigone, always on the moral high ground, has a pluralistic outlook. She disregards Creon's earthly legitimacy in favor of a higher, religious legitimacy. In some sense, the play is a battle over legitimacy, or contingent power. Whomever retains the greater legitimacy in the end holds the most power and is thus the winner. Antigone wins, and Creon, the realist, in the end must lament his illegitimacy, "the bitter affliction of mortal men," that upon his head "God has delivered this punishment, has struck me down in the ways of wickedness, and trod my gladness underfoot." (1253)

The problem that remains for Antigone is that of pertinence for international politics, and it is one that varies depending on the paradigm. Modern realism would see no point in the play. To include it would be in line with the older style of reductionism, which reduces international politics to the sum of its parts (its parts being each state's foreign policies). Modern realism' focus is the structure of the international system, not the internal structure of the states. This is, of course, in keeping with the pluralist point of view, which favors the domestic polity in the explanation of international relations. From this perspective, the play takes on great implications. It supports Garst' concept of the importance of contingent power, by its emphasis on legitimacy, which in Antigone comes from God, a higher law, not from Creon and the state's earthly laws. Antigone says "that order did not come from God. Justice ... knows no such law." (452)

With the radical paradigms, marxism can discuss the structures of power in the play, but a feminist critique would be extremely useful. Gender relations play a large role in the play, and the discrimination against women is evident both in the story itself (oppression of Antigone), and in the dialogue. Ismene:

If we transgress the law and defy our king? O think, Antigone; we are women; it is not for us to fight against men; or rulers are stronger than we, and we must obey in this, or in worse than this. May the dead forgive me, I can do no other but as I am commanded; to do more is madness. (45)

This is an obvious highlight of the belittling of female importance, all the better in the play because it is spoken by a female character.


In concluding, one still finds the common thread of power and hegemony running through Garst, Thucydides, and Sophocles, but there is more. What lies beneath this argument is the more fundamental paradigmatic one, since the three works are at once in concert and conflict, and open to interpretation. Viewpoint is all, though the realist one may be best.


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