In book two of Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian war, we find a timeless quote attributed to Pericles as he addresses the Athenians about how to move forward with their foreign policy strategy of global dominance. Pericles states, “Perhaps it was wrong to acquire it, but it would certainly be perilous to let it go.” This quote came to my attention when the classicist and host of one of my favorite podcasts Spencer Klavan posted it on Twitter. It is important to consult such ancient wisdom when thinking about similar questions today, but it is also important to understand such wisdom within the complete context of history. As a result of this decision to continue on with the path of foreign adventurism, the Athenians end up practically losing the war and the great civilization they are known for.
Fast forward about two thousand years from this fateful decision by the Athenians to the night of October 22nd, 1962 and such a statement would again be fitting within public discourse. However, this time the advice being given to the nation staring down the question of how to proceed with its foreign policy was not one of cynical practicality, but rather one of great hope and clarity. With his trademark rhetorical knack and agreeable Bostonian accent, then-President John F. Kennedy used a nationally televised address to fill the country in on its troubled state of affairs. The nation was in a situation that required great care, patience, and restraint President Kennedy noted as Russia (then the Soviet Union) had moved both ballistic and nuclear weapons systems onto the island of Cuba. The threat of nuclear war was on the nation’s doorstep, but the young president believed that with the vigor he would bring to the seemingly hopeless negotiation he could right the nation’s path and salvage our foreign policy from the wreck that had been created by unaccountable and therefore irresponsible intelligence officials. JFK was able to bring our country away from the brink of certain destruction momentarily, but his internal struggle against the powers that so recklessly created such a crisis went unfinished.
Fast forward once more to our current foreign policy debacle surrounding Russia’s reaction to our involvement in the war in Ukraine. Yet again, unelected opportunistic actors within our security state have incited the world’s largest nuclear power to the point of considering nuclear war. This time not even to defend the United States and its regional interests, but over a historically disputed plot of land all the way in eastern Europe. It is at times like this that we need leaders with the same keen understanding of the situation’s gravity as President Kennedy had in 1962 when he said that we should “not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the cost of worldwide nuclear war, in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our own mouth.” But it seems that brand of leadership has all but disappeared within our ruling class. Instead of treating this civilization-threatening scenario with the great caution that it once received when we were able to avoid it in 1962 we either have leaders who are unfocused or completely naive about its ramifications. For example, President Biden has not been consumed by constant negotiations and meetings focused on ending the possibility of such a calamity but has rather been seen enjoying an ice cream cone on a campaign stop in Oregon. Even more alarmingly, the National Security Council’s communications coordinator, a man named John Kirby, responded to this escalation by calling for the U.S to ship air defense systems to Ukraine, further increasing the chances of absolute destruction for the population he is supposed to be working for. This is not a partisan issue though, as I have noted before, some of the most radical supporters of U.S intervention abroad have come from the establishment wing of the Republican party.
These disturbing phenomena have one positive outcome for the general population in that they make it abundantly clear what type of leader America needs to avoid the collapse many other nations in similar scenarios have seen. The defining issue for any American voter should be a candidate’s stance on foreign adventurism and the unaccountable intelligence apparatus that animates such boondoggles and continually pushes our nation’s security to its breaking point. Whether you want to look at this recent crisis, years of destructive wars in the middle east, or even the cold war era tiptoeing around nuclear armageddon, the outcome of directionless and unchecked foreign intervention is a certain confrontation with disaster. The only way to avoid this outcome is to force our leaders to return to the cautious and self-determined foreign policy that has benefited America before. The time to make such a change is dwindling but not gone, our generation has a choice, the same choice that people throughout history have been faced with. These upcoming election seasons may be our last chance to return to the path of prosperity articulated by our greatest leaders or they may be the disastrous footnote on the history of the end of our greatest era.
Cooper is an assistant editor of the common ground section and a sophomore. He studies political science and classics and wants to work in journalism after school. When he is not thinking about politics and writing he enjoys fishing, golfing, and reading. Cooper’s literary influences include Ring Lardner and Ernest Hemingway.