Thucydides–Part 3

Author: David R. Kotok, Post Date: May 15, 2018
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In book five of The History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides describes how the Athenians sustained surprisingly large losses in battle and how the Spartans prevailed. He also describes what each side didn’t know about the condition of the other side. Problems arise when decisions are based on incomplete information.

Athens didn’t know of the desertion and revolt by the Spartan-oppressed Helots, who were used as slave fighters (even though the Helots outnumbered the Spartans 7 to 1). For their part, the Spartans didn’t know that Athens was under financial pressure because it was using its hoard of gold and silver to pay mercenaries. Athens utilized mercenaries because of population losses from the plague and because it had the money, especially silver from its own mines, but the costs of war were exceeding the incoming revenue.


Thucydides outlines the details of new alliances and why they were made. He lists the changes taking place in, among and between the various city states of ancient Greece, and he names their leaders. He also describes the reasons why those city states made decisions. Thucydides has given us a nuanced record of information asymmetry and what it means in war and diplomacy.

One city state didn’t know the full story about the other. Deception and intrigue were part of the mix. Treaties remained in force (until they were broken) even as each antagonist sought advantage – but without being fully informed. Information incompleteness and asymmetry also explain why the Athens–Sparta treaty dissolved and conflict ensued. Such outcomes have been the case for all of recorded history.

We see the same principles operating today in the news flow about the detente with North Korea. In a previous note we cited Kim Jong Un’s father’s attempt at the deception of nuclear disarming in order to obtain economic benefits. And we saw what occurred afterwards as the younger Kim expanded his nuclear development program.

The press and the analysts are quiet now on the events that occurred last September at the North Korean nuclear test site and whether its full collapse effectively demolished Kim’s nuclear program. Now Kim is inviting foreigners to witness the destruction and closure of the test site. Who is deceiving whom? What is the true backstory? When was it known and by whom?

Here is Fox News reporting on the aftermath of the September North Korean nuclear test: http://www.foxnews.com/tech/2018/05/11/10-times-larger-than-hiroshima-how-north-koreas-huge-nuclear-blast-caused-mountain-to-collapse.html. Here is a report on academic studies that suggest Kim has no nuclear facility left: http://news.berkeley.edu/2018/05/10/radar-reveals-details-of-mountain-collapse-after-north-koreas-most-recent-nuclear-test/. Here is a report by Reuters that details the current views on what a North Korean dismantling would entail: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-northkorea-missiles/north-korea-details-plans-to-dismantle-nuclear-test-site-idUSKCN1ID0H5.

So what can we believe? What is the backstory? And how much asymmetry is there in the information that we have by which to evaluate these developments? What do we learn from Thucydides that still applies today? The answer may be found in a quote at the end of this commentary.

We will pause for a moment and share a backstory loaded with asymmetric information. This is about how the United States came to declare war on Germany in 1917. This is a clear example from history, only 100 years ago. It is about decisions made, deception applied, and the outcome determined with absolute clarity. For the details about a decoded message and its conveyance, see “Breaking the Zimmermann Telegram,” by John Bull, here: https://medium.com/lapsed-historian/breaking-the-zimmermann-telegram-b34ed1d73614.

TheBrowser.com offers this summary of the situation: “When World War One broke out, and Britain cut Germany’s transatlantic telegraph cable, Germany shifted its diplomatic traffic to the neutral American cable — apparently unaware that the American cable crossed British soil. The British tapped the cable and in 1917 decrypted a German telegram urging Mexico to make war on the United States. This telegram was enough to bring America into the war. But how could the British reveal the telegram, without revealing that they tapped the American cable?” (Hat tip to Politico.)

Here is another take on the Zimmermann telegram story from Smithsonianmag.com and a photo of the telegram: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/document-deep-dive-what-did-the-zimmermann-telegram-say-29792028/.

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