By Andreas Kluth
IN 416 BCE a mighty army from Athens, the superpower of the day, showed up on the small and neutral island of Melos in the Aegean Sea. The Athenians told the Melians to submit and pay tribute or be obliterated. Stunned, the Melians appealed to morality, justice, law, even the gods. There’s been a misunderstanding, the Athenians replied: You simply have a choice between doing as you’re told and being destroyed, so please stop wasting our time. This isn’t fair, the Melians insisted.
So the Athenians “put to death all the grown men whom they took, and sold the women and children for slaves, and subsequently sent out 500 colonists and inhabited the place themselves.”
With this final sentence, perhaps the tersest in world literature, the Greek historian Thucydides concludes the Melian dialogue in his History of the Peloponnesian War. (I’ve abridged the dialogue here, the full version is here: https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/melian.htm.) The text is a classic in international relations — and a good guide to understanding our world today.
That’s because it was the first expression of two traditions that have run through world politics ever since. The Athenian mentality Thucydides described is called realism. It views the world as a stage organized only by power and self-interest. Might makes right.
The Melian approach is called idealism. This tradition hasn’t always been as weak as the Melians were. It developed over time into the notion of international law, as it was later embodied, for example, in the United Nations and the European Union. Here rules are supposed to take precedence over — or at least to temper — power to protect the weak from the strong for the ultimate benefit of all.
The Western world after World War II was shaped largely into an architecture the Melians would have admired. A big reason was that it was led by a superpower, the US, which was realist in military preparedness but idealist in vision and values. The UN stood for legalism and conflict resolution without war. Other institutions, from the International Monetary Fund to the forerunner to today’s World Trade Organization, signaled that rules existed to constrain naked power in world affairs.
Nobody embraced this Melian mentality more eagerly than the war-traumatized Europeans, and especially the Germans, who had only recently committed a genocide the Athenians couldn’t have imagined. Rhetorically, the Germans renounced hard power and self-interest altogether, which is one reason why they still disdain and underfund their own army.
For more than a decade after the end of the Cold War, idealism seemed to be the future. Some authors celebrated the “end of history” as the liberal international order prevailed. Many were especially enthusiastic about the EU, the pinnacle of legalistic and post-national multilateralism, predicting that “Europe will run the 21st century,” that “the European way is the best hope,” and that the EU will be become “the new superpower.”
What’s been happening instead is a sharp turn away from idealism and back to realism. Some ancient-but-modern powers, such as post-Soviet Russia, post-Ottoman Turkey, and post-imperial China, have at different times felt spurned or humiliated by the West and its idealist dogma. Newly ascendant (China) or newly assertive (Russia and Turkey), they are now arch-realists.
When Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Georgia in 2008 and annexed Crimea in 2014, for instance, he did so with the mentality of the Athenians in Melos, caring not a whit that he was breaking international law. After all, who was going to stop him? When Putin’s warplanes drop bombs on Syria to help his crony Bashar al-Assad, he regards the human beings below with Athenian disdain, turning millions into refugees who will, he hopes, make their way to the EU to cause chaos.
It’s with the same dark realism that Chinese president Xi Jinping views his neighborhood. Where he can assert his power and get away with it, he will — for instance, by taking a few islets in the South China Sea to turn them into Chinese aircraft carriers. Where he calculates that his power isn’t sufficient yet or could provoke a (still) superior force like the US, he waits, as in Taiwan.
We don’t know how Thucydides personally felt about the Melian episode; he merely described and interpreted it. Realism may indeed be the default state in nature. But the world is more bearable when those in power also have ideals.
Europe, unfortunately, seems destined only to have values but no power. Meanwhile, the US under President Donald Trump seems temporarily to have lost interest in ideals, putting “America first,” whatever that means. That could change again this year, of course, after the presidential election. Let’s hope it does. For the US remains the only nation today that potentially has both power and ideals, and that can prevent a world in which, as the Athenians told the Melians, “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”