Thucydides Roundtable, Book IV: WHAT WOULD THE MELIANS DO? POWER AND PERCEPTION IN A TIME OF DEEP CONNECTIVITY
[by Steven Metz]
I was introduced to Thucydides in Professor George Liska’s classes on international politics at the Johns Hopkins University. Before coming to the United States Dr. Liska has served in the Czech foreign ministry but fled after the communist coup of 1948 and ended up studying political science at Harvard about the same time as other European emigres like Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski who later shaped the way Americans thought about statecraft. Like them (and other scholars with a European background like Hans Morgenthau), Liska approached statecraft from a power based, realist perspective solidly grounded in history. It made perfect sense, then, that he found Thucydides a useful heuristic device for guiding students through the complexities of statecraft. Liska also recognizes that there was no more perfect encapsulation of the asymmetric relationship between a great power and a smaller one than Thucydides’ depiction of the Melian Dialogue in which Athens, ancient Greek’s dominant power at the time, attempted to convince the small island state of Melos to abandon its neutrality and become a tribute-paying, secondary ally.
While the Melian Dialogue is only a few pages of Thucydides’ magisterial history of the Peloponnesian War, it is rife with meaning. This is because statecraft—as Clausewitz said about war—has a changing character but an enduring nature. Then as during the Peloponnesian War, “the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept” as the Athenian delegation to Melos put it.
The central dynamic of the relationship between a great and smaller power—and the focus of much of the Melian Dialogue–is what now is called “messaging.” The representatives of Melos contended that as a small island nation, they were no threat to Athens. The Athenians argued that while that might be true the way they dealt with them would send a message to other small states. If Athens allowed Melos so resist its demand for an alliance, other small states would see this as weakness and might themselves be tempted to resist or abandon Athens. The Athenian delegation was depicting what many years later became known as the “domino effect.’ In addition, the Athenians said, their true enemy—Sparta—would be watching how they dealt with Melos and might become more aggressive if Athens seemed weak. Whether the Athenian delegation was right or wrong about the way that other small Greek states and Sparta would respond if they failed to impose their will on Melos, they were certainly correct in seeing statecraft as a form of extraordinarily high stakes theater, where actors interacted directly with each other by by doing so, sent messages to a wider audience which was not directly involved in the interaction.
So what does this tell today’s students and practitioners of statecraft? The Athenian assertion that “the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept” remains part of of statecraft’s enduring nature. What has changed in today’s time of deep connectivity, though, is the method why which states signal or message, the methods by which strong states impose their will on weaker ones, and the wider costs of imposing power (or failing to do so).
Today’s international system is characterized by deep connectivity between states. This means that any exercise of power has cascading, difficult-to-predict effects. Many states have a stake in any conflict and may impose costs on a powerful nation imposing its will on a weaker one. This, in turn, raises the costs of the raw imposition of power by the strong against the weak. Great powers do still impose their will when they consider the strategic benefits greater than the costs, but as a general rule even great powers attempt to exercise power in a way that limits the cost to them. Often this means acting indirectly by empowering partners. It can also mean the use of what is called gray zone aggression; reliance on long range, standoff military strikes using drones, missiles, or manned aircraft; “light footprint” operations; sanctions; or cyberattacks.
For great powers, though, this need for more subtle methods of imposing their will increases the probability that their message will be misunderstood, or that small nations will conclude that they can withstand it. When Athens or, later, great powers like Rome decided to send a message, they did so openly and unambiguously. There is no doubt that other small Greek states took note of what happened to Melos and, for a while at least, were less inclined to challenge or resist Athens. But today the colonization of the weak by the strong is off the table so when the application of power is something like a cyberattack, smaller states may not reach the conclusion that the great power intended. In its face off with Athens, Melos may have believed that the price of submitting to Athens would be greater than the costs of submitting. Since Athens eventually colonized Melos, killed the adult males, and sold the women and children into slavery, it is hard to believe that its leaders thought that was a an acceptable cost to preserve their honor. More likely, they did not consider the Athenian threat credible only to find out that it was.
In a time of deep connectivity, then, the core challenge for a great power is to find methods for imposing their will that are politically acceptable and strategically affordable yet which send the desired message. It is not easy to find the sweet spot which sends the desired message particularly when the smaller state has some means of striking back at the more powerful one as North Korea does with nuclear weapons and Iran does through support for terrorism. Thus the nature of great power messaging endures but its character has changed.
Today’s Melians—whether North Korea, Iran, Taiwan, or the small nations on Russia’s periphery—must clearly understand what the threshold for great power intervention is and stay below it. To miscalculate can be catastrophic as Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gaddafi learned. Why relations between great power and small powers remains as asymmetric as it was during Peloponnesian War, the extent of the asymmetry has changed as a result of constraints on the great powers arising from deep connectivity, and the development of strategic power projection capabilities by small states. The essential truths of the Melian Dialogue endure but their application continues to change.