Remember the Melians
Posted on December 12, 2016
Remember the Melians? Melos was a city-state on an Aegean island that was besieged by Athens in the Peloponnesian War. During the siege, the Athenians and the Melians held a parley, which Thucydides dramatized in his History. Thucydides’ dialogue is one of the urtexts of realism in international relations. The Athenians gave the Melians an ultimatum: surrender, or else. They pointed out that they had the overwhelming advantage and that their surrender terms were reasonable. The Melians appealed to the Athenians’ sense of justice, noted their neutrality in the larger struggle between the Delian League (led by Athens) and the Peloponnesian League (led by Sparta), and expressed an unrealistic hope that the Spartans, Athens’ enemies, would come to their aid. The Athenians told the Melians they were being foolish: “The strong do what they can,” they said, “and the weak suffer what they must.” The Melians persisted in their wishful thinking. Athens destroyed the city, killed the men, and sold the women and children into slavery.
Obviously Athens was not in the right. The sack of Melos was an atrocity. But the Melians were blameworthy, too. It would have been better for them if they weren’t so weak, and barring that, it would have been better to face facts and make a more realistic decision.
Today, the United States is a great power, a country that—until now—has been able to do what it can rather than to suffer what it must. It seems to me that anyone who has the national interest at heart has to want us to remain a great power, so that we do not have to resign ourselves to suffering what we must at the hands of other powers.
This is why the commentary on the apparent Russian effort to influence the presidential election from folks such as Glenn Greenwald is so confounding.
When Mr. Greenwald is not carrying water for Vladimir Putin, he is making the point that the United States has sought to influence elections in other countries including Russia. As news, this is useful context. As opinion, Greenwald’s implied point is obtuse and unpatriotic. It’s obtuse because it fails to recognize the relevant differences between the two situations. Russia in the mid-90s was hardly a mature democracy, and the fall of the Soviet Union was just a few years past. That’s not to say that it’s praiseworthy to go around seeking to influence elections in other countries; it’s just to say “it’s complicated.” But more to the point, it’s unpatriotic insofar as it doesn’t seem to accept the view I gave above—that it’s in the national interest to be a country that has the ability to do what it can rather than one that has the misfortune to have to suffer what it must.
These, by the way, are the only two choices, from the realist perspective. If you want to know how a country that relies on the decency of its adversaries rather than its own strength will fare, ask the Melians.
Considerations like these are why it’s so distressing to see President-elect Trump shrugging off the conclusion of the people whose job it is to know these things that the Russian state intervened in the US election with the intention of aiding Mr. Trump’s candidacy. Happily at least a few Republican senators are willing to investigate the fiasco despite Mr. Trump’s view (though other Republican leaders seem to be struggling to put the national interest over partisan interests). But commentators who adopt the pose of cosmopolitan superiority and point to real or imagined prior US misdeeds as a reason to excuse Russia’s intervention in this election are not serving the national interest.