Notes From the Margins…

Thucydides in Hormuz

  • January 16, 2012
  • by

There have been few periods in history like ours, in which one state or group of states have been able to make war on whoever they want, secure in the knowledge that their own countries are effectively immune to retaliation,  and regardless of whether the objects of military force have made any directly aggressive move against them.

In our era of permanent war a group of states variously known as ‘the West’ or the ‘international community’ moves restlessly from one battleground to the next, and no sooner is one of them over than another target looms up  in their crosshairs.    Thus last week during his visit to Saudi Arabia, Cameron predicted that ‘the world’ would ‘come together’ to act if Iran closed the Strait of Hormuz, echoing Tony Blair’s evocations of global communion that preceded the war in Afghanistan.

And now  the British foreign secretary William Hague has told Sky News  that it that the UK may use military force in Iran since:

“We have never ruled anything out. We have not ruled out any option, or supporting any option. We believe all options should be on the table, that is part of the pressure on Iran.  But we are clearly not calling for or advocating military action. We are advocating meaningful negotiations, if Iran will enter into them, and the increasing pressure of sanctions to try to get some flexibility from Iran.”

So even though the UK is not ‘calling for’  or ‘advocating’  military force, war  is nevertheless ‘on the table’ – or perhaps more accurately underneath it – if Iran does not show more ‘flexibility’, ie. unless it does what ‘the West’ tells it to do.    The underlying logic behind Hague’s ‘meaningful negotiations’  was once summed by the historian Thucydides, in his magisterial account of the vicious Peloponnesian war which raged between Athens and Sparta from 431 to 404 BC.

One of the most famous episodes in Thucydides’ history concerns an episode known as the ‘Melian dialogue’ that took place in 416 BC, when Athens launched a military expedition against the island of Melos.   The Melians had initially sought  to be neutral in the conflict, but neutrality was not acceptable to Athens,  which did not trust it to be permanent and feared that other states might interpret Melian neutrality as a sign of weakness.

The Melians were therefore told to submit to Athenian authority or they would be  conquered and enslaved.  In Thucydides’ fictionalised rendition of this episode, the Athenian generals  send envoys in an effort to convince the Melian magistrates and rulers to surrender beforehand, and propose a frank exchange of views and opinions on both sides:

The Melian representatives answer:

The quiet interchange of explanations is a reasonable thing, and we do not object to that. But your warlike movements, which are present not only to our fears but to our eyes, seem to belie your words. We see that, although you may reason with us, you mean to be our judges; and that at the end of the discussion, if the Justice of our cause prevail and we therefore refuse to yield, we may expect war; if we are convinced by you, slavery.

To which the Athenians respond:

 Nay, but if you are only going to argue from fancies about the future, or if you meet us with any other purpose than that of looking your circumstances in the face and saving your city, we have done; but if this is your intention we will proceed.

When the Melians argue that:

 It is an excusable and natural thing that men in our position should have much to say and should indulge in many fancies. But we admit that this conference has met to consider the question of our preservation; and therefore let the argument proceed in the manner which you propose.

The Athenians reply:

you and we should say what we really think, and aim only at what is possible, for we both alike know that into the discussion of human affairs the question of justice only enters where the pressure of necessity is equal, and that the powerful exact what they can, and the weak grant what they must.

Thucydides tells us that the Melians refused to submit,  the Athenians laid siege to their city and that when it finally surrendered ‘The Athenians thereupon put to death all who were of military age, and made slaves of the women and children. They then colonised the island, sending thither 500 settlers of their own.’

Athens was a democratic state, which often promoted its democratic values as evidence of its moral and political superiority over Spartan oligarchy.  But as Thucydides points out, in questions of war and power, it was as ruthless, cynical and merciless as its enemy, and capable of the most vicious atrocities.

Today, the diplomatic pressures being exerted against Iran reflect the same essential logic that Thucydides once put into the mouths of the Athenian delegates at Melos.    Behind the arguments about nuclear weapons and Iranian intransigence,  powerful states continue to ‘exact what they can’ while weaker states are expected to ‘grant what they must’ – or expect to find themselves on the receiving end of cruise and tomahawk missiles.

This, in a nutshell, is the underlying principle that dictated the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and is now leading inexorably towards another behind the facade of diplomacy, and Thucydides would not be remotely surprised by it.



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  1. Matt

    2nd Feb 2012 - 3:49 pm

    Hi Matt, I enjoyed the tie to Thucydides. Might I recommend, however, an alternate and I think more powerful rendering of the Greek: “The strong do what they will while the weak suffer what they must.”

    I think the parallel between the Melian dialogue and the Iranian issue is not so clear-cut as you would have it. I’m certainly not inclined to defend America’s paternalism toward non-Western countries, but the issue seems somewhat less compelling than Thucydides’ example. What is remarkable in the Athenian statement at Melos is that the generals frankly disallow any ethical constraints. And not only in words, but in the subsequent action, they completely ignore the existence of anything constraining their arbitrary will.

    It is safe to say that Britain and America would exhaust quite a few alternatives before declaring war. And if it were to come to war, the indiscriminate violence inflicted on the Melians would not be seen in Iran.

    The larger point is that I disagree slightly with your representation of Thucydides. Every eloquent statement contained in the History should not necessarily be considered a faithful echo of Thucydides’ own beliefs. There are moments in the History (Nicias comes to mind) when the possibility and need for something other than power politics emerges.

    I say that because I think the existence and brutality of power politics it met at times with profound lament by Thucydides, while his adherents today often adopt it indifferently or even cheerfully as a truism and guiding principle.

    • Matt

      2nd Feb 2012 - 4:57 pm

      Very interesting observations, thank you. Yes, the translation you give is certainly better than the one I used, which came from a rather old-fashioned version than the one I actually have on the shelves but couldn’t find when I needed it.

      I agree with you that the Melian Dialogues don’t constitute an exact parallel to what is taking place now between the ‘international community’ and Iran – no historical situation ever is. At Melos, the Athenian generals gave the Melians the opportunity to surrender, and then punished them for their defiance according to the accepted codes of warfare of the time – massacre and enslavement.

      Today the coalition of states that are ranged against Iran are also giving the Iranians the opportunity to surrender – or face very different consequences (not as ‘discriminate’ as you suggest, in my opinion), but the underlying principle is the same – that power not principle is what governs the behaviour of states and their relationships with each other.

      Thucydides understood this very well, which doesn’t mean that he agreed with, and your point about his ‘lament’ for this kind of politics is well-taken.

      But the recognition of the role of brute force and power that he expressed so well is often absent in Western democracies, where the media and public tend to assume that our governments really are motivated by high ideals, ethics and principles that are absent in our adversaries.

      To some extent this was true in the Peloponnesian war too – the arguments used by the Athenian generals at Melos are strikingly at odds with the elevated values and principles that Thucydides puts into the mouth of Pericles at the beginning of the war for example. Perhaps this is because long and brutal wars tend to unravel high principles, or perhaps, as Thucydides suggests, because violence and brutality were as intrinsic to Athens as democracy, civilisation and the polis.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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