Thucydides in Hormuz
- January 16, 2012
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.