The Melian Advantage

Carl Von Clausewitz once wrote, “War is the continuation of politics by other means.”  This quote could not be truer in that the politicization of war leads it to always be about more than just the conflict itself.  Public opinion plays a huge role in any war especially in the 21st century era of ’round the clock cable news.  It is important to every nation’s leaders that they appear as the “good guys” in the eyes of the world around them so that they do not face the wrath of a guilty verdict in the court of public opinion.  This undesirable outcome can lead to crippling sanctions.

Thucydides both fought in the Peloponnesian War (431 – 404 BCE) and authored stories from it, such as the Melian Dialogue.

Thucydides both fought in the Peloponnesian War (431 – 404 BCE) and authored stories from it, such as the Melian Dialogue.

However, this is not the way things always were.  Times have changed.  Early on in the semester, we studied the Melian Dialogue from Thycydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War.  In this piece and in this generation, warring nations are not concerned with how they will be judged in terms of public opinion because the world is not organized or unified enough to do anything to ensure justice throughout it.  The message of this piece is that “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”  The Athenians are able to trample all over the Melians to no end.  The Melians make all sorts of arguments as to why the Athenians should spare them but they have no luck in convincing the superpower.  Unless they concede defeat and accept being made the slaves of Athens, they will be annihilated in battle.  Even when the Melians try to argue that demolishing them so callously will make Athens look bad in the eyes of other nations, the Athenians are not swayed.

The United Nations and groups like it make it less easy for super powers to trample all over smaller states because they have to answer tot he rest of the world.

The United Nations and groups like it make it harder for super powers to trample all over smaller states because they have to answer to the rest of the world.

While the UN and groups like it have their issues and organizations pop up just to point them out, the fact that there is some sort of unified presence in the world either through media or quasi-government help to ensure that instances such as the Melian/Athenian conflict cannot occur.  In today’s society being the victim is arguably more advantageous than being the more powerful aggressor for this is how you win over the coveted court of public opinion.  For example, recall the 2008 conflict between Russia and Georgia.  Aggressive actions taken by the much larger, more influential, and more powerful Russian state did not end up earning it much support in the eyes of the world.  Georgia’s victimization lead it to garner the support of much of the free world amid the conflict and thus pressure Russia into a agreeing to a ceasefire rather than demolishing the small nation like it so easily could have.

Israel-Palestine-Handshake

The Israeli conflict with Palestine and other nations in the Arab world lead to victimization being claimed on both sides.

For a more complex example, we can look to the conflict between Israel and most of the Arab world.  Both Israel and Palestine have sought to position themselves as the Melians of this conflict.  Palestine, as a smaller territory with a far less advanced military, has long made the argument to the world that they are victims of an oppressive and abusive Israeli state.  Israel counters by arguing that they are the sole Jewish country in the world living in a region the size of New Jersey amidst 22 Arab countries surrounding it many of whom call for the Jewish state to be wiped off the map.  This conflict is complicated and it is not clear that there is one true victim but what both sides understand is that it is far better to appear as the victim (Melian) than as the aggressor (Athenian.)

Jesse Arm

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