Dhaka Courier

Thucydides, the Melian Dialogue, and Realism in International Politics: Relevance to South Asia

The Greek classical historian, Thucydides (460-400 BCE) wrote his famous History of the Peloponnesian War to explain the causes of that fierce conflict between his native Athens and its rival Sparta that engulfed the Hellenic classical world at that time(431-404 BCE). His work is not particularly viewed as a treatise on political philosophy containing any sustaining theory of international relations.  Yet this is one classical text that has impacted enormously philosophers and theorists ever since. Of notable mention in it is the discourse between the envoys of Athens with the people of the tiny island of Melos, known as the ‘Melian Dialogue’ (416 BCE), a representation, in Thucydides’ perception, of that verbal exchange, rather than a narration of actual facts.

The Melian Dialogue

During the Peloponnesian war, the Greek world was divided into two contending blocs of city-states, the Delian League led by Athens and the Peloponnesian League led by Sparta. They were driven to conflict by Sparta’s apprehension of the growth of Athenian power and its empire-building. Melos, small and weak, though more linked to Sparta, wanted to remain neutral. In the ‘Dialogue’, the Athenians demanded that the neutrality of the Melians was unacceptable. Instead they insisted that Melos should join the Delian League, pay tribute to Athens, and in return, will be able to avoid destruction. The Melians resisted by saying that they could not accept the shameful state of subjugation. In case of urgent need, they could call upon Sparta to come to their aid. Finally, they contended that because they felt they were in the right, a sense of justice would cause the gods to be on their side.

The Athenian envoys responded that there was nothing to be shameful about subjugation by the more powerful; ignominy would only apply to surrender to a comparable power. It was also unlikely that the Spartans would come to aid of the Melians, because they would thereby directly confront the wrath of Athens. As to intervention by the gods, the Athenians argued that it was an unrealistic expectation because the gods “by a necessary law of their nature…rule wherever they can”. So, the Athenians underscored that in the absence of a higher law-enforcing phenomenon, the only right is that of the stronger to dominate the weaker (“The strong do what they can , and the weak suffer what they must”). That, they said, was the sad reality for the Melians. Then the Athenians made the point that in their view, this fact was relevant for all times. They said: “…it is not as if we were the first to make this law, or to act upon it when made; we found it existing before us, and shall leave it to exist forever after us; all we do is to make use of it, knowing that you and everybody else, having the same power as we have, would do the same as we do”.

The Melians were unpersuaded, and the ‘dialogue’ ended. The Athenian envoys left, only for their army to return, seize the city after an unequal fight, kill all Melian men prisoners, and have all women and children enslaved. Realists in the theory and practice of international relations took lessons from that conversation between the Athenian envoys and the Melians, which was a major input into their thought -processes.

Realists in International Relations

The realists endorsed the affirmation of priority of self- interest over morality, underscoring that actions by states are not to be deterred from the opportunities offered by superior power to considerations of right or wrong. Thucydides’ ‘realism’ merely warns against ‘naïve dreaming’ as by the Melians, but is neither particularly moral or immoral, squaring with such modern-day thinkers as Raymond Aaron and Hans Morgenthau, who would not deny moral judgment. Realists of the “Realpolitic” school like Niccolo Machiavelli would deny the usefulness of traditional ethics, while more contemporary ‘scientific realism’ would largely ignore moral questions. Perhaps within these parameters, could be placed John Mearsheimer’s  theory of ‘offensive realism’ according to which great powers living in a highly competitive anarchical world would seek power-maximization relentlessly with the goal to assure survival by achieving hegemony; or Kenneth Waltz’s ‘defensive realism’ whereby states adapt to the anarchy of international politics by promoting policies of moderation and defensive cooperation with their neighbours.

‘International realists’ of all schools would probably understand China’s behaviour-pattern during its rise. The US trajectory to its current position has not been much different. In that country , it was attained through a successful mission to achieve its ‘manifest destiny’-the belief dating back to 1845 that the US was destined by God to expand its dominion and spread ‘democracy’ and ‘capitalism’ across the entire North American continent, the ‘Monroe Doctrine’- coined around 1850 warning European nations not to interfere in the American hemisphere, and then in the 20th century crossing the Atlantic into Europe to ‘slay foreign monsters’-which was ,incidentally, exactly opposite of what the Founding Fathers had envisaged. Eventually by 1990, according to Charles Krauthammer, a neo-conservative thinker, the US had reached the “unipolar moment” when it became the sole global “superpower”, or “hyperpower”, as French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine described it as , in 1998. Its power was unrestrained, it was able do whatever it chose, as demonstrated by the waging of war in Afghanistan in 2001, and the unilateral invasion of Iraq in 2003.

China’s Rise and Aspirations

Through this time, in the east in Asia, an ancient culture, vastly different from the US, was slowly rising; China. Since the death of Chairman Mao Zedong in 1976, China redefined ‘socialism’ giving it ‘Chinese socialist characteristics’-which was really a form of controlled market capitalism- which for decades helped produce for its economy double digit growths. Mao, though criticized for his ruthlessness, did give his huge nation a sense of pride, as reflected in the de-facto national anthem of the time, Dongfang Hong, or the ‘East is Red’. Demure about its rapid change, a successor to Mao, Deng Xiaoping urged ‘hide your capabilities and bide your time’. Also, China was reluctant to call this phenomenon anything more than a ‘peaceful rise’, or better still, a yet more restrained ‘peaceful development’, a term used in 2004. But when the current strongman Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, he saw no need for coyness, and began to aggressively assert China’s economic and even military clout, through a series of initiatives to mark its new position. This included the ‘Belt and Road Initiative ‘(BRI) a mega-project linking scores of countries across the globe. China’s version of ‘Manifest Destiny’ was Zhong Guomeng, or ‘China Dream’. Its aspiration was not necessarily to battle the US, as many misperceive, but to be its peer. Indeed, Chinese leaders, and this has been the subject of their conversations with me over some years, often cite Thucydides, but their reading of him is that the ‘Thucydides Syndrome’ was one that warned against war as a result of miscalculations between powers.

The problem that follows is a text-book case of conflict-study in international relations. The sole status quo superpower, the US, would not allow a rival to diminish the prevalent unipolarity significantly by rising to the position of a peer. China sees its security and prosperity in reaching that position as soon as possible. As John Mearsheimer, the ‘offensive realist’ cited earlier argues, the US dislikes peer competition. It would, therefore, do all that is possible  to ‘contain’ (‘containment’ was a term coined by the US diplomat George F. Kennan, later converted into a ‘doctrine’, as a strategy to deter Soviet Russia during the Cold War) or at least ‘constrain’ ,any new rival appearing on the scene.

 Right now the embattled US President, Donald Trump, is besieged by a sea of domestic troubles; the ever-spreading COVID 19, the plummeting economic numbers, the ‘black lives matter movement’ and an estrangement with allies. His prospect of re-election is threatened. He is anxious to reduce any further foreign involvement, and bring troops back home as an electoral strategy. He is happy to pass the buck to any regional partners, allies or non-allies, so long as they are powerful enough to take care of themselves and do not call for direct US involvement. So, to, him one of the regional players that fits the bill in Asia is India.

Chinese Calculations

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a nationalist driving the Hindutva (religious) card to consolidate his power domestically, saw this as an opportunity. His rival party Congress’ ‘non-aligned’ foreign policy was an anathema to him in any case. He wanted powerful foreign friends to bolster his position at home, and so veered towards the US; and Trump, like Barkis in Charles Dickens’ ‘David Copperfield’, was willing. The strategic friendship with the US led him to interact with fellow- travellers, Prime Ministers Scott Morrison of Australia and Shinzo Abe of Japan. To Xin Jinping, Modi seemed to be deviating from the ‘Wuhan Spirit’, a term to describe an understanding supposedly reached between them in the Chinese city. These developments gave Xi umbrage, and also cause for concern.

The Chinese calculated, perhaps using a bit of their Marxist intellectual heritage and reasoning, that the constellation of forces was ripe for them to strike. Trump and the US were too embroiled in domestic issues, and even though there was rising anti-Chinese sentiments across the board in the US; they unable to act on its own right now .In China’s perception, India would be an ideal US proxy. At the same time India, while having faraway friends, appeared to have few in the region. Its economy was heading in a steep southward direction (starting from even before the current pandemic) and it was having too many domestic distractions, communal disharmony , all compounded by a galloping figure of COVID infections that the system of governance seemed ill-equipped to combat and control.

India in South Asia

Pakistan was a declared adversary of India. Indeed, Modi’s abrogation of article 370 of its Constitution, incorporating Kashmir and Ladakh in its territories had given Pakistan and China a common cause as China also irredentist issues on this score, such as with regard to Ladakh. Nepal, while deepening its cooperation with China, had formally altered its map by incorporating some territories disputed by India such as Lipulekh, Limpiyadhura, and Kalapani. As for Bangladesh, the unresolved Teesta water distribution issue, killings of Bangladeshi citizens by Indian border guards, and a series of agreements a majority Bangladeshis perceived as unfair at best and predatory at worst, had turned public opinion negative via a vis Delhi. The government, though at stated levels continued to underscore friendship, but carefully balancing it with similar sentiments expressed for China, with its huge investments in the country. In addition to these factors, treatment of the Muslims in India and the perceived end of India’s secular character during the rule of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)drew opprobrium of the region’s Muslim communities. Beijing, therefore, assessed any problem with India, particularly if kept confined, would not unduly strain its relations with other south Asian nations, which was also for Beijing a part of its global objective.

China-India Conflict

Yet, China had to signal that it could brook no impediment to its rise to the status of a peer of the US. It saw India as a potential, if not, real, impediment. Consequently, It increased its pressure on the eastern Ladakh region where the Line of Actual Control (LAC) was a notional demarcation (as distinct from a ‘border’) arrived at by the two sides at politico-diplomatic levels (rather than as a result of operational military activities , in which case it would be a Line of Control, or LOC) in 1993. The two sides had different perceptions where it ran. Additionally, China wanted to ensure that its huge investments in BRI with Pakistan are not vulnerable. The resultant tensions led to a very serious incident in the Galwan valley on 16th June, in which 20 Indian and an unstated number of Chinese soldiers were killed. But the fact that in that conflict no weapons were used as per earlier mutual agreement, indicated the willingness of military personnel n both sides to abide by certain rules of the game.

There was a huge backlash in India, in particular with regard to the incident in Galwan. This was understandable as India was obviously the weaker side. Any objective military assessment would point to an overwhelming superiority of China in kinetic and non-kinetic war-fighting capabilities. It included the power to massively hit in the electromagnetic domain, and cause damage not only to traditional command and control, but something like a calibrated cyberattack could render in-operational civilian activities like transport, communications, banking and electricity. This the Chinese could achieve without firing artillery or dropping bombs. A nuclear response to such non-lethal attacks would be difficult to justify, and the Indian population would not have the margin of tolerance for the retribution. They also have a huge force in Tibet in battle readiness. Though Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has denied any deployments in the vicinity, it would be surprising if there was no interoperability between the Pakistani and Chinese forces across all battle-domains. Still, in the natural order of things, while China is unlikely to relent in any way on its postures in Ladakh and on the LAC, China’s major contradiction remains the US and not India.

The Geo-Strategic Framework

So, putting it in a geo-strategic frame- work, what is taking place is a race by China, taking advantage of the global situation, to reach peer status with the US. The US would seek to counter this, but without getting militarily or otherwise directly involved in confrontation. Its domestic situation would not allow for it, and its western allies would not endorse it. China argues that once a systemic bipolarity is established, cooperation between the two more powers can be better as it will be on an equal footing. But at the same time China would come down hard with any power appearing to queer the pitch. Beijing tends to see India, and in a different region, Australia, in this light.

The various interactions between those concerned can be seen as a Melian dialogue at two levels: between China and India at one level and between India and the neighbours at another. The difference being that India is more equipped to withstand China than Melos was against Athens, and at the other level, the neighbours of India are also more prepared to stand up to India’s pre-eminence, for, among other reasons that China is already present in those countries, unlike Sparta in Melos, with assets that it will be ready to fight to defend.

None of this is to say that war is inevitable. At the level of China and India, neither party wants a war. The stand -off in Ladakh, however, is likely to continue despite numerous tactical meetings between the commanders of two sides. Nothing short of an understanding at high political levels is likely to end it, and the prospects of that to happen anytime soon are dim. In the meantime, there has to be extreme circumspection, including what soldiers in the battlefield call ‘fire-control’, must be observed by the parties so that an armed conflict does not occur. It seems that the Modi government is already wisely displaying the vision of erring on the side of caution and circumspection. Similarly, it should rethink its relationship with each of the other South Asian countries. Indian values were once appreciated in the region and the world. India can renew its leadership role, which its size and capabilities would support, with fresh ideas of domestic and regional harmony and cooperation, rather than by a slide to a fundamentalist ethos that is an antithesis to India’s culture. A Bloomberg report dated 19 June stated that the silence of India’s traditional regional friends with regard to the Indo-Chinese conflict had been “deafening”.

When Jawaharlal Nehru died in May 1964, flags flew at half- mast in every South Asian capital in genuine mourning. That was despite many intramural and unresolved issues between the countries. A return to that kind of perception of India in its own region should be an aim not because of reasons of nostalgia, but because of necessity. India can justly take pride in having some of the finest diplomats in the world; its armed forces are heir to a tradition that is the envy of many of militaries around the globe. This is also the case with some of their neighbours. Such capital should not be allowed to go to waste. When such professionals have worked in unison they have achieved great things. Look at UN peacekeeping around world’s troubled spots or the drafting of norms and standards in many multilateral institutions. India’s membership of the United nations Security Council 2021-2022 will provide it an opportunity to display the qualities of leadership and earn the respect of the region and the world that the people of India deserve. Much will depend on the sagacity and wisdom of its political masters.

Conclusion

At the global level, to cite the title of the tome of Hedley Bull, my teacher and mentor ,  often called the founding text of the English School of International Relations , what we have an “anarchical society”. The major States, the US and China will have a key role in forging some kind of a social compact on relations between the States. With the COVID 19 raging and elections in the US due in November between now and then there will be a modicum of instability. In the US there will be tirades against China and calls for ‘decoupling’. From China will emanate stern warnings. But a war, which will be devastating for both, must be avoided. While we appear to be on the brink of a ‘New Cold War’ (in this those analysts also bring in the Russia-West situation), even that is avoidable. To turn to history one last time in the essay, when the original Melian Dialogue took place, Athens and Sparta were already in the middle of the Peloponnesian war. When it ended, so did, forever, the power of both these city-states, swept away by the consequences of that prolonged conflict, paving the way for the rise of Alexander of Macedonia from what was seen then as the backwaters of Hellenic culture!

Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is Principal Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asia Studies, National University of Singapore. He is a former Foreign Advisor (Foreign Minister) of Bangladesh and President of Cosmos Foundation Bangladesh. The views addressed in the article are his own. He can be reached at: isasiac @nus.edu.sg

  • Greek World
  • South Asia
  • Melian Dialogue
  • Thucydides
  • Politics

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