Assad and the Melians: A Different View

August 29, 2013

How can international relations help us think about Syria? It can help us think through the problems apparent, even if it can’t explain how the conflict happened or predict how it will end. One of the key “problems” at the moment is who is in control. America? Assad? Russia? At heart, this revolves around the apparent willingness of the Assad government to take actions that ensure its own destruction, or at least severe impairment, at the hands of American missiles and bombs. Assad’s Russian and Chinese allies can provide him with political top-cover in the United Nations, but they can’t stop American Tomahawks from blowing up key bits of his military infrastructure. From a power-politics perspective, using chemical weapons to ensure the overt involvement of the globe’s hyper power in an otherwise restricted civil war makes no sense. Now America is in the driver’s seat, since it can commit a fraction of its military to the region and pummel Assad’s military. But still, the average American voter could be forgiven for wondering how the hell it got to this point. I argue Assad is in control and the Melian dialogue shows us why and what form of power he is exerting over America. For those unfamiliar with it, the Melian dialogue is a part of the ancient Greek historian Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. The dialogue takes place between the Athenians and the Melians and in a sense, it’s fiction – Thucydides had no way of knowing precisely what was said between the two parties. In a nutshell, the Athenians demand that the Melians surrender to Athens, despite their neutrality. The Melians disagree, despite the fact that not bowing to the demands of the Athenians would almost certainly result in their destruction. Eventually the Athenians accept the refusal, return with an army, and destroy the Melians as they said they would.

Despite its semi-fictional nature, the Melian Dialogue is a cornerstone of instruction in international relations, particularly in the realist school. Even those who sleep through half an intro to IR course will probably be able to summon the main points from memory: Melians, Athenians, power, and right. Athenians say concepts like justice and rights exist between equals, but elsewhere the strong take what they want, and the weak give what they have to. The Athenians do what they wish, and the many arguments the Melians make for why they shouldn’t accept Athens’ demands don’t change the ultimate outcome, which is their destruction. But what relevance do ancient Greeks have to the contemporary world? One reason is that the Melian dialogue and Thucydides informs the way people think about the world. Whatever actually went down between the Melians and the Athenians is less important than the way in which this dialogue shapes the way people approach concepts like power. The Melian dialogue is used to demonstrate what power is, and what it does, and what happens when the weak take a stand over moral issues in the face of overwhelming force.

Pop quiz: who exercises power in the Melian dialogue? Athens, right? I’d argue not. In fact, I’d argue that the Melians were the ones in control.

Hard-wired into the traditional understanding of the Melian dialogue is the concept of self-preservation. It’s the consequentialist approach to what used to be called statecraft. Leaders do what they do, but at the end of the day, the goal should be the preservation of their people. But it’s clear that the Melians in the dialogue aren’t operating on this level. They consider acquiescing to the Athenians to be a form of slavery, and refused to surrender, after which Athens besieged them, killed every man of military age and colonized the place. The impolite name for this is stupidity, born of pride. However the key point is that the Melians, we are told, decided according to a value instead of a likely consequence. History is full of famous last stands which, I’m sure, were less fun for those at the sharp end, than the people re-telling the story of their heroic deaths. But one thing we do get from Thucydides is that the Athenians didn’t want a last stand at all. They just wanted the Melians to acquiesce. Rather, the entire situation is precipitated by the outmatched Melians refusing to do as the Athenians wish: A small power that could be destroyed easily forces the stronger power to do so against its own wishes. The Athenians have a lot of power in the dialogue, but the Melians always retain the power to say “no.” This is precisely the problem America faces in Syria, and the contemporary world at large.

The sharpest article about Syria is The Onion’s take, precisely because it underlines the point that the power of “great powers” is always subject to the whims of the small. America rampant could wipe Assad’s regime from the map. It’s clear that America doesn’t want to do this. It doesn’t want to be in this position. But the actions of the embattled Assad government ensures that every path America chooses is a losing one. The use of chemical weapons after a public “red line” means that public inaction also damages American standing, much in the same way that Athens perceived its international standing at risk over Melos. Like the Athenians, the decision is forced upon it by a far weaker power.  But unlike the Athenians, any major U.S. military action is likely to be too costly, or pyrrhic, for the country to bear. America has wound up being the standard bearer for the liberal world order, with its rules, conventions and customs. But this status comes at a cost of being put on the spot every time another state disagrees. If anything, I’d argue that American leaders are quite adept at saving face every time an autocratic government tells them to “piss off” while openly violating the standards that America seeks to uphold. Part of this is a relentless focus upon American agency: where the United States chooses to intervene, and where it declines to do so. There is perhaps less focus on the fact that a fair proportion of the standards that America defends are effectively unenforceable, or that whenever America puts a red line in the sand, it makes itself a hostage to fortune. But red lines aren’t necessarily an error. If anything, they are inherent to a state that perceives itself as a guardian of values. As Neil Gaiman put it: “Rules and responsibilities: these are the ties that bind us. We do what we do, because of who we are. If we did otherwise, we would not be ourselves.” As America stares down the jaws of yet another military intervention in the Middle East, it would be wise to remember that the values that it sees as its essential strength also give men like Assad a measure of power. Like the Athenians, they are bound by the fact that the other side can always refuse.


Jack McDonald is a lecturer at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London.