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Lessons from the Melians

Miguel Herrero de Jáuregui [1]

Georgia_map_2 [2] Everybody seems to have something to say about the Georgian crisis. And, after all, why not? One of the many things the Irak war has taught us is to question the classical Cold War assumption that higher international politics are moved by forces beyond the comprehension of average citizens, for spies, satellites, stragegists, analysts, diplomats and politicians know better. For many months, all these wise men assured with the whole weight of their authority “in Irak there are mass-destruction weapons, we know”, and the claims of  independent citizens and newspapers saying there were no proofs for that were dismissed as ill-informed demagogy. We all know now who was right. Perhaps in the future the prestige of the “brains in the shadow” will be restored, but now it is fair that an average newspaper-reader feels justly entitled to play the Great Game. After all, at least while playing it in blogs we don’t do any harm. Others are definitely worse players and play with real fire.

As ST readers know, a bit of pedantic classical-quoting is of the essence in this blog. There have been no few references [3] to Georgia as the ancient Colchis, Medea’s fatherland, where Jason sailed to take the Golden Fleece. But the current situation makes much more actual another piece of classical literature: the Melian Dialogue [4]. The great historian Thucydides (5, 84-116) dramatizes how the inhabitants of the small island of Melos oppose their right to be neutral in the Peloponesian war, to the strategic needs of the Athenians, then at the height of their power. “International law” was definitely in the side of the Melians, but force was on the other side: since the Melians refused to surrender, the Athenians overtook the small island, killed all Melians and enslaved their women and children. As they stated, “right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”.

Yet when Thucydides wrote the dialogue he knew how matters had gone in the long term. Athenian imperialism had pushed many neutral states to sympathize with the Spartans, who had felt legitimized  to make a much more cruel war. The Athenians finally lost the war and their great empire. The ancients, so prone to see everywhere crime-and-punishment patterns, did not miss the opportunity to recall their unjust deed against the Melians. The Melian delegate had after all spoken prophetically when warning: “since you enjoin us to let right alone and talk only of interest- that you should not destroy what is our common protection”.

This last sentence is the core of the issue (in fact, the Melian case is a refutation of Realpolitik, and not its justification as it is often quoted). It could probably be applied to Georgia. But it could also have been well applied to Kosovo some months ago. Granted, the numbers of dead people and many other elements are different. But the process led by the USA which ended up in the seccession of a part of Serbia has been explicitely copied and accelerated by Russia. It is very dubious that what the NATO countries won with the recognition of Kosovo is worth what they have lost in Georgia. Again, it was said by many naïf and prejudiced people, that the partition of Serbia was an unnecessary aggression to Russia. But clever analysts knew better. It is not the first time that a decadent superpower hits back in the Caucasus as a reaction to losses in the Balkans: Armenians know it well. Washington geostrategists who now claim to weep over the fate of Georgian families in Osetia should have foreseen it too. Again, the link between both conflicts was predicted by many [5], no doubt biased and ignorant: but experts did not listen, they knew better, and emphatically proclaimed “Kosovo is not a precedent”, an astonishing case of wishful thinking.

All this amateurish Risk-playing damages seriously, furthermore, the notion of the independent State recognized by the international community as one more among equals, a pillar of the stable international order which in the mid-90es seemd to be at hand. That optimist panorama, radiant with conceptual and legal clarity, is now becoming quickly obscured. When artificially created states are recognized only by allied countries, “State” becomes a mere title to alien intrusion, sovereignity is revealed as a farce, and the international community is progressively dissolved by distrust and belief that national blunt selfishness is the only way. A pity, that such a delicate category as “sovereign State”, which has taken centuries to build, will end up being more a subject of symbolic contests between political rivals than useful juridical notions, and defined by image (i. e. who takes part in the Olympics?) rather than by law. I am sorry to repeat myself [6], but this is the consequence of expanding labels irreflexively: when terms are inflated and become polemical symbols rather than generally accepted labels of specific things, they end up being flags for catastrophes, after which they end up becoming taboo and are completely banned from language. Hopefully “sovereign state” will not follow that path. As the Melians said, it is in our own interest that we should not destroy what is our common protection.