Thucydides was a Greek historian. He lived and wrote 2,400 years ago. He was both a general and a chronicler of what has come to be called the Peloponnesian War. It began in 431 BC and ended in 404 BC.
The book describes the conflict between democratic Athens and authoritarian Sparta, their mutual fear, and their desire to wipe out their opponents and the allies of their opponents. One would like to think that the Athenians were the good guys and the Spartans the bad guys (for we trace the spiritual roots of modern democracy back to Athens), but the devil is in the details. Democratic Athens often behaved more like tyrannical Sparta and was not loathe to invade other democratic city states like those in Sicily, and for which it paid a very high price.
Sparta eventually defeated Athens, but the myriad city states of classical Greece were exhausted, spiritually. In less than a century following the end of the Peloponnesian War, the overlord of Macedonia and student of Aristotle, to gain fame later as Alexander the Great, conquered the city states of Greece and changed the face of the ancient world.
Scholars, historians, politicians, and statesmen have read Thucydides for more than 2,000 years, including leaders such as Winston Churchill. They do so because he has much to teach us, even in a multipolar, nuclear-armed 21st century. My colleague, professor emeritus Salim Mansur of the University of Western Ontario, believes that the conflict in Ukraine can may be better understood by a careful reading of Thucydides' text.
I therefore called him and asked him a few questions about this ancient Greek and his relevance to the war in the Ukraine. Here are the highlights of our exchange. They are worthy of contemplation.
My view is simply to ignore the vilifications, especially in the West, of painting Putin as Darth Vader, and understand the geostrategic chessboard in which Moscow alone on one side has been confronting Washington with its European allies on the other side. There is a limit beyond which a great power, even if much reduced in terms of its capabilities, as is the case of Russia, will not be pushed against the wall without pushing back. The shootout in Ukraine is the Russian bear pushing back.
I have neither looked back with a chip on my shoulder and bitterness in my heart against the United States for its role in Bengal and South Asia during that period of mass murder and war in my youth, nor the rule of Britain and its role in partitioning India in 1947 that has since then been toxic for the people in the region. In graduate school I studied Thucydides and, as an academic, I made my students read Thucydides with special attention to the “Melian dialogue” that he reported between the Athenian delegates and the representatives of Melos in the midst of the war between Athens and Sparta some 25 centuries ago; and the lesson of that dialogue is as relevant in our time as it was for Thucydides who, as an Athenian, fought in the Peloponnesian War.
The Council of Melians at the end of the discussion with the Athenian delegation refused to join the Athenian league and paid the price of the utter destruction of Melos as punishment.
At the heart of the Melian dialogue were these words of the Athenian delegates to the Council: (i) “[W]e on our side will use no fine phrases saying, for example, that we have a right to our empire because we defeated the Persians, or that we have come against you now because of the injuries you have done us—a great mass of words that nobody would believe. … [W]e recommend that you should try to get what it is possible for you to get, taking into consideration what we both really do think; since you know as well as we do that, when these matters are discussed by practical people, the standard of justice depends on the equality of power to compel and that in fact the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept.”
The Melians advanced the argument for “fair play and just dealing.” The departing words of the Athenian delegates to the Melians were: “When you are allowed to choose between war and safety, you will not be so insensitively arrogant as to make the wrong choice. This is the safe rule—to stand up to one’s equals, to behave with deference towards one’s superiors, and to treat one’s inferiors with moderation. Think it over again, then, when we have withdrawn from the meeting, and let this be a point that constantly recurs to your minds—that you are discussing the fate of your country, that you have only one country, and that its future for good or ill depends on this one single decision which you are going to make.”
The cost in blood and mayhem for the success of American diplomacy on the geostrategic chess board was paid by the people in Bengal. Bengalis (now Bangladeshis), however then, and unlike the Melians, had no choice; they were simply pawns. A similar cost is at present being paid by the Ukrainians, but like the Melians they were presented with a choice, and their leaders chose wrongly. The unavoidable lesson from Thucydides is that minor actors, as Melos was in ancient Greece, in the milieu of great powers and their rivalries must know their position on the board, their proximity to the great powers, and their respective spheres of influence and, accordingly, make decisions prudently relative to their interests and security.
The U.N. Security Council vote on the American draft-resolution censuring Russian military invasion of Ukraine was vetoed by Russia, as expected. But China’s abstention, followed by the abstentions of India and the UAE as non-permanent members, was indicative of the American over-reach with their New World Order vision, and the resistance to it that had been mounting got exposed over the conflict in Ukraine.