Thucydides in the Ukraine

Thucydides in the Ukraine
A statue of the ancient Greek historian Thucydides outside the Austrian parliament in Vienna. (sianstock/Shutterstock)
Geoffrey Clarfield

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.

Geoffrey Clarfield: What do you predict is going to happen in this conflict in the days to come?
Salim Mansur: The eventual settlement following the Russian military operation, or invasion, into Ukraine will come about once talking between Ukrainian and Russian diplomats begins as announced on Monday, Feb. 28, in Belarus with a likely ceasefire and then mutually arranged security guarantees that puts to an end any further attempt by Kyiv to be goaded into NATO by the Uniparty war hawks in Washington. This is the outcome I see ahead, and the deadly theatrics of the past week and more with the outbreak of shooting were brinkmanship and avoidable if only the Western leaders were not out to humiliate even further Putin and the Russian people by drawing a dagger pointed at their jugular vein.

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.

Clarfield: Does what is happening in the Ukraine resonate with your own personal and family history?
Mansur: In my youth we, my family and I along with millions of my compatriots in Bengal or former East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, were squeezed, raped, and murdered by the ruling military government of Pakistan in 1970–71. Ten million Bengalis sought refuge in India, as did members of my family in escaping the killing fields of Bengal. I recall this to not only underline how I relate with empathy to the tragedy that has unfolded for the common Ukrainian people squeezed between the power play by Washington and the push back by Moscow, but also to observe the lesson that is as old as the Peloponnesian War I learned about since surviving the 1970–71 tragedy for the people of Bengal.

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.

Clarfield: What is the essence of the Melian dialogue?
Mansur: The island of Melos was a colony of Sparta and sought to remain neutral between Sparta and Athens during the first years of their war that spread across the region. Athenians finally sent their delegation to speak with Melians in giving them an ultimatum to make a pact with Athens against the Spartan league or face the consequences of their refusal. The “Melian dialogue” is a long exchange that Thucydides reported in Book Five of The Peloponnesian War, and it became in the centuries since a required reading for students of political and legal philosophy, history, and diplomacy.

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.”

Clarfield: How does one use the Melian dialogue to make sense of 20th century Asian geopolitics (the territory of Alexander the Great!)?
Mansur: In my thinking over the years, the Melian dialogue stands as a marker in our world of great power diplomacy, statecraft, and geopolitics. The people of Bengal, poor and in a remote part of the world, unbeknownst to them bore the fate of the Melians in high-stake diplomacy during the height of the Cold War decades. President Nixon on winning the 1968 election decided to pursue in secrecy an opening to Mao’s China, which culminated with his journey to Beijing in February 1972. During the preparation for this historic meeting of Nixon and Mao Zedong, the military rulers of Pakistan became the secret intermediary, and Islamabad was used by Kissinger for his carefully disguised trips to and from Beijing. And in return, the military overlords of Pakistan were given the American protection and support in their campaign to suppress the people of former East Pakistan and nullify their votes in the 1970 election in which their party in winning a majority of seats in the national assembly would have formed the government.

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.

Clarfield: How does the Melian dialogue apply to Ukraine today?
Mansur: Whatever be the sentiments of people in the West witnessing the military intervention, or invasion, or “rape” of Ukraine, as reported by the legacy mainstream media, there is another perspective that cannot be avoided or ignored. Russia is to Ukraine what Athens was to Melos.
Clarfield: Is this conflict a turning point in the post-Cold War world we have lived in for 30 years?
Mansur: This conflict over Ukraine’s future is also a pivotal point in the shaping of the multipolar post-Cold War world going forward. The past three decades since the end of the Cold War has been a unipolar moment in global politics, and the over-reach of America as an empire to impose on others their version of neo-liberal rule-based order has met the predictable response from those who are unwilling to concede to American hegemony.

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.

Clarfield: Thank you.
Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Geoffrey Clarfield is an anthropologist-at-large who has spent 20 years travelling, living, and working in East Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.
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