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The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must…



The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must…
Dr. Fikrejesus Amahazion
7 November 2018

Thucydides, an ancient Athenian military general and historian who lived during the fifth century BC, is considered by many as one of the greatest historians. Regarded as one of the founding fathers of the international relations theory of realism, his most important work, despite it not being fully completed (it actually ends in the middle of a sentence), was his History of the Peloponnesian War. In this timeless classic, often described as, “by far the best historical work that has come down to us from antiquity” (Ste. Croix 1972: 1), Thucydides chronicles the nearly 30 years of war and tension (lasting from 431 to 404 BC) between the two preeminent city-states of ancient Greece: Athens, a great sea power and possessor of a great empire, and Sparta, a powerful land force and leader of the Peloponnesian League. In the centuries since it was written, Thucydides’ exhaustively detailed historical account of the Peloponnesian war has had an enduring relevance and it continues to influence and guide how we understand and analyze human nature, politics and public policy, international relations and state behavior, war, and the global political order.

While Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War has numerous important parts and elements which are worthy of discussion, one of the most significant (and highly memorable) is the Melian Dialogue, which “remains the starting point of discussions about the relative role of ethics and interests in foreign affairs” (Lebow 2003: 26). In this section, Thucydides records the debate between the leaders of a small island, Melos, which although a colony of Sparta, has not joined Sparta in the war against Athens, and thus remains neutral, and Athenian envoys. Athens, a rising predatory power, is determined to decimate the population of Melos because they refuse to submit and pay tribute, while the Melians, threatened with an invasion and certain annihilation, plead for their survival. However, early within the dialogue, the Athenians flatly reject the notion of justice, brazenly stating that despite the Melians’ neutrality and notwithstanding the fact that Melos has done nothing to harm or offend them, the Athenians are justified in destroying the Melians simply because they can: “we both alike know that into the discussion of human affairs the question of justice only enters where there is equal power to enforce it, and that the powerful exact what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.”

Eventually, the Athenians take the island of Melos for themselves. They put to death all the men of military age and sell the women and children as slaves. Within interstate relations and foreign affairs, virtues such as justice, ethics, and morality, it would seem to appear, are subordinate to absolute power and brute force. Simply, might makes right.

This harsh conception of justice was illustrated late last week. Specifically, it was reported that the international sanctions on Eritrea, first imposed in December 2009 and then broadened in 2011, were expected to be lifted soon. The key factor in the lifting of the sanctions, however, is not Eritrea’s cessation of support for terrorism. According to simple logic, it cannot be. Recall that the allegation was not proven when the sanctions were originally imposed, while over the years it has not received the slightest scintilla of support. United Nations (UN) monitors have consistently acknowledged that they have “not found conclusive evidence” of Eritrean support for terrorism or Al-Shabaab.

Instead, the sanctions on the young, low-income, African country are being removed for the exact same basic reason that they were first imposed – the large, powerful, Western countries, led by the United States, simply decided to do so, safe in the knowledge that they could.

Throughout history, there have been a few principles of international affairs that apply quite generally. Thucydides’ maxim, that the strong do as they wish, while the weak suffer as they must, is one. The case of unjust sanctions on Eritrea is just the latest case in point.


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The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must… Reviewed by Admin on 12:00 AM Rating: 5

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