One of the most compelling passages in Thucydides’ detailed narrative of the Peloponnesian War doesn’t involve slaughter or killing. It comes instead when the ambassadors of Athens—the brilliant, cultural, democracy that has always been a paragon of virtue in the ancient world—travel to the little island of Melos, in the southern Aegean. The islanders were trying to do things their own way and had rejected an alliance with Athens.
After some brief verbal to-ing and fro-ing between the representatives, an (unnamed) Athenian cuts to the chase and tells the Melians how things are:
The strong do as they choose, and the weak do as they must.
The Melians put all sorts of intelligent reasons to the Athenians as to why they should just be left to live in peace. Their arguments (that Melos is neutral, and the use of force would be against Athens’ own long-term interests) are dismissed as irrelevant. It’s one of the clearest articulations of realist political theory, even though it’s 2,500 years old.
Perhaps the envoys were tired. After all, the long conflict between Athens and Sparta had been going on for 15 years by this stage, and perhaps the city-state’s patience had evaporated. For whatever reason, the sensible words cut no ice with the great democracy, and the Athenians decided to teach the Melians a lesson. The siege came to an end when traitors guided the Athenian hoplites into the city. And what did the democrats do once they were inside the walls? Forgive their enemies? Give them a chance to be good and make amends? No. Every man in the city was killed; the women and children were taken as slaves. There was no pity; no mercy. Power was everything.
It still is.
And that’s the thing that confuses me about the current discussion The Strategist has been having about Australia’s membership of the ‘top 20’. Top 20 what, exactly?
Well yes, we do currently possess one of the 20 largest economies in the world. Hooray! But that’s nothing. We’re number six in terms of land area. Shouldn’t that deserve a permanent seat on the UN Security Council? We’re 14th by per capita income (although Qatar and Luxembourg are numbers one and two on that list, so you do sort of wonder, don’t you?). By population though, we’re number 50, and perhaps that’s more relevant?
But the more I search for hard definitions of our importance, the more confused I become. We’re number 35, for example, in terms of foreign exchange reserves, being beaten by Switzerland, Thailand, Turkey, Indonesia, Iraq, etc, etc.
The problem is, of course, that one can use statistics to make any argument you choose. Because I’m a journalist, I began looking up other important numbers (like, for example, the number of reporters per head of population and the amount of money in their pay packets), but I soon realised that was pointless. Measuring the quality and quantity of articles produced compared to the salary journalists are receiving doesn’t really tell you anything. And it’s the same, I think, with the idea that belonging to some nebulous grouping means we’ve acquired particular responsibilities.
The important thing is to behave as a responsible stakeholder in the international system. For that reason I happen to agree with both Peter Jennings as well as John Blaxland. This isn’t an either/or choice, and shouldn’t be posed as such.
In my opinion, John’s absolutely right—where our region’s concerned, there’s a shocking dearth of understanding. That’s a significant strategic weakness, one day likely to be exploited to our disadvantage. That must be addressed urgently. Forget China; it’s Indonesia, the giant on our doorstep, we need to work with. And now, not later.
And how about the Pacific? That’s an area where we should be making a positive contribution, and yet the tragic reality of this fragile region is that it could, at any moment, spiral out of control. It faces so many threats—environmental, social and economic—and yet we’re doing nothing to assist our neighbours.
But it’s incorrect to posit this choice as some sort of dichotomy. We need to recognise we aren’t getting more powerful. Every year, other nations are catching up. The choice mustn’t be Asia, or the Pacific, or the Middle East—it needs to be all of those, and then some. If it doesn’t seem as if we’ve got enough money, then we need to find some other way of addressing the issue. We need to both engage with our region as well as contribute to the stability of the world.
As the Melians found, opting out isn’t an answer.
Nic Stuart is a columnist with The Canberra Times. Image courtesy of Twitter user @TonyAbbottMHR.