In the middle of the Peloponnesian war, Athens faced a simple but existential dilemma. Melos, an island in the middle of the Aegean, was a Spartan ally, and the existence of an independent, unconquered, and even neutral island allied with a rival land power was an unacceptable scenario for a maritime hegemon like Athens.
The Athenians dispatched a group of emissaries to discuss Melian surrender. What took part is perhaps one of the most memorable chapters of an ethical debate still relevant to modern times. The Melians pleaded ideals, and even threatened that the gods would punish Athenian hubris if they took over a noncombatant people.
The Athenians, proponents of realism, reminded the Melians that at the end of the day, Melos is an island, and the Athenians are in control of the sea. Politics, especially great power politics, isn’t about what “ought to be,” but rather what “is.” The simple reality was that Athens was a mighty maritime power, and if the Melians wanted protection, they must have it from Athens, or Athens would take them over.
The rest, as they say, is history. The Melians refused, and the Athenians wiped Melos off the map. The Spartans decided against aiding Melos. As the ancient historian Thucydides wrote of the Athenian stance: “The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.” In a great power world, institutions and values depend on the whims and fancies of great powers.
As President Trump heads to a fractious North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit then a meeting with Russia, it’s important to evaluate two myths that are constantly circulating in media. In the last three weeks, there hasn’t been a single day without an article lamenting that Trump is bringing about the breakup of the “liberal order” simply because he has told European countries that freeriding is over.