China, the Philippines and Thucydides’ ‘Melian Dialogue’

THUCYDIDES, who? Honestly, we are not familiar with the guy and his works. But because intelligent people ask us about the rising geopolitical tensions between the Philippines and China, we have to brush up on our history and politics.
And we learn a lot from a university that beats the Ivy League — that is, the Google University.

And so, while searching for realpolitik, we stumbled on Thucydides — a Greek historian, philosopher, and military strategist, born several hundred years Before Christ.

He was among the earliest historians, and he authored the History of the Peloppenesian War, a grand chronological account of the long devastating war between the city-states of Athens and Sparta. In this classic work, he included the “Melian Dialogue,” a penetrating debate between the peoples of Athens and Melos, a small island near Sparta.

The context: Athens wanted Melos to surrender, lest Melos be destroyed. The people of Melos, the Melians, reasoned that they were non-aligned and peaceful. They appealed to the Athenians to spare them. But the more powerful Athenians were arrogant and aggressive. For the Athenians, there was no justice and mercy between unequals.

We see “Melian Dialogue” as the dawn of realpolitik. Before Hobbes and Machiavelli, there was Thucydides.

Things never change.

Here, excerpted from Thucydides’ “Melian Dialogue,” we see the Philippines-China dispute over the South China Sea replayed. The “Melian Dialogue” can likewise explain why the Philippines wants to strengthen its alliance with the United States, notwithstanding the criticisms about the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (ECDA).

Athenians (China): For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretenses — either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Mede, or are now attacking you because of wrong that you have done us — and make a long speech which would not be believed; and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did not join the Spartans, although their colonists, or that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

Melians (Philippines): As we think, at any rate, it is expedient — we speak as we are obliged, since you enjoin us to let right alone and talk only of interest — that you should not destroy what is our common protection, the privilege of being allowed in danger to invoke what is fair and right. And you are as much interested in this as any, as your fall would be a signal for the heaviest vengeance and an example for the world to meditate upon.

Athenians (China): The end of our empire, if end it should, does not frighten us: a rival empire like Lacedaemon, even if Lacedaemon was our real antagonist, is not so terrible to the vanquished as subjects who by themselves attack and overpower their rulers. This, however, is a risk that we are content to take. We will now proceed to show you that we are come here in the interest of our empire, and that we shall say what we are now going to say, for the preservation of your country.

Melians (Philippines): And how, pray, could it turn out as good for us to serve as for you to rule?

Athenians (China): Because you would have the advantage of submitting before suffering the worst, and we should gain by not destroying you.

Melians (Philippines): So that you would not consent to our being neutral, friends instead of enemies, but allies of neither side.

Athenians (China): No; for your hostility cannot so much hurt us as your friendship will be an argument to our subjects of our weakness, and your enmity of our power.

Melians (Philippines): But we know that the fortune of war is sometimes more impartial than the disproportion of numbers might lead one to suppose; to submit is to give ourselves over to despair, while action still preserves for us a hope that we may stand erect.

Athenians (China): Hope, danger’s comforter, may be indulged in by those who have abundant resources. Let not this be the case with you, who are weak and hang on a single turn of the scale; nor be like the vulgar, who, abandoning such security as human means may still afford, when visible hopes fail them in extremity, turn to invisible, to prophecies and oracles, and other such inventions that delude men with hopes to their destruction.

Melians (Philippines): You may be sure that we are as well aware as you of the difficulty of contending against your power and fortune, unless the terms be equal. But we trust that the gods may grant us fortune as good as yours, since we are just men fighting against unjust. Our confidence, therefore, after all is not so utterly irrational.

Athenians (China): Of the gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a necessary law of their nature they rule wherever they can. And it is not as if we were the first to make this law, or to act upon it when made: we found it existing before us, and shall leave it to exist forever after us; all we do is to make use of it, knowing that you and everybody else, having the same power as we have, would do the same as we do.

We urge readers to study Thucydides and his “Melian Dialogue.”

(The authors belong to Action for Economic Reforms [www.aer.ph].)

No comments yet.