For realists, the iconic insight about power and its exercise was delivered in 416 BC by an Athenian general to the besieged people of Melos, as reported by Thucyidides: “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 people of Melos had remained neutral in the war between Athens and Sparta, but Athens, eager to deny Sparta access to the island as a forward staging site, laid siege to Melos and demanded its surrender and the payment of tribute. The alternative was annihilation. The Athenian general said that he could make the argument that “we have a right to our empire” or that “we have come against you now because of the injuries you have done to us,” but he concluded that this would be “a great mass of words that nobody would believe.” So he cut to the bottom line: if you want to save yourselves from destruction, you must bend to our wishes. In the end, the people of Melos refused what they saw as submission to slavery, and the Athenians, as they had threatened, inflicted their violent wrath. Relations between powerful and weak states are rarely this brutal—after all, this was essentially an act of genocide—but realists see in this ancient encounter an essential truth. The restraint on power comes not from reasoned argument or moral principles but from countervailing power.
Interestingly, however, IR scholars have paid less attention to what the frightened people of Melos said to the Athenians. Leaving aside questions of justice, the Melians appealed to Athenian self-interest. To do what the Athenians threatened to do would “destroy a principle that is to the good of all men—namely that in the case of all who fall into danger there should be such a thing as fair play and just dealing.” But their point went beyond this. They argued that Athens itself had an interest in the preservation of this principle because they too would one day grow weaker and invite, in the absence of the principle, “the most terrible vengeance.” Even thinking only in terms of the current moment, the Melians argued that an attack on Melos would make other states turn against Athens, thinking they might be next. The Athenians were calculating that if they refrained from punishing Melos, in the face of resistance, it would make them look weak to others across the empire.
The Melians, in contrast, were arguing that the empire would be put on more stable terms—it would have more legitimacy and support—if Athens showed restraint and forbearance. The Melians were not arguing against realist calculations of power and interest; they were simply arguing that the Athenians were missing key insights about how a great power should act to preserve and advance its standing. I have always found the arguments of Melos more compelling than the arguments of Athens. Today, twenty-five hundred years later, it is often thought that the Athenian general had uttered timeless wisdom about the realities of power. But I think the case could be made that the people of Melos offered insights that make sense not just to weak states poised on the edge of catastrophe, but to powerful states as well. After Victory was my attempt to explain why.
G. John Ikenberry 16 May 2018
Conclusion to “Preface New Edition.”
“After Victory: Institutions, Strategic Restraint, and the Rebuilding of Order after Major Wars, New Edition (Princeton Studies in International History and Politics Book 161)” by G. John Ikenberry