LESSONS FROM HISTORYΣεπ 30th, 2003 | Φώτης Περλικός| Κατηγορία: English, Κόσμος | Email This Post | Print This Post |
The fall of 405 B.C., when the holy-ship Paralos informed the Athenians about the disaster at Aigos Potamous by the Spartan navy, did not only mark the end of one more war of the dozen wars the ancient Greek world faced in its long history but also the end of the Athenian struggle for the establishment of a broad rule. It was the first attempt of a democratic state (judging by those days standards) to organize an extended rule and it is a fact that Athenian imperialism was characterized by qualities that made it different than any imperial rule that preceded or succeeded (Egyptians, Assyrians, Persians, Macedonians, Romans etc). The Athenian foreign policy was based on the support of democratic regimes and parties throughout the Greek world abolishing tribal boundaries and limitations as it embraced, in the first Athenian alliance, cities of Dorian, Ionian, Aeolian and every other origin. Furthermore, Athens didn’t rule by oppressing, exploiting and draining their allies’ recourses, but on the basis of the allied contribute (even by force some times it’s true) for the creation of a wide safety net for the cities and their commerce, which was guaranteed by the Athenian navy. It was beyond any doubt a relationship based on common and mutual interest (of course not entirely symmetrical) and if we take into consideration the way the empires of the time ruled (by absorbing the wealth of the provinces to maintain their rule) or Sparta (a very loose alliance that didn’t guarantee the conditions for a stable economic growth) we see that Athenian imperialism was an oasis that the world faced for the first time.
Of course, like every similar effort, the slander of Athens by their political and ideological enemies was expected. Maybe today we may exalt the Athenian form of government and we learn Pericles Epitaph like the Bible, but we must keep in mind than neither in the ancient times the ideals of a democratic society where approved as much as we think, neither today our views are clear from the influence of its enemies. The destruction of Milos was an ugly page in the book of Athenian imperialism. But Thoukydides (from whom we get the biggest portion of our knowledge about the Peloponnesian War) impartiality about the fact is not given. He was a known member of the oligarchic party, but after his failure as a general he went to Thrace where he devoted himself to record the history of the Peloponnesian War. But his personal views are common in his work, he always makes the oligarchic party leaders seem wise and logical and on the other hand the democrats irrational and unstable. Milos gave him one more chance to attack the manner the democrats conducted the foreign affairs. The Athenian assault on Milos was neither entirely unjustified if we see the greater picture of the war, neither unexpected since the Athenians gave plenty of time to the Milians to decide their stand. On the contrary, Thoukydides mentions very few about the surprising and unholy attack at 427 B.C. of the Peloponnesian alliance against the city of Plataies in collaboration with the city’s oligarchics. In the context of such a brutal struggle for survival all parties committed crimes. The moral superiority of the Athenian rule is seen more clearly by the way it behaved in peacetime, that is a guarantor of democratic institutions, economic and cultural development and of course protection of the allies from submission to oppressive empires. In the framework of this imperialism Greece lived its intellectual peak, since the freedom of moving for people, goods and ideas gave us what is known today as Pericles Golden Era.
When Athens’ attempt failed (mainly because of the traitorous behavior of the Athenian oligarchics, the strengthening of their enemies by the vast resources of the Persian Empire, and a lot of strategic mistakes), this window of original cultural creation and progressive thinking was closed for centuries. After the defeat the old dramatic plays where played over again, the political thinking was dominated by the enemies of democracy (like Plato, Aristotle etc) and the political power passed once more in the hands of oppressing empires.
Until the end of WW2, empires struggled and succeeded each other in the fight for peripheral or global superiority. It took about 2350 years for a new democratic power to claim a global ruling role not by conquest or colonies (like Great Britain, France, Spain and other European powers did earlier) but by a coalition based on a general framework of common values and ideals and by creating a security system that all sides can benefit (of course with an expected asymmetry). The United States base their military power mainly on their navy and a few bases around the world, in the same way Athenians drew their strength from their triremes and a few bases and colonies. Although it managed to prevail on two totalitarian systems (nazism-fascism and communism) the end of history didn’t come. Not only because economic and social changes create new terms in the game of global growth, but also because new totalitarian powers have stepped up to threaten global security and prosperity. And of course the struggle is not contained in the political level but it expands also into the ideological.
The power of humanitarian values, liberty and democracy is too strong to be confronted directly. This is why their biggest enemies do not try to prove them wrong, but they call them on, they twist them and present them in a matter that even the most totalitarian regimes seem to cherish them. Athens was accused of violating their allies’ freedom when before (Persian Empire) or after (Spartan rule) there was not even a trace of freedom. United States is accused of trespassing international law when no other competitor or predecessor gave it the slightest respect. Of ignoring international organizations when they leaded the way for their founding. Of depriving other nation freedom when they forced their allies to dismantle their colonial empires and allow the self-government of their subjects.
In a world in which geographical expansion was the main mean of increasing state power, the terms of liberty or autonomy for a small city-state are considered a luxury. The choices are clear, either submits to a totalitarian empire, either ally in an organization founded on democratic government values under the rule of the cultural lighthouse of the time. Today where economic growth is necessary for insuring a decent living standard for the members of a society, the only option is participating in world trade system by accepting the freedom of transactions and the moving of people, goods and ideas. And because once more the enemies of liberty are determined to stand in the way, the need of a power capable to guarantee the stability of the global system even by armed means is evident. Preferably this role should be played by an international organization but effectiveness is more important than preferences. The incompetence of the modern international organizations to function effectively and decisively forces us to turn to the modern version of ancient Athens, the United States of America. In the same way the ancient Greek Common failed to guarantee the freedom of the Greek cities, their institutions and their trade, and furthermore it lacked characteristics like supporting the democratic way of government, today only the United States can play the role of securing the global trade system and insuring economic and political development for the participants, even if some actions in that direction face fierce opposition.
Today a lot remind us of the Milos incident, the attack on Iraq in a superficial view of international politics may seem unprovoked but it was necessary since the modern changes cannot be dealt with in a defensive manner anymore. The guarantee of the security of all the participants in the global net of economic, politic and cultural connection may demand sometimes-offensive measures. Not every attack is a result of and expansion policy especially when preemptive action is needed, and on the other hand defensive measures may have sometimes-offensive intentions (for example the blocking of Megarian ships from the ports of the Athenian alliance, or today the embargo on Cuba). This is why the moral condemnation of such an action, like the strike on Iraq, is not an easy issue to deal with. Even more, the important issue is not to function under the influence of an emotional morality but based on our realistic interests and the basic values and ideals that serve them. For Greece, a small country in the Mediterranean, going along with the intentions of Muslim-fascism and fundamentalism, carried away by an anti-American sentiment, does not only contradict with or country’s interests but also with the deeper humanitarian core of our values.