The Ghosts of Melos
Intermediaries, honest brokers, and would-be peacemakers have much to learn from warfare. In fact if you want to understand mediation, learn about war. Conflict resolution is all about confronting the messes people have made and trying to make something better of them. Negotiation and problem solving have their own confusions, sometimes openly bellicose and confrontational, sometimes more slow and strategic. That is why it is worth studying the mistakes and victories of those who have been in the fog of war.
The Peloponnesian War was fought between 431 and 404 BC. It was the World War of its time, a vast play for political, commercial, and cultural supremacy of the Mediterranean. The protagonists were Athens and the Delian League on one side and Sparta and the Peloponnesian League on the other. The conflict, chronicled and passed along by Thucydides, forced every island and city-state to take sides. Melos, with ties to both combatants, tried to abstain from the fight and remain independent. Here is some of what they said:
Athenians: “… you will not think it dishonorable to submit to the greatest city in Hellas, when it makes you the moderate offer of becoming its tributary ally, without ceasing to enjoy the country that belongs to you; nor when you have the choice given you between war and security, will you be so blinded as to choose the worse. And it is certain that those who do not yield to their equals, who keep terms with their superiors, and are moderate towards their inferiors, on the whole succeed best.”The Athenians, great inventers of Western democracy, starved the island into submission, killed the men, and sold every Melian woman and child into slavery.
Melians: “Our resolution, Athenians, is the same as it was at first. We will not in a moment deprive of freedom a city that has been inhabited these seven hundred years; but we put our trust in the fortune by which the gods have preserved it until now, and in the help of men, that is, of the Lacedaemonians; and so we will try and save ourselves. Meanwhile we invite you to allow us to be friends to you and foes to neither party, and to retire from our country after making such a treaty as shall seem fit to us both.” .
In the greater sweep of the 27-year Peloponnesian War, the Incident at Melos was minor. Melos was a mouse in the way of rampaging elephants. With subtlety and nuance, however, Thucydides’ dialogue records the Melian’s naïve bewilderment at the choices presented by the Athenians: slavery or death, small numbers confronting superior strength, neutrality versus cooptation. What the Athenians ultimately said to the Melians was this: Might ultimately makes right. The strong will always do what is in their power to do and the weak must ultimately submit. And if you are not with us you must be against us.
The ghosts of Melos are still around. As we engage in some of our attempts to bring conflicting parties together, we must deal with threats, entreaties, offers, counteroffers and, on occasion, what looks like some gray zone between bribery and extortion. The Melian dialogue is also a central tenet of the realist school of international affairs and a much-studied text by hard-nosed neoconservatives. When this philosophy is espoused, it is good to look at other examples of non-aligned politics that could also be a model.
Switzerland, with its 650,000-man defense force and airplanes ready to launch from mouse-hole tunnels in the Alps, has gone to great lengths to protect its independent status in the community of nations. Their policies have served them well, financially and politically. Switzerland is one of the wealthiest countries in the world and has a population of 7 million. Via referendum, 100,000 Swiss can demand that their Constitution be revised. A new president of Switzerland is elected every year from the seven members of the Swiss Federal Council. The president of Switzerland in 1999 was a woman and Jewish. Her name was Ruth Dreifuss
The origins of the Swiss approach to domestic and foreign affairs date back 400 years. Before it was a country, Switzerland was a loose federation of cities, states, and cantonments without a central government. The Charter of Wil, concluded in 1647, created a joint defense for the common good and the country’s first declaration of neutrality. It was a bulwark against the predations and disputes of larger neighbors and, equally important, a way of managing its internal politics in a democratic manner.
In contrast, Melos, the small Mediterranean city-state, was a weak pawn pleading the moral high ground of non-alignment in the face of overwhelming and brutal forces. Their eloquent arguments were ignored and they were crushed. Switzerland, with its defensive hedgehog strategy, suggests another approach, more muscular in its impartiality, and one grudgingly respected by others who are in every way bigger and stronger.
Might it be possible to create simple, successful neutral ground zones in every city, state, and community where people are welcome to sit in safety and talk? Even in this time of amped up polarization, we need to blow on the embers and kindle a lot of little “Switzerlands” where people can deliberate and negotiate with people they don’t agree with. We need organized problem-solving founders and gatekeepers, not just endless supplies of freshly minted mediators.