The Language of Power and Force

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Two and a half millennia ago during the ruinous conflict between Athens and Sparta, Thucydides recorded a conversation between Athenian negotiators and the representatives of the people of Melos, a Spartan colony that the Athenians wanted to bring into their orbit. In reply to Athenian demands, the Melians argued that justice demanded that the Athenians respect their right to remain neutral and at peace. The Athenians responded (5.89): “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 the 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 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.”

If one were to substitute Russians for Athenians and Ukrainians for Melians, we would have a close approximation to the situation in which these two peoples find themselves today. To confront the challenge presented by Vladimir Putin and a revanchist Russia, the United States and NATO need to communicate in language he understands—that of power and force. A good place to start is Poland—the most economically vibrant state of the “new Europe,” the historic middle ground between Germany and Russia, and the most strategically significant of the NATO members of Eastern Europe. The U.S. administration should station U.S. ground combat troops in Poland (and the Baltic states) on a permanent basis. Such action would show, in a far more serious way than diplomatic demarches, economic sanctions, or temporary military deployments, that the United States will go to the mat to defend its NATO allies. And where the United States leads, other NATO members will follow.

Unchecked, Putin will continue to chip away at the “near abroad” and make the spirit of NATO cooperation a dead letter. For, as the Athenians noted in their dialogue with the Melians (5.105.2), “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 make use of it, knowing that you and everybody else, having the same power as we have, would do the same as we do.”