Melian Dialougue

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Fear, honor, interest--Thucydides could scarcely have phrased it better. The classics can help American business leaders sort out situations of power balance. In 416 BC the leadership of the Greek city-state of Melos opted to fight the mighty Athenian empire rather than accept vassal status. Athens had been at war against Sparta, to the south in the Peloponnesus, more or less continuously since 431 BC. Athens had been unable to make much headway on land against the vaunted Spartan infantry, while Sparta was no match for Athens at sea. Frustrations were mounting on both sides. A fragile peace was in place, but it was in the process of unraveling. Athens chose this moment to target Melos. Why? Thucydides, the premier historian of the Peloponnesian War and an eyewitness to many of the war's events, sheds light on Athenian motives in his account of the Melian Dialogue, the famous exchange between top Melian leaders and an Athenian delegation dispatched to wring surrender from them in advance. After pleading unsuccessfully with the Athenian ambassadors to allow the island to maintain its neutrality, the Melian Council opted for defiance. Melos fell after a brief siege. The Athenian assembly voted to kill its adult male population and enslave the women and children. Several themes emerge from the Melian Dialogue that bear on geopolitical business relations. First of all, questions of justice do not arise in international politics absent a rough parity of arms between the contending sides. This elemental reality was not lost on the Melian spokesmen, who seem to have resigned themselves to defeat from the beginning. "We see that you have come prepared to judge the argument yourselves, and that the likely end of it all will be either war, if we prove that we are in the right, and so refuse to surrender, or else slavery." The Athenians agreed, noting that in practical terms "the standard of justice depends on the equality of power to...
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