The Melian Dialogue, Power, and Justice

Order requires a balance of power

Special issues of Political Realism (POL421)

Hello, my name is Protesilaos Stavrou. This seminar is the second entry in a series about Realism in international relations. The first item was about the myth of the Ring of Gyges and exceptionalism in world politics. I recommend you study that first, though it is not strictly necessary.

In this episode I will discuss the relationship between the balance of power and the system of justice in international affairs. The main argument is that inter-state conventions are upheld when no side overpowers the rest, in context-dependent or absolute terms. An uneven distribution of power and control creates the conditions for abusive behaviour, ultimately undermining international justice.

The analysis is centred on the Melian Dialogue. This is a passage from the History of the Peloponnesean War by Thucydides (Thou-sea-dee-dis) or rather Thou-key-thee-this. It servers as a prime example of the thinking of greater powers and the incentives they have to abide by established norms when doing so is contrary to their interests.

The Melian Dialogue

The Melian Dialogue involves Athens, as a superpower of the time, and Melos, a small colony that tried to maintain its neutrality in the Peloponnesean War. Athens saw the Melian neutral position as an indirect challenge to its dominion. It thought of it as a sign that a small country could defy the will of the region’s aspiring hegemon. As such, the Athenians gathered their forces and descended upon the small state with an ultimatum: surrender to the will of Athens, or face annihilation.

Thucydides offers what is believed to be a dramatisation of the discussion between the representatives of the two sides. It basically goes as follows:

  • The Athenian envoy speaks without pretenses. Athens comes as a conqueror. To enslave the Melians or to send them into oblivion. The envoy puts this in clear terms, by famously alluding to the fact that the strong do what their power renders possible, while the weak suffer what their weakness entails. This is often translated as “the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must”.
  • In response to this shocking frankness, the Melians are prepared to put up a fight. Their ancestors were colonists from Sparta, Athens’ rival. Coupled with their proximity to the Spartan mainland, the Melians believe that they are not as weak as they may seem to be. Sparta will come to their aid in order to gain an ally.
  • Athens is not impressed. For it is not just conquerors that make assessments on the basis of power. Potential allies do the same. States judge alliances in terms of power and control. An alliance must be a platform for expand their influence and forwarding their agenda. Mere intentions and good will do not grant any kind of superiority when things are to be decided. Athens understands that and expects Sparta to not interfere.
  • Other than resist the impending Athenian onslaught, the Melians appeal to morality and the ideals of Justice. To which Athens has an expectedly straightforward answer. Matters of justice only become relevant between equals. Otherwise humans resort to their natural propensity of ruling and dominating whenever they can.

This is the Melian Dialogue in outline. Just for the history of it, Athens did eventually conquer Melos, enslaved its women and children, and replaced the locals with its own settlers.

Power and Justice in the modern era

Now one may wonder: how can an ancient war be relevant in this day and age? They did not have international law back then. There were no institutions in place to oversee the world order. There was no corpus of law that regulated relations between states in times of warfare. Concepts we take today for granted, such as national sovereignty, the equality of states, territoriality did not exist in that era. So why think of it as relevant to today’s world affairs?

The appeal of the Melian Dialogue is that it touches on some aspects of human nature. These are not contingent on the prevailing conventions, even though they can definitely be framed by them. On the face of it, the Athenians are doing something appalling and immoral. They are certainly abusing their preponderance on the battlefield in pursuit of their own interests. But this hardly counts as an exception, even if the words and reasoning they used are arguably shocking for our standards.

It is typical for humans to consider matters of justice only between those they see as equal to them. Think of how humanity treats animals or, how some groups of people have been historically discriminated against because of a perceived inferiority to the dominant classes. Have a look at the history of empires and colonialism, and take note of how they thought of their dominion over peoples. Consider the long history of slavery or racism. For some recent examples think, if you will, about the short-sighted conduct of the USA and its allies against Iraq or Libya, the behaviour of Russia in Ukraine, the disproportionate use of force of the Israelis against the Palestinians, Turkey’s war against the Kurds at home and abroad, and so on.

The conditions will always be different. There may be plausible reasons for certain courses of action. Some elements may be rightly justified. There seldom is a case that can be explained in simplistic, binary terms of good versus evil. Phenomena are complex. Human nature is not one-sided. Reason and ideals also have their place. These too, come from human action after all. The Melian dialogue does not really make a case to the contrary. It rather provides insight into a more nuanced truth: conditions frame the behaviour of situational agents and patients. Put differently, the circumstances provide sets of incentives for a range of possible courses of action.

Where there is an obvious imbalance of power or control, the dominant side has an incentive to take advantage of it. There is no fear of reprisal. There is no greater authority to enforce justice. The strong believe they can rig the rules with impunity. This is closely linked to what we discussed in the previous seminar regarding exceptionalism. Conformity with the norms is reinforced by the effectiveness of the counter-measures to possible transgressions. If the prevailing conditions make it difficult to enforce the rules, then their dissuasive power diminishes considerably.

As such, the real issue is not whether humans are inherently evil or not, but that there is a correlation between power and the legal-institutional order. The two are in harmony when power is distributed across those concerned, rather than be concentrated in the hands of few. This is true for international relations, as well any other decentralised system, such as the economy where large corporations have a propensity to abuse their power in order to inhibit their competition and drive it out of business.

What matters is appropriate arrangements that can keep the incentives for abusive behaviour in check. From the perspective of individual nation states, this means avoiding, where possible, bilateral relations with much stronger states. These can easily turn into a form of bondage and subservience. Instead, the general idea would be to pursue alliances with multiple parties and engage in multilateral relations. The chances of unilateral abuse in such formations are less likely, though still possible, especially where superpowers are concerned.

The presence of multiple, heterogeneous actors, makes it more likely to have peace by means of compromise or, simply put, of each power cancelling the other out. And this is, in a way, the essence of Political Realism: it is possible for humans to abide by ideals, but what makes this more likely than not, is the appropriate configuration of the factors of the case. The things related to the use or prevention of power, the delineations between spheres of control, the effectiveness of deterrents, and so on.

In the international order, this is particularly true because there is no world government, no overarching authority that can safeguard international law on its own initiative. In such an anarchic system—anarchic in the literal sense of having no supreme authority—the only way to safeguard international covenants is through a distributed balance of power.

Moral of the Melian Dialogue

The gist of the Melian Dialogue is summed up in the old adage of preparing for war in order to have peace. The imbalance of power engenders a belief in the inequality of those involved. This provides incentives for the dominant force to abuse its favourable position. It is pointless to criticise the Athenians for their extreme immorality. While condemnable, what they did is by no means an exception in the long history of civilisation. Humans have the capacity for such behaviour. It is brought to bare against other states or against other beings when conditions are favourable.

For those who value ideals, the lesson to be learned is that appeals to reason do not suffice. There has to be an active effort to keep the balance of power in check and to ensure that any kind of agreement or institutional arrangement is not undermined by exceptionalist thinking.

Thank you very much for your attention. Join me next time for the third entry in this series. I will talk about anarchy and sovereignty.


This seminar was produced using only free and open source software.

  • The audio was captured and edited with Audacity.
  • The presentation slides were prepared in LibreOffice and converted from a .pdf into .jpg using Imagemagick.
  • The video editing was done with Kdenlive.
  • The transcript was written in Vim.
  • All working on a GNU/Linux machine, specifically Linux Mint