Just to prove that Australians don’t remotely have a monopoly on invoking Thucydides in the antipodes – and one would scarcely expect that they should, given they share with other former British dominions a common inheritance (however differently problematic) of Old World classical interests and (perhaps more pertinent) a common association with Thucydides, the Aegean and war through the Dardanelles Campaign in WWI, hence a tendency to quote the Funeral Oration on public war monuments – I’ve just been pointed towards an interesting paper by Vangelis Vitalis, currently New Zealand’s ambassador to the European Union and NATO (and a few other places): Thucydides, the Peloponnesian War and Small State Foreign Policy in the 21st Century: Lessons for New Zealand, originally given as a lecture to the Centre for Defence and Strategic Studies in Canberra in 2011.
Vitalis opens with some conventional remarks about Thucydides’ “timeless” political wisdom – the Melian Dialogue. inevitably, with citations of Kaplan, Huntington (both of whom should ring a few alarm bells) and W.R. Connor – and the standard comparison of the period of the Peloponnesian War to today’s multi-polar, more or less anarchic international scene. His focus is rather more interesting, however: the behaviour and strategies of the “small states” caught in the cross-fire between Athens and Sparta, sometimes in alliance with one or the other, sometimes seeking to exert influence over them, and sometimes just trying to keep their heads down. He suggests that this offers a useful way of thinking about the current status of Australia, as a second-rate power compared to the US or China, but close to a region of increasing strategic importance; “the modern day equivalent of Corinth, or Thebes or Argos; an emerging medium sized power with a sophisticated view of the world and its engagement therein, but with a clear‐headed sense of its own national interests, the context it operates in regarding the larger powers and how other smaller states, like New Zealand can assist in securing that interest.” Still more, it suggests to him a model for the place of countries like New Zealand in this world, relatively weak and so unable to do everything, well aware of the need to work in concert with others and to shoulder a share of the burden – or indeed to advertise its contribution a bit more loudly. The best model for this is Athens’ stalwart ally Plataea.
Plataea was one of the few city states to survive beyond the arrival in Greece of both Persia and Rome – it certainly survived longer than many of the other small and even medium‐sized states of the era. It went through some particularly difficult patches – but it survived. What was the secret of this small state’s success? It had a core integrated military, economic and political alliance with Athens, and replicated such arrangements with a range of medium‐sized states clustered around Attica and beyond. It had a sophisticated understanding of the importance of regional alliance structures. It parlayed those key relationships, with Corinth, Thebes, Argos and Athens to name a few, into positions of greater influence than other small states. And it did this in part by ensuring it was part of, seen to be on, on every ʹLeagueʹ – or alliance network that was available; the Dorian, the Delian, Corinthian, Ionian, Theban and so forth. In other words, Plataea rode every horse that was going.
Plataea was careful not to over-reach itself, but it understood that there is no such thing as a free lunch, and so contributed significant forces (certainly relative to its size) to the defence of Greece against the Persian invasion; it played a key role in the development of different networks, while sticking close to its key partner Athens. “The Plataeans mattered because they understood that small states which are prepared to be serious and credible – active, creative and self‐promoting ‐ can parlay that into force multipliers”. New Zealand needs to follow their example; “it must be a part of every process going forward, but it needs to simultaneously work closely with a major regional power, or cluster or countries forming a regional bloc (like ASEAN). It has to be seen as serious, credible, creative and active and needs to self‐promote its significance.”
All of this may be perfectly sensible advice in the abstract for New Zealand, but the use of Thucydides’ work to justify it seems rather problematic. It’s not just the suggestion that Australia should adopt the Corinthian role (and goad the US into dealing with the rising Chinese threat??) but the choice of Plataea as an example of anything other than a fate to be avoided at all costs. Are you sure about that?? I kept thinking. Have you actually read these bits of Thucydides? Vitalis makes a single passing reference to NZ’s need to “avoid being trapped – as Plataea once was between Thebes and Sparta”, which is, well, rather an edited version of what actually happened. He seems happy to let the subsequent refoundation of Plataea, and the survival of the city into the Roman period, outweigh (and indeed occlude) what Thucydides tells us about its fate in the Peloponnesian War. Abandoned by the Athenians, conquered by the Spartans, confronted with the impossible question of whether they had done anything to aid Sparta in the war, and then massacred by the Thebans as a result of being unable to offer an adequate answer – applied to New Zealand, the Plataean example looks more like a nightmarish vision of future war in the Pacific in which their loyalty to Australia first drags them into the conflict and then gets them wiped off the map.
Presumably Vitalis can count on few if any of his audience having read more Thucydides than the Melian Dialogue, and so being in no position to raise questions about his presentation of this episode or the lessons to be drawn from it. It is a shame, I think, that the Plataean sections of Thucydides’ work are less well known than others, presumably in part because they are scattered across several books rather than presented in a neat, easily excerpted narrative. They raise similar questions to the Melian episode of power and justice, of the pitiless tragedy of war and so forth – but they also offer just as little comfort, let alone an up-beat model for successful navigation of the stormy, shark-infested waters of international politics…