The Melian Dialogue, in which Thucydides imagines the exchanges between the powerful imperialistic Athenians and the defiant-but-deluded Melians to whom they’ve issued an ultimatum (see my adapted version in Disclaimer magazine, for example), is a founding document in game theory and the analysis of power relations. Indeed, one vaguely hopes that the UK’s newly appointed negotiators for sorting out future relations with the EU and with other potential trading partners have read it (though admittedly his in-depth knowledge of the Dialogue didn’t seem to help Yanis Varoufakis that much in the Greek economic crisis last year…).
On closer scrutiny, however, the analogy starts to fall apart, as analogies often do; not because the issues raised by the Melian Dialogue are irrelevant to the situation, but because the parts become confused. At least going by the recent statements of various Conservative ministers, these Melians seem to be convinced that they’re the ones with the advantage, and hence try to speak the Athenians’ lines as often as their own…
A: So, we think it’s worth reiterating that the European project is about values; it’s social and cultural as well as economic, and that as far as we’re concerned the free movement of people is inseparable from the free movement of goods and capital…
B: Codswallop. And don’t try and dress this up by claiming that you’ve brought peace to Europe for fifty years and defended human rights; that was us, defeating the Nazis. You know as well as we do that arguments about justice and rights and right and wrong are just a cover for weakness and liberal flannel. In the real world, it’s all about power.
A: Well, if you’re not prepared to talk about principles, then you should at least see that there’s real advantage in working together rather than trying to go it alone.
B: Rubbish, that just makes us your slaves, submitting to your ridiculous rules about bananas and red tape and fishing quotas. No, we’re going to go it alone and make Britain Great Again. And actually that’ll be good for you as well.
A: How so?
B: Easy. Your whole stupid project will fall to bits and you’ll all be much better off once you’re free from the Brussels superstate. But not as well off as us, obviously, because we’re better than you. And of course you’re not going to get pissed off by us saying that sort of thing.
A: Okay, this isn’t getting us anywhere. What’s your negotiating position?
B: We keep all the advantages we had before, but we don’t have to pay you any money or do anything we don’t want to, like allowing foreigners in.
A: Why on earth should we agree to that?
B: Because we’re great, and you need us. Look how many German cars we buy! Not to mention all the prosecco!
A: Even if that were true – and we think it’s more likely that you’ll carry on buying from us, you’ll just have to pay more for it – we’re not going to capitulate to such demands. That would make us look weak, and perhaps other countries might decide to follow your lead. We make an example of you, and it shows we mean what we say.
B: Nonsense, you wouldn’t do that. We know you’re desperate to do business with us. Not to mention all those Eastern European countries who are already suspicious of you trying to tell them what to do. You’ll have a revolt on your hands!
A: On the contrary, they are the ones most eager for you to be punished if you insist on abandoning free movement of people. If you persist in this course of action, you’ll be out of the single market, and that will inevitably impoverish you.
B: We’re sure something will turn up. We have boundless confidence in the character of the British people, once freed from the fetters of Europe! Except when they play too much golf. We’ll have freedom and sovereignty! We’ll have hope!
A: Hope? Always a great comfort in danger. Not a problem if you’ve got something solid to back it up, but if all you’ve got is hope… Your hope could lead you into disaster.
B: Poppycock. Free trade is the way forward! And all the other countries will be desperate to do trade deals with us as soon as possible.
A: Free trade? Why do you think you’re going to have such an advantage there? You need to have something worth exporting, for a start. And according to the laws of the market, anyone who has the upper hand will take advantage of it. We didn’t invent that law, we just recognised that this is how the world is, and so we formed a single market and a collective negotiating position to deal with it.
B: We have exports! We have innovative jams and marmalades! We can sell coffee to Brazil and naan bread to India and bottled country air to China!
A: If you say so. As for your faith in other countries helping you out, well, good luck with that. Nations are pretty good at seeing what’s right in terms of what’s in their interest. That’s not going to help you.
B: No, that’s exactly why they’ll help us. They’re not going to leave us in the lurch, when we have special relationships and history and everything. They’d rather negotiate with us than you. Probably.
A: You know, people in your situation can go a bit crazy; you can be completely aware of the danger you’re in, and still insist on signing your own death warrants because of this thing called ‘sovereignty’. Where’s the sovereignty in wrecking your own economy for no reason? But actually you just seem to be delusional about your situation. There’s one sure recipe for success in this world: stand up to your equals, defer to your superiors and be moderate towards your inferiors – and know where you actually stand.
B: We believe in both having and eating our cake, and in any case we’d rather have our freedom. We trust in God, and in our friends, and in the Greatness of Britain, rah rah; we can’t see any reason why you won’t just give us what we want, but even if you don’t we have no doubt that everything will work out brilliantly.
A: You must be the only people on earth who think that what might happen in future is clearer than what’s right in front of you.