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Democracy and Imperialism

Classical Athens and Nato

Frederick Lauritzen

18th June 2023


The freedom of democracy comes at a price: imperialism. This is probably the most striking lesson of the ancient Greek historian Thucydides who gave us the main narrative of events concerning classical Athens in the golden age of democracy (5th century bc).

The health of a democracy is more easily measured by the number of allies. When Athens was winning the Peloponnesian war (431-404) it had numerous allies. They each paid tribute and provided weapons (Athenian Tribute lists). When the tide turned in 413 it only had two: Chios and Mytilene. Allies leave in the face of defeat. Allied support is defined by their participation in the wealth of the alliance’s leadership, including  economic embargoes. They benefit from the exclusion of commercial competitors defined by the leading country. One of the starting points of the Peloponnesian War was the Megarian Decree, an economic embargo against the city of Megara (book 1). The poverty which struck this city lead some of its citizens to trade illegally as the comic playwright Aristophanes depicts in his play ‘The Acharnians’ in 427bc.

If a democracy invades another country, allies share some of the gained treasures and wealth. The acquisition of land and territories is part of the democratic process. Allies benefit and often approve when their Alliance subjugates a neighbouring and maybe problematic country. Thucydides describes how the Athenian assembly voted to invade Mytilene and to have the population enslaved or eliminated (Book 3). He also describes the subjugation of Melos, in the infamous Melian dialogue. The delegation voted and sent by Athenian democracy argued that ‘might is right’ against the defenceless local representatives (Book 5). NATO receives contributions from allies which in turn benefit from wealth acquired by the alliance through military action as well as from embargoes.

The centre of the Alliance was not in Athens but on the island of Delos. One of the reasons was to show equality between allies. It was known as the Delian league. NATO also has its main office in Brussels rather than in Washington DC.

Alliances can also create legal tensions in tribunals. The USA has often and repeatedly been criticised of applying a sort of extraterritoriality for its soldiers, and sometimes also for its citizens. Americans are not prosecuted abroad. Classical Athens did the same. The orator Antiphon, much admired by Thucydides (book 8), used to argue in court cases against those Athenians who could avoid prosecution in allied jurisdictions.  He prosecuted a certain Herod, who had killed a citizen of an allied country on the island of Mytilene. He had escaped prosecution locally and was appealing in the court of Athens to avoid condemnation. Antiphon had noticed that a weak point of Athenian democracy was the imbalanced treatment between Athenians and the citizens of allied countries.¬

While allied citizens may not be considered as equals, power is effectively in the hands of the diplomatic corps who negotiates imperial ambitions.

This leads to a curious imbalance where internal policy is defined by elected officials while foreign policy is defined by career bureaucrats. Foreign affairs becomes the stable backbone of an internal open society.

Foreign regime change is also typical of democracy. The comedian Aristophanes made fun of the sale and export of democratic constitutions to other countries in the play the Birds. It is there where the phrase ‘cloud cuckoo land’ was coined to refer to a new country not subject to the perceived Athenian inequality. There a ‘constitution salesman’ arrives to provide a ready-made democratic constitution for the new country. He is ridiculed and sent away.

The matter at hand is not the justice of democracy, but the fact that the democratic procedure internal to a country depends on a network of allies and diplomatic relations which are appointed and not elected. There appears a two-world system. Internal debate and external decision making appear in contradiction but are at the very core of democracy also in classical Athens.

The health and strength of a democratic regime (rather than its equality or justice) can thus be measured by counting the number of allies which support it. Athens in 431 was rather healthy as is NATO in 2023.

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