‘The revenge of the Melians’ revisited

‘The revenge of the Melians’ revisited

By Ken Weisbrode

Best Defense department of Thucydidian analysis

Some months after the 9/11 attacks the diplomatic historian Paul Schroeder published an article in The National Interest with the title, "The Risks of Victory: An Historian’s Provocation." He posed a simple question that has been asked many times: How does a minor crisis lead to a major war? He considered the possibility that the 9/11 attacks would result in something far worse, and the analogy he gave was to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914.

Another Great War has not taken place, and even if it were to happen in the near future, it would be difficult at this point to claim that the fuse for it was lit on September 2001. Much has happened since in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and elsewhere. Nevertheless, Schroeder’s provocation should still be taken seriously. We recall that not once during the entire Cold War (with the partial exception of Soviet pilots in the Korean War) did soldiers of the two main protagonists fire on one another. But both superpowers were engaged in armed conflict to one degree or another during the entire course of the conflict. The remarkable thing is that none of these smaller wars or crises escalated to an all-out hot war between the superpowers.

The consensus seems to be that nuclear weapons and the doctrine of mutually assured destruction are primarily responsible for that. This may be true but there is no way to prove it. We are told that John F. Kennedy had the 1914 scenario in mind (thanks to his reading of Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August) during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Cold War calculus may have been reversed whereby nuclear weapons and the prestige associated with deterrence made escalation more, rather than less, likely in this instance.

A higher cost attributed to escalation, in other words, does not do away with Schroeder’s basic question. How and why do major powers make crises worse? Political scientists and others have been testing hypotheses for a long time, but a general blueprint still eludes us. One reason may be that their models emphasize the roles of major actors over minor ones. For nearly a century historians have debated whether Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia or the "system" was most responsible for the escalation leading to World War I.

Tom has recently reminded us to ask who won the Peloponnesian War and, by implication, who lost the most after starting it. Our eyes are trained to hunt for underlying structural conditions, "the long fuse," and great, zero-sum rivalries.

Overlooked in many of these accounts are the active and sometimes dominant roles of instigators: Corcyreans, Serbs, Cubans, et al. These second- and even third-tier revisionist powers tend to follow a different, more opportunistic calculus. They too — potentially — have everything to lose, but also much more to gain, they must imagine, from provoking a war among much bigger powers. The burden falls upon the latter to master the ways of defusing crises before it is too late.