Might or Right: Theories of Justice in International Relations

For many Texans, the memory of the Battle of the Alamo is a source of pride. We “remember the Alamo” in honor of the 180 defenders who died there, knowing they were surrounded by the Mexican army with no chance of survival, besieged for 13 days and still standing their ground. The idea of sacrificing one’s life for one’s country isn’t new or unique to Texas. Though this is deeply embedded in American culture as well, it would be a disservice to say that alone. The honor that is reserved for those who sacrifice their lives for their nation permeates every culture across time and geographical boundaries.

However, the sacrifice at the Alamo had a specific brand — that of sacrifice for your country when you know you will die. This also permeates cross-cultural grounds. Similar stories include tales of Japanese soldiers on isolated islands during World War II upholding the samurai code or Irish revolutionaries during the 1916 Easter Rising revolting against the powerful and organized British.

A sacrifice of this level is only possible when engendered by deep dedication and devotion to one’s nation, accompanied by a strong belief in the moral justification of its actions. The belief in the moral rightness of the country leads to such overwhelming devotion that individuals value the country and its survival over their own.

One of the earliest known examples of this is the battle between Melos and Athens, recounted by Thucydides in part of his “History of the Peloponnesian War.” After 15 years of war, negotiations ensue. The Melians have a choice between submitting to the Athenians and becoming slaves or resisting and perpetuating war and bloodshed between the two nations. The Athenians use the negotiations to try to convince the Melians of Athens’ overwhelming strength and the futility of Melian resistance. However, the Melians appeal to a sense of the common good and of the necessity of “reasonable and just” actions toward those who “come into danger” with the Athenians.

The negotiations that take place between these two cities raise questions about the nature of justice within international relations, including the role of the strong over the weak, the justification for imperialism, the compatibility of democracy and empire, and, most significantly, whether efforts to combat injustice when knowingly futile are meaningful at all.

The Athenians’ argument focuses on the idea of the diametrically-opposed strong, the Athenians themselves, versus the weak — the Melians. The Athenians declare that “those who are superior do whatever they are capable of, and the weak make way.” Melos has been seized, and the Melians must either submit freely or be forced into submission through continued bloodshed and an eventual defeat. This is a harsh perspective of justice, but the Athenians defend it by claiming that they “neither (lay) down the law nor were the first to use it as laid down, but (they) employ it having accepted it as existing and (they) will leave it as existing in the future forever.” The Athenians say that the Melians, if they “came into the same power as (they) have, would do the same,” illustrating that might makes right. The Athenians are arguing not only that this is how things have always been but that this how they must be in light of the nature of human beings. Humans, according to the Athenian philosophy, are compelled to abuse those weaker than them, and the fact that this is a compulsion frees them from blame. Ultimately, justice doesn’t matter.

The Melians have a very different idea of justice. They fail to convince the Athenians to pursue their common good, which is the just path. However, the Melians resist anyway; they are willing to do anything to defend their homeland even though the odds are stacked against them as they consider it “great vileness” and “cowardice” to do otherwise. The Melians care about nobility and justice in and of themselves, unlike the Athenians. That nobility is tempered by the fact that the Melians don’t necessarily think the odds are slanted toward them, they only hope that the gods will be on their side and reward them for their brave, honorable defense of their homeland and way of life.

Overall, the Melians’ extreme hope is the most distinctive part of their argument. They say very directly that “submission means the end of hope, but hope correctly still stands together with action.” The Athenian response to this hope is very negative; they claim that so long as the Melians have “something to save,” namely their lives, they should not bet everything on a futile risk. To the Athenians, the Melians’ extreme hope clouds their ability to see the true reality of the situation, which is the good that is saving your own skin.

Paragraph 107 from the “Melian Dialogue” very aptly describes the two nations’ opposing positions. Stated simply, the Athenians believe in the safe and the expedient as it furthers interest, but the Melians are willing to risk everything for the just and the noble. Thus, the Athenian idea of justice can be called realistic, and the Melian justice can be called idealistic. The Athenian justice is rooted in the natural “law” of how groups interact while the Melian justice is hopeful and founded in a faith in a new model of justice. One could even call this Melian justice innocent.

After the negotiations fail, the war resumes, Melos is defeated, and the Melians eventually surrender. Their men are killed and their women and children are forced into slavery. The Athenian claim of the inevitable victory of strength over unrealistic hope is proven true, as they are successful in the siege of Melos; their might is proven “right.” However, the war is drawn out and the Athenians don’t win immediately, as they have conflicts with the Philasians, Argive exiles, Lacedaemonians, and Corinthians. This lends some support to the Melian idea of justice, because if the Athenians had treated these other people “reasonabl(y) and just(ly)” as friends and allies rather than potential subjects, they may not have faced defeat in the siege of Melos itself and may not been defeated in the Peloponnesian war as a whole.

The opposing perspectives offered by the Athenians and the Melians through their negotiations result in an engaging discussion about the nature of justice. The Athenians’ realistic justice and the Melians’ idealistic justice as ideas are worthy contenders for each other.

Ultimately, the Melians knew that defeat was possible and probable, but they decided to fight anyway; they believed that honorable, brave, and just actions in defense of their homeland would bring them salvation and perhaps victory through steadfastness and hope. The idealism of the Melians is admirable, especially contextualized in a world overwhelmed by power plays and the weak constantly being subjugated by the strong. Thus, the “Melian Dialogue” starts the conversation on the nature of justice in international relations — what is justice and what is its role? It is hard for us to shake off the Melian idea of justice despite its seeming futility and disappointing outcome. We want to conceptualize justice as something more than doing what we must to survive.

On the other hand, the Athenian perspective raises more questions. As Athens is a prideful democracy pursuing imperialist aims in order to build an empire, we must ask whether or not these things are mutually exclusive, and if not, whether they should be. Sound familiar? These ancient conversations have extreme relevance today; for instance, as Americans we pride ourselves on our democratic institutions, love for liberty, and belief in the intrinsic value of each human life, yet we have often historically pursued international policies that contradict those values. Furthermore, the effects of such policies are long-winded, causing decades if not centuries of internal issues regarding social justice, human rights, racism, economic catastrophes, and more.

Finally, an even larger question looms over the discussion of the nature of justice in international relations and the debate over whether democracy is incompatible with empire: are efforts to combat injustice, when knowingly futile, meaningful at all? I would say so, and it seems that the Melians and the Texans at the Alamo would as well.

Though they fight on the losing side, they fight for justice. Though the Melian idea of justice may be less practical and more idealistic, it is more meaningful. There is meaning in being a part of a community that fights for what is right and being so devoted to a cause that you are happy to make the highest possible sacrifice — even if the fight is futile. You do it for yourself and honor, yes, but you also value the intrinsic nature of such a sacrifice for such a cause. That transcendence of the community over the citizen is something worthwhile, something beautiful, and something remarkably human.

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