This week we continued our look at the Peloponnesian War and especially at Athens’ crucial decision regarding their ally Platea.
Platea had been a long time ally of Athens, and a strategically important one because of its geographical location near Thebes, a Spartan ally. Sentiment and history also bound Athens and Platea, as these two city-states were the only ones to show up at the Battle of Marathon. Thus, they forged their alliance not just out of mutual need but out of a shared history.
As part of their strategy the Athenians purposely decided to use their infantry sparingly, and rely on their navy to win the war. Unfortunately almost immediately Thebes took the opportunity to attack Platea and add to their territory. Platea had success in their initial resistance but knew that ultimately they could not outlast Thebes and would lose. They asked for Athenian help.
Usually of course, allies come each others’ aid. But in this case, Athens wasn’t so sure. To get to Platea would mean fundamentally altering their strategy for the entire war. Using Athenian infantry meant exposing their own city to attack by the more deadly Spartan infantry. The chances of the Plateans maintaining control after the Athenians inevitably left were slim. How should they respond?
The dilemma the Athenians faced is akin to what we faced regarding West Berlin in the Cold War. Undoubtedly it was a great coup to have part of a significant city be “on our side” right in the heart of the Iron Curtain. West Berlin stood as a constant embarrassment to the puppet regime in East Germany. President Kennedy made this famous speech regarding the city.
But surely much of our talk regarding West Berlin was bravado. The city remained immensely vulnerable, and we had no way of guaranteeing its security. If they were attacked, the best we could do would be to retaliate somewhere else. Would defense of this city truly be worth a world war? If push came to shove, should the U.S. let its bluff get called, or would we go “all in” on West Berlin?
Though the issue doesn’t have the relevance it once did, the problem of Taiwan and China also has resonance with the Athenian dilemma. In the aftermath of communist takeover of China, the nationalists fled to Taiwan. Taiwan had a long history of being a part of China, but the communists lacked the naval strength to take the island from the nationalist party. We immediately recognized Taiwan as the “true China” and pledged its defense.
Early on this was almost as easily said as done. China had no real navy or air force. Recently of course, this has changed. Their navy has greatly improved, and they have the world’s largest air force. Defense of Taiwan has become a much more difficult problem. Not only are they so far away, not only would defending Taiwan require large amounts of our naval resources, war with China would cost a great deal more now than even 25 years ago. When push came to shove, would we truly risk so much for Taiwan’s sake?
For the most part the students agreed that Athens really shouldn’t help Platea, and neither would they really have started World War III over West Berlin. This prompted the question, “Are democracies more likely, less likely, or just as likely to keep these kinds of alliances as other forms of government (such as monarchies or oligarchies).
If we believe that different forms of government have their own personalities, their own strengths and weaknesses, then we might expect them to act differently in different circumstances. Some might point out that aristocratic governments might indeed be more willing, for aristocracies have a great deal in common across national lines. A duke in country ‘X’ has more in common with a duke in country ‘y’ than he does with a factory worker in his own country. Thus, alliances between aristocratic countries will be more personal, and less politically abstract.
Some suggested that since monarchies and aristocracies rely much more on tradition than democracies, the past assumes much more importance for them — thus past alliances hold more weight. Often aristocracies put a strong emphasis on a shared honor code, and this too might give them more internal incentive to keep past agreements.
De Tocqueville suggested the democracies would be inherently more practical than aristocracies. In a famous passage he wrote,
Nothing is more necessary to the culture of the higher sciences, or the more elevated departments of science, than meditation; and nothing is less suited to meditation than the structure of democratic society. We do not find there, as amongst an aristocratic people, once class which keeps in repose because it is well off; and another, which does not venture to stir because it despairs of improving its condition. . . . Men who live in democratic societies not only seldom indulge in meditation, but they naturally entertain very little esteem for it.
Thus, he concludes that aristocracies can be driven much more by ideas than democratic countries, who will usually use “practicality” as a guide for their decisions.
Whether or not De Tocqueville is correct, the issue of alliances and when to uphold them will always be relevant. Athens preserved its infantry by refusing to come to Platea’s aid (to be fair to Athens, much of their population was stricken with a deadly plague) but Platea paid the price. They succumbed to a joint Theban/Spartan attack. The Thebans executed all their men, and sold their women and children into slavery. Platea simply ceased to exist.
Next week we will see how the war expanded and changed its character as time went on.