Eye of the Storm Leadership
150 Ideas, Stories, Quotes, and Excercises On The
Art and Politics of Managing Human Conflicts
by Peter Adler, Ph.D.
THE BOOK & VIDEO > 5. Practical Politics 

V. Practical Politics

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Starting Point / The Ghosts of Melos

Image:Alliances in the Pelopennesian War, 431 B.C. 1.JPGAlliances in the Peloponnesian War, 431 B.C. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
The Peloponnesian War was fought between 431 and 404 BC. It was the World War of its time, a vast play for political, commercial, and cultural supremacy of the Mediterranean. The protagonists were Athens and the Delian League on one side and Sparta and the Peloponnesian League on the other. The conflict, chronicled and passed along to us by Thucydides, forced every island and city-state to take sides. Melos, with ties to both combatants, tried to abstain from the fight and remain independent. Here is some of what they said:

Athenians:   “… you will not think it dishonorable to submit to the greatest city in Hellas, when it makes you the moderate offer of becoming its tributary ally, without ceasing to enjoy the country that belongs to you; nor when you have the choice given you between war and security, will you be so blinded as to choose the worse. And it is certain that those who do not yield to their equals, who keep terms with their superiors, and are moderate towards their inferiors, on the whole succeed best.�

Melians: “Our resolution, Athenians, is the same as it was at first. We will not in a moment deprive of freedom a city that has been inhabited these seven hundred years; but we put our trust in the fortune by which the gods have preserved it until now, and in the help of men, that is, of the Lacedaemonians; and so we will try and save ourselves. Meanwhile we invite you to allow us to be friends to you and foes to neither party, and to retire from our country after making such a treaty as shall seem fit to us both.�[i]

The Athenians, inventers of Western democracy, starved the island into submission, killed the men, and sold every Melian woman and child into slavery.

In the greater sweep of the 27-year Peloponnesian War, the incident at Melos was minor. Melos was in the way of rampaging elephants. With subtlety and nuance, however, Thucydides’ long dialogue records the Melian’s naïve bewilderment at the choices presented by the Athenians: slavery or death, small numbers confronting superior strength, neutrality versus cooptation. What the Athenians ultimately said to the Melians was this: might will always make right, the strong will always do what is in their power to do, the weak must ultimately submit, and if you are not with us you must be against us.

Image:Bundesrat der Schweiz 2008 Teil 1.JPGSwiss Federal Council, 2008. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
The ghosts of Melos are still around. The Melian dialogue is a central tenet of the realist school of international affairs and a much studied text by American neoconservatives. But there are other examples of non-aligned politics that could also be studied to better effect. Switzerland, with its 650,000-man defense force and airplanes ready to launch from mouse-hole tunnels in the Alps, has also gone to great lengths to protect its independent status in the community of nations. Their policies have served them well, financially and politically. Switzerland is one of the wealthiest countries in the world and has a population of 7 million. Via referendum, 100,000 Swiss can demand that their Constitution be revised. A new president of Switzerland is elected every year from the seven members of the Swiss Federal Council. The president of Switzerland in 1999 was a woman and Jewish. Her name is Ruth Dreifuss.[ii]

The origins of the Swiss approach to domestic and foreign affairs date back 400 years. Before it was a country, Switzerland was a loose federation of cities, states, and cantonments without a central government. The Charter of Wil, concluded in 1647, created a joint defense for the common good and the country’s first declaration of neutrality. It was a bulwark against the predations and disputes of larger neighbors and, equally important, a way of managing its internal politics in a democratic manner.

In contrast, Melos, the small Mediterranean city-state, was a weak pawn pleading the moral high ground of non-alignment in the face of overwhelming and brutal forces. Their eloquent arguments were ignored and they were crushed. Switzerland, with its defensive hedgehog strategy, suggests another approach, more muscular in its impartiality, and one grudgingly respected by others who are in every way bigger and stronger.


41      Power

“Power corrupts. Knowledge is power. Study hard. Be evil.�  Anon (Wikiquote)

Power is “Work Done� - Energy Transfer in a Pulley. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
In physics, power is a measure of work done or energy transferred. In the political world, it is the ability to impose your will. In both arenas, power is an input, something you use to accomplish bigger things. If people aren’t using it for larger ends, they are squandering it. In the 1960s and 70s, Saul Alinsky, a brilliant Chicago-based community organizer, used to tell his people that power is not just what you have, but what your enemy thinks you have. He was a master of gaining and using leverage. As he demonstrated over and over, power is rarely a blunt instrument. It is a set of diverse paintbrushes: economic power; human capital mobilization power; legal power; expert and information power; bureaucratic power and the ability to gate-keep and control choke points; the power of personality, integrity, tenacity, patience, and charisma; the power of the press and a good story; legal fire power and the ability to compel. You need power but the more demanding questions center on what you plan to do with it.


42     Open Lines

“I didn’t miss the rat race, but I kinda missed the rats.�  Jerry Nachman

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