Adam Ash

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Friday, January 27, 2006

Modern US and ancient Athens: a comparison

When democracies are loved and hated -- by Robert P. Cachia

Let us see if this sounds familiar: Two thousand five hundred years ago, the Athenians and their allies started invading a number of Aegean states under the pretext of destroying tyranny to bestow a democracy. They thought people would accept them with open arms but nothing of the sort happened. Rings a bell?

In the middle of the fifth century BC, Athens was the undisputed power in the eastern Mediterranean. Before the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, this is how the Corinthians described the Athenians: “To describe their character in one word one might say that they were born into the world to take no rest themselves and give none to others!”

Athenians were indeed busybodies and had a finger in many commercial enterprises from as far away as the Po basin in northern Italy to the Ukrainian wheat fields in the east. Their coinage, the famous attic owl drachma, was international currency and their fleet patrolled the Mediterranean as if it was their sea. Democratic Athens was a new shining light in a sea of barbarism and despotism. Philosophers and thinkers sang its praises while people all over the Aegean imitated and recreated its revolutionary institutions.

Yet for all the love and euphoria it managed to polarise, Athens became the most hated and feared of the Greek city-states. It was not just her enemies but her own allies who eventually turned against her. The reasons were various but the underlying bone of contention was then only too obvious: Athens was simply using democracy as a front to spread her empire. Many democratic parties all over the Aegean slowly and painfully came to realise that their initial honeymoon with Athenian-style radical democracy had degenerated into a unilateral submission to the whims and wishes of the Athenian Assembly.

Many allies perceived Athenian foreign policy as nothing but an excuse for furthering Athenian commercial interests at their expense and, in fact, when Sparta and Athens went to war, the democratic alliance started to crack and crumble. Athenians woke up to find that they were hated beyond their wildest nightmare and that their old friends were turning traitors.

Can we somehow draw a parallel between classical Athens and the United States of today? To read the speeches of Pericles in front of the Assembly, during the early phases of the Peloponnesian War, when the Athenian Empire was already tottering under the onslaught of a Spartan-led offensive, one easily recalls those of George W. Bush after 9/11: the empire is under threat because Athenians and their allies (what was left of them) are the only peoples who practice and enjoy freedom, whose revolutionary institutions are a guarantee against tyranny and this is exactly what their enemies want to bring back: servitude, the rule of kings, the end of freedom. The Gods bless Athens. One faintly catches the echo through the centuries: God bless America!

If one ignores the evident hype and rhetoric, Pericles was right in a way: the war was a struggle between two radically different concepts of human organisation: Sparta, his main enemy, was the embodiment of everything that the Athenians hated: it was autocratic, rigidly hierarchical, economically static (it had no currency!!) and culturally backward-looking whereas the Athenians had recently invented the democratic regime, reformed their laws and ready to trade as far as their ships could take them.

Athens was so convinced of the goodness and equity of her constitution, her laws and her institutions that she went on to export them wherever her commercial interests lay. Her political instinct told her rightly that democracy is a regime fit for equals and that such equity is best found in aggressive, commercially minded city states like her and not in static and conservative land-based oligarchies like the Spartan model. Eventually she built up her influence and patronage most easily among the myriad islands of the Aegean. These were to be her trade partners, her newfound empire.

Then, unexpectedly, the war came. Reading Thucydides, one frequently gets the uncanny feeling that one has already read the same story, heard the same justifications for aggression, seen the same mistakes being made, the same tragic consequences follow. Athens, like the United States, suddenly discovered that her imperialistic meddling in the affairs of other nations, euphemistically cloaked as “the necessary politics of liberal economic expansion” was creating social and political upheavals that started to backfire seriously on her.

It is extremely revealing, comparing the prime concern of those who vigorously opposed Athens then and America now – that trying to impose democracy by force of arms, is a sort of tyranny in itself. The internal consistency in the logic of such an argument is so evident yet Athenians (and Americans today) ignored it with an alarming candour bordering on the naïve.

So how does one solve this quintessential paradox: that the self proclaimed champion of democracy in a world of despotism and entrenched oligarchy finds itself branded as an aggressor, a meddler in other nations’ business and hated beyond imagination? How does one explain to Americans today that the American dream does not automatically transform every nation on earth into their ally and friend?

This summer I happened to read a very revealing book by a Chinese-American, Professor Amy Chua’s World on Fire. In fact it was the subtitle that first caught my attention: How exporting Free Market Democracy breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability. The book was written after 9/11 and Chua’s essay can easily be seen as a painful soul-searching exercise to find the answer to the question that everyone was asking then: But why?

Chua’s merit however is that she does not fall for easy apologetics or for the usual rhetoric of self-justification. With a clear and self-critical mind she manages to make a dispassionate analysis of how and why the globalising formula – free markets plus democracy – so wildly acclaimed as the modern panacea to the world’s ills, does not always equal prosperity and peace. On the contrary, in many cases, the equation works out diametrically different.

The crux of Chua’s argument is that this sudden post-cold war Euro-American infatuation with bestowing democracy as if it were some magic formula on all and sundry, without a profound understanding of the local context, has been a major cause of the many social and political upheavals that we have witnessed all over the third world in the last 15 years.


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