Athens and America: Democratic Imperialism in the Peloponnesian Wars and in Iraq

Imperialism on an international level has been present throughout ancient and modern history, yet the most prevalent examples of imperialism exist in the context of formation of national unity in Eastern Europe and of the colonial conquests of Britain, Spain, France and other monarchies. While imperialism is not immediately associated with democracy as it is with monarchy and oligarchy, it is arguably a very unifying and stabilizing force for a democracy. The pursuit of nationalistic interests abroad was a large element to political policy in the democracy of Athens, and it certainly plays a large role in the current foreign policy of the United States. One theory of modern scholars of political science, called Democratic peace theory, is that democracies generally do not war with one another. The pursuant argument is that if a democracy makes efforts, with imperialistic intensions, to create other democracies, eventually there will be no one to fight against.
Under the leadership of Pericles and President Bush, both Athens and modern America have tried to make their own worlds safe for democracy through imperial conquests in just such a way: they have created democracies abroad that satisfy some need of their own-whether it’s security or international power-but in satisfying this need of theirs, either knowingly or unknowingly, they are serving as a neutralizing threat for peace within the world they have so much influence upon.
In fact, the success of this strategy is evidenced by an example from Athenian history. In 458 B.C., Athens was attacked by a small but strategically located Sparta-controlled city-state called Boetia. The Boetian army was victorious, mainly due to the partially-finished and ineffective condition of the Long Walls, public works projects started by Pericles. The Athenians invaded Boetia two months later and gained control over the city-state. The significance of the Athenian victory held great importance as the beginning of the end of the Peloponnesian Wars. Boetia was located in an area that was important for Sparta’s trade interests, and as long as Athens held Boetia, the Spartans had a large part of their supply line cut off. It could be argued that this was a large factor leading to the eventual end of the war.
Athens continuance of control over Boetia despite Spartan resistance-and for a period of time that extended long past its significance as a strategic point-was an exercise in democratic imperialism for Athens. It was the same type of “healthy” war that arguably the Iraq war is for America. It gave the Athenians both an example of their democratic ideals making a meaningful difference abroad, and it distracted them from some domestic issues.
The democratic ideals that Pericles spoke of in his Funeral Oration (transcribed by Thucydides) are also used by President Bush to embolden his cause for democracy in Iraq and bolster his image as a protector and defender of democracy. Thucydides portrays Pericles as the cheif promoter of democracy, and President Bush has shown a promotion of democracy to be the basis of his foreign policy. The two leaders, Pericles and Bush, were charged with justifying military campaigns that were based more upon political theories than on national security. Every city-state Athens brought into its Delian League made it stronger, but surely for some Athenians, just like for some Americans, Athens was already strong enough. There was no initial threat or attack to respond to, and so to substantiate the war effort, Pericles, like Bush, promoted the campaign as a liberation effort to bring the miracle of democracy to other city-states.
Each leader, in their war speeches, described the basic freedom of man that is the basis for any democracy, and in the case of President Bush, convinced Americans that it was in the pursuit of this freedom that America must overpower a nation like Iraq and replace its government with a it with a democratic system. Although Pericles’ aim was not the same, his method of persuasion is identical to that of President Bush. The real Athenian enemy was Sparta, and the imperialistic campaign instituted by Pericles was at root an effort to build a long term defense against Sparta, by expanding its “empire.” It was necessary to present it differently, however, because otherwise the Athenian people may have been reasonably reluctant in their support.
Both Athens and America managed to alienate the portion of the world they have the most influence upon. According to Roger Scott, Emeritus Professor at the University of Queensland’s School of political science and International Studies, “By the beginning of the Peloponnesian WarâÂ?¦Athens was so unpopular that most Greeks wanted Sparta to win. Athenian relations with its “allies” had undergone a dramatic change in thirty years.” Both powers (Athens and America) expressed that to a certain extent they did not care, and continued to exercise their hegemonic system of influence over the surrounding world. Athens dispersed “cleruchies,” or battalions of soldiers stationed in subservient city-states, to serve as an occupying force in the city-states of Athenian influence-a constant reminder to those city-states of the weight of the Athenian empire. The ostensible American equivalent to cleruchies, the soldiers that occupy the “green zone” in Baghdad, serve as a constant reminder for Iraqis of the interest their occupiers have in Iraqi governmental affairs.
The leaders of Athens and America both see the cause of spreading democracy to be ultimately necessary in the long run, and feel that despite short-term criticisms of the brutal nature of regime change, eventually their cause will be most beneficial to their national interest. Thucydides writes about the Athenian invasion of Sicily to say:
We deserve our empire because we placed the largest fleet and an unflinching patriotism at the service of the Greeks� �if we are now in Sicily, it is equally in the interests of our security, with which we perceive that your interest also coincides�fear makes us come now, with the help of our friends, to settle matters here in Sicily for our own security, and not to enslave you but rather to prevent you from being enslaved.

The idea of “interests of our security” and the perception that “your interest also coincides [with security],” is remarkably similar to President Bush’s statements of justification for the war in Iraq that promoted the security threat posed by the previous government of Iraq under Hussein. America was portrayed as being somewhat on the defensive in what was in reality a pre-emptive strike. President Bush mirrors Thucydides’ language when he said in his 2002 State of the Union address (the year before the war) that, “America will do what is necessary to ensure our nation’s security…. I will not wait on events, while dangers gather.” Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld also mentions the perceived security threat in testimony before Congress in September 2002 when he says, “No terrorist state poses a greater or more immediate threat to the security of our people and the stability of the world than the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.” The intent of these statements, both in Greece and in America, is to give the impression that the threat to national security is already apparent simply with the existence of the perceived enemy, not as a result of any real opposition. The assertion that the interest of the oppressive nation is ultimately the interest of the oppressed nation is inherent in President Bush’s speeches about spreading democratic ideals to countries like Iraq:
America, in this young century, proclaims liberty throughout all the world and to all the inhabitants thereof. Renewed in our strength – tested, but not weary – we are ready for the greatest achievements in the history of freedom.
Roger Scott makes more sense to this comparison, especially to the response
leaders like Pericles and Bush had to criticism. The well-known Bush Administration
assertion that it would not be healthy to “cut and run” was echoed in Thucydides’
portrayal of Pericles, when he says of Athens, “It is no longer possible to give up your
empire, if indeed any of you in the alarm of the moment want to play the upright man
and lead a life of inactivity. For the empire you now hold is a kind of tyranny; it may
have been wrong to take it, but to let it go is dangerous.” He is essentially saying that to
relinquish control of the empire Athens holds would be to unnecessarily put Athens in
danger. He believed that former allies would turn on Athens if the alliance were to break
apart. President Bush said on November 30, 2005 in an address to the U.S. Naval
Academy that:
Setting an artificial deadline to withdraw [from Iraq] would send a
message across the world that America is a weak and an unreliable ally.
Setting an artificial deadline to withdraw would send a signal to our
enemies – that if they wait long enough, America will cut and run and
abandon its friends. And setting an artificial deadline to withdraw would
vindicate the terrorists’ tactics of beheadings and suicide bombings and
mass murder – and invite new attacks on America.

For President Bush, America has enough enemies in the world that the image of cowardice a withdrawal from Iraq would show would be tantamount to the Athenian allies turning against Athens to break apart their precious alliance. The President says that creating a deadline would “send a message across the world that America is a weak and an unreliable allyâÂ?¦and invite new attacks on America.”
In the year 446, the residents of an island in the Agean by the name of Euboia decided not to pay tribute to Athens (city-states were required to pay Athens tribute in exchange for the protection of the Athenian army). The response from Athens was a brutal military campaign that would fit modern definitions of ethnic cleansing. The purpose of such a harsh response by Athens may have been to set an example for other city-states. In doing so, Athens sent a message that to refuse to pay tribute to Athens will carry tremendous consequences, and a bigger war was averted.
Although the circumstances are different, the same political President Bush made in Iraq was made by Athens with Euboia. President Bush’s strategy is to steadfast resolve in Iraq is his way of showing the world that America is not the weak power it appeared to be after the attacks on September 11, 2001.
So the brutal nature of regime change, according to the President’s strategy, will eventually yield a result that brings a beneficial governmental system to the oppressed force (Iraq), and satisfies a security need for the oppressive force (America). Sicily served the same purpose for Athens.
Athens and America both have nothing but their own interests in mind when exercising democratic imperialism over less powerful forces. Yet regardless of their intentions, their actions ultimately serve as a stabilizing force in the world. Democratic imperialism, while damaging and costly in the short term, ultimately results in peaceful relations and a very stable international state of affairs.

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