During the 4th century BC, Athens dominated the Eastern Mediterranean artistically, economically, politically and philosophically. Sparta remained a power because of its military structure and political stability, but economically she exerted little influence. Fast forward 2500 years. The U.S. dominates the world politically, economically and sadly, culturally (Michael Jackson, Brittney Spears, etc.). There are a few militaristic nations that remain a power (China and Russia), but the U.S. is the sole superpower. Does Athens’ behavior have any correlation with its fate, and is the U.S. falling into the same situation?
But the basic cause of the war was the growth of the Athenian Empire, and the development of Athenian control over the commercial and political life of the Aegean. Athens allowed free trade there in time of peace, but only by imperial sufferance…Athens defended this domination as a vital necessity; she was dependent upon imported food, and was determined to guard the routes by which that food came. In policing the avenues of international trade Athens performed a real service to peace and prosperity in the Aegean, but the process became more and more irksome as the pride and wealth of the subject cites grew…Athens reserved to Athenian courts the right to try all cases, arising within the Confederacy, that involved Athenian citizens or major crimes. If any city resisted, it was reduced by force…If we may believe Thucydides, the democratic leaders at Athens, while making liberty the idol of their policy among Athenians, frankly recognized that the Confederacy of free cities had become an empire of force. “You should remember,” says Thucydides’ Cleon to the Assembly (427 B.C.), “that your empire is a despotism exercised over unwilling subjects who are always conspiring against you; they do not obey in return for any kindness which you do them to your own injury, but only in so far as you are their master; they have no love for you, but they are held down by force.” The inherent contradiction between the worship of liberty and the despotism of empire cooperated with the individualism of the Greek states to end the Golden Age.
So what does this have to do with the U.S.? When Durant was writing this book (copyright 1939), the U.S. had yet to reach the status of a world power. He was writing at a time when Britain was still near the zenith of empire. However, seventy years later we see the U.S. in this role of lauding liberty at home while following the “Athenian custom of establishing in every city democracies (or dictatorships) dependent upon (or willing to play by the rules of) the Empire.”
What countries throughout the world feel the words Cleon used to describe the inter-state problems facing the Athenian Assembly? As much as the U.S. tries to do acts of goodness and service (i.e. humanitarian efforts in Indonesia and Pakistan), these countries see that economically and militarily the U.S. is their master and they are forced to play by a certain set of rules.
When these countries are pushed to their limits (it will be different for each), they align themselves with a powerful military to help put off the dominating nation. In the case of the Greek city-states, this was Sparta. In today’s environment it is likely to be China or powerful Islamist countries (Iran specifically). We see this happening as Venezuela courts both of these powers; as Lebanon and the Palestinian peoples appeal to Syria and Iran for assistance.
If the U.S. continues its bully tactics in foreign and economic policies we will continue to alienate those who feel the brunt of these decisions and the challenges faced by Athens will likely confront the U.S.