From Pylos to Pyongyang: What Thucydides Can Teach Us about Contemporary Diplomacy
Vivian S. Walker
Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War, a masterful account of the protracted conflict between ancient regional powers Athens and Sparta, has long been considered a staple of military history. However, it can also teach us a great deal about the theory and practice of diplomacy. An analysis of Sparta’s diplomatic engagement with Athens following its stunning defeat at Pylos illustrates the enduring dynamic of persuasive, conciliatory and threat-based negotiation strategies.[i] At the same time it offers useful insights into the nature of contemporary diplomatic challenges.
In the summer of 425 BC, the seventh year of the war, a sudden, violent storm forced an Athenian naval expedition to land unexpectedly in Spartan territory on the island of Pylos. Seizing the opportunity, the Athenians occupied the island and rapidly fortified their position. The Spartans launched an immediate counter-attack to prevent a blockade of critical trade and transportation routes. Moreover, as Thucydides tells it, Spartan authorities, “fearing the march of revolution in their country,”[ii] worried that their defeat at Athenian hands would inspire an uprising of Sparta’s slave class. They needed a victory to assure state legitimacy.
Spartan military forces, however, suffered a humiliating defeat. Athens retained control of Pylos, and, worse yet, 420 of Spartan’s elite warriors were taken prisoner on the neighboring island of Sphacteria.[iii] As a consequence, the Spartan government decided to negotiate a peace treaty that would restore territory, remove the threat to its trade routes, allow for the return of its soldiers and, most importantly, restore its domestic image. A carefully formulated armistice, one that involved a cessation of hostilities, a return of Athenian ships, food supplies for the Spartan prisoners on Pylos and safe passage for the envoys to Athens to conduct negotiations, set the stage for the peace talks.
Speaking before a public assembly of Athenian citizens, the Spartan envoys characterized their diplomatic mission as one that would appeal to the interests and honor of both sides.
The Spartans sent us to try to find some way of settling the affairs of our men on the island that shall be at once satisfactory to your interests, and as consistent with our dignity in our misfortune as circumstances permit. [4:17]
In compelling language, the envoys then attempt to persuade the Athenians of the advantages of settlement: “You can now, if you choose, employ your present success to advantage, so as to keep what you have got and gain honor and reputation besides” [4:17]. To convey the seriousness of their intent, the Spartans use terms of remarkable humility:
To be convinced of this you have only to look at our present misfortune. What power in Hellas stood higher than we did? And yet we have come to you, although we formerly thought ourselves more able to grant what we now are here to ask. [4:18]
However, even as they flattered the Athenians on their prowess, the Spartan envoys were careful to describe the defeat at Pylos as “an error in judgment” rather than a consequence of “any decay in [their] power” [4:18]. The Spartan’s willingness to admit a strategic error heightens the credibility of their proposal. At the same time, it implies that this reversal in Spartan fortunes is temporary--a momentary failure of calculation “to which all are equally liable” --rather than a fundamental absence of power [4:18].
Embedded in the acknowledgement of their own weakness is a threat to the Athenians:
The prosperity which your city enjoys, and the accessions that it has lately received, must not make you suppose that fortune will always be with you. Indeed sensible men are prudent enough to treat their gains as precarious….not being puffed up by confidence in military success, they are less likely to come to grief and most ready to make peace, if they can, while their fortunes last. This, Athenians, you have a good opportunity to do now with us, and thus to escape the possible disasters which may follow upon your refusal. [4:18]
In other words, the balance of power may shift again. The Spartan envoys subtly but clearly warned the Athenians that if they do not consent to make peace at a time when their “fortunes” ran high, they might be unable to so later.
The Spartan envoys then move from threat to compromise, proposing a defensive alliance: “The Spartans accordingly invite you to make a treaty, and to end the war, and offer peace and alliance and the most friendly and intimate relations.” In return, the Spartans “ask for the men on the island” rather than the occupied territory [4:19]. The capture of these soldiers, who made up ten percent of Sparta’s total fighting force, certainly represented a blow to Sparta’s military capacity as well as its warrior culture.[iv] Worse yet, more than one third of these prisoners came from Sparta’s elite ruling families, who were responsible for preserving domestic peace and prosperity.[v] In short, the Spartans simply could not afford to lose these men, and their ingoing negotiating strategy reflected, therefore, a stark and deliberate prioritization of national strategic interests.
It is clear why the Spartans need to recover their men, but why should it be in Athens’ interest to accept this compromise? The Spartan envoys have a slick answer:
If great enmities are ever to be really settled, we think it will be, not by the system of revenge and military success, and by forcing an opponent to swear to a treaty to his disadvantage, but when the more fortunate combatant waives his privileges and…conquers his rival in generosity and accord peace on more moderate conditions than expected. [4:19]
The Spartan envoys propose that both sides arrive at a fulfillment of shared interests through a “debt of generosity” rather than “the debt of revenge” [4:19]. Agreeing to the terms of their offer, the Spartan envoys argue, would enhance Athens’ reputation and enable its citizens to reap the considerable rewards, both moral and strategic, of peace. In short, the Spartans believe that they are offering a diplomatic solution to a military problem, one that will improve Athens’ standing among other nations and peoples even as it permits Sparta to recover its losses.
The Spartan envoys further make the case that not just Athens but all of Hellas, has much to gain from a peaceful alliance.
While the issue is still in doubt, and you have reputation and our friendship in prospect, and we the compromise of our misfortune before anything fatal occur, let us be reconciled, and for ourselves choose peace instead of war, and grant to the rest of the Hellenes a remission from their sufferings. [4:20]
Again, the Spartan envoys were confident about the reasonable nature of their negotiating strategy. Give us back our men, cease hostilities, they argued, and we will both benefit from the rewards of peace. Athens would gain enhanced superiority, reputation and outreach potential. Meanwhile Sparta would be better equipped to maintain domestic stability. After all, the reason the Spartans rushed to retake Pylos had a great deal to do with the volatility of their own internal politics. Not only were they concerned about a possible slave uprising, but, as Thucydides notes, the captured soldiers also created a significant domestic leadership deficit.
On the heels of the Spartan proposal, General Cleon, a popular leader at the time, presented the Athenian counteroffer to the assembled citizens. First, he proposed, the Spartan hostages on Pylos would have to surrender and be brought to Athens. Second, Sparta was to return four territories ceded to them by Athens under the terms of a previous treaty, when, as Thucydides notes, “truce was more necessary to [Athens] than at present” [4:21]. Then, and only then, would Sparta get back her men and a truce be agreed upon.
This was not at all what the Spartans wanted. More than a little dismayed by the intransigence of Cleon’s demands, the envoys asked for the appointment of a small commission with which they could negotiate privately. Instead of allowing them to do so, Cleon denounced the envoys to the assembled audience, saying that they had no “right intentions” as evidenced “by their refusing to speak before the people and wanting to confer in secret with a committee of two or three” [4:22]. In doing so, Cleon adroitly undermined the credibility of the Spartan negotiators and their proposals, depicting them as duplicitous and unreliable in their communications. Moreover, Cleon’s public humiliation of the Spartan envoys further confirmed that the Athenians really had no intention of cutting a deal.
Ultimately the Spartan envoys found themselves in a no-win situation. Having been publically discredited, they recognized that “whatever concessions they might be prepared to make in their misfortune, it was impossible to express them before the multitude” [4:22]. They could no longer communicate credibly, and, by extension, persuasively. Moreover, they could not risk entering into agreement on a new set of demands without the support of their own allies as well as their leadership, with whom they “would lose credit” if these negotiations were to fail. The Spartan envoys went home without a treaty; the armistice became void and the conflict resumed.
What went wrong? First, the successful use of diplomatic persuasion, compromise and threat of force depends on an appreciation of the other side’s needs and interests. The Spartans believed, erroneously as it turned out, that “the Athenians, already desirous of a truce and only kept back by their opposition, would joyfully accept a peace freely offered, and give back the men” [4.21]. Driven by their own pressing political, economic and security concerns, the Spartans based their entire negotiating strategy on this assumption, with the result that they were completely unprepared for the Athenian counter-proposal.
Next, productive diplomatic engagement requires some form of economic or political leverage. In this case the Spartans had nothing to offer for the return of their hostages and territory other than expressions of humility and flattery. The Athenians already had what the Spartans wanted most—the hostages—and therefore saw no advantage to settling for peace on Sparta’s terms. Moreover, unlike the Spartans, who were driven by the threat of potentially imminent domestic instability, the Athenians felt that they had time on their side. Hence they remained unmoved by Sparta’s threat of a future imbalance of power.
Finally, the practice of diplomacy is uniquely vulnerable to public perceptions of national interests and strategic intent. This is particularly true when the public is already disinclined to give a fair hearing to the enemy, no matter how reasonable the proposal. Unfortunately for the Spartan envoys, Cleon masterfully undermined their credibility. Building on existing distrust of Spartan behavior and national character, Cleon described them as unworthy of public confidence, with the result that they could no longer make the case for a negotiated peace.
Though the Pylos negotiations unfolded more than two thousand years ago, the enduring nature of its diplomatic elements can help us to address contemporary strategic challenges. Take, for example, the case of North Korea’s intransigent reliance on its nuclear weapons program. Just as the Spartans made faulty assumptions about Athenian intentions, so too we run the risk of a failure to build North Korean motivations into our strategic calculus. We would do well to understand Pyongyang’s seemingly irrational behavior, which is actually appropriate to its security interests. Not only does its nuclear arsenal represent a cost-effective deterrent against military invasion, but it also provides an opportunity for North Korea to play a strategically determinative role in the region.
As we saw in the story of the Pylos negotiations, having something that the enemy wants or needs is essential to success. There is no denying that the North Korea’s weapons programs offer a significant source of coercive leverage. Every North Korean weapons test, whether successful or not, signals a threat to regional security. South Korea, China, Japan and the Unites States have little interest in provoking a nuclear conflict. The North Koreans, like the Athenians, have the power to create major instability. And Pyongyang is more than willing to put state survival ahead of the needs of its populace, hence its lack of real interest in accepting humanitarian and other forms of assistance.
Finally, as General Cleon demonstrated in his handling of the Spartan envoys, public perceptions can easily be manipulated in such as way as to discredit diplomatic initiatives. Pyongyang has consistently led its populace to believe that the outside world represents an existential threat. By closing the country to external information sources and producing a steady stream of anti-Western propaganda, the North Koreans have fostered an ideology of perpetual conflict—and sustained domestic support for its repressive policies. As a consequence, even if US and South Korean information and messaging operations were able to penetrate North Korean defenses, it is unlikely that they would resonate with an audience primed to distrust all Western influence.
There are many more diplomatic lessons with contemporary applications to be drawn from Thucydides’ masterwork. Indeed Thucydides anticipated a broad application of his history, hoping that it would be “judged worthy by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the understanding of the future” [1:22]. The Peloponnesian War illustrates the enduring nature of the practice of diplomacy: the means certainly evolve and the context changes, but the fundamental ways and ends remain constant. Time to blow the dust off your copy and get to work.
The opinions expressed in this work are the author’s alone. They do not represent the official positions of the United States Government, the US Department of State or the National Defense University.
[i] See Hans Morgenthau, “Diplomacy” (1947), in Christer Jonsson and Richard Langhorne, Eds, Diplomacy (London: Sage Publications, 2004), pp. 61-73. Arguing that “the means at the disposal of diplomacy are three: persuasion, compromise, and the threat of force,” Morgenthau notes “the art of diplomacy consists in putting the right emphasis at any particular moment on each of these three means at its disposal.”
[ii] The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War, Touchstone Edition, Robert Strassler, ed. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998), 4:41. All further citations from The Peloponnesian War drawn from this edition.
[iii] See Donald Kagan, “Pylos and Sphacteria,” in The Peloponnesian War (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), p. 143.