Thucydides, Taiwan and a Tattered Umbrella

  • by Pete O'Brien
  • 04-24-2023
The island covers just 61 square miles, it’s currently home to about 5,200 people, it lies about 90 miles or so south-east of Athens, and about 90 miles north of Crete. Except for the fact that it’s one of the many gorgeous Greek islands “floating” in the Aegean Sea, it would be forgotten by history, but for two things: the Venus de Milo, and the "Melian Dialogue,” from Thucydides history of the Peloponnesian War.
In the event you’ve forgotten your Thucydides, the Melian Dialogue tells the story of the island of Melos, traditionally an ally of Sparta, that had remained neutral in the war. In 416 BC the Athenians landed and demanded the Melians join the Delian League (the alliance led by Athens) and pay a tribute to Athens. The Melians refused to bend the knee, arguing among their many points, that their position was morally just. From this exchange comes the infamous Athenian response: "The strong do what they will, the weak suffer what they must.” Still, the Melians refused; Athens besieged the small city. After 6 months the city fell; the women and children were sold into slavery, the men were all put to the sword.
In concept, little has changed in 2500 years, Athens response to the Melian arguments remains the real basis for a great deal of what is happening around the world. 
Several points are worth considering: Athens in 416 BC had complete mastery of the sea around Melos. Sparta had some vessels, but they could not challenge Athens at sea. Melos was nominally neutral, though they had some trade relations and political relations with Sparta and her alliance. But there was no clear promise by Sparta to come to their aid.
To be sure, there are a host of differences between Melos and Athens on one and and Taiwan and Communist China on the other. But in a grand sense, Melos and Taiwan have similar options: Insist on complete neutrality, which meant nothing to Athens and would mean nothing to China; stand and fight and hope Sparta - the US - shows up; or simply surrender. But one thing is clear: like Melos versus Athens, Taiwan cannot hold off China by itself. 
Or can it?
As I’ve noted before, the real #1 lesson learned in the war in Ukraine is that nothing says independence like your own nuclear weapons. After the break-up of the Soviet Union Ukraine was left with ICBMs, bombers, cruise missiles and 1800 nuclear warheads; at the time the third largest nuclear force in the world, behind Russia and the US. No one was going to attack Ukraine at that point.
Then President Clinton assured them that the US would “guarantee Ukrainian sovereignty;” they surrendered the bombs, missiles and airplanes, the last bomber was broken up in 1997, the last silo destroyed in 2001. In 2014 Russia “oozed” into Crimea and started a war in the Donbas. President Obama, despite the assurances in the  Budapest Memorandum, chose to do nothing.
Would Russia have invaded if Ukraine was still a nuclear power? 
More to the point, would China be seemingly so ready to invade Taiwan if Taiwan had its own nuclear force?
Nuclear weapons were “attractive” to the strategists of the 1950s because they offered to provide a military deterrent at a much reduced cost. Like Col. Colt’s pistol, all were suddenly - potentially - equal. But the possibility of nuclear proliferation rightly scared the major powers and the US went out of its way to assure a host of nations that they didn’t need nuclear weapons, that they were “under our nuclear umbrella.”
But over the last 30 years, and in particular in the example we set in Ukraine, US inaction shows that the nuclear umbrella has worn thin. We have let the strategy whither without replacing it with anything else. And now we find that what President Eisenhower said is true, that building a conventional defense force to do all the things that need to be done is an expensive proposition. Given what we are now learning abut US and NATO weapons stockpiles, it is a very expensive proposition.
Meanwhile, decisions made by several of the past 4 administrations have so weakened the concept of a nuclear umbrella that we see Saudi Arabia making a deal with what will soon be a nuclear armed Iran, and North Korea shows off its new missiles.
This is the real cost of the decisions made in the Clinton and Obama administrations, a world in which a nuclear weapon arsenal has once again acquired real value.
Taiwan is soon going to be faced with the same problem faced by the Melians.; they could bend the knee to Beijing. Or, they can hold their ground and hope that the US will show up in time, with sufficient numbers to prevent disaster. Or, perhaps, recognizing that hope isn’t really a plan, they can take the matter into their own hands. To a certainty, Japan and South Korea are watching very closely.