When two great powers jostle, their allies watch. Not out of enjoyment for the spectacle but out of selfish interest, they monitor the development of that rivalry to decide how to align themselves. Alliances often change following the outcome, real or perceived, of a great power skirmish because small states are averse to seeking protection from a weakened or unwilling patron. Great powers, that is, have to prove that their protection is real, their word trustworthy, and their willingness to be in the arena strong. Withdrawing from a contest is not cost free: the watching allies take note.
The observing small state may be the prize of the particular clash between great powers. It has a direct interest in the outcome of that conflict: the winner keeps it, or acquires it, as an ally. But the spectators of the confrontation are not merely those directly affected by it. Other, more distant states also observe the confrontation to assess how much risk a great power is willing to take—and a risk-averse great power makes for a poor security backer.
Take, for instance, Russia in Syria. The unexpected scuffle between the United States and Russia isn’t just about Syria and the Middle East. It is part of a wider competition for the allegiance of states. Putin made this abundantly clear, suggesting a larger coalition led by Moscow, not by Washington, to oppose ISIS. But the main purpose is not the defeat of ISIS or even the momentary backing of the Assad regime; those are merely means toward a bigger end for Russia—namely, to break from the relative isolation imposed upon it after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The United States so far seems reluctant to compete with Russia in this new geographic theater (as it is also in Ukraine). The risks are deemed high, the payoff is unknown, and the temptation to vacate a messy region is big. Why not leave the field to Russia?
But there are costs to not competing. And they transcend the immediate geographic boundaries of the particular contest.
A small episode of the Peloponnesian War illustrates the challenge of leaving the arena to a rival.
Eight years into their escalating confrontation, Athens and Sparta stared each other down in front of the city of Megara. Located on the thin land connecting Attica with the Peloponnesus, Megara had a strong dislike—no, hatred—for Athens. Athens after all imposed on it a trade embargo, through the famous Megarian Decree, that was a contributing cause of the larger war and that resulted in the impoverishment of the city (Aristophanes in his comedy, Acharnians, describes a destitute Megarian trying to sell his daughters disguised as piglets because he could no longer afford to feed them). The annual Spartan sorties into Attica did not improve Megara’s condition over the course of the war: unable to trade, with its territory at the crossroads of marching armies and raiding parties.
For eight years Megara remained on Sparta’s side. But at a certain point a group of Megarians more sympathetic to the Athenian democracy saw an opportunity to turn the city to Athens, improving in the process the economic welfare of their city.
Athens initially seized the occasion. Stealing an ally from Sparta, and one located in a key strategic position, was a big prize. Led by an imaginative general, Demosthenes, the Athenians managed to defeat a small Spartan garrison in Nisaea put there in order to keep an eye on Megara. The next step was to persuade Megara to surrender to Athenian troops.
The resourceful Demosthenes, however, was met by a bold and cunning Spartan, Brasidas. Hearing about the Athenian pressure on Megara, Brasidas quickly gathered a small army and double-timed to the city. Sparta was an ally of Megara, so Brasidas naturally asked the Megarians to admit him and his small army. But, to his surprise, they did not: The Megarians shut down the gates in front of him. The various factions in the city simply did not trust that their Spartan patron would win. Allies became interested spectators.
Fearful to take a clear stand, the Megarians watched. As Thucydides puts it: “Both parties [in the city] electing to remain quiet and await the event; each expecting a battle between the Athenians and the relieving [Spartan] army, and thinking it safer to see their friends victorious before declaring in their favor.” (4.71)
The Athenians and the Spartans stood in front of Megara, facing each other. Neither attacked, trusting in the validity of their own logic. The Athenians had avoided a direct confrontation with Sparta for several years, afraid of losing precious hoplites and focused on keeping their maritime empire, as Pericles had suggested early in the war. Moreover, despite their attempt to take Megara on the cheap, they were not willing to take big risks to sway this city to their side. A victory would have meant Megara; a defeat, a large loss of life.
The Spartans on the other hand thought that they could keep Megara simply by waiting their Athenian enemies out. Brasidas calculated that, merely by showing his willingness to engage in battle, he was demonstrating to the watching Megarians his prowess and commitment to them. And were the Athenians to avoid the battle, he would have won in the most efficient way possible: his “object would be attained without fighting.” (4.73)
Brasidas was correct. The Athenians did not fight.
Afraid of a hoplite clash, the Athenians withdrew. The risk of combat, according to them, was not worth the potential gain. But the Spartans won the contest for reputation, and with it, Megara. As Thucydides recounts, the Megarian party leaning toward Sparta “threw aside their hesitation, and opened the gates to Brasidas . . . looking upon him as the victor and upon the Athenians as having declined the battle—and, receiving them into the city, proceeded to discuss matters with them; the party in correspondence with the Athenians being paralyzed by the turn things had taken.” (4.73).
The Athenian cost for not competing in front of Megara was higher than the loss of one potential ally, however. In the succeeding months, the Spartan Brasidas roamed in the northern regions of Greece, successfully, and without too much effort, prying a few cities out of the Athenian empire (including Amphipolis, the fall of which led to the exile of the Athenian general, Thucydides). These cities believed that Athens was no longer in the game in part because, as Brasidas told them, the Athenians did not “venture to engage his small army at Nisaea” (near Megara). The rebellious cities were “confident [that] no Athenian force would be sent against them.” (4.108) The Athenian allies were, first, spectators of a contest rather than partners in it. Then, seeing that their patron was avoiding risk and not competing in Megara, they shed the obligations of alliance. From allies to spectators to enemies.
Refusing to compete is not always the pragmatic, low-risk choice it seems to be. It carries costs that are not immediately visible. Avoiding risk weakens the reputation of the great power, which then has to expend ever-greater resources and efforts to rebuild it. Reputation is thus a risky thing to lose. Athens cut costs in Megara only to pay the price elsewhere. What will be the costs of the U.S. withdrawal from the arena in the Middle East?