Athens and Sparta were at war 2,438 years ago. Athens invaded the small island of Melos (about three times the size of Gozo). It wanted to use Melos’s port for its galleys.

The people of Melos protested. They wished to remain neutral and to live in peace: both with Athens and with Sparta. But Athens had other ideas. It said to Melos: give in. You are small. It is not what you want that counts. But what we want. The strong do what they want. The weak have to bow to their will.

Melos still didn’t give in. Athens invaded the island. She won. All the men were killed. The women and children were taken as slaves.

The way Athens treated Melos is still cited as an example of how big countries treat smaller ones.

Either gruffly or with kind words, using economic coercion like withdrawing their investment and without firing a single shot, they say: you are small. It is not what you want that counts. But what we want. The strong do what they like. The weak have to bow to their will.

The weak find many who will preach to them. Those who investigate them. Those who accuse them. Those who condemn them. They find far fewer who will help them.

As far as responsibilities, international obligations, laws and conventions are concerned… small countries experience double standards as they are expected to abide by regulations more than big ones as the big ones can get away with murder.

When it comes to solidarity, when the weak expect to be helped by the strong, they are left to fend for themselves. Does that mean that the weak should accept everything? Or should they defend their country and their interests as best they can?

“... you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” – Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, Melian Dialogue.

While Malta is a tiny dot in the Central Mediterranean, the world is a tiny blue dot in the universe.

Most of the problems that we face cannot be addressed adequately by any one country alone: the climate emergency, pandemics, the debt crisis, post-COVID economic recovery, international organised crime, terrorism, irregular migration, technological disruption, conflicts among neighbouring countries... all countries are small when they are dealing with these big challenges and we must work together to face them successfully. Yet, the world is moving in the opposite direction of more division and polarisation where we are tearing each other apart instead of working together to face our common challenges.

Here are dragons

As we try to understand the new world that is being created after the pandemic, the new world struggling to address the climate crisis and the new world order to emerge with the war in Ukraine, we find ourselves like Ptolemy 19 centuries ago and the cartographers of 500 years ago trying to map the unknown lands they had not discovered and mapped. When denoting these unknown territories, they used to write “Hic sunt dracones”, “here are dragons”.

When it comes to solidarity, when the weak expect to be helped by the strong, they are left to fend for themselves- Evarist Bartolo

Which are the dragons that we have to face in our post-COVID world, in our world where we have to change our lifestyle, consumption and production models to tackle the climate crisis and the turbulence as we move from a unipolar to a multipolar world?

In the post-COVID world we are creating new supply and value chains where globalisation becomes regionalisation as we reshore and nearshore economic operations and products that had been transferred to faraway lands that were cheaper and more competitive.

This adjustment will be painful but will create new opportunities and it does not have to be a zero-sum game where different continents close themselves off to each other and turn their backs on each other.

This is neither desirable nor realistic. Regionalisation and globalisation can complement each other if they are managed well and through cooperation rather than conflict.

The climate crisis has to be managed well as it can turn into a geopolitical crisis if it leads to the collapse of countries whose livelihood is still based on fossil fuels, if old energy is phased out before replacing it with new energy and if countries and citizens are not helped to make the required transition.

There will be a backlash if the measures needed to be taken to deal with the climate crisis are seen more risky and threatening than the climate crisis itself which is ravaging the planet with drought, extreme weather, wildfires, flooding, rising sea levels…

The Ukraine war, although a restricted to one country militarily, is having and will have regional and global security, political and economic consequences that will be felt long after the war comes to an end. There are around 40 different conflicts going on in the world at the moment but the Ukraine war is where a major nuclear power is involved directly and which is more dangerous for the whole planet.

Forging cooperative security depends on dialogue. The security architecture that we need to build in every region of the world must be based on the principles that, however difficult and painful compromises are, neighbours must find ways of living together, not threaten each other, and respect each other’s sovereignty, right to choose their own political and economic system and seek their own security arrangements without undermining the security of others.

The alternative to painful compromise and agreement is much more painful catastrophe.

Evarist Bartolo is a former foreign and education minister.

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