Public Service and Democracy or Warfare and Empire; Administration or Management: What Could be the New Norm, as we Exit the Pandemic? Lessons we learn from History

Demetrios Argyriades


The world is in the throes of a wholly unprecedented and unforeseen predicament: a pandemic, global in scope and of uncommon virulence. The pandemic brought to a halt an economic boom, whose benefits and hopes for a better tomorrow availed a small minority, with vast swaths of humanity continuing to live from hand to mouth. With no clear end in sight and the plight from this pandemic borne largely by the poor and segments of the society least able to fend for themselves, the questions commonly asked, as countries are preparing to exit from the crisis is: Will there be a “new norm”, as we exit from the Crisis and what will this new norm be? This paper probes this question, with help from past experience. The history of Antiquity and Medieval Europe comes in handy in this respect.  We speak of models of governance; we speak of institutions but also of ideologies which underpin those models and shape those institutions. They have changed over time. But it was to this period, from roughly the age of Pericles to that of Machiavelli, that we can trace the genesis, as well as early debates, on both the forms of government and the overarching values to which they ought to adhere. It was in Athens, Greece and during the fifth century, that speculation on politics, participative democracy and ethics first began, in a systematic way. In all fields of activity, the Golden Age of Athens (478-404 BCE) produced exceptional leaders and thinkers; men like Pericles, Themistocles, Thucydides and Plato, precursor of Aristotle. This Golden Age coincided with the hegemony of Athens. It came to an end abruptly, after a protracted war compounded by a pandemic. This thirty-year war (431-404 BCE) has been discussed extensively in a seminal work by Thucydides, which to this day is studied by both political scientists and students of warfare. As we all know, defeat brought to an end the hegemony of Athens but also sealed the fate of Sparta or Lacedaemon. Neither recovered really until many centuries later. Thucydides explores this sequence of events. Three passages stand out in his detailed analysis. The first describes the policies that Athens and Sparta adopted in an attempt to establish dominion over their respective allies. The second is the speech attributed to Pericles; better known as the Funeral Oration (Epitaphios). In inimitable prose but also in the mould of many a Western leader in our days, it lavished praise on Athens and democratic governance but also cast aspersion on Athens’ adversaries, who followed different paths. In yet another passage – the Mitylenian Debate – Thucydides recounts the way the Athens hegemon “punished” the Mitylenians, when they rebelled. Explaining this, Thucydides, in words that he attributed to the Athenian leadership, bluntly expressed the view that democratic governance was really incompatible with empire and, when “push comes to shove”, democracy incapable of holding on to an empire without resort to violence and force (Thucydides 1985: 229-290). The sequence of events, which led to war and doom for both the warring parties, gave rise to the telling expression “the Thucydides trap”. Over the past two centuries, as well as two millennia many a national leader has fallen into this trap. Democracy and sound governance have suffered as a consequence.

Keywords: governance models, management, public administration, public service, COVID-19 pandemic.

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