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Intervention and the Organization of American States

Strong states tend to benefit from the existing international order (and often have helped create it). Consequently, most great powers also are status quo powers. They have a vested interest in preserving existing arrangements, and can face powerful incentives to intervene in regions where they seem threatened. During the early nineteenth century, Austria and Prussia intervened in Italy and Spain’s internal affairs to crush liberal insurrections that threatened to de-legitimize Europe’s status quo practice of monarchical rule. Another example occurred during the ancient Greeks’ Peloponnesian War. The island city-state of Melos requested that Athens respect its neutrality, but the Athenians refused. A Melos subordinate to Athenian authority, they explained, would demonstrate Athens’ continued status as the dominant regional power, but a neutral Melos would challenge it and embolden others to do the same. “The strong do what they will,” the Athenians forewarned the Melians, “while the weak do what they must.” Thus, if Melos would not willingly become a vassal state, Athens vowed to conquer Melos, and enslave and decimate its people. In the end, Athens made good on its threat to intervene, and destroyed Melos in its drive to preserve the status quo.