Clout and Contempt

Duly Noted

The use, overuse and neglect of power.

Arguably, a Great Power is one that, while it acts rationally, can afford to consider the local consequences of her move and mulls only thereafter the reaction of the world. The word “afford” is the critical term of the attempt to formulate a rule. 

Disregarding this rule, to their peril, lesser communities are apt to overestimate their significance. This indulgence might have historical reasons, such as having been enabled, under earlier and different conditions, to be a major power. France in the course of the last century is an example of the delusion. Others might add to the implied error by mistakenly overestimating their past role or because they extrapolate from a unique situation. In 1849, it took the united armies of two Great Powers - of the Hapsburg Empire and Russia- to defeat the Hungarians who set out to “liberate Europe”. This convinced some circles that, therefore, they were a major power. Even today, the consequences of that misguided policy are the source of pain. The rational assessment of the discrepancy of what a nation might desire and what it can have is difficult. Therefore, indulging in overestimation is seldom practiced without paying in blood the price of the resulting failing adventures.

This writer has great admiration for the Swedes and the Swiss. They have escaped the trap of the pursuit of greatness under altered conditions. At one time, both have played a major and successful role. Switzerland’s glory ended in 1516 when her forces fighting abroad were cut down by modern artillery. Thereafter, until the 19th century, she continued to furnish disciplined elite units for governments willing to pay for quality and the determined fulfillment of contracts. Meanwhile, in her own behalf, Switzerland concentrated on economic development. Shrewdly, her foreign policy emphasized neutrality and offered her good offices to mediate between hostile parties. 

Sweden has also used her internal unity to play successfully in what today appears to have been a league above her size. In 1709, deep in invaded Russian territory, the basics of the limited resources, distance, and General Winter, pierced the outdated illusions. Sweden, too, resisted an understandable temptation. It was to attempt a second round to correct what could have been rated as a case of ill luck. Instead, Sweden concentrated on making Swedish steel, on neutrality, and on supplying my Oregon’s timberlands with good workers.

Indeed, sometimes it takes wisdom, much farsightedness, to mount the courage of daring to be “small”. Essentially the idea here is that, like organisms in the process of evolution, states need to find their niche and cultivate those traits that make them successful in their chosen role. “Do what you can but do that well” could be the rule. In this case, too, the error of exaggeration lurks. Limited power can be used as an excuse to misuse it by not resorting to the means one has. In this case, being small can serve as an intellectualized cover for unnecessary submission. Capitulating is not necessarily an act of reason in policy. Nor does cowardice deserve to be called practiced rationality. 

There is a telling cold-war era joke about Denmark. Punsters claimed that the Danes have an answering device that informs the caller that declares war “We capitulate”. Indeed, several small countries during Hitler’s rise have gambled that defenselessness, paired with the reluctance to use their available means, will deter aggression. Continuing with that reasoning, it had been assumed that quick submission would make the conquest’s consequences more pleasant and that cooperation will lead to an easier rule under occupation. Possibly, as Quisling thought, as a reward for good behavior, one could even join the victor. Meanwhile, if others defeat the aggressor, victim status can be claimed. The latter expectation “worked”. 

During the cold war, a number of countries in the threatened West had neglected their duty to prepare their effective self-defense. Membership in an alliance led by a certain superpower contributed to the sense of security at little cost. The misuse of the alliance and of national power is an error of those that enjoyed the luxury of guaranteed protection. Some blame rests upon the “protector” that tolerated, and thereby encouraged, security at a discount. The fault is not invalidated by the luck that the dreaded attack did not materialize.

The past might be behind us but the tendency that shaped it reaches into the present and therefore it imperils the future. In the case of Europe, the inclination to indulge in self-anesthetics and to pick harmless enemies is still alive. The illusion prevails that “nothing can happen” and of a world, whose conflicts will be, through the intervention of the good fairy, settled in the spirit of multiculturalism. Therefore, those that point to potential threats are conveniently branded as racists, scaremongers, and fascistic extremists. This creates a weakness. Weakness tempts the potential aggressor. This is so even if popular mythology teaches that weakness protects, as aggressor is only a reaction to misperceived threats. 

While the means and the preparedness to resist decline, the profits of extorting Europe grow. This is so because the discrepancies of national or per capita wealth are on the increase. Some poor societies are becoming poorer because their ways add up to unproductive and self-destructive values. Self-handicapped, they only stumble forward, while others accelerate their progress. Thereby, the total to be redistributed if a “just” global order is imposed grows. As the motive and the ideologically enhanced goal for forcible re-allocation hardens, the will to achieve that goal by violence increases. At the same time the physical, but especially the mental, ability to resist what would be “socialism” if implemented within a society, is on the vane. The assertive belligerence of Tunisian “refugees” that force themselves on the welfare states of Europe tell a story. Their comportment contradicts their claim of being refugees - from a country that just overthrew a dictatorship!- while their arrogance signalizes a rising storm. 

In looking ahead, the pacific commitment of China and Russia should not be assumed to be unalterable. Their role in the Syrian conflict confirms this. Furthermore, in other world neighborhoods, forces rise that do not pursue the sharing of expertise, governance and institutions, to elevate themselves. What is craved is not the transferable factors that create successful societies. They ascribe achievement to “exploitation”, to “luck” and the lack of worthy values expressed by religion. Convinced of this by confirming ideologies, the way to correct the inequity is through the rightful struggle to take back what had been grabbed from them. 

The proper reaction to this is a highly nuanced approach that judiciously combines help with determined resistance backed by might against incursions. Too much or too little of either will mean a misuse of power. In time, the consequences caused by dreaming can become a costly and irreversible error of policy.