Wednesday, November 29, 2006


The Strength of the Weak

Richard Nixon once famously said of winning the support of people that 'once you have them by the balls, their hearts and minds tend to follow shortly afterwards.' I'm fairly sure that this doctine- if it can be so described- is no longer operative, if it ever was. In terms of international history, imperial powers have conquered and stability followed. So Rome took over most of Europe and subject nations bowed their knees to the imperial banner. But there was always a consequence, the invariable fate of empires. Firstly the conquered absorbed the culture of their conquerors but not without a reciprocal effect taking place which wa soften just as significant. Secondly, the conquered, over time gestated their resentment marrried to an identity which was seldom lost, until the time came to make their own strike at the occupying power once, as invariably happened, its economic might began to decline. Thus have all empires been subverted from within and destroyed.

In the modern day a different chemistry is at work in the power relationships of modern states. Superpowers have believed, perhaps on thinking dating back to the second world war, that, while economic power wins influence, real power is acquired through the accumulation of superior armaments, or 'the barrel of a gun' as Mao put it. The Soviet Union discovered. to its chagrin, in the Hindu Kush, that this is not so; the Americans, in Vietnam, the same hard lesson. But somehow, the neo-cons advising Bush chose to forget/ignore these lessons and believed their big military stick would wield 'shock and awe' which would deliver Nixon's 'hearts and minds.'

But, the neo-cons seemed not to appreciate how fundamentally the world has changed since 1945. Superpower democracies maybe able to outspend the world several times over in defence terms but, in its execution, their power is grievously limited by two factors: their will to conquer is seldom as intense as their lightly armed enemies is to resist; and moreover, while such enemies can afford to bleed as much as they choose, a democracy is circumscribed by a polity which unsurprisingly takes exception to seeing the flower of its youth arriving home in bodybags. What power the superpower wields is therefore strictly limited and is operative usually only for a short time. For example, in the case of Iraq, US-UK had only a small window of time in which to win the battles and consolidate their conquest. They achieved the first but bungled the second and very soon the pendulum of advantage had swung away from the high-tech leviathan towards the militia men armed with AK 47s and an astonishing flair for savagery. That Nixonian equation was always suspect; now it is surely totally inoperative.

Isn't it also true that no empire has believed itself fallible, perhaps because you can't build an empire unless you truly believe in yourself and your superiority. That's not to suggest that all empire builders are racist (though they may well be), but that they believe their ideas or religion, say, are superior. The simple fact that you're obviously wealthier than everyone else and, love you or loathe you, the rest of world hangs on your every word consolidates this self belief. In any case a strong belief that you're superior, is unlikely to be dented by lessons from history.
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