Why Do Strong States Sometimes Lose Wars Against Weak Ones?
During times of war, the fighters are usually motivated to be victorious. All of the parties usually boast of past successes and enormous egos. Yet, in the end, only one winner is announced. There is a significant aspect of most inter-state wars: a weak state’s military strategies on the battlefield can make a strong state’s influence worthless. If the availability of resources implies success, then the weak states ought not to be successful against their enemies, particularly when there is a huge difference in supremacy. Paradoxically, history suggests that strong states have lost wars against weak ones despite their military superiority (Meron, 2003, p.14; Dye, 2007, para. 1). How are they able to achieve this?
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Asymmetric warfare takes place when protagonists of marked unequal abilities engage in combat (Cassidy, 2000, p.41; Taylor et al., 2000, p.79). They may have different capabilities in military strength, strategy, or tactics. The smaller or, the weaker power often takes advantage of geography, timing, or other weak points of the more powerful enemy to be triumphant. The weak forces often strive to desist from direct confrontation with their opponents strengths. They prefer to interrupt or impair the normal command functions of the enemies or work against their logistics. These strategies are aimed at the more powerful opponents to prevent them from efficiently utilizing their huge resources during combat. The smaller or weaker forces often attempt to discourage or demoralize their opponents from making use of their great strengths.
The difference in the nature of the actors may be a reason why democracies lose small wars. The authoritarian states are more likely to succeed in war since most of them do not have the political susceptibility of a democracy. The authoritarian regime’s authority for making decisions is limited to one person or a small group of individuals, they restrict the public awareness of international issues, and any attempts to criticize the regimes are usually disastrous. These attributes of the regimes have significant effects during asymmetric conflicts. They are able to drum up support faster from the public than the democratic regimes since they literally control their citizens. Soldiers who refuse to fight are threatened with violence. Finally, their soldiers engage in brutal warfare due to a lack of political responsibility (Arreguin-Toft, 2010, p.7).
In most asymmetric conflicts, a state’s relative determination of interest may elucidate whether it is going to lose or win. The more determined state ultimately achieves the success, notwithstanding the superiority of the opponent. This determination can be established by evaluating the structure of the war relationship. Power asymmetry explains interest asymmetry: “the greater the gap in relative power, the less resolute and hence more politically vulnerable a weak nation is” (Arreguin-Toft, 2010, 13). Strong nations always lack interest in becoming successful since their existence is not at risk.
Nevertheless, weak states have an increased interest in becoming successful since success will prove their existence to the whole world. Superior states consequently are defeated in wars due to frustrated publics who fight for an early exit from the wars. In authoritarian regimes, wars are lost due to countervailing elites who advocate for an early military pull out before success is achieved. Interruptions and reverses during conflicts will ultimately motivate the war-fatigued publics or avaricious elites to compel their top officials to desert the combat zone. This situation may be true for a number of wars, but not for others.
This argument can be applied to the case of the United States military intervention in Vietnam to elaborate on the results that were not expected from the war. According to the argument, the U.S. did not succeed because it was less at risk compared to Vietnam. The U.S. did not succeed in coercing North Vietnam. Ultimately, the angry and disappointed Americans compelled their country’s top officials to abandon the conflict prior to realizing its key political aim of having a productive, autonomous, and noncommunist South Vietnam.
However, this argument has at least two problems. First is that once a strong state is engaged in war, its determination to be successful may increase significantly. Secondly, it fails to explain why some asymmetric warfare usually lasts longer than expected. In general, this argument is less convincing when explaining a state’s interest as a component of relative power. However, it is most convincing when explaining a strong state’s defeat due to political vulnerability.
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Strategic interactions during wars can give a better explanation of why big nations lose in small wars. This explanation assumes the conditions under which political vulnerability makes strong states to lose in conflicts and asserts that interactions of the states strategies in the battlefield dictate who wins the wars. Superior states are more likely to lose asymmetric warfare when they employ poor strategies as compared to their weaker enemies. In this instance, strategy, not power, implies victory in conflicts. The strong states usually attack their opponents by use of direct attack and barbarism strategies.
In defense, weak states use direct defense or guerrilla warfare strategies. Direct attack is the use of the armed forces to disrupt the activities of the enemy forces. Direct defense uses the military to halt the efforts of the opponent to gain control of the war. Weak states usually use guerilla warfare strategy to counteract their opponents’ strategies by use of military personnel trained to desist from direct conflicts. During conflicts, direct and indirect strategies are most of the time used. Direct approaches are aimed at the opponent’s military to reduce its ability to fight while indirect approaches aim at thwarting the will of the opponent to fight. The weak states usually use opposite approach interactions such as direct-indirect or indirect-direct in order to take advantage of their strong opponents weak points.
The use of strategic interactions may cause an unanticipated interruption between the dedication of the military and the realization of the full outcomes of the war. In such circumstances, the weak states are usually victorious for two main reasons. First, even though both parties are likely to have increased anticipations of success, strong states are usually more vulnerable to this trouble. Strong states often claim that since they are advantaged in terms of resources, victory is unavoidable.
This makes them increase the use of force in order to meet their anticipations and avoid being branded as incompetent. The costs of the conflicts are thus increased, and their citizens are forced to pay more taxes to cater for the war expenses. Eventually, domestic pressure forces them to abandon the conflicts. Secondly, Strong states also lose small wars when they want to reduce war-related expenses. They then start using barbarism to exploit their opponents. The use of barbarism is risky, and it can lead to domestic and external intervention to end the war.
Another theory to explain this paradox is that the diffusion of arms has considerably reduced the aggregate gap that exists between the strong states and the weak ones. This trend especially accelerated after the Second World War. During the war, allied and axis forces strove to conquer one another in the weak states. The powers transported sophisticated weapons to these countries and trained their indigenous soldiers on ways of using them. When the war ended, these weapons remained in the weak states. This trend has continued, and the weak states are still equipping themselves with modern weapons. Therefore, even the weaker states are more likely to win in these circumstances.
Strong states usually lose in asymmetric conflicts because they find it hard to escalate the level of violence to that which can enable them to be successful. Most of them are kept in check by their domestic structure and especially by the creed of their most articulate citizens. Their institutional makeup endows citizens with immense opportunities to oppose the moves of their governments. Other nations are not susceptible to failing in small wars. However, their failure is probably because of realistic reasons. Additionally, strong states though prone to fail in small wars, are not likely to lose in other wars. In summary, then, the profound answer to the paradox involves the nature of the domestic structure of the strong states and the methods through which they interact with ground military conflicts in insurgency situations.
Cassidy, Robert M.”Why great powers fight small wars badly.” Scribd. U.S. Army. 2000. Web.
Dye, Lee. “Superpowers often lose small wars to weaker nations.” ABC News/Technology. American Broadcast Television Network. 2007. Web.
Arreguin-Toft, Ivan. “How the Weak Win Wars: A theory of Asymmetric Conflict.” Cambridge. Cambridge University Press. 2010. Web.
Meron, Gil. How democracies lose small wars: state, society, and the failures of France. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Taylor, Travis S., et al. An introduction to planetary defense: a study of modern warfare. Florida: BrownWalker Press.