When the history of modern international relations is written, perhaps one paradoxical lesson will stand out: we often overestimate the power of power. This lesson is brought home in a variety of ways. There are the dramatic instances of small states inflicting heavy losses on big empires: Vietnam on the United States of America, the Afghans on Russia. No state has in the 20th century been able to win an insurgency by the application of overwhelming military power. Small outfits like al Qaida can change the way of life and the political contours of an extraordinary political power. A well-planned insurgency in Iraq has tied down the American military to the verge of breaking point. Or it has, at any rate, severely diminished America's capacity to take military action elsewhere. Insurgency has tied down half-a-million Indian troops in Kashmir and the Indian Peacekeeping Force could not impose its will on a recalcitrant population. We are forced to hobnob with authoritarian regimes like Burma lest they become a source of trouble to us.
Then there is the curious phenomenon of small states defying outside pressure. North Korea, standing virtually alone, seems to chart its own peculiar and odd destiny. States have survived serious economic sanctions. Cuba, admittedly with Soviet help, for years mocked the US. It is a curious fact that whenever the US threatens to attack states that try to build up their defence capabilities, it only leads to these countries continuing to expand their military programs rather than stifling them: China during the Sixties and Iran during the Nineties are a case in point.
There is an argument to be made that despite being disadvantaged in every respect, the Palestinians have extracted a heavy toll on Israel. Our neighbour, Pakistan, is an even more curious case in point. There is something admirably roguish about the way in which Pakistan, for years, subverted the two greatest foreign policy objectives of its mighty ally: nuclear non-proliferation and terrorism. Of course, the Americans needed Pakistan for their own strategic purposes, but that is precisely the point. Despite Pakistan's immense dependence on the US, the US could do relatively little to prevent Pakistan from sustaining its two worst foreign-policy nightmares. Heaven knows what scale of operations it will take to hunt down al Qaida. How much power will it take to produce results'
Of course, there are obvious ways in which those who possess great power are constrained in the exercise of their power. And these constraints explain at least some of the inability of powerful states to get what they want. Terrorists can target civilians, and cause general panic in the populations, states often cannot. Small groups can prey on public opinion, can exercise deception, in ways that even the most powerful states find difficult. We are probably at a juncture where it is more difficult for states to apply brute force without attracting some kind of censure. Even on a modest level, the Indian state could not probably deploy the kinds of methods that were used against the Naxals in West Bengal during the Seventies, without attracting more censure. Acting tough is easier said than done for most states. So there is a sense in which the vulnerability of states is explained by the constraints on the use of their power.
But such constraints on the use of the power of the powerful do not explain the success of weaker adversaries like insurgent groups. And in any case, it is not clear how many powerful states have adhered to such constraints, whether in dealing with insurgents or other weak states. It is probably true that really ruthless states could win whatever wars and insurgencies they encounter, if they had the license to exterminate large numbers of people. But such a victory would simply expose the limits of power; it would not be a sign of success.
It is true that power itself is quite an intangible entity. What groups or states may lack in overt military power, they more than make up for through other kinds of power. States that have immense military power are made weak and less powerful by their own inhibitions and political divisions. But this intangible character of what constitutes power itself provides a cautionary warning.
The warning it provides is this. Most foreign and military policy is premised on matching strength with strength, surpassing force with more force. But such policies have relatively little effect on groups or states that, conscious of their relative weakness, can nevertheless devise strategies to inflict substantial costs on their more powerful adversaries. It is easier to deal with adversaries that trade in the currency of power than it is to tame groups that turn their relative weakness on its head.
It is not a small wonder therefore that the most difficult conflicts are not going to be between well-armed adversaries matching each other in an open show of strength. They are going to be between powerful states and weaker and more shadowy entities. If the 20th century is any guide, the odds of the powerful winning these battles by dint of power alone are at best less than even. Great empires and states have been brought to ruin not by their equals but by their inferiors.
This suggests that relative strength or possession of military power alone is not only an insufficiently rational basis for taking action; it is more than likely to be self-defeating. It is true of the state of international conflict what Hobbes said was true of the state of nature. Even though, on the surface, different states and groups may be differently endowed, they have the capacity to inflict serious harm on each other: harm that makes military action imprudent. This is not an argument for saying that power does not matter: obviously a powerless state will be vulnerable in every way possible. But neither will the possession of power buy any state the immunities it seeks.
But there is a large lesson contained in these often forgotten platitudes. There is no reason to assume that power will ensure that you have your way with weaker adversaries. This is something all those who call for tough action against our neighbours, including Bangladesh, need to reckon with. Second, weak states and armed groups are curiously obdurate. The application of force against them seems to strengthen them more. Whereas incentives, carrots rather than sticks, seem to be more successful as a means for resolving conflicts.
Perhaps strategists should focus more on how they buy their weaker adversaries out more than on how they can destroy them. For there is a good chance that if you actually need to apply force, you have already failed. And perhaps we need to fear the weak as much as we need to respect the strong.