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Why Big Nations Lose Small Wars: The Politics of Asymmetric Conflict

  • Andrew Mack (a1)

The Vietnam and Algerian wars have demonstrated that the overwhelming conventional military superiority of major powers is no guarantee against their defeat in wars against small nations. For external powers such wars are necessarily “limited,” which constrains escalation above certain levels. With no direct survival interest at stake, fighting the war does not take automatic priority over the pursuit of other social, political, and economic objectives. Prosecuting the war consumes resources—economic, human, and political—which are thus not available for the pursuit of these other objectives. In the absence of a quick victory this creates the potential for those political divisions which historically have shifted the balance of forces in the metropolis in favor of withdrawal. For the insurgents, the fact of invasion and occupation generates cohesion, minimizes constraints on mobilization, and maximizes the willingness to incur costs. Precisely the opposite effects tend to characterize the war effort of the external power. A conceptual framework for the analysis of the evolution and outcome of such conflicts is presented and its applications and limitations discussed.

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1 See Berenice A. Carroll, “War Termination and Conflict Theory,” and William T. R. Fox, “The Causes of Peace and the Conditions of War,” both in How Wars End, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 392 (November 1970); and Elizabeth Converse, “The War of All Against All: A Review of the Journal of Conflict Resolution, 1957–68,” Journal of Conflict Resolution, XII (December 1968).

2 Exceptions are found in Katzenbach, E. L., “Time, Space and Will: The Politico-Military Strategy of Mao Tse-tung,” in Lt. Col. Greene, T. N., ed., The Guerrilla and How To Fight Him (New York 1962); Taber, Robert, The War of the Flea (New York 1965); and Kraemer, Joseph S., “Revolutionary Guerrilla Warfare and the Decolonization Movement,” Polity, IV (Winter 1971).

3 Katzenbach (fn. 2), 15.

4 See, for example, Wehler, H., “Industrial Growth and Early German Imperialism” in Owen, Robert and Sutcliffe, Robert, eds., Theories of Imperialism (London 1972).

5 Two excellent recent studies dealing direcdy with domestic opposition to these wars are: Koss, Stephen, The Pro-Boers: The Anatomy of an Anti-War Movement (Chicago 1973), and Boyce, D. G., Englishmen and Irish Troubles: British Public Opinion and the Maying of Irish Policy 1918–22 (London 1972).

6 Problems with different conceptions of power in this context are examined in Andrew Mack, “The Concept of Power and its Uses in Explaining Asymmetric Conflict,” Richardson Institute for Conflict and Peace Research (London 1974).

7 The least ambiguous demonstrations of this apparently paradoxical assertion are to be found in the relatively rare cases of successful nonviolent resistance to armed aggression. See Boserup, Anders and Mack, Andrew, War Without Weapons: Non-Violence in National Defence (London 1974).

8 Rosen, Steven, “War Power and the Willingness to Suffer,” in Russett, Bruce M., ed., Peace, War, and Numbers (London 1972).

9 Katzenbach (fn. 2), 18.

10 Kissinger, Henry A., “The Vietnam Negotiations,” Foreign Affairs, XLVII (January 1969), 214.

11 Ikle, Fred Charles, Every War Must End (London 1971), 12.

12 The final chapter of Boserup and Mack (fn. 7) discusses Clausewitzian strategic theory and its application to “asymmetric conflicts.”

13 Coser, Lewis A., The Functions of Social Conflict (New York 1956), 87110.

14 Boserup and Mack (fn. 7), chap. 1.

15 Coser (fn. 13), 87–110; quotation from p. 95.

16 The obvious point here is that “nationalism” is normally a meaningless concept except in relation to an external environment. “Nationalism” may be significant in civil wars that are based on an ethnic conflict but not on class conflict.

17 Kissinger (fn. 10), 214.

18 Katzenbach (fn. 2), 18.

19 Some interesting and recent theoretical work in the “issue area” literature is relevant to this discussion; see in particular Lowi, Theodore J., “Making Democracy Safe for the World: National Politics,” in Rosenau, James, ed., Domestic Sources of Foreign Policy (New York 1967); and Zimmerman, William, “Issue Area and Foreign Policy Process,” American Political Science Review, LXVII (December 1973). The literature on “bureaucratic politics” and “linkage politics” is also relevant.

20 Rosen (fn. 8); Katzenbach (fn. 2); Kissinger (fn. 10); Kraemer (fn. 2) ; see also Johan Galtung, “Mot et Nytt Forsvarsbegrep,” Pax, No. 1 (Oslo 1965).

21 E.g., Jonathan Wilkenfeld, “Models for the Analysis of Foreign Conflict Behavior of States,” in Russett (fn. 8).

22 Ions, Edmund, “Dissent in America: The Constraints on Foreign Policy,” Conflict Studies, No. 18 (London 1971); emphasis in original.

23 Trinquier, P., Modern Warfare (New York 1964).

* This article was completed before the Spinola coup in Portugal in the spring of 1974. A brief discussion of the implications of the coup, and those of the recent developments in the Ulster crisis, has been added to the conclusion.

24 Galtung, Johan, The European Community: A Superpower in the Making (London 1973), 166.

25 As Emmanuel notes of the “settler class” in “colonial” situations: “They bene-fitted from colonialism and therefore promoted it, without reserve or contradiction—and for that very reason they were basically anti-imperialist, however paradoxical that may seem. From die very beginning they were in conflict with their parent countries … objectively so at all times, subjectively so at times of crisis, going so far as to take up arms against it.” Argirihi Emmanuel, “White Settler Colonialism and the Mytfi of Investment Imperialism,” New Left Review, No. 73 (May/June 1972), 38–39.

26 For a detailed argument of this point see Ferreira, Eduardo de Sousa, Portuguese Colonialism jrom South Africa to Europe (Freiburg 1972).

27 For an analysis of the breakdown of the resistance in the Czech case see Boserup and Mack (fn. 7), chap. VI.

28 Zeman, Z. A. B., Prague Spring (London 1969).

29 Rummel, R. J., “Dimensions of Conflict Behavior Within and Between Nations,” General Systems Yearbook, VIII (1963), 150; and Tanter, Raymond, “Dimensions of Conflict Behavior Within and Between Nations, 1958–60,” Journal of Conflict Resolution, x (March 1966), 4164.

30 Stohl, Michael, “Linkages between War and Domestic Political Violence in the United States, 1890–1923” in Caporaso, J. and Roos, L., eds., Quasi-Experimental Approaches (Evanston 1973); and Wilkenfeld, Jonathan, “Introduction” to Wilkenfeld, ed., Conflict Behavior and Linkage Politics (New York 1973).

31 See Robert Burrowes and Bertram Spector, “The Strength and Direction of Relationships Between Domestic and External Conflict and Cooperation: Syria, 1961–67” in Wilkenfeld, ibid.; also Stohl (fn. 30).

32 Iklé (fn. 11).

33 Carroll (fn. 1); Fox (fn. 1); Ikle (fn. II); and Randle, R. F., The Origins of Peace (New York 1973).

34 Andrew Mack, “Working Papers on Asymmetric Conflict,” Nos. I-VI, Richardson Institute (London 1974).

35 Boserup and Mack (fn. 7).

* Since this conclusion was written, the new Portuguese Government has abandoned the earlier insistence that the “overseas territories must be an integral part of the Portuguese nation.” The threat of a possible settler bid for a unilateral declaration of independence was briefly raised in Mozambique, but evaporated widi the considerable exodus of whites to Portugal and Soudi Africa. In Angola, with a larger settler population, far greater mineral resources, and deep divisions between competing liberation movements, the situation remains unclear.

* Research for this article was supported by the British Social Science Research Council. An ongoing project examining a number of case histories of “asymmetric conflicts” is currently being supported by the Rockefeller Foundation.

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World Politics
  • ISSN: 0043-8871
  • EISSN: 1086-3338
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