< meta name="DC.Date.Valid.End" content="20050825"> Amendment Nine: The "Bully Risk"

Monday, January 24, 2005

The "Bully Risk"

Amend. IX reader johannasurfer coined a new term in response to my previous post on how the United States goes to war. I asked a question: "Is the risk of a rash decision in favor of war greater than the risk of too slow a response?" She called the former risk the "bully risk" in a comment, analogizing to the playground where everyone rallies behind the wimp to defeat the bully.

I will change, slightly, the question I posed in order to more fully explore this. As the greatest superpower, how great a risk does the United States run whenever it commits troops to battle? Or in her terms, how great is the bully risk for the United States?

To show how unique a situation this is, let's compare the US committing troops to, say, a hypothetically existing small third world country named Caledonia. Caledonia, a mostly agricultural nation, sits on an island. Its only neighbor on this island is an even smaller but wealthy state named Pluto. Pluto derives its wealth from a large number of gold mines found there. Because of geographic isolation, and because of climate, Caledonia cannot ship its crops to the outside world. Its only trading partner, therefore, is Pluto. In recent years, Pluto has spent enormous sums of money on developing a state of the art military. Fearful of Caledonia's superior population and military size, Pluto seeks weapons of mass destruction in order to deter any possible invasion by the poorer Caledonia. Caledonia sees this as a "gathering threat" and fears being blackmailed once Pluto's weapons program is complete. Caledonia, in this scenario, appears to have a minimal bully risk. When there is only one more kid on the playground, being a bully is a pretty good thing... you get their lunch money (a zero sum game).

The United States, on the other hand, sits atop the world community. Should the US use its overwhelmingly powerful military it runs the risk of alienating other countries not involved in the dispute. Their hostility may take time to develop, but the seeds are planted with each swing the US takes at the class scapegoat. Indeed, the wimpier and pathetic the class scapegoat is, the more likely it is disinterested confederates will feel compelled to act against the bully. Eventually, all bullies succumb to a minority which has banded together to become the new majority.

I have a friend who teaches in NYC public schools. He tells me the surest way to eliminate bully problems is to increase the number of kids on the playground. Some bullies don't learn, and they find out quickly that the change in size has also changed their ability to project their power without consequences. That is happening in our world today. Global population is surging even while the West's population declines. As this continues, the bully risk for wealthy, militarily dominant western nations increases as well. Failing to understand this reality has drastic consequences, it gets us enmeshed in disputes that quickly run out of control. Only careful deliberation, not fancy rhetoric, can lower this risk. When the existence of the country isn't in question, the counsel we take before committing troops to battle is the sole mechansim we have to lower the bully risk.