The Age of Small Powers
What in the name of God is strategic superiority?
—Henry Kissinger, 19741
Henry Kissinger reportedly regretted posing this question at a press conference following the conclusion of the SALT agreement. He explained later that he was tired and somehow lost his temper. An opponent like the Soviet Union, he acknowledged, would certainly know what to do with strategic superiority. Be that as it may, the statement, perhaps questionable during the Cold War, appears highly relevant today, in a world of asymmetric force and asymmetric attacks. Strategic superiority is all the more questioned at the beginning of the 21st century as Western nations appear to be among the first to doubt the importance of power in general and military power in particular.
In sharp contrast with the 20th century, the 21st century started as the age of small powers. This is partly because the post–Cold War world encompasses approximately 184 states—a record—and partly because some small states appear to be dangerously empowered: North Korea, Serbia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, and Syria fell or still fall into this category. This does not mean that the century will end with the same denomination, since great powers may make a comeback after an interlude. But it is striking to witness the time, energy, and effort devoted in the 1990s to the Balkans or today to nations like Iran, Syria, and North Korea. It is also astonishing to consider the challenges those nations can inflict on regional and international security with their ballistic missile WMD programs—as well as, increasingly and more discreetly, with their cyber capabilities.2 Equally, the attention given in the media to any statement issued in Tehran or in Pyongyang looks disproportionate. Obviously, small states can achieve a high level of international involvement and a high potential for global disturbance. Their smallness is somehow compensated for with international linkages,
1 Quoted in Kissinger, 1982, p. 1175.
2 North Korea is not only rumored to run a hacking program; it is suspected to have launched a widespread computer attack on U.S. government agencies and a massive cyberattack on Seoul government agencies, banks, and businesses in July 2009. Iran, for its part, reportedly attacked a number of Israel’s government websites during the 2006 Lebanon War and again during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2009.