Strategic Interactions: Edward Bradfield Reviews How the Weak Win Wars

By Bradfield, Edward | Harvard International Review, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Strategic Interactions: Edward Bradfield Reviews How the Weak Win Wars


Bradfield, Edward, Harvard International Review


With the US military currently engaged in armed conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, Ivan Arreguin-Toft's How the Weak Win Wars is a timely contribution to the ongoing debate over US defense strategy in the post-September 11 security environment. The book is comprised of three major sections. First, Arreguin-Toft provides a well-structured discussion of existing theories in the literature on how weaker actors have won wars against substantially more powerful states and articulates his own hypothesis to explain this phenomenon, which he calls "strategic interaction theory." Second, he tests multiple hypotheses in five separate case studies dating from the early 19th century to the end of the Cold War. Finally, the author draws conclusions regarding each of the case studies and tests the general validity of each theory, while making a strong case for the utility of strategic interaction theory as an analytical tool.

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In his first two chapters, the author describes his method of analysis for assessing how weak actors win wars against the strong. He postulates that intuition would tell us "power matters most," but notes that history tells us otherwise. In fact, not only have weak actors had sporadic successes in asymmetric conflicts, but the trend of their successes is increasing. Arreguin-Toft asserts that any viable explanation of this phenomenon must address not only how the weak have won, but also why there has been an increasing trend of the weak winning wars in the 20th century.

His argument is constructed on the premise that there are four competing explanations for weak victory in asymmetric wars, each of which has weaknesses in predicting outcomes or explaining the trend of increasing weak actor victories. The first of these hypotheses focuses on the nature of the actors. In this theory, authoritarian strong actors are said to have a greater probability of success in asymmetric conflict because they tend to lack the political vulnerability of a democracy. The second theory states that the diffusion of arms, particularly since the Second World War, has closed the aggregate power gap between weak and strong. In other words, even a weak power has a chance of success when equipped with modern weaponry. The third theory is that of interest asymmetry, which asserts that asymmetric wars tend to be fought with limited means for limited ends by the strong actor, but with unlimited means for unlimited ends by the weak. Theoretically, this interest asymmetry is more important to the outcome than relative power.

The final competing explanation is Arreguin-Toft's own theory of strategic interaction. He postulates that the interaction of the strategies employed by the actors in an asymmetric conflict is the most likely predictor of outcome. His method of proof begins by dividing military strategy into two general categories. These categories are direct, such as conventional attack or defense, and indirect, such as counter-insurgency or guerilla warfare. His thesis is that when asymmetric actors employ similar strategies, as in the cases of direct versus direct or indirect versus indirect, the conflict favors the strong. On the contrary, when the strategies are of dissimilar types, the conflict favors the weak. In the process of his research, he tested this hypothesis against 196 historical cases of asymmetric conflict. He offers a summary of that research to support strategic interaction theory as a viable analysis tool. The results show strong support for his thesis.

The bulk of How The Weak Win Wars is dedicated to five case studies chosen from the statistical sampling. They include the Russo-Murid War of 1830-1859, the Boer War, the Italo-Ethiopian War of 1935-1940, the Vietnam War, and the Afghan Civil War of the 1980s. …

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