Slapping down impertinent weaklings” is a common pattern of behavior, be it male lions, schoolyard bullies, or states in the global political arena. When it concerns nuclear-armed states, the consequences are a bit more serious. Does the pattern sound familiar?
The insecure and marginalized regime of a tiny state relies on rhetoric to bolster domestic support and attract attention worldwide. Whenever it speaks rudely (for the rules of international behavior state that only the powerful may be rude), it is accused of being “radical” and “aggressive” regardless of its actual actions; if it does not raise its voice, it will continue to be marginalized. Its intentions are a serious matter, no doubt about it; starting a war is easy. Unfortunately, one never knows intentions, in part because they constantly evolve in response to the environment, which brings us to the other side.
The other side is a global superpower, perhaps represented by its proxy. While it may assert the right to speak rudely (even to threaten war, a very serious threat, given its unique capacity to start one at will), its normal response to the rhetorical flourishes of an opponent, much less any actual defensive move, is a substantive and frequently painful policy response: rude words are termed “aggression” and are penalized by such actions as the repositioning of military assets, economic war, support for terrorist groups seeking regime change, the murder of scientists, and virtual warfare with very real consequences.
In brief, the weak state’s deterrence and the weak state’s posturing are both met by superpower punishment: self-defense is punished; deterrence is not balanced by counter-deterrence but met with an aggressive raising of the stakes. The contrast in scale between deterrence by the weak and punishment by the strong is crystal clear in the case of military moves and countermoves. A weak state will attempt to buy such wholly defensive weapons as ground-to-air missiles; a superpower or its proxy will demand that the weak state be prohibited from purchasing defensive arms and simultaneously deploy more powerful offensive arms, perhaps fielding bunker-buster bombs and AWACS or sailing an aircraft carrier within each reach of the weak state’s territory. Such punishment not only for speaking without permission but also for taking standard self-defense moves teaches the weak state:
Do not ask for equality;
Do not seek independence;
Do not imagine that you can negotiate security;
The only way you will ever escape subordination is by secretly developing sufficient WMD to scare us off.
The short-term impact of such a theoretical situation is likely to be consolidation of superpower control, albeit in an unstable environment of high tension punctuated by incessant crises requiring expensive remediation. The long-term impact is the undermining of international norms of civilized behavior, the promotion of asynchronous warfare, the radicalization of hostile regimes, the provocation of hostile coalitions, and the weakening of civil liberties in advanced democracies.