Surrender as a Moral Act

Some months ago, a few words dropped during a casual conversation has made a lasting impression on your correspondent. His opponent reacted to the Visegràd 4 (“V4” -Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary) growing role in global and European affairs. The V4 are in opposition to the UN – EU policy on migration. That is because they are adamant to preserve sovereignty, their identity, and determine who can settle on their land. For their temerity these ex-Soviet satellites are subject to much disapproval and to threats of sanctions. In the front row of the pressure are Europe’s “small great powers” united in the Paris-Berlin axis.

Considering that, the venue of our talk being Switzerland, some understanding approval was to be expected. Switzerland, a neutral since 1815, has defended its identity at the junction of antagonistic and expansionistic great powers. Attribute that to a strong commitment to independence, clever diplomacy, the efficient utilization of resources, and a modern military in a defensible location. Therefore, it came as a surprise to be told that, small countries of the ten million class, have no chance to prevail and should therefore submit to the will of leading entities.

A personal motive might be hidden behind the excuse made in favor of quick and effortless capitulation. Our day’s liberalism defends rights but argues that obligations violate human rights. Principally, everything being regarded as negotiable, so is independence once its preservation demands a sacrifice. In short, my guest’s analysis might be an expression of decadence wrapped into highfaluting slogans.

Let us not pursue the psychologization of the plea for submission that ignores that the aftermath of capitulation can turn out to be worse than the ache of the avoided conflict. Ultimately, the solution suggested by cowardice tends to turn out to be the most painful one of the original alternatives.

Can small countries not resist their rape, and should they, therefore, try to enjoy the unavoidable? The record suggests: hardly.

Associating “small” with “powerless” involves terms that are often related. However, this nexus does not involve a lawful relationship like “water” and “wet”. Power is not tied to size alone. Large countries can be weak, a small one can turn out to be potent. Little Britain defeated, from a strategically inferior position in the Falkland War big Argentina. In the Winter War 3 million Fins held out for months against the embarrassed Soviet Union.

Without being a population giant, Sweden regards itself a “moral great power” and, indeed, her global significance surpasses her material size. A similar description could be made about France whose role is mismatched by her means. Approaching the matter from the opposite end, some heavyweights are underrated even if, once challenged, they do not under-perform. A notable example is the USA. Her foes by choice in the world wars have greatly underestimated her power. Living in Europe, the writer is made to think that this condition continues to prevail.

Marketing specialists might chime in supportively. They know that it is not the product, but its image that determines its rating expressed by sales.
Viet Nam has scored a draw against the US. In Afghanistan the Soviets were forced to retreat. In the Korean war, the weaker side held the stronger US/UN at bay. A few Israelis have repeatedly defeated the vast Arab world. Napoleon’s armies prevailed over “Europe”. Britain’s size does not explain the extent of the Empire yet she was defeated by 13 small colonies. In 1940 she resisted what many held to be inevitable. Present-day Hungary defies the EU and is winning. Such cases raise the question, “what is power”?

Let us begin with the obvious. We take power to expresses the size of armies and the quality of their equipment. Related are the relative level of economic-scientific development and the degree of autarchy. The size of the population and the ability to mobilize it are crucial. The geographic location and defensibility complete what the world computes when it cedes countries on the scale of power. Less visible but equally crucial factors remain that determine unexpected outcomes.

One key factor is the extent to which the population can be mobilized to absorb or deliver punches. This capacity reflects the political and social order and the maturity of the inhabitants -or the charisma of leaders. Can the population comprehend what is at stake, are there patriots able to identify with the community to bear sacrifices? At a meeting I told an official who complained about the EU’s strong-arm tactics against non-member Switzerland: “You can only negotiate successfully if you can tell them, ‘we are willing to eat grass to preserve our independence’”. Perhaps a word one hardly dares to utter puts the matter in focus. It is “nationalism”.

The resolve alluded to depends on the mind-set of populations. Nations that do not fear defeat and occupation because they have not experienced it, might lack the fear of subjugation. (This might be enhanced by the way they have handled occupied countries. Note that one of the best things to happen to anyone is to be defeated by America.) Putting on a fight to win will harm the enemy. That includes women and children. A system whose people are demoralized by the picture of, say, a dead toddler, will probably lack the determination to push to victory. The related inclination for self-criminalization is an Achilles heel of humanistic democracies. These operate under the assumption that everybody is good, can be trusted (“Peace for Our Time”) and will opt for getting along if shown some more good will.

Security can also flow from traits that are not commonly associated with raw power. Being economically or politically useful to hostile parties bolsters security. This is especially true in the case of states that are located in a contested zone but that wish to remain neutral. Hosting international organizations is a tool of a security-seeking policy. An aspect of this involves creating an international reputation that makes encroachments problematic as they ignite global resentment. Probably the Swiss are the most successful practitioners of this tactic. Nevertheless, a number of states that attempted to use neutrality as an insurance have failed in their effort as did America in 1917. Premier Nagy of Hungary has even been executed by “Muscovites” for proclaiming neutrality. Neutrality works only in certain locations and political constellations. If neutrality is resorted seeking to avoid a defensive effort, then its ineffectiveness is guaranteed. “Weak but neutral” might sound tempting but, unlike armed neutrality, it amounts only to a weak potion that evaporates once needed.

In conclusion, size does not need to be a critical pre-condition of independence that is at all times in need of protection. Credibility is what counts.

Secured sovereignty demands to have the physical means of self-assertion. There should be no doubt that, come what may, these instruments will be used to their limit. Aggression is best deterred by making its costs predictably high and the returns miniscule. Commitment to a well-funded resistance creates a posture that can be strengthened -but not replaced- by political instruments. International sanctions, however, will by themselves never replace the cannons of a trained army. Marching with placards for peace might look good, even secure some moral flanks, although by itself it will leave submission as the only option. The same can be said about alliances. No ally that is not directly impaired, will seriously help a country that has neglected to prepare itself.

Napoleon has said that God is on the side of the larger divisions. More correctly, and to be noted by some of the US’ allies, God helps those that help themselves. No one else can, or will, rescue those that choose to be weaker than they need to be. Lest we forget: Weakness is no moral category, submission is no virtue, and surrender is no proof of wisdom.

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