Small States Have Options Too: Competitive Strategies Against Aggressors


Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from an essay that first appeared in Frontline Allies: War and Change in Central Europe, published by the Center for European Policy and Analysis.


Looking back at history, one might reasonably conclude that small states are destined to be on the losing end of geopolitics. Events of the last decade in particular do not give us much reason for optimism about the destiny of small states facing coercion at the hands of their larger and more powerful neighbors. Russia used force against Georgia in 2008, has been using force against Ukraine since 2014, and could prospectively use force against a number of its other neighbors. China, for its part, has used a variety of coercive techniques in its territorial disputes with its neighbors. One common feature of these situations is an explicit effort by the coercing state to stay below the thresholds of a military response and, in particular, outside military intervention. As a result, small states have largely been left to their own devices to defend themselves against their more powerful neighbors.

Small, frontline states do not, however, lack options in the face of coercion. To the contrary, they could pursue a number of competitive strategies in an effort to make coercion less attractive. These include strategies of denial, which seek to harden a state against coercion; cost-imposing strategies, which seek to force an adversary to bear burdens sufficient to cause a reconsideration of coercion; efforts to attack and render ineffective the adversary’s coercive strategy; and strategies that seek to exploit divisions within the enemy’s political leadership to end the coercive campaign. The United States can, and in many cases should, assist small, frontline states in developing and implementing competitive strategies against their larger neighbors seeking to coerce them.

The Competitive Strategies Approach

Strategy has to do with how a state or other political actor arrays its resources in space and time in order to achieve its political objectives against a competitor. The key features of any strategy are rationality (the existence of political objectives and a plan to achieve them) and interaction with a competitor who seeks at the very least to achieve different objectives if not thwart our ability to achieve our aims. Competitive strategies are a particular family of strategy with two aspects that deserve consideration.

First, competitive strategies are generally pursued to achieve limited aims. That is, they are meant to change a competitor’s decision-making calculus and thus his strategic behavior. They do not seek the overthrow of an adversary. In this regard, the competitive strategy that the United States pursued against the Soviet Union succeeded beyond the wildest imaginations of even its most enthusiastic supporters.

Second, competitive strategies unfold in peacetime. They can and often do involve the use of military assets, but they focus on the latent use of force to deter rather than defeat a competitor. Peacetime strategy focuses on when and how states reveal their acquisition of new capabilities; what they choose to acquire; when, where, and how they deploy them; and how they train with them. As a result, peacetime strategy leads to tradeoffs not present in times of war. For example, governments face the decision as to whether to reveal military capabilities to deter or influence a competitor or to conceal them to preserve their operational effectiveness in a future conflict.

In addition, strategy in peacetime occurs with a greater sense of uncertainty than in war. As Sir Michael Howard famously wrote nearly half a century ago, planning in peacetime is akin to navigating a ship through a fog. Statesmen and soldiers generally have a much lower tolerance for risk in peacetime than in war. As a result, they often shy away from actions that could be seen as provocative for fear of exacerbating tensions with a competitor. Finally, it takes longer to determine the effects of one’s strategy in peacetime than in wartime. Whereas the impact of one’s actions on the battlefield manifest themselves in hours, days, weeks or months, the impact of peacetime actions often does not become apparent for years or more.

What Small States Can Do

As Bradford A. Lee has written, it is useful to think of four families of competitive strategy: denial, cost imposition, attacking an enemy’s strategy, and attacking an enemy’s political system. Although each is distinct, they have often been carried out in combination with one another. Each presents potentially attractive options for small, frontline states that face coercion by their stronger neighbors.


The first family is composed of strategies of denial, which seek to prevent a competitor from being able to translate its operational means into the political ends it seeks. In other words, strategies of denial seek to make it physically difficult for an aggressor to coerce or attack. For this to work, the defender needs to possess the ability to demonstrate that an aggressor cannot achieve his aims at an acceptable cost.

For some states, geography is favorable to a strategy of denial. Switzerland scarcely has to worry about aggression on the part of neighbors, even if they were so inclined. With the right investment in capabilities, Taiwan could harden itself against Chinese coercion. In other cases, geography is less favorable. The Baltic states, for example, lack the geographic depth to make a strategy of denial by itself a winning strategy.

Trends in military technology increasingly favor a strategy of denial for small states, given the growth and spread of precision weaponry as well as supporting intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems and command and control networks. Modern anti-tank guided munitions (ATGMs); precision rockets, artillery, and mortars; surface-to-air missiles; and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) all provide a growing range of options for small states to carry out a strategy of denial. For example, Phillip A. Karber has argued that the sale of a relatively small number of advanced ATGMs would enable the Baltic states to carry out a strategy of denial against Russian forces.

Cost imposition

A second family of peacetime competitive strategy, cost-imposing strategies, seeks to convince an adversary in peacetime that the costs of continued competition or conflict are prohibitively high and that accommodation is a more attractive option. Cost-imposing strategies may seek to have any number of effects upon a competitor. For example, they may seek to dissuade or deter a competitor from engaging in disruptive or threatening actions by convincing them that they are too costly, ineffective, or counterproductive. Cost-imposing strategies may alternatively seek to channel a competitor into engaging in activities that are inoffensive or wasteful.

During the Cold War, the United States pursued a number of strategies against the Soviet Union meant to impose costs of various kinds on Moscow, including the Army and Air Force’s development of AirLand Battle doctrine beginning in the 1970s, the Navy’s Maritime Strategy of the 1980s, the development of stealth aircraft, and the Strategic Defense Initiative. More recently, America’s adversaries have pursued cost-imposing strategies against the United States. Al Qaeda’s September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and the responses to them, resulted in considerable costs. Such costs go beyond the physical destruction of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the disruption of the economic life of the nation, including the subsequent time and efficiency costs of new transportation security initiatives. Cyber attacks on U.S. government networks have triggered the development and deployment of increasing layers of security and have similarly yielded considerable costs, to include that of developing and fielding defensive cybersecurity capabilities and the efficiency losses associated with such security measures.

Although a strategy of cost imposition may be best suited to great powers, small states may have options to pursue such approaches as well. As I have argued elsewhere, states need to think about imposing costs across multiple dimensions: economic and political as well as military. When viewed expansively, small states may have opportunities to impose disproportionate costs in peacetime against their stronger neighbors. Small states are able to impose diplomatic and political costs upon their adversaries as well by bringing together like-minded states to oppose coercion. More importantly, they will need to undertake methods to mitigate the costs that others can impose upon them.

Attacking the enemy’s strategy

A third approach is to attack a competitor’s strategy by inducing him to engage in strategically self-defeating behavior. Russia’s current campaign of coercion in Ukraine and increasingly more in the Baltic states relies upon a certain degree of deniability. The ability to use social media and investigative journalism to expose Russian activities to the Russian public, to Europe, and to the world provides an opportunity to attack that strategy. Similarly, commercial imagery has been used to expose the full extent of China’s efforts literally to change facts on the ground by creating new geographic features in the South China Sea. Such efforts attack a strategy of low-visibility coercion, forcing the aggressor to take more public and thus more risky action to continue.

Attacking the enemy’s political system

A final family of competitive strategies seeks to attack a competitor’s political system by forcing the competitor to face the prospect of political collapse or concession. Such a strategy may not be feasible for small frontline states, at least in the short term. Vladimir Putin appears to have considerable domestic support and has silenced many of his critics at home. Similarly, Chinese coercion in the South China Sea is backed by groundswell of nationalist pride. That said, the successful development and implementation of competitive strategies of denial, cost-imposition, and attacks upon an adversary’s coercive strategy may, over time, open up splits within leadership that can be exploited.

Small, frontier states may have knowledge of the internal dynamics of their larger neighbors by virtue of history, linguistic abilities, cultural connections, commercial links, and so on. Such deep knowledge can be an asset, giving them and their allies a window into the internal dynamics of the rival and a potential tool to influence him.

Implications and Recommendations for the United States

The United States can, and in some cases should, support small front-line states through a number of means.

First, a number of states in Central and Eastern Europe are contemplating investing in anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities. The United States should be supportive of such efforts. Washington would be well advised to supply its allies and friends with the means to implement a strategy of denial. Depending upon local circumstances, this may include advanced ATGMs, SAMs, and ASCMs. The Defense Department should also consider how the U.S. armed forces can alter their force deployments to support such a strategy.

Second, the United States should work with its allies and friends to identify cost-imposing strategies to counter aggression in peacetime. These should include the full range of instruments of statecraft: not just military, but also economic, political, and diplomatic. The Defense Department should consider both actions that the United States can take unilaterally (developing and deploying new capabilities, for example) as well as those that it can undertake with its allies and friends (sharing technology and information, for example).

The U.S. government should discuss with its allies the advantages and disadvantages of allies possessing independent capabilities for imposing costs on adversaries in wartime. On the one hand, an independent counter-offensive capability might be seen as more credible than a U.S. capability. On the other hand, allies are unlikely to be able to afford to deploy any capability as effective as those offered by the United States.

Third, the U.S. government should work to expose attempts at coercion. It should, for example, step up attempts to share information with its allies and friends and make evidence of coercion broadly available to the public, when possible.

Finally, the United States should work to identify and, where feasible, exploit splits within the leadership of aggressor regimes. This is likely to be a long-term effort with uncertain chances for success, but the more that we know about the internal decision-making of aggressor regimes, the more successful our efforts to influence them in peacetime are likely to be.


Thomas G. Mahnken is a Senior Research Professor in the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins SAIS and the incoming President and CEO of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.