Superpowers Often Lose Small Wars to Weaker Nations

One study says superpowers often lose conflicts with much weaker nations.

ByABC News
February 10, 2009, 4:29 PM

June 13, 2007 — -- The world's most powerful nations have lost more than a third of their military battles against much weaker nations since World War II, despite the fact that their opponents were seriously outgunned and outmanned. That has caused many to wonder why powerful states lose limited wars.

Patricia Sullivan, a political scientist at the University of Georgia, began grappling with that issue several years ago while working on her doctorate at the University of California, Davis, and she thinks she has come up with at least part of the answer.

Even the most powerful states lose their appetite for war if the cost is much greater than had been expected and if guns alone won't guarantee success, she argues in a paper published in the current issue of the Journal of Conflict Resolution. Her research was sponsored partly by the National Science Foundation.

Some will quarrel with Sullivan's numbers, some of which are admittedly arbitrary, but she has a worthwhile goal to provide a working model that would allow policymakers to get a better estimate of how successful they are likely to be in a military operation. Few will find some of her conclusions reassuring.

When she ran the data on Iraq through her computer, for example, she came up with only a 26 percent chance of success, and that's if U.S. forces remain there for at least 10 years after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

"My definition of success is you have to be able to leave and have the situation hold for a year," she said in an interview. That doesn't mean every American has to leave, but at least 70 percent of the forces that were there at the height of the war would be out of there. That may be an arbitrary definition of success, but at least it's better than what a lot of folks in Washington have come up with.

Sullivan has found 122 wars and military interventions since World War II in which the United States, the Soviet Union, China, Britain or France fought a weaker adversary. According to her research, the big guys lost 39 percent of the time. The United States walked away from 10 out of 34 military interventions.