Friday, August 29, 2008

A bully behind every tree

Big countries are forever bullying smaller countries.

That's the rap, anyway: Most recently, the Russians have been violently bossing around the Georgians, while the Georgians thumped the Ossetians (whom they admittedly consider part of their national family. For on earlier post that touches on the Georgians, click here). The Singaporeans are forever crying 'Uncle' and saying the Malaysians are playing big brother.

It must be a a holdover from infancy, or so you'd think from the dire warnings we've been receiving these last couple of days. We're flying over so Sonny can meet his older cousin for the first time. The cousin is the elder by over a year, and we've had acquaintances alert us about the likelihood of Sonny getting bashed.

"Watch out! Your son is still so young, the older boy may poke him here and there," went one typical admonition. One has to wonder whether even a gentle finger-stab would qualify as "bullying" by some folks' lights. After all, when two dogs meet for the first time, there's often a ritual mutual sniffing and even a quick lick. Apparently, this licking is a friendly gesture. But a hyper-sensitive owner might construe it as an aggressive invasion of personal canine space, or possibly a "landing of a blow".

Babies and very young children, too, may not have full control of the strength of their curious pokes or exploratory jabs. So there are times when what seems like an attack could be no more than an excessively-enthusiastic welcome. One can only assess intentions over a period of time: A sustained series of eye-gouges, for instance, could indicate that the perpetrator truly is a psychotic starting young.

As it is with babies, so it is with countries. Part of the accepted vocabulary of inter-state exchange are grandstanding, the exploitation of the media for trial-balloon statements and fuzzily-worded warnings, along with quiet negotiation, fulsome praise and hard bargaining. So what can seem like a malicious attempt to wickedly intimidate another country could be no more than the employment of such tools - in the full expectation that the other will "push back" utilising the same toolbox.

Where does such statecraft end and genuinely nasty bullying start? Alas, it's a bit of a gray area. When people start dying, it's a pretty good guess that it's getting really serious now - but things aren't normally so clear-cut. As with babies, one can only make an assessment over a period of time, not with any one or two incidents taken in isolation.