November 01, 2013


Malcolm Gladwell, in his superb new book, David and Goliath, examines the nature and impact of uneven “battles” – i.e. “what happens when ordinary people confront giants... powerful opponents of all kinds – from armies and mighty warriors to disability, misfortune, and oppression.”

Gladwell finds that we often misinterpret such confrontations. For instance, what looks like a giant is often just a blustering fool. And the best way to defeat a such giants is to reject their terms of battle, to come at them in a way they are not expecting. In fact, according to political scientist Ivan Aggreuín-Toft, when the weaker side in a battle refuses to fight on the stronger side’s terms (resorting, say, to guerrilla tactics), the weaker side wins over 60 percent of the time.

Much in Gladwell’s book validated thoughts I had during the recent crisis over Syria and its chemical weapons arsenal. Commentators were fascinated how Russia, who seemed to be in a no-win situation, a holdout supporter of a desperate dictator, turned things into a win-win result. The US had been on the verge of “pin-prick” air strikes, which would have occasioned a Russian response in support of their ally, when Putin and his foreign minister flipped an off-handed comment by US Secretary of State John Kerry (“sure, they can avoid a strike by giving up all their chemical weapons”) into a road map away from confrontation.

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