Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Why Some Countries Are Pathologically Shy

| Feb. 07, 2019

In my last column, I explored the various reasons why states can become overcommitted yet unable to extricate themselves from costly endeavors that are no longer worth the effort. This phenomenon is a serious problem—as anyone who follows U.S. foreign policy knows—but the opposite tendency can be problematic, too. Specifically, sometimes powerful states can get in trouble if they are too eager to avoid commitments, only to discover that events elsewhere have evolved in dangerous ways.

To be clear: The issue is not about trying to understand why weak states avoid costly commitments and try to stay out of trouble—for them, remaining aloof (if they can) makes sense. Weak states can't do much to affect the outcome of a particular international dispute, so the main reason to take on international burdens is to secure the assistance or protection of a more powerful patron. It is hardly surprising, for instance, that some of NATO's new members have sent token forces into harm's way to places such as Iraq or Afghanistan. Their vital interests were not directly affected by either conflict, but it was a good opportunity to curry favor with Washington....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“Why Some Countries Are Pathologically Shy.” Foreign Policy, February 7, 2019.

The Author

Stephen Walt