How to keep your closest rival weak: the ‘Beggar Thy Neighbour’ concept explained

From Trump’s ‘Madman’ manoeuvres, to the ‘Divide and Rule’ tactic of Brexit, How They Rule the World gives an enlightening backdrop into to the world today through 22 strategies of power. Here, Pedro Baños explains the ‘Beggar Thy Neighbour’ rule, otherwise known as how to keep your closest rival weak. 


‘Nothing is great or little otherwise than by comparison’– Jonathan Swift

Dominant countries are forever engaged in a game of one up manship, especially with their nearest competitor; as a result, a number of strategies have been devised to keep neighbours weak and poor. The US’s Monroe Doctrine was discussed over a number of years before finally taking shape in 1850 and coming to full fruition in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Its objective was to extend US influence throughout the Americas while weakening the non-allied European empires, which were already on the wane in the Americas anyway. German statesman Bernhard von Bülow believed that one of the main reasons London went to war in 1914 was that Germany had built a formidable naval fleet that jeopardised Britain’s dominance of maritime trade. According to Bülow, prior to the war, Britain was concerned about Germany being an industrial and colonial rival. More recently, the opposition Spain met from France when seeking to join the European Economic  Community in the 1960s and 1970s was the result of France’s attempt to maintain its agricultural primacy – it was worried Spain would undercut it if it was part of the common market and no longer subject to tariffs. France did not prevail (Spain joined in 1986), but it was a clear example of one neighbour wishing to maintain economic dominance over another.

There are parallels in the relationship between the USA and Mexico. It is in Washington’s interests for there to be a degree of stability in its southern neighbour, but not for it to evolve enough to become a rival. Mexico, with 125 million inhabitants and a rate of population growth that is 50 per cent higher than that of the USA, and given its large oil reserves and flourishing tourist trade, could in a few years’ time become one of the most powerful economies in the world, particularly if it moves from a manufacturing base to high-tech industrial production. When given the chance to share something, the strong never hesitate to give themselves the largest portion. Sometimes they do it deviously, while at other times it’s more obvious. The great powers of the day have done this whenever they could get away with it, in particular by abusing the underprivileged and ignorant, as the history of Africa attests. However, less powerful nations are not beyond such jostling; countries in possession of skilled diplomats or sharp intelligence services know how to take advantage of a situation to gain the lion’s share, even in negotiations apparently established for mutual benefit. Avoiding this isn’t easy. You may be well aware that you’re being short-changed, but the powerful and the cunning have ways to pressurise or indeed bribe those in charge of distribution.

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China’s multiple neighbours

China shares a land border with 14 different nations (North Korea, Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam) and a sea border with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Vietnam –more than any other country. Recent stand-offs between Beijing and its maritime neighbours has attracted US attention, with the Americans keen to halt China’s charge for global power. The South China Sea contains several chains of islets surrounded by uninhabited keys, atolls and sandbanks; although they are periodically flooded by the sea, they have a high strategic and economic value, for the area is believed to be rich in natural resources, a third of the world’s maritime traffic passes through the area and the waters hold significant fishing stocks.

China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Brunei and Taiwan have claims to sovereignty of the sea and its islets, while Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand and Cambodia have lesser interests. All are alert to Chinese developments. Beijing has increased its military presence in the region, as has Washington. Japan has also made its presence known, opposing Chinese claims and championing its own interests. The Philippines brought a dispute before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in 2013, accusing China of violating international maritime law, based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and asked the court to pronounce on the ‘nine-dash line’ in the shape of a U that marks out the Chinese government’s claims in the South China Sea. Beijing had already warned that it would not recognise the authority of the court’s verdict on this case, and when the court ruled, in July 2016, that China had no legal basis for applying historic rights to waters within this line, it dismissed the judgement. The ruling is legally binding, but the court has neither the capacity nor the resources to force its application, and thus geopolitical conflict in the South China Sea remains turbulent.


An updated concept of ‘neighbourhood’

The strategy of antagonising your neighbour has long been practised by the great powers, and the superpowers of the United States, Russia and China all do it today. At the regional level there are currently a number of major frictions, between Saudi Arabia and Iran; India and China; Pakistan and India; Algeria and Morocco; Venezuela and Colombia; South and North Korea. However, the concept of ‘neighbourhood’ has been transformed by globalisation, which began in the mid-twentieth century and accelerated in the late 1980s, as a result of increased international relations and developments in information and communications technology.

Globalisation, though fundamentally economic in nature, is also technological, political, social and cultural, and it has fostered great interdependence between countries, turning the world into the ‘global village’ predicted by Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan in the late 1960s. In this globalised world, any country, no matter how physically distant from another, is a virtual neighbour and a theoretical competitor. It is no longer enough to keep your traditional geographical neighbours at bay; supremacy must be disputed globally. If a country is hyper-specialised in the production of a particular product or in a certain area of advanced technology, its main rival might be thousands of miles from its borders, but this does not make competition any less fierce – in a globalised world, everyone can beggar everyone else.

According to Greek mythology, there was once an innkeeper called Procrustes who would offer a bed to anyone passing through his remote area. If they were too short for the bed, he would stretch them to fit it and if they were too long, he would cut off the protruding parts. This dark parable is used to refer to those who cannot tolerate others standing out – as soon as they realise someone is atypical they take measures to impose the ‘norm’ to do whatever is necessary to achieve their goal.

How They Rule the World

When your neighbour is a powerful and ruthless rival

Your neighbour doesn’t have to be a historic adversary or an invader with whom you’ve had numerous armed conflicts; it may simply be a rival for economic, religious, ideological and geopolitical dominance. Even then, you can still maintain diplomatic and commercial relations, and your neighbour may even form part of the same political and military alliance.

Greece and Turkey are both members of NATO and the UN, but they still view one another with a suspicion that periodically threatens to come to a head. In early June 2017, Saudi Arabia became hostile towards Qatar, a neighbour with which it has much in common. The two nations are both Sunni Muslim and oil-rich, which has historically meant that relations between them have been friendly. However, Doha refused to succumb to Riyadh’s regional power plays, which prompted the Saudis to accuse Qatar of supporting extremist groups in the region; behind the Saudi accusations lay a struggle for religious supremacy in the Muslim world. Saudi Arabia is the epicentre of the hard-line Wahhabi movement and has invested vast sums of petrodollars in promoting its expansion, while Qatar is loyal to another movement, the Muslim Brotherhood.6 Saudi Arabia has the advantage of disproportionate force in this competition; with 30 million inhabitants and an army of almost half a million, it has the strength to crush Qatar, which has a population of just two million and 11,000 soldiers. This rivalry, in which a cocktail of religion, economics and geopolitics is aggravated by outside interests, has the potential to trigger great instability across a region that is historically unstable.

Throughout the centuries, countries have tried to maintain superiority over their neighbours in order to neuter them as a military or economic threat. They have also sought to exploit them as markets for their products, and for this purpose have sought to ensure relative stability, but whenever a neighbour seems to be a threat, the first course of action is to attempt to foster internal strife by creating or encouraging subversive groups. Heightened tensions have typically led to armed conflict, of varying degrees of intensity. In a world in which states compete globally and everyone is a ‘neighbour’, the means for weakening the neighbour remain the same – economic, political, diplomatic and military – and all are employed in order to exert power and achieve supremacy over others, in order to maintain the status quo.

A state should never entirely trust the goodwill of its neighbours. Even when not orchestrating the tension, a country will always be somewhat cheered by political division, separatist movements, social unrest or riots in a neighbour, and perhaps even by its collapse, which will allow the more stable state to gain regional control. All of this assumes that one state’s misfortune does not harm a neighbour’s economy, security and stability. States generally prefer neighbours to be stable enough to serve as a reliable market but volatile enough not to progress too significantly. This is preferable to chaos, for a neighbour in disarray is lost as a market and might send an exodus of people spilling out across the region or become a catalyst for widespread social unrest.

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