The Dangers of False Hope

The Times of India | March 17, 2022
JRR Tolkien wrote in his epic fantasy novel The Children of Húrin, “False hopes are more dangerous than fears.” And indeed, history is replete with examples of rulers having made strategic miscalculations based on false hope offered by their allies.

Let’s flip through our history book to understand this. The great Carthaginian General Hannibal, widely considered as one of the world’s greatest military strategists, successfully waged war against the Roman Republic during the Second Punic War of 218 BCE. He was eventually defeated at the Battle of Zama in 202 BCE. Why? Because the Carthaginian senate refused to send reinforcements. He waited for help that never came. False hope had converted victory into defeat.

Let’s now transfer our gaze eastwards. On May 29, 1453, Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) fell to the army of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II after a siege of 53 days. Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos tried his best to hold out, banking on the false hope of timely military support from Pope Nicholas V. By the time that Venice eventually decided to send a fleet to help Constantinople, it was too late. Mehmed II had already marched in triumphantly and made Constantinople his new Ottoman capital.

In India too, false hope has played havoc with rulers. In 1757, the Battle of Plassey resulted in a complete defeat of the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-daulah, at the hands of the British East India Company. The Nawab was misled by false hope that his previously dismissed commander in chief, Mir Jafar, would come to his support. Just four years later the Third Battle of Panipat resulted in a Maratha rout when Sadashivrao Peshwa was defeated by Ahmad Shah Abdali of the Durrani Empire. The outcome would have been quite different if potential allies such as the Rajputs, Jats and Sikhs had come to his rescue as he had hoped.

Fast forward to the 20th century and we have the great Western Betrayal in which the UK, France and Italy neglected to meet their obligations to Czechoslovakia by signing the Munich Agreement and handing over the Sudetenland to Adolf Hitler. Similarly, France and the UK forgot their commitment to Poland when Germany and the erstwhile USSR invaded it. Further concessions on Poland were then made by the US during the Tehran, Yalta and Potsdam conferences thus leaving the hapless country firmly in Stalin’s sphere of influence. False hope ruined both Czechoslovakia and Poland.

In China, the US supported Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the Chinese Nationalist Party. But after World War II, American support waned. The reduced stream of money and materials resulted in Mao Zedong defeating Chiang Kai-shek. The mainland was lost and he was forced to retreat to Taiwan. But the final blow of betrayal came in 1979 with the Joint Communiqué of the US and China stating that “The Government of the United States of America acknowledges the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China.” False hope held out by the US had shattered the dreams of Chiang Kai-shek and Taiwan.

In our times, we have seen how the US pulled the rug from under its Egyptian ally, Hosni Mubarak in 2011. This was much the same way that they abandoned the South Vietnamese troops in 1975. It thus came as no surprise when the US withdrew support to the Syrian Democratic Forces in 2019. These were Kurdish forces that were a bulwark against ISIS. Then within two years, the US withdrew its forces from Afghanistan, abandoning an entire generation that had grown up under the false hope of democracy and modernity.

Tolkien was right. False hope is more dangerous than fear. Fear is good. It forces one to analyse, plan and prepare. And it is precisely this false hope that dropped Ukraine into the position that it finds itself in.

Any strategic analyst knows that true deterrence can only come from two possible avenues: either nuclear weapons or a binding military alliance in which an attack against one member is considered as an attack against all members. It would surprise many to note that after the breakup of the USSR, Ukraine was left with the world’s third largest nuclear stockpile. But in 1994, Ukraine surrendered its nuclear arsenal in exchange for security guarantees under the Budapest Memorandum. Did Ukraine get NATO membership that could guarantee deterrence? No. The Budapest Memorandum was a prime example of false hope.

Spurred on by this false hope, Ukraine began making plans for European Union (EU) membership. In 2013, the EU offered Ukraine a trade deal that Ukrainians wrongly assumed would lead to EU membership. But they forgot that Putin would never agree to having European goods flood Ukraine—and consequently Russia. He offered Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych a $15 billion aid package to prevent the deal. When Yanukovych obliged, the US supported a coup (known as the Maidan Revolution) that overthrew his Russia-friendly government in Kyiv. Putin countered by invading and annexing Crimea.

A glance at a world map will tell you that Ukraine is a buffer zone between the EU/NATO and Russia. False hope had made this buffer state give up its nuclear arsenal. False hope made it lose Crimea. False hope made it pin its hopes on NATO while Russia hacked off its Donbas region. Tolkien was proved right again and again.

What can India—and indeed many other countries—learn from the Ukraine experience? My takeaway is that fear is underrated. Think of those horror flicks and amusement parks where we pay money only so that we can be terrified for a fee. It is fear that can spur us to fortify our defence forces. It is fear that can compel us to enhance indigenous defence manufacturing capability. It is fear that can force us to accelerate economic growth—remember the landmark 1991 economic reforms? It is fear that will help us choose our friends carefully even when our backs are against the wall. As Yasser Arafat said, “Choose your friends carefully. Your enemies will choose you.” Much better to be fearful than to live under false hope.