OPINION: Bullies only understand punishment, or “a hit dog will holler”

Last Updated on Sunday, 2 June 2024, 11:47 by Writer

By Dr Randy Persaud, Professor Emeritus, American University, Washington DC

Bullies only understand punishment. This is the conclusion arrived at by Professor Joshua Goldstein, author of the bestselling textbook on international relations on that subject, and a former colleague of mine at American University, Washington DC. Goldstein, who can be best described as a ‘defensive realist,’ came to this conclusion after careful (Large-N Qualitative Analysis (LNQA)) analysis of state behavior over an extensive period.

Goldstein’s findings should be taken seriously by those who have an interest in or are tasked with the business of national security. The findings are especially apposite in the current geopolitics and national security challenges in the circum-Caribbean. In particular, the aggression emanating from Caracas must not be treated with diplomatic niceties. Shout as they might about imperialism, President Maduro and his cadre of political and military figures must appreciate that aggression has consequences. The reimposition of sanctions by the United States is the appropriate first-step measure against a regional bully that is bent on upsetting the prevailing status-quo in the Caribbean Basin.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies has correctly characterized Venezuela’s strategy as one of “compellence.” This strategy involves a state (Venezuela) using a full spectrum of resources to coercively communicate a demand against a target (Guyana). The classic understanding of compellence requires a credible claim. This is the only element missing for a full application of the concept of compellence. Yet, compellence as a general idea is appropriate.

Satellite and data gathered through other reconnaissance methods have conclusively demonstrated that significant military assets have been deployed at strategic points. The CSIS report should be consulted for a full description (

Now, too many in Guyana and the Caribbean feel that the best policy is to trust history, meaning here that while Venezuela has repeatedly threatened action on the Essequibo, no acts of material aggression have ever ensued. Partial occupation of Ankoko Island from late 1966 is assumed to be “consolidated reality.” Others believe that Maduro’s compellence threats are solely tied to electoral necessity and that things will go back to normal after July 28. Well, the truth is that history has sad lessons for those who do not take threats by bullies seriously.

If there is no push back, the bully will be emboldened. The weaker state must be on the alert to the favorite technique of a bullying state. This is to produce a crisis. A crisis can be best defined as a situation of high uncertainty, with limited time, options, and resources to react, and that has the capacity for significant negative consequences. Weaker states always lose in crisis situations. In our own case, President Ali’s diplomacy at Argyle was brilliant because it diffused a situation that was heading towards a crisis.

The literature in strategic studies is clear that weaker states must seek protection if not by alliance, then certainly by friendship based on reciprocal national interests. It is safe to say that the US and Guyana do have a confluence of national interests. Much of this is grounded in our hydrocarbon resources. Beyond that, both countries have an abiding interest in religious tolerance, democratic governance, and the rule of law.

Partnership means action in time of need. We saw just that recently. Last month two F/A 18 Super Hornets did a flyover of Georgetown. The aircraft took off from a US Navy nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, USS George Washington, which has been deployed in the Caribbean via the US Southern Command. This was a big deal, much bigger than most think. You see, if compellence threats do not get any resistance, any push back, threats will graduate to penetration. The bully will always probe, will always assess how far it can go without punishment. As Professor Goldstein discovered through his academic research, bullies only understand punishment.

The US-Guyana relationship is one that must be fortified, deepened, and that must continue to thrive on both official and second-track diplomacy.

As for the flyover, a Texas saying captures it best. ‘A hit dog will holler.’

Dr. Randy Persaud is an advisor at the Office of the President.