Let's have two powers in conflict - those could be two persons, two states, two armies, two gangs, whatever. Let's say they are about to meet in a "battle" - that could be a conflict on the workplace, military action, commercial war, mob war, whatever.

Then, let's say one of the two powers has some significant weakness, not evident to the other power. The weakness is so significant, that it actually poses two possibilities:

  1. the weak power refrains from engaging in the "battle", which translates to making concessions in one way or another, in an attempt to circumvent or at least mitigate, the consequences of defeat;

  2. the weak power behaves as if it were the stronger one - that is, it resorts to the political tactic of bluffing - in the hope that the opponent would not engage in any sort of the battle for the time being, in fear of being defeated.

Is there a name for this classical situation?

What are winning strategies for the weak power in this case?

Additional note:

Another way to illustrate the above question is to consider the reverse situation: you have a weak party in the process and the weak party, when feeling threatened (even if no explicit threat has been announced) by the stronger opponent, is starting to make concession after concession in a desperate attempt to appease him.

Then the question should go like "is this a prudent strategy or a losing one?"

2 Answers 2


I can't think of names but I have strategies and examples (and hopefully some real life and fictional examples, though I'm trying to cut through some examples that would be touchy).

One of the causes of World War 1 was the "Battleship arms race" where the various nations of the world were trying to build fleets of battleships to counter their rival battleship fleets. To limit this, major naval powers negotiated The Treaty of Washington, which set limits on ship classifications, mostly based on weights and gun sizes for the various types of surface fleets. The problem is the treaty inspired rapid changes in ship making policy. Germany switched from rivets to welding the hull together and used new diesel engines instead of previous steam boilers, which also saved weight. The result was a ship that weighed as much as a cruiser and had speeds of cruisers, but had the armor and fire power of Battleships (often called Pocket Battleships or Battle Cruisers). Japan used the same hull for their Battleships and their cruisers. And while Battle ships had 18 inch guns and cruisers had 14 inch guns, Japan's cruisers came with a complimentary set of 18 gun barrels, just in case their cruisers needed to be turned into Battleships in under a few hours of work, they could swap out the 14 inch barrels for 18 inch. Almost every signatory reported the hull weight at launch (coming out of dry dock) but never the final weight, which included armor, guns, and fuel and rarely fell in line with treaties. All this was allowed because everyone was cheating and calling someone out on their cheating would result in your own cheating being exposed. Japan however, did take one step further in their abuse... at the time of treaty, experimental vessels were unlimited to produce and aircraft carriers were considered experimental ships... and then one December, Japan decided to show why Carriers, not Battleships, were the true naval threat. Essentially the treaty had taken away so much from being effective in order to appease all signatories into signing... which allowed each representative to go home and say "I got the best deal for [insert nation here] and the enemy nation will never be a problem!"

Another example for the first idea is police interrogation tactics, and one of the classic ones is "Good Cop Bad Cop". The tactic sets up the interogatting officer who is all but friendly, polite, and just doing his job. He uncuffs the suspect, asks how he's doing, and even offers him a cup of coffee cause by now the guy needs something to drink. He leaves the room and in walks the loose cannon who doesn't play by the rules. He yells, he accuses the suspect of being the scum of the earth, and then he starts threatening... only for the nice detective to rush in with a standard officer and pull the threatening cop out and tell them they don't need his attitude. Good cop gets bad cop out of the room... if they're really good, they may even go and get some paperwork to file a complaint with Internal affairs. Now everyone knows the mechanics of this routine... they know it's probably a show, and it's cute that its used... what they don't get is that the good cop isn't trying to get you to confess, he's trying to get you to think you're smarter than him. He'll let you think you have the trick figured out... he'll tell you how the bad cop has been working a triple shift on this case, that he's been told to leave, but the guy lost his grandmother in a similar situation to this. To which you respond, "Yeah, poisoning is a hell of a way to go." The cop smirks, "I never said she was killed by poison." The trap is sprung... they wanted you to talk, by complaining about the bad cop along with you, getting you to say the one thing you shouldn't have (the undisclosed cause of death that only the real killer would know.).

This works in the board room too. Consider Captain Jellico in the Star Trek TNG episode "The Chains of Command". Jellico is in a negotiation with a Cardassian Captain that could result in war if he fails. So he enters the negotiation with two fellow officers, even though they negtiations were supposed to be Jellico and the Cardassian. The Cardassian protests this but Jellico responds by claiming the Cardassian is not serious about the negotiations and storms out of the room followed by the officers... almost immediately out of the room, Jellico drops the huff and calmy informs the officers that the Cardassians hate being out numbered in negotiations and instructs them to let the Cardassian stew for fifteen minutes then go in and apologize for the Captain, he's a loose cannon and we're calming him down right now. He also anticpates the Cardassian will want to bring his own aides and that if he does request it, the officers should look like they are hesitating to give him something for his trouble and then inform him they can probably talk Jellico into two aides, but any more is pushing it. The result is that the Cardassians understand Jellico has a short temper and any negotiating needs to be earnest and not trying any games as he'll end the meetings over it. It also gives them a "win" as the Cardassian thinks Jellico was already ceding ground to him, when in fact, Jellico knew of their weakness and was using it against him... he was always cool with the request, but he didn't want the Cardassian to know he was cool with it. It also works because he knows the Cardassians don't want to be seen as the aggressor in the war if it starts and would rather have the Federation look like the aggressor.

Another real life example of number 2 was the World War II Operation Fortitude. During WWII, Hitler anticipated a Naval Landing of Europe from England. The most obvious place for this landing was at the Pas de Calis, the French side of the most narrow part of the English Channel (home of the modern day Chunnel for this exact reason). So Hitler made this part the most well defended part of the Atlantic Wall. The allies saw the build up and realized the battle at that spot would be very costly and elected to avoid the short trip for a longer one to Normandy, which was lightly defended. But the problem arose that if they showed they were building up for another attack, Hitler would have ample time to redeploy troops at Calis to respond to the new threat.

So the allies feined an entire military build up to hide the world's largest amphibious landing operation ever. This was achieved through a number of methods including inflatable tank collumns and air wings, complete with faked tank treads and other support systems, plywood landing craft that would sink in inches of water, let alone the choppy sea, Hollywood produced oil tanks and buildings. It was further supported by what is probably the greatest spy in all of history (Hitler awarded the man the Iron Cross for basically costing Germany the war!). They also turned a potential nightmare scenario into futher evidence. In the German Military, George Patton was one of the most respected Generals on the Allies side. But the Allies kinda had a problem with him in that while he was good, he had become a political hot potato... too good to get rid of him, but to controversial to let him lead the invasion of Europe (the famous slapping incident was not popular with the home front). So this presented a great win for Eisenhower, who named Patton as Commanding Officer of the entire Fortitude Operation, which punished Patton, who knew it wasn't the invasion, and bluffed Germany who would be leery of any Allied Invasion that was without Patton in command. The result was that by the time Germany became aware of the deception, the Allies beach head in Normandy was firmly established and the forces held at Calis for a no-existent invasion would be unable to repel the one at Normandy.

  • 1
    penultimate paragraph, Pas de Calis is a typo fro Pas de Calais. Also Calis / Calais
    – Evargalo
    Commented Feb 8, 2019 at 9:49

One strategy is never bluffing. There's two ways to do this:

  • Deviously: never bluff, but attempt to create the illusion of clumsily attempting to bluff. In this way the enemy believes their adversary is bluffing about their actual strength, and therefore underestimates the non-bluffer.
  • Plainly: the gains to be had are in trade and the confidence of allies, who eventually come to appreciate the long-term value of steadiness and relative simplicity.

    Plainness is also sometimes useful against adversaries. For example, if the adversary Y is weaker, (but bluffs at being stronger), and also knows they're opposing X, (a non-bluffer), Y is less likely to wrongly hope or assume that X's actual strength is a ruse. So Y cannot expect to beat X in a fair fight, and would not attempt to do so. X also expends no resources on disguise, and therefore whatever portion of its budget X saves on disguise can be invested in a more thorough analysis of Y's disguises.

  • It is important to note that the latter advice is relevant only to allies, with whom you are pursuing a long-term relationship. In case you are in the middle of a tense conflict with straightforward adversaries, bluffing seems to remain a useful tactic.
    – drabsv
    Commented Feb 8, 2019 at 11:10
  • @drabsv, The plain method has adversarial uses as well. See revised answer.
    – agc
    Commented Feb 8, 2019 at 18:53

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