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A young United States conquered Florida piece by piece. From the presidency of Thomas Jefferson on, the early American republic had eyes on securing the Gulf Coast, designs greatly aided by the Louisiana Purchase. However, the process of converting land from European claims to new states was rarely done all at once at the negotiating table. First, there were actions taken below the level of overt war, which changed political reality enough to set up a negotiated handover.
In “Salami Tactics: Faits Accomplis and International Expansion in the Shadow of Major War,” Richard W. Maass uses the example of Florida to set up a parallel to modern expansions below the level of war.
The process of converting land from European claims to new states was rarely done all at once at the negotiating table. First, there were actions taken below the level of overt war, which changed political reality enough to set up a negotiated handover.
Maass regularly invokes the People’s Republic of China’s construction of military bases in the largely uninhabitable Spratly Islands as an example of such action, shifting the terrain of a future conflict while requiring a more aggressive reaction from another state to reverse. But the true heart of his paper is US and Spanish policy over Florida from 1809 to 1819, and of Russian action against Georgia in 2008 and against Ukraine in 2014. Maass’ paper was published in the winter 2021-2022 issue of the Texas National Security Review, setting it just before Russia’s much larger invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Nevertheless, it’s an illustrative show of why thinly sliced conquests can be more enduring than big bloody stabs.
“The term ‘salami tactics’ describes the repeated use of limited faits accomplis to gain influence within some competitive arena at an adversary’s expense without provoking major retaliation. Instead of pursuing a single decisive victory, the object is to advance slice by slice, securing cumulative gains at minimal cost,” writes Maass.
In Florida, the faits accomplis came when US agents encouraged the populations of Baton Rouge and Mobile (then of Western Florida) to revolt in favor of ascension to the United States. Spain, facing the ongoing revolt of its South American empire and beset by a war of royal succession at home, was little capable of averting this. It’s a direct parallel to how, in 2008, Russian forces in a five-day war moved into Georgia and guaranteed the separation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two provinces occupied and now paid by Russia.
“A state is most likely to pursue salami tactics when: (1) the cost of retaliation is high; (2) the likelihood of the rival reversing its fait accompli is low; (3) the cost of the fait accompli is low; (4) the rival’s fear of future predation is low; and (5) the state’s own expectation of further gains is high,” writes Maass.
For 19th-century Spain, retaliating against the United States over Florida meant inviting a direct war at a time when resources were already strained. For the United States in 2008 and 2014, intervening directly against Russia meant moving too late to stop the acquisition of Georgian provinces or Crimea, respectively, and carried with it the risk of nuclear escalation should the US itself attempt a war to restore territory.
Salami slicing, as a tactic, works best when the slices can be thinly separated. There are hard limits. The continuous provision of US arms and aid to Ukraine following the 2022 invasion shows that, when it comes to fait accompli, it’s best to not bite off more than even a great power can chew.