State A and State B have long been at each other’s throats, both regularly engaging in insulting rhetoric and hostile maneuvers at every opportunity. Both societies suffer from governments that perform badly in terms of economic management and the protection of civil liberties at home. Each state sports a leader addicted to an aggressive international posture. Both states are theocracies, though both make obeisance to the modern god Democracy. Both states make laughable claims to exceptionalism. But there is a difference. State A is small, with few natural attributes of leadership but with an outsized military its leaders cannot resist using, regardless of whether it offers a long-term solution or not. State B is large, a natural power, but with a weak military, yet to reach its potential. The two states share no border and indeed have no obvious reason to pay any particular attention to each other.
One of the first distinctions one might notice about these two states is strategic: State A, with ample territory, a large population, and resources, seems destined, if it can get its house in order, to a bright future. It needs time, however, and could thus logically be expected to seek a stable and cooperative international environment. State B, with no obvious prospects over the long run for leadership but momentarily on a roll with a vastly greater relative superiority in strength than it could imaginably sustain, in fact has a brief chance to do what it wants but logically could be expected to foresee its inevitable loss of relative power in the midterm and therefore also be looking for a stable, cooperative environment that would facilitate the construction of lasting relationships. Nevertheless, the two cooperate only to the degree that they are, hand-in-hand, courting disaster. What is going on? How can one explain such mutually self-defeating behavior? What are the dynamics of this relationship?
Strategically, State A needs time to gather its strength, import advanced technology, achieve domestic political stability, develop its economy, and gain international support. Its forward-leaning foreign policy and egregiously hostile rhetoric appear ill-timed. Nevertheless, it has a logically defensible hidden agenda. State A appears strong and clearly is in the process of gaining strength, yet it presumably knows its own weakness and may well be acting tough on the basis of the perfectly defensible hidden strategic agenda of covering up its own weakness. In this dangerous game the slightest miscalculation may provoke precisely the attack it is attempting by bluffing to avoid. State A’s long history of suffering aggression from global powers combined with State B’s pattern of aggression against a variety of neighbors provide a persuasive body of evidence arguing in favor of bluffing rather than trying to accommodate State B. Clinching the case in the minds of many of State A’s national security thinkers may be a powerful pair of additional facts: the tight alliance between State B and the world’s only superpower and that superpower’s recent proclivity for attacking State A’s neighbors. When you really are being surrounded, it is easy to jump to the conclusion that you are under threat. State A’s behavior seems to be a dangerous miscalculation strategically but is explicable as a calculated risk to conceal a position of genuine weakness.
State B’s behavior also makes some sense strategically…but only as a risk-taking, short-term maximizing strategy. State B is, after all, in a temporary position of strength; it has a strategic opportunity that can be expected to dissipate, so the argument can be made that this is an historic opportunity to consolidate its position by seizing territory and retarding the development of potential adversaries. The strategic risk is that such a policy is also likely to maximize the hostility of its adversary. Given that its adversary is likely to gain strength relative to State B over the long run, a policy that stimulates hostility is logically questionable from a national security perspective. Defense of this strategy as a rational approach requires belief in the assumption that everyone else will always be hostile, a self-fulfilling prophesy of doom that is irrational by definition.
Both states, then, are pursuing what appear to be illogical and self-defeating policies of raising tensions and needlessly taking a real risk of provoking war of incalculable cost, yet each state actually can make a somewhat logical, if highly dangerous, case that it is pursuing a strategically valid policy. This conclusion is important because it portrays the respective decision-makers as carefully calculating risk-takers rather than the crazy militants they sometimes appear to be. Fighting to the death may be the only workable response to crazy militants who worship force; other, much cheaper solutions are available to persuade rational, calculating risk-takers that a particular risk may be too great.
This conclusion is also important because it suggests that national security thinkers in each state may well support these policies for a long time, regardless of how dangerous they are for the respective states as well as the rest of the world. No one can safely assume that either regime is suddenly likely to “wake up” and become risk-averse, renounce the use of force, and transform itself into a “good neighbor.” Like driving a sports car at top speed, a policy of force has momentum. This means the world needs to take very seriously the danger that this strategic competition might spin out of control; rather than just watching, or, as some are wont to do, cheering on one’s favorite side, the rest of the world needs to recognize that these two states are going through a period of extreme danger, like speed-crazed drivers entering a curvy section of highway but unwilling to slow down, and this highway is crowded. The period of danger will last as long as:
1. State A remains too weak to feel confident that it can protect itself without frightening its adversary;
2. State B remains convinced that it has a unique moment of power that it must exploit before it is too late.
It is thus in the interest of the rest of the world to consider how they might dissuade each side from these perceptions.
It may be concluded, then, that strategic claims are at least to some degree sincere and thus must be taken into account by analysts attempting to understand the curious behavior of these two states. That said, strategic considerations are clearly far from the whole story. More than one layer of hidden agenda lies inside the policy onions of these two states.
If a government is a group that gropes its way toward some (often least) common denominator called a policy, it is also a collection of individuals focused like a laser on their own personal careers. The behavior of States A and B cannot be understood without appreciating the degree to which the leaders of each benefits from, indeed survives politically as the result of, the garden of international tension which he so assiduously waters.
The leaders of States A and B would no doubt both be highly insulted were they informed of the degree to which they present mirror images of each other. Each has exacerbated domestic discord with ominous long-term implications for the stability of his society in order to form a winning coalition to enhance his own hold on power. Each has exploited and exacerbated international tensions to cover up his own failings as a leader. Each justifies his own failed leadership by then claiming to be defending his own country against the very hostility he himself has done so much to provoke. As obvious as this personal hidden agenda may be, the respective supporters of each seem utterly oblivious to it.
More, on each side, some of the supporters simply do not care; they themselves benefit too much to care. Superpower politicians share the hidden agenda of State B’s leader, exploiting the tensions they so loudly deride between State A and State B to pad their own resumes. Other enemies of State B are more than happy to profit from the tensions to gain the support of State A. Tensions, just short of war, offer many opportunities for profit. More technically, balancing on the fine edge of chaos maximizes performance (as long as it lasts).
The dynamics propelling behavior in this two-state system are complex. Expanding the analytical perspective to include domestic politics and external patron states makes the system dynamics almost defy comprehension.
The first dynamic is a vicious cycle of hostile behavior by one side provoking hostile behavior by the other side, which in turn provokes more hostile behavior…This cycle is real enough. The pursuit of a weapons system by one side provokes the pursuit of a weapons system by the other side.
A second dynamic is not “real” but “perception,” though its effects may be just as real. Each side interprets all defensive moves by the opponent as demonstrating offensive intent. Misperceptions can cause war as easily as real threats.
A third dynamic is a hidden state agenda to exploit tensions for national profit. A weak state can stride the international stage by providing cheap rhetorical support for an insurgency. A client state can manipulate a patron into providing an unneeded flow of aid. Foreign tensions serve as a marvelous cloaking device for regimes wishing to win votes or repress dissent at home. The leaders of both states exploit tensions for domestic partisan purposes, but both they and the voters misperceive that exploitation as sincere so tensions rise. Tensions also rise because the politicians talk themselves into believing their self-serving propaganda (cognitive dissonance).
A fourth dynamic is a hidden personal agenda to exploit tensions for personal profit. Waving the bloody flag is a tried and tested road to a brilliant political career. It is also the road to massive corporate profit. Who dares complain about the cost of “supporting our boys in uniform?”
These obvious points only deserve mention for two reasons:
1. Obvious or not, politicians get away with this nonsense every day, causing incalculable harm to society;
2. Even if all the individual points are obvious to a particularly aware individual, humans are poorly wired to “connect the dots” when the dots occur in a dynamic relationship, i.e., when interacting feedbacks generate exponential change and tipping points that suddenly reverse dominance (e.g., from intensifying patriotic fervor to sudden disenchantment with a crooked politician). Thus, we almost never understand the danger that results from these different dynamics when they interact.
The above account is a model. No pair of states in human history has ever precisely matched this model. Indeed, this model, as specified above, has no specificity. You must provide the specificity when you apply it to a real-world case, e.g., by determining the rate at which these various dynamics operate (all different from each other and all susceptible to variation depending on the context). Be that as it may, if the model seems to shed light on the behavior of any real pair of contending states, then it may provide a somewhat more useful starting point than screaming accusations of “insanity,” “fundamentalism,” “being the New Hitler,” “deserving to be wiped off the face of the earth,” or “representing evil incarnate.”