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When Strategies Appear "Irrational"

In Victor Davis Hanson’s The Second World Wars (plural), there’s a discussion about how World War II started. Hanson says, “Emotions push states to war as much as does greed” (p. 25).

In A Spy’s Guide To Strategy, we use a simple model to analyze strategies.

It looks like this:

Strategists have a Positive-Sum Endgame in mind. They reason backward through Zero-Sum Games of conflict and Positive-Sum Games of alliance, then take action to build and win those games to reach their Endgames.

Importantly, each Positive-Sum Game has a Boss Game inside it. The Boss Game is represented by a triangle, because it usually ends up as a hierarchy when stable. Few at the top, more at the bottom. Like a triangle.

A Boss Game inside a Positive-Sum Game looks like this:

Without a hierarchy, you need a common culture for a Positive-Sum Game to be stable. You need an enforced set of rules like a Constitution. Or institutions that everyone agrees on.

Europe between the wars had none of those. With the United States far away, Great Britain appeasing and France largely pacifist, there was no stable hierarchy. With the devastation of World War I in the consciousness, the rise of Communism and fascism plus the decline of traditional Western European cultural institutions, there was no common set of rules in Europe. Europe between the wars was ripe for a Boss Game.

Plus, you had the Treaty of Versailles. With reparations and rules, the Treaty of Versailles tried to keep Germany permanently at the bottom of Europe economically and militarily.

Nobody likes being on the bottom of a hierarchy. Nobody.

Interestingly, Hanson calls what Germany did at the beginning of World War II “irrational.” He says, “They [the Axis Powers] went to war to earn global power and especially to be recognized as globally powerful. The irrational proved just as much a catalyst for war as the desire to gain materially at someone else’s expense” (p. 26).

A strategy to move up in a Boss Game isn’t “irrational.” It’s the main motivation for most conflicts (including the Arab Spring, as discussed in A Spy’s Guide To Strategy). In fact, it’s hard to think of any conflict that doesn’t have a Boss Game at its root.

In Europe between the wars, Germany was playing a Boss Game whether anyone else acknowledged it or not. An overlooked step in that was the Spanish Civil War. In Spain, Germany and Italy’s intervention got little resistance from other European powers. The Spanish Civil War signaled to Hitler that if he wanted to become boss of other territories, no one would resist. Austria, the Sudetenland and Czechoslovakia followed. Germany became boss of them all. Then, Germany went into Poland, Great Britain entered the war, and World War II began in earnest.

World War II started with a Boss Game, which wasn’t irrational.

World War II started with a Boss Game, as most wars do.

I’m a fan of Hanson’s history of World War II. It's great in many ways. But when people call other people “irrational,” it usually means there’s a weakness in their mental framework. It means they don’t understand what’s happening in other people’s heads. It means there’s something going on that they don’t understand.

Using a strategic framework like the one in A Spy’s Guide To Strategy gives insights into what Hanson calls irrational: A Boss Game that became a Zero-Sum Game.

Boss Games often look irrational to outsiders. They look irrational because outsiders can't see what the insiders are fighting for. Unless you're inside the game already, it's hard to see what the stakes are.

But Boss Games aren't irrational to the players inside the game.

If you're trying to predict wars, you look for Boss Games inside Positive-Sum Games. You look for Boss Games where one side or the other is pushing against the other. Where one side or the other is extending their reach. Where one side or the other is no longer holding back.

Boss Games turn into Zero-Sum Games when one side no longer holds back.

Find the Boss Games inside Positive-Sum Games, and you'll find the root of most wars.

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