We miscalculated, and so does everyone else: The 15th rule of geopolitics

Watch his hands.
Watch his hands.
Image: REUTERS/Las Vegas Sun/Steve Marcus
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In the latest volume of his biography of US president Lyndon Johnson, Robert Caro dwells for pages on the hyper-tense Cuban Missile Crisis. Often, writes Caro, the main actor in the 13-day drama seemed not to be president John F. Kennedy or Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev at all, but a best-seller published nine months earlier in 1962 by historian Barbara Tuchman. Kennedy was haunted by The Guns of August, which narrated early lapses in judgment that led Europe’s politicians and generals into a long, colossally tragic conflict—World War I—that none foresaw. Determined not to stumble into a nuclearized, third world war, President Kennedy rebuffed hawkish advice from his cabinet, and instead waited, waited for a face-saving opening for both sides to pull back. This time, war was averted.

It being the centenary of the start of World War I, a raft of new books (paywall) seeks to reframe why the war began. But in both 1914 and 1962, the atmosphere was a key actor—it was nationalistically and militarily charged, the players armed to the teeth and the latitude for forgiveness thinned to almost nothing. War was primed for ignition by the spark of what Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck, quoted by Tuchman, called “some damned foolish thing.” In Bismarck’s and Kennedy’s view, the potential for miscalculation had risen into an arbitrary and inestimable force all its own.

At Quartz, we use an algorithm of “geopolitical rules” to bring some order to the seeming anarchy of events, 14 common-sense dynamics that help guide us to what is coming next in the world. Last year, we invoked these rules to score a five-of-six record in geopolitical forecasting. Next week, we will post our forecasts for 2014.

But the rules would only get you so far in the above examples. In 1914, rules 10, 11, 12 and 14 would have helped us see the conditions for war, since the situation in Europe involved perceived great powers (12) led by true believers (11) and giant, purposeful personalities (10) who were stirring up and serving the base interests of their local circles and populations (14). But we might well have decided at the time that Rule 2, the Precipice Rule, would trump all because, given that war could be disastrous for all the belligerents, no one would push over the edge. We would have been wrong.

Cognizance of the limitations of Rule 2 at times led Kennedy to his actions. He understood and feared that not true intentions, but an errant move, could determine events—and could have potentially pushed the Soviet Union and the US over the precipice.

An accident waiting to happen in the East China Sea

Kennedy’s insight is the best way to frame today’s brinksmanship between China and Japan in the East China Sea. Rule No. 8, the Territory Rule, explains why the two sides continue to undertake risky and inflammatory actions. Consider a move in November, when Beijing announced an “air defense identification zone” over the disputed Senkaku Islands, triggering angry demarches by Japan, South Korea and the US. Or, in early December, when Washington was again stirred up when a Chinese vessel cut across the path of the USS Cowpens and came within 100 yards of a collision in the South China Sea.

We get a broader understanding of the context from Rules 12 and 14, which tell us that perceived, real and former great powers can tend to push their weight around, particularly when local politics so dictates. So it was that in November, Shinzo Abe infuriated Beijing by visiting Yasukuni, a controversial shrine to Japan’s World War II dead, becoming the first serving Japanese prime minister to visit the monument since 2006. But yet again, the Precipice Rule (No. 2) seems pivotal—grasping the danger of war, both sides have so far held back from actually firing weapons. Rule 2 was the basis of our correct call a year ago that there would be no war in 2013 between Japan and China.

But what of Bismarck’s nightmare? The East China Sea seems to fit precisely into his matrix of a catastrophe just waiting for the trigger of “some damned foolish thing.” In an op-ed (paywall) in the Wall Street Journal, strategist Edward Luttwak joined a growing number of analysts who look at the East and South China seas and picture the “prolonged outbreak of feckless nationalism and militarism” of 1914 all over again.

The standoff in the East and South China seas is one of those extraordinary circumstances that fall outside the boundaries of normal analysis, in which the most salient factor may be the danger of an accident. To adequately appraise this jumpy region and others, we introduce the Rule of Miscalculation, Quartz’s 15th rule of geopolitics.

There is a science of miscalculation

In Blunder, Zachary Shore, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, identified seven “cognition traps,” rigid patterns of thinking that lead ordinarily smart and capable people including statesmen and generals into monstrous errors of judgment. When this happens in business, once-titanic companies such as Microsoft and BlackBerry can at once fall behind and even collapse. As discussed, the consequences can be more ominous in war and geopolitics.

Such situations are maddeningly unpredictable. That is because while, as in the East China Sea, they often originate in nationalism—the desire to look tough and not weak—in practice they can boil down to perceptions, what economics Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling called the “Reciprocal Fear of Surprise Attack.” In the case of eye-to-eye confrontation between antagonists, Schelling writes,

there is danger of an outcome that neither of us desires. Even if he prefers just to leave quietly, and I wish him to, there is danger that he may think I want to shoot, and shoot first. Worse, there is danger that he may think that I think he wants to shoot. Or he may think that I think he thinks I want to shoot.

And so on, Schelling continues:

Even a player whose own probability of ‘irrational’ attack is known to be zero must consider that the second may attack not only irrationally but also out of fear that the first, fearing the second’s attack, may try to strike first to forestall it.

Kurt Campbell, a former assistant secretary at the US State department’s East Asian and Pacific affairs division, thinks that a primary problem in the East China Sea is that Beijing’s approach to deterrence (paywall) plays on the very ambiguity that can lead to miscalculation. While the US tends toward “overwhelming displays of military capability,” Beijing prefers to ward off trouble by “creating uncertainty in the perceptions of others,” Campbell blogged in the Financial Times.

And the apprehension of a surprise attack is not the only problematic element in charged situations. Hot-headed, impulsive and exhausted generals, statesmen and soldiers are inherent to contested zones. “You get a situation where one guy on the ground gets so fired up that he fires a bullet when he isn’t supposed to,” Shore told Quartz, “or confusion that the other guy fired when he didn’t, and you retaliate—but there was nothing happening in the first place.”

When this happens, decision-makers need to step up their capacity for ultra-clear-eyed rationality. “The side that receives the hit has to say, ‘Did they really intend to fire that, or was there some confusion?’” says Shore. The question is whether, as the close calls mount, the Chinese, the Japanese and the US will continue to exercise such judgment.