We Typically Thought of the Cold War as a Struggle Between Two Opposing Teams.
But I Now Think There Were Actually Four Opposing Teams.
(and Four Teams in Every International Struggle – Past and Present)

Continuing a holiday tradition of sorts, tonight I thought I’d share a long-simmering, Off Topic thought.  Our regularly scheduled program of Excel, PowerPivot, BI, etc. resumes Thursday.

Let’s start with a movie quote, shall we?

“Why was the gun not loaded???”


In “Elizabeth:  The Golden Age,” Spain sends an assassin to shoot Queen Elizabeth of England.
He fires, but the gun was deliberately loaded with powder only – no bullet.  Why?

Here’s one of those movies that my wife watches while I type away on my laptop and only halfway pay attention.  But boy, did this sequence get my attention.

In the movie, Spain and England are locked in a cold war of sorts, but Spain is quite a bit stronger in the military department.  Spain “wants” to invade England and be done with it, or to replace Elizabeth with her Catholic cousin Mary, thus conquering England “by remote control.”

If the assassin managed to actually kill Elizabeth, Mary would ascend to the throne of England, and Spain would “win.”  So why intentionally botch the assassination?

In the movie, it is eventually revealed that King Phillip of Spain believes that if Spain murdered the Queen of England, the people of England would be enraged against Spain, unlikely to accept Mary as their new Queen, AND much more likely to repel a Spanish invasion.  Phillip decides that is too great a risk.

But he knows that when Elizabeth discovers that her cousin Mary was involved in the assassination attempt, Elizabeth will have Mary beheaded (which is what happens).  The people of Spain, being Catholic, see this as the murder of God’s Chosen Queen, and become angry to the point where they want to crush England.

At this point, Phillip is completely justified, in the eyes of his own people, to launch the invasion that he always wanted to launch anyway.  So this is very much a “win” for Phillip.

See how that works?  FOUR Teams!


If we split each “side” into Royalty and Citizens, We Gain a New Perspective
(But for now, we keep the English on the left and Spanish on the Right)

Let’s recap:

  1. Elizabeth and Phillip are engaged in a struggle. 
  2. The people of England and Spain are NOT directly involved in that struggle!
  3. The people of each country are “fans” of their respective monarchs of course, but things like “do my kids have enough food to eat” are a MUCH bigger concern for them than any rivalry between the two countries.

With that backdrop, it’s hard for Phillip to launch a war, even though he has a larger military!  The peasants of Spain will bear the brunt of that war, and if their hearts’ aren’t in it, his chances of winning the war go down.

His chances of success similarly drop if he enrages the people of England against Spain.

Phillip’s calculations, then, reflect consideration of THREE other players:  the leadership of England (Elizabeth and other nobles), the people of England, and the people of his own country!


Strange but true:  Phillip’s own citizens’ interests are aligned with those of his opponent!  He has to manipulate them just as carefully as he does the English if he wants to crush Elizabeth and greatly expand his personal wealth and empire.

The Four Teams Dynamic:  Alive and Well Today

It’s tempting to think of this as something that happened “in ancient history,” but everywhere I look, I see it playing out – both in more recent history and today.

Consider this:  the US usually goes to war only in response to some emotionally-charged event.

  1. Spanish-American War:  the USS Maine blows up in Havana harbor.  The Spanish are blamed.
  2. World War I:  Not one but two different emotional events:  the Zimmerman Telegram and the Lusitania.
  3. World War II:  Pearl Harbor.
  4. Vietnam:  Gulf of Tonkin incident.
  5. Afghanistan and Iraq:  both in the wake of 9/11, although Iraq wasn’t involved in that event at all, making this a supremely interesting case of the Four Team Theory. 

It can be argued, of course, that it suited US strategic interests to go to war in ALL of those cases.  My point here is NOT about what’s Right or Wrong, Smart or Stupid, Justified or Unjustified.

My point, instead, is this:  True Strategic Concerns are never given to the people as the reason for war.  The people only accept a war when there’s an emotional trigger.  This is just as true for “good” wars as for “bad” wars.

For instance:  Anyone who was paying attention in the 1930’s could see that the US and Japan were on a collision course.  Japan’s expanding industrialization and ambitions required resources, and the US was an obstacle to that expansion (thanks to the colonies we took from Spain in war #1 above).

The Pacific, in essence, wasn’t big enough for the two of us, and there was going to be a fight over resources, period.  Japan’s leaders knew this, and the US leaders knew this.  The citizens of each country were not as aware of course, focusing instead on daily life rather than geopolitical matters.

Japanese leadership had great incentive to preemptively smash US military power to clear the way for continued resource acquisition.  And US leadership had great incentive to intervene against Japanese forces sooner rather than later, because defeating that expansion became more difficult every time the Japanese were allowed to seize another island or country (which was well underway long before Pearly Harbor).

When Pearl Harbor was attacked, then, you can bet that it wasn’t nearly as big of a surprise to Roosevelt as it was to Joe on the Street.  Roosevelt had to be expecting something to happen eventually, and it’s often speculated/asserted that he even knew of the impending air raid, but didn’t expect it to be as effective as it was.  The fact that all three aircraft carriers were away from port, and only battleships (which were already suspected to be obsolete for the coming conflict) – were present provides much fodder for conspiracies, but such conspiracies are not necessary for my point.

More Examples

When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, the “official” motivation was something humanitarian.  That fooled Exactly No One outside of the USSR of course, but I’m sure that messaging was helpful at home.  Afghanistan’s strategic importance to the oil-rich Middle East was known, outside the USSR, to be the prime motivation.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait, the justification was that Kuwait was slant-drilling under Iraq and stealing Iraqi oil, AND that Kuwait’s emir had been repressing his people – so the Iraqi invasion was a liberation of sorts.  I mean, taking over the massive oil reserves of Kuwait had nothing to with it right?

When the US invaded Iraq because Iraq was developing nukes, and it came out later that there was basically zero evidence that was happening, but oops now the US occupies one of the world’s most oil-rich countries, this surprised no one outside of the US.  Outside the US, everyone understands it was an oil grab.

Why Are We Arming Al-Qaeda Again?

So..  Libyans revolted against Quaddafi, someone who was long-known as a pretty bad guy.  And NATO forces supported the rebels.  It turned out those rebels are closely aligned with Al Qaeda, and the Al Qaeda flag ended up flying over government buildings in Libya.  Subsequently those elements killed the US ambassador.

Seems pretty dumb, right?  Considering that Al-Qaeda is without doubt our number one enemy, the only foreign force who’s ever managed to strike the continental US, why did we actually help them succeed?

My Four Team Theory says that “Quaddafi Is a Bad Guy” is the reason given to the Citizens by the Leaders, but there’s another motivation behind the scenes – a Strategic one that the Citizens would not accept.  Oil is my guess.

Strange things afoot in Syria

But let’s move past Libya.  The pattern is being repeated right now, in Syria.  There’s a rebellion going on, and it’s been boiling now for about two years.

In the US, this isn’t exactly Big News – it’s just one of those things that flashes briefly on the TV between longer segments on Kim Kardashian and Taylor Swift.

Now, whether it should be Big News is not something I’m here to argue.  Death toll estimates range anywhere from 60,000 to 120,000 people killed, so it’s not a small thing. 

Syria’s leader, Assad, is another Bad Guy.  A repressive authoritarian if ever there was one.  The European Union voted today to clear arms shipments to the rebels, and largely this is being billed as a humanitarian move, a blow against Evil.

It’s not, of course – Assad was just as bad ten years ago as he is today.  And it’s already known that the rebels have strong ties to Al Qaeda.  But the West is going to give them weapons.  Again.

This time, the real reason isn’t oil.  It’s natural gas!

Short version:

  1. Europe is a massive net importer of natural gas, for heating purposes
  2. The majority of that gas comes from Russia, and Europe doesn’t like that Russia can charge them such high prices
  3. There’s a plan to run a new gas pipeline from Qatar to Europe, through Turkey.  This would break Russia’s stranglehold on EU natural gas pricing.
  4. But that pipeline would also have to go through Syria.
  5. Russia is a big supporter of Assad, so as long as Assad is in power, no pipeline!
  6. A little bit of Al Qaeda I guess isn’t all that bad in the eyes of the EU leaders, as long as energy prices fall and Russia loses its leverage

This is all clear to the Leaders on all sides.  But the version sold to the Citizens is always the same old Good and Evil thing.

Don’t take it from me.  Take it from one of the worst.

“Naturally the common people don’t want war: Neither in Russia, nor in England, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, It is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”


–Hermann Goering at the Nuremberg Trials

What’s the point, Rob?

There are a number of points really.

One – it’s just a reminder that the People aren’t that different from country to country.  War sucks and we know it.

Two – the leaders’ interests are rarely the same as the People’s.  Even if it would make sense for Country A and Country B to make a deal rather than fight, if that deal doesn’t help the leaders, it’s unlikely to happen.  It’s unfortunate but true:  leaders tends to profit from wars while the people tend to do the suffering.

Three – the Leaders simply cannot go to war without the will of the people behind them or at least tolerating it.  Leaders are just tiny little specks floating on an ocean of the People.  The Leaders know that, but usually the People do not.

Four – if you’re like me and find yourself always trying to puzzle through the world’s events, I think you will find the Four Team Theory useful.  I actually think it’s impossible to understand the difference between what countries say vs. what they do – until you recognize that each country’s leaders must treat their own people as one of their “opponents” in the geopolitical struggle.

Five – I just have a strong distaste for being deceived.  Give it to me straight and see if I’ll still support you.  I’m not naïve – I know that if Country A doesn’t grab the resources, Country B definitely will.  Conflict and competition are at the heart of Nature, period.  But it certainly would be interesting to have the world’s citizens conduct the cost/benefit analysis of war, and the negotiation for resources, with their eyes wide open, and without being fed some line about how Evil that other country is.  I bet that would reduce (but not eliminate) instances of armed conflict.  Will we ever get there?  Not any time soon, but the Internet is a big, BIG step in the right direction.

Six – it’s always about the fossil fuels.  They are just an insanely amazing one-time “gift” to humanity.  One of my atheist friends describes them as the single best argument for the existence of God.  Fossil fuels are everything to the modern world, and the struggle to secure cheap access to them before the party runs out is the #1 driver of conflict in the world today.  (Yes, I think it narrowly edges out religious differences).