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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).

Rob Collie

Rob Collie

One of the original engineering leaders behind Power BI and Power Pivot during his 14-year career at Microsoft, Rob Collie founded a consulting company in 2013 that is 100% devoted to “the new way forward” made possible by Power BI and its related technologies. Since 2013, PowerPivotPro has rapidly grown to become the leading firm in the industry, pioneering an agile, results-first methodology never before seen in the Business Intelligence space. A sought-after public speaker and author of the #1-selling Power BI book, Rob and his team would like to help you revolutionize your business and your career.

This Post Has 8 Comments
  1. So that new business you’re working on…anything to do with revolution? 😉

    Okay, so let’s give this gas/oil hypothesis a prod. Who’s the ‘Philip’ on the EU side this time? What do they get out of it? Can they squirrel millions of illicit gains, or is democracy strong enough, that they would go to jail just like any ‘ordinary’ person. (Putin on the other hand…)

    In fact, is there ‘one’ Philip, or are all those leaders in on it? Are they capable of such cooperative deception, with so much to lose if it can be tied back to oil/gas beyond resonable doubt by investigative journalism?

    Or the non-oil hypothesis: are they simply worried that they’ll get voted out of office if they don’t intervene given all that bad stuff on the news, even though they know that intervening will probably make the situation no better, and quite likely a lot worse? i.e. it’s the least bad decision for their domestic interests?

    1. Who is the Phillip – I don’t know how the EU political machine works. But in the US, it would happen like this:

      A lobbyist for a big oil/gas company would pay a visit to an influential member of Congress. “Hey, Congressman, how’s it going? How are things looking for you in next year’s election? Wow, that close? Unreal! Who would have thought that guy would make it this far. A real shame you have to defend your seat against someone like that. I sure hope we can help you out next year. Anyway, the reason for my visit: have you seen the atrocities committed by Assad against these freedom fighters? I think it would be very un-American of us to leave them defenseless against the Bad Guys.”

      Get it? The politician does NOT have to directly profit from the flow of fossil fuels in order to be swayed. The implied threat of “we won’t fund your re-election campaign” is all it takes. The Leaders can be bought very cheaply. So at a high level, I consider Big Business and Politicians to be sub-parts of the Leaders team.

      At least in the US, there isn’t enough bad stuff on the news about Syria to remotely motivate politicians or voters to care on humanitarian grounds. Like I said, we’re focused on Taylor Kardashian. The oil hypothesis is just far more reliable IMO – there’s a reason why the US is always fighting in the Middle East, and it’s not because the Middle East is the only place in the world where there are humanitarian crises.

    2. The Phillip in the EU is Tony Blair, who has morphed into David Cameron/William Haig/Francois Hollande.

      Rob, the big flaw that I see in your argument is that the leaders may do things that the citizenry may not explicitly want to do, but, whatever their primary motives and their personal justifications, they do it for reasons that that same citizenry do want. The citizens want plentiful and cheapo energy, your country was founded on it, and your citizenry howl every time petrol prices go to a level that we haven’t seen for over 10 years.

      1. Bob we agree 100% on that, but the American citizen is far less aware of their own needs than you may think.

        If you ask the average US citizen why gas prices are going up, they typically tell you it’s price gouging by Big Oil – not scarcity or increasing demand.

        And if you ask them why we invaded Iraq, the answer is still, to this day, going to be “WMD” or “Al Qaeda” most of the time.

        The other thing is: while the oil wars undoubtedly enrich the Leader class, it may be cheaper overall for the US citizen to just go ahead and pay more for gasoline. By the time you factor in the hidden costs of the oil wars (expanding national debt leading to inflation, increased taxes, decreased federal benefits and infrastructure investment), the way we’ve been doing it may actually be MORE expensive than just paying more at the pump.

        Or maybe not. But it’s not like we’ve run those numbers as part of some public debate. The propaganda about WMD and Al Qaeda is also meant for citizens of *other* countries to consume, and if we were more up-front about saying “all your oil belong to us,” it would be easier for foreign Leaders to rally their People against us.

        This whole post was meant in the spirit of How the World Really Works, rather than as some judgment about Right and Wrong. How can we even debate the latter until we truly understand the former?

  2. Here’s an article you might enjoy that covers some of these points.

    I think point 6 could be eliminated. Concern about access to oil, or resources more generally, is just another emotional ploy to get citizens behind war. It’s never really in the economic interest of the citizens to go to war. Switzerland doesn’t start wars and it has plenty of access to resources. Even if the “other side” owned all the oil they would still sell it to the “our side” because it’s in their economic interest to do so. We buy plenty of oil from countries that do not share “our” values.

    1. FANTASTIC ARTICLE, thank you Bill! The parallels are spooky – an empire at its peak, burdened with a massive National Debt, continually throwing itself into wars that at bare minimum, the people don’t understand.

      But I stand by point 6. After all, cornering resource flows is one of the primary means by which the Leader class becomes enriched by war (the other two, of course, being the Armaments industry and the Banking industry – the former makes the weapons and the latter finances the whole shebang, extracting infinite payments from the people via income taxes and inflation).

      I’ve never once been “sold” a war based on resource struggle, and really I don’t think the US has “sold” a war to its people on those grounds in at least 150 years – if ever. I mean, if we started calling attention to those motivations, the People would start wondering – are we being greedy, going over there to take resources from other people? And also wondering who is profiting from the war. If you want to go to war, it’s best not to bring these things up.

      The Oil Game goes a lot deeper than I ever expected. Yes, you can always buy fossil fuels from people you don’t like. But if Putin can freeze you to death if you cross him, well, eek. You simply can’t import enough natural gas via tanker – a pipeline is the only way to get enough. Russia currently has a monopoly on that, and they leverage that whenever they can – either hiking prices at will or threatening to “turn off the gas” in backroom meetings. Check out this musical ensemble on Russian TV – “turning off the gas” is a household idea in Russia:

      And I don’t mean that to paint Russia as Bad Guys. I just mean that you can’t buy it if they don’t sell it.

      The overarching point is that fossil fuels aren’t a textbook efficient market. The number of suppliers is small, and the number of large consumers is also small. The price of oil, and even just the *availability* of it, is therefore very much entangled with international politics.

      It would be a very different world if we could all be honest about this. We’d have to confront many unpleasant truths, which is to say we’d actually have to plan for the long term and not constantly scapegoat others for our lack of planning or restraint. I think we’d still have a war from time to time, but far less frequently.

  3. Rob – I’d agree that arms manufacturers have much to gain from war. But on the “all your oil belong to us” or “now we’ll get cheaper oil from you than we would have if we don’t meddle” argument, I’d want to see some facts/figures on whether in reality that ever happens before I buy the argument entirely. Is it really a credible argument to policymakers?

    Yes, the lobbyist ‘campain fund’ angle is a credible threat, but so is a backlash from voters at a later date when they realise in hindsight the cost of the war. Maybe the point of all this is that voters need more foresight, and polititions are just acting rationally given that voters tend not to exercise it.

    It would be interesting to see what impact say the two gulf wars had on ownership of oil by US interests – as well as the price of it to US consumers. Hell, maybe it cost more in oil than they ‘appropriated’ (assuming they appropriated any at all…I wouldn’t have the faintest clue if they did or they didn’t.). And maybe consumers spent more on the war (when you consider the cost of the war via taxation and death/injury) than they realised via cheaper oil prices (if in fact the price of oil was cheaper than the counterfactual case). If they didn’t appropriate more than they used, and if they didn’t realise a cost decrease more than they spent, then either they are stupid, were duped, or went to war for other reasons than just economic. Or more likely a combination.

    I agree with BillD’s comment:

    “It’s never really in the economic interest of the citizens to go to war, and that even if the “other side” owned all the oil they would still sell it to the “our side” because it’s in their economic interest to do so – unless they were a monopoly provider that used their monopoly position to sell oil at above the ‘market clearing equilibrium’ price that would otherwise prevail if there wasn’t a monopoly.”

    I’d hypothesise that while Economics is a factor (and is perhaps often the factor that gives war the final push to get over the line), these other factors are as much a part:
    • Positioning
    • Ego
    • Stupidity
    • Humanitarian intervention (i.e. we think that the current dude is so bad, that surely installing someone else will be better. Only to realise we’ve just ended up with more bad dudes at great cost to both the country we ‘helped’ and our army/economy that did the ‘helping’).

    …and that in absence of these other factors, in a democratic society even the leaders would NEVER go to war based on economics alone.

    On that last point, I know you could argue that it’s funny that we’re intervening more often than not in poor countries with large natural resources. I’d hypothesise that maybe that’s because those spots are the ones where more often than not humanitarian intervention is required precisely because people are fighting internally over control of those resources.

    By the way, that HeavyDutyDecisions comment was mine. Didn’t mean to post anonymously.

  4. Sorry, didn’t quite make this point clearly:

    If they didn’t appropriate more than they used, and if they didn’t realise a cost decrease more than they spent, then either they are stupid, were duped, or went to war for other reasons than just economic. Or more likely a combination.

    What I meant was this: You’ve got a hypothesis that someone signed off on war on the argument that they (or their ‘stakeholders’ will get more of something and/or will get that something at less cost

    While we can’t directly prove this ‘motivator’ in the absence of a smoking gun, we can check if stakeholders did in fact get more and/or get it for less.
    If the stakeholders didn’t, then we could hypothesise that:
    • Maybe that wasn’t the motivator in the first place.
    • Maybe that was the motivator, but the people signing off miscalculated the potential gains and potential risks.
    • Maybe they were sold that motivator by one of your third parties, and stupidly bought it.

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