Invariably as regular as clockwork when the machinations of geopolitical intrigue begin to take shape on the world stage a cry goes up from the corners of the room “Nothing ever happens.” Generally, as these events progress a subtle shift begins, first it is a few and then in the blink of an eye the entire room is standing over in the far corner saying “Nothing ever happens, we knew it all along and said it”. Of course, it is not true. The majority of that crowd merely acted like a crowd and gravitated toward what they perceived as the winning side.
There are others, some predisposed to what some call normalcy bias. These point to the fact that nothing big ever does happen. After all, since WWII nothing has happened that was really threatening to the world order. Korea, Cuban missiles, Israeli-Arab Wars, Vietnam, Afghanistan (Soviets), Persian Gulf War, Afghanistan (US) etc, etc. etc. And with such a “long” history of data to support their claims, who among us could not sit eagerly in the “nothing happens” camp? Sure, there will be news, and drama, and some conflict, but it is all manageable, after all, we have 80 or so whole years to prove it. It is rather laughable is it not? Eighty or so years juxtaposed against a backdrop of hundreds of years of history that tell us that occasionally, something actually does happen.
I do some work with a few fellows who provide threat analysis to a handful of firms. My main purpose is to act as the outlier in the group. It is my function to counterbalance normalcy bias by taking the most dangerous (and possible) scenario and throw it on the table to confound all of their analysis. I am not speaking of black swan events, possible but unexpected things, but dangerous outcomes based upon realism that are possible. In fact, these dangerous possibilities are near certainties unless both sides act rationally and one or both sides compromise in some way. No matter the title you assign to such a position, and the technique is formalized into an accepted methodology, the outlier is always wrong – until the day he is not.
There are reasons for this. Theoretically, most of geopolitics is guided by rational actors most of the time. As such, most practice the exact same technique described above. Nations calculate red lines, statements by their leaders, and actions with an eye toward the most dangerous and possible action of their opposition. When done properly, it is exactly the sort of chess game all the midwits talk about so often on social media. This is a rational and normal world, and yes this reality even accounts for and accepts nefarious conspiratorial actors exerting pressure on the system to leverage events.
There are two problems with the system as described above. First, something always happens, even when it appears nothing did. The folly in Vietnam had a direct impact on the incompetence of Desert One. The debacle in Afghanistan was no mere embarrassment, it was a seminal moment that parties opposed to American hegemony noticed. Key insights from the Russo-Ukrainian War have not gone unnoticed either. Likewise, while Americans may have learned little from the invasion of Iraq, the bombing of Libya throwing it and Europe into chaos and the funding of radical groups to achieve temporary ends, the same cannot be said of others. The noticing is prolific. All of these events happened within a mosaic that paints a picture story. In each something happened that was bigger than the event itself.
Second, we assume and observe that most nations have acted rationally over the last 80 years to a sufficient degree that allowed them to anticipate proper redlines. History beyond the 80-year mark indicates that it is a certainty that such a situation is bound to eventually fail. Someone somewhere miscalculates. Historically it is generally the greater power, the empire or hegemon that makes the mistake. We can almost sense it now. We can almost hear the conversations in strategic planning sessions.
“Boss: “ok that about wraps up this order planning session, anyone else have anything?” Dude on the back wall “Sir Country X seems to take this seriously and has those new widgets that do this or that should we…” Boss, interrupting “Yeah sure, we ought to pack some more Marines on a boat and we will have POTUS make another scary statement. Ok, we are done here, that is lunch, who is buying?”
It sounds absurd, but historians know those are precisely the sorts of conversations that occurred in the general staffs of great powers that utterly miscalculated a thing as small when it was not. “kicking in the front door” and expecting to see “the whole rotten structure fall down” stops being a strategy when the realization hits that the enemy built 3,000 tanks that you were not aware of.