Thomas A. Drohan, Ph.D., Brig Gen USAF ret.
We tend to mirror image our competitors by using clock-world analogies that apply less and less to today’s cloud-world.
Especially in the information environment, where the physical determinism that Karl Popper critiqued is notso relevant.
We keep using concepts about balance, as if the mechanics of a fulcrum, a tipping point, a center of gravity, or a trinitarian balance (government-people-military) accurately describes our information and operational environment. Such concepts dominate our strategic and operational language, language that’s essentially supposed to harness causes for desired effects.
Instead of assuming that balance explains optimal human behavior, why not consider what moves the world in which we live: imbalance? From this perspective most systems are transition to new conditions. Relationships may appear to be balanced, or in an equilibrium of forces, if we take a snapshot of the “status quo.”
For Clausewitzian followers, a remarkable trinity may still apply. But this Carl was writing about three general conditions that explain the enduring nature of war, not three illustrative agents of war. Agents are temporary. Clausewitz’s arguably permanent conditions of “war” are rationality and passion and uncertainty. The details of this trinity manifest themselves in different ways. What’s more, there’s no presumption of balance among particular actors.
Yet we often impose the enduring trinity on war today and look for balance. When we do this, we see that actors pursue rationality (defined in terms of variable preference structures), are subject to passionate escalation of violence (more violent means are more accessible to more people today), and have to deal with uncertainty (exploitable, especially with respect to clock-world believers). Does this help us understand Iran?
In the case of Iran, the dual theocratic and state components of governance are not a balance among actors. The regime governs through a decidedly unbalanced desired effect: theocracy trumps state influence. If there were no theocracy, perhaps the state’s democratic processes would produce the most representative form of governance in the Gulf. That outcome would benefit Iranians, the region and the world. Maybe such hopes skew realistic thinking.
So instead of preferring to look for balance, we should think about concepts that assume imbalance. In many cases we can better anticipate competitor behavior by looking for imbalances that produce relative advantage. Such as, Iran regime behavior that would amplify any US decision that could be marketed as anti-Iran (such as ratcheting up economic sanctions) to mobilize Shia support for the theocracy. At the same time, Iran’s theocracy, through its state functionaries, claims to want to abide by the JCPOA and only reluctantly has to increase nuclear enrichment to weapons grade levels. This is portrayed as cooperation.
That’s hardly a balance between confrontation and cooperation; Iran’s current political system just presents it that way. The reality is a powerfully imbalanced effect of confrontation and cooperation. We may not see that asymmetry in a mirror of ourselves.