The elementary model of robust plural order is the tripod. Whether taken as a schema for constitutional separation of powers, a deeper cultural matrix supporting decentralized societies, or a pattern of ultimate cosmic equilibrium, triangular fragmentation provides the archetype of quasi-stable disunity. By dynamically preempting the emergence of a dominant instance, the triangle describes an automatic power-suppression mechanism.
From the Romance of the Three Kingdoms to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, triangular fragmentation has been seen to present an important and distinctive strategic quandary. In power balances of the Mexican Standoff type, initiation of force is inhibited by the triangular structure, in which the third, reserved party profits from hostilities between the other two.
The Cold War, schematized to its basics, is the single most telling example. Rather than a binary conflict between East and West, the deep structure of the Cold War was triangular, making it intractable to two-player game-theoretic calculations. Catastrophic damage that might be rationally acceptable within a binary conflict, as the price for total elimination of one’s foe, becomes suicidal in a three-player game, where it ensures the victory of the third party. MAD-reason is no longer readily applied, once ‘mutual’ is more than two.
Even brilliant chess players lose their way in the triangle, where the economy of sacrifice has to be radically reconsidered. Among the Cold War’s Three Kingdoms, it was the chess masters who ‘won’ the race to defeat.
The lessons of the Cold War are no less relevant to its successor, which also fostered binary illusions in its early stages. America’s chess match with militant Islam resulted in a stalemate, at best.
Increasingly fierce Sunni-Shia rivalry recasts the current war as a rough triangle, captured in its strategic essentials by the colloquialism Let’s you and him fight. This was Cardinal Richelieu’s way with triangles, as ‘Spengler’ reminds us:
The classic example is the great German civil war, namely the 30 Years’ War of 1618-48. The Catholic and Protestant Germans, with roughly equal strength, battered each other through two generations because France sneakily shifted resources to whichever side seemed likely to fold. I have contended for years that the United States ultimately will adopt the perpetual-warfare doctrine that so well served Cardinal Richelieu and made France the master of Europe for a century (see How I learned to stop worrying and love chaos, March 14)
To imagine this policy being pursued with cold deliberation is the stuff of conspiracy theory. Nevertheless, regardless of whether anybody is yet playing this game, this is the game.
ADDED: A Couple of rough triangles links; George Kerevan at The Scotsman; and Clifford May at The National Post (who recalls Kissingers classic rough triangles comment — on the Iran-Iraq War — “It’s a shame they can’t both lose.”)
ADDED: Daniel Pipes is totally there: “Western powers should guide enemies to stalemate by helping whichever side is losing, so as to prolong the conflict.”
ADDED: “With Western policy being so confused, ineffective, and ignorant, the divisions among enemies may be the best thing going.”