Avoiding World War Three!

This most interesting post was sent to me by Mike Young.

Thank you Mike!

[Any shortcomings in the quality of the images are wholly my own fault]

Can Confrontation Analysis help us avoid World War Three?

A review of the BBC2 program: “World War Three: Inside the war room” from the perspective of Confrontation Analysis.

The wargames held in the Whitehall to look at future scenarios are usually highly classified, but BBC2 televised what it claimed to be the sort of thing that goes on.

I’m not sure how close what was on TV was to the real thing, but we all got to see an interesting example of the process of escalation.

The “wargame” was a standard unstructured BOGSAT (bunch of guys sat around a table) where the participants watched video screens with fictional news clips on and then discussed what they should do next. What happened was a rapid escalation, starting from a somewhat trivial fight over a town hall and ending in nuclear exchange.  I am sure the escalation was scripted and inevitable as it made good television, but it was interesting to see the participants arguing what to do at each stage.

You can read about it here. http://www.bbc.co.uk/guides/zpm8xsg#z8cf4j6 and the BBC2 iPlayer program is here until the 5th March http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06zw32h.

The worst thing about the “negotiations” was that there weren’t that many. The program revolved around people actually doing stuff rather than either threatening to or doubting others ability or willingness.  Confrontation Analysis says that’s the wrong way round. People don’t respond to others actions but rather to the DILEMMAS CAUSED BY ANTICIPATING THEM.  Once you’ve shot your bolt and done things, then it’s harder to undo them without a humiliating climb down.   The other party then tends to respond to the action you have just done rather than the original conflict.

I tried to find the times when there was actual communications between the parties that could be put on an options table. As far as I can tell, the Confrontation Analysis narrative went like this:

Russian Latvians call for a Referendum.  After a bit of violence, the Russians living Daugapils in the Latgale province of Latvia (near the Russian border) called for a referendum for greater autonomy. The Latvian Government rejected this.


Interestingly the wargame galloped over this first dilemma without asking the other parties what they thought.  We were told the Latvian government had rejected this. But the call was for greater autonomy not for independence, or Russian annexation.  Nothing that had been done invoked any Lisbon treaty articles. A very sensible move at this point is would be to declare it an internal Latvian problem and leave them to get on with it. (i.e. to get the other players to insert dashes into their positions)

Russians allegedly send troops into Latvia. The Russians send a convoy over the border, claiming it to be humanitarian support but the western powers and Latvia think the Russians are sending troops. This causes the trust dilemma, as shown


Interestingly the western powers moved straight into an escalation, by deploying their rapid reaction troops and by the Latvians using force on the Ethnic Russians.  There was an assumption of Russian Involvement when it wasn’t proven or admitted by them. But the Russian denial had given NATO flexibility in how it could respond.

The deployment of the high readiness joint force didn’t change the dilemmas on the options table because it was action that was just done. It wasn’t threatened. This would have been a really great opportunity to work on the Russian Co-operation dilemma, but this wasn’t done. The argument would have gone something like this.

“You say you are not sending troops to Latvia, but some of our constituents are suspicious and think you are, and so want to deploy the Joint Task Force.  As we don’t really want to do this, could we come in on the ground and check the humanitarian convoys to alley these suspicions? What else can you do to help us with this problem? We don’t want to go to the time and effort of deploying troops”

This would have shown Russia’s intentions and given NATO time. But of course, as the Rapid Reaction Force had gone in the Russians then moved heavier weapons in as a totally predictable counter reaction to NATO’s move. 

Russian Proposal Things got out of control. Actions were done (such as rescuing captured British troops and shooting down one-another’s aircraft) but the political situation was not altered by this, as all of these actions were taken without threatening to do them first, or talking to the Russians.  Eventually, the Russians did put forward a peace deal as shown below,


NATO and UK forces should withdraw from Latvia, and a UN peacekeeping force should have been installed on the ground, Latvia should have its referendum and the UK should reaffirm its existing commitment not to base troops in Latvia. I suspect the time negotiating about this was edited out, but in the program the peace deal was given fairly short shrift

The UK and the US rejected this, giving Russia a string of Persuasion dilemmas. 

US Ultimatum.  The US then imposed a new ultimatum to Russia. Russia should withdraw its forces from Latvia within 72 hours. This the Russians refused to do. So we have this for the Dilemma Table


The strange thing about this is that THE TWO DEMANDS WERE MUTUALLY COMPATABLE.  Both NATO and Russia could have withdrawn and UN forces could have been sent in to supervise the referendum. The net result would have been perhaps a bit more autonomy for the Russians in Latvia.  Note the referendum was not a referendum to secede and join Russia. Peace could have happened if anyone had noticed the possibility, but I don’t know if that was the design of the wargame.

The wargame continued to spiral of control in a somewhat implausible fashion.  The Russians used a nuclear tipped missile to sink HMS Ocean and the USS America, we chose not to retaliate but the US was deemed to have, so the programme ended with the choice of if we should launch our own nuclear missiles on receipt of an attack warning.

I was disappointed that the participants often suggested doing things that gave mixed messages to the Russians, such as a “unattributable” cyber-attack to send a message, or taking a public stand on a deadline and claiming by back channels that you were doing something else.  I would not recommend this.  Confrontation Analysis is about making positions sufficient and credible. Mixed and semi-ambiguous messages do not achieve this.

In conclusion, the interesting thing about this wargame was the way Confrontation Analysis can clearly pull out and show the lost opportunities and the futility of continual escalation.  I’m sure this is less the fault of the players but more that of the programme editors, as there were times when solutions were forthcoming and inane US escalations were shoehorned into the script to bring on Armageddon.


2 thoughts on “Avoiding World War Three!

  1. I entirely agree Manuel.
    As Mike says – and I’m sure he’s right – there was much more ‘action’ and much less ‘negotiation’ in this very abbreviated case. Not much by way of threats and promises: instead, people ‘reading’ what was going on as a 2nd Crimea and scrambling to do ‘better’ this time. There were indeed plenty of places where de-escalation could have occurred but where it wasn’t given a chance. It is a shame that the programme as a whole didn’t emphasise the significance of strategic communication.

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