The Enemy of My Enemy: Ideas and Information in Strategic Triangles

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This paper examines how one side of triangular and multilateral relationships can have significant ramifications on the security relations of other side. Bilateral relations have wider implications than just the two states involved, since third parties can be affected. A conflict between two top regional powers will surely embroil the entire region, even though other states were initially bystanders. For instance, a conflict between the United States and China could potentially antagonize relationships between Japan and China or implicate the relationships between the DPRK and South Korea, even though Japan, the DPRK and South Korea were initially bystanders. Third party states might get chain-ganged to fight in other state’s wars. Therefore under what conditions do ideas, information and cognition interact to lead a state to misunderstand relations between two other states in a strategic triangle (as a building block for larger multilateral relationships)?As ideas interact with available information among the three sides of a triangle — leading to misperception, lack of information, or deception — a state can easily misunderstand the relationship between the other two states in the opposite side of a triangle. A state might expect the other two states to be cooperative, when they end up conflicting; or expect them to be cold, when they’re actually secretly cooperative. In sum, this paper argues that cognitive bias and information, processed through pre-existing ideas, can lead decision makers to be surprised by other states. Ideas can be perceived based on wishful thinking. In other cases, ideas can fill in missing information. Both of these result in misperception, chance and deception, enabling leaders to form faulty critical assumptions, which finally result in an inaccurate match between expectations and outcomes — hence surprise.

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