Global affairs are shaped by two opposite stances in attempts to control space, i.e., regions and countries.  The first one employs offensive actions in order to dominate.  The second counters with defense. Where and when two opponents meet, a defining moment occurs that leads to a triumph of the side better prepared to exploit its opponent’s weaknesses.  Such conflict is philosophical as much as physical, because a single side cannot be aggressive and defensive at the same time.  It must choose an appropriate strategy or face defeat.  This is particularly true for those who utilize defensive actions against strong aggressive opponents.

In order to win, one must anticipate a moment when his opponent overextends his reach, declines in his ability to project powerful punches because of exhaustion, and then use this weakness for his own benefit.  On the other hand, a strong puncher and quick finisher cannot suddenly transform his actions into a measured long-term response; this is contrary to his philosophy and to his ability.

Rope-a-Dope

International geography of conflict currently resembles a professional boxing match with one historical event in particular—Rumble in the Jungle.  In the October 1974 fight in Kinshasa, Zaire, the world witnessed a duel between raw aggression from one of the greatest punchers in the heavyweight boxing history, George Foreman, and an underdog, Muhammad Ali, defensively relying on ropes for eight rounds.  Knowing that he could not outpunch Foreman, Ali briefly tested his opponent in the first round by approaching closer.  Foreman responded as expected.  He began chasing Ali around the ring, cutting off available space for Ali and trying to corner him.  He believed that this strategy would produce a quick victory with the use of brute force and extremely strong punches.  At that moment Foreman was controlling the space and dominating the ring.

Unexpectedly, however, Ali changed his strategy and surprised Foreman, as well as the estimated one billion TV viewers around the world who tuned in; he employed an approach he named “rope-a-dope.”  An unattractive strategy, particularly to pay-per-view viewers, rope-a-dope was a disciplined way of absorbing punches by retreating across the ring, relying on ropes, and preventing much damage to his body.  Foreman dominated the space in the ring for seven rounds, delivering a constant barrage of punches and confirming his strategy that led him to a record of 40 wins—37 by knockout—and zero loses.  Meanwhile, Ali understood that his risky strategy would pay off in later rounds.  It did.  In the eighth round Ali’s quick response surprised tired Foreman with a quick knockout and defeated the previously-undefeated puncher in front of the entire world.

Weakness versus Restraint

Muhammad Ali’s victory in the Kinshasa showdown came as a surprise to everyone but Ali.  His tactic of restraint, an avoidance of careless attempts to match George Foreman’s pressure, was perceived as weakness by everyone including Foreman.  This is not surprising, because in many cultures—particularly in the American cultural system—restraint is associated with weakness and weakness is associated with lack of worthiness.  In the spectators’ eyes, Ali’s performance during the first seven rounds was not worthy of a contender for the world championship.  They mistook his restraint and carefully developed tactic as being an inability to effectively fight Foreman.

In other cultures decision making through restraint is considered a virtue.  From individual responses to governmental policies and military actions, careful evaluation of conditions and long-term outcomes of multiple alternatives is always considered.  It allows a person or entity to anticipate changes and to adjust responses accordingly.  This is exactly what Muhammad Ali did.  He employed a strategy that was contrary to quick and impulsively aggressive actions that provide no alternatives if the initial strategy fails, as did George Foreman’s charge for a quick knockout.

Figure 1. Rules in international affairs should be understood like the rules in international boxing—face an opponent within your category for anything other than a promotional photograph.  Pictured are Primo Carnera (World Heavyweight Champion at the time) and the bantam weight Louis Guglielmini, a “miniature Jack Dempsey.” (Photograph courtesy of A. Guglielmini.)

The Big Ring

If we extrapolate ringside observations from Rumble in the Jungle to the current geopolitical showdown in Eurasia, a number of parallels become evident.  Aggressiveness in trying to cut out available space and corner opponent(s), short term solutions through impulsive actions, absence of long-term sustainable strategy, and danger of overreach are some of them on one side.

On the other side is an appearance of weakness. How much of the latter side’s strategy involves waiting for a moment when his opponent overextends his reach, and declines in ability to project powerful punches because of exhaustion, may become evident once the eighth round begins. That round appears to be arriving on the horizon.  Time to place your bet.

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Geography from the Ringside of Conflict