Earlier in the week a friend sent me the following line to think about: “Russia is playing Poker, NATO is playing Chess, and China is playing Go. What is winning? Who will win?” When I received his message, I didn’t have time to give it more than a few minutes thought, and when the line woke me up at 2:00 this morning, I knew I had to find the time to write about what my brain had done with it.

In brief, my brain did with this line what all of our brains do with incomplete and contradictory perspectives on the world, which leave us with an information gap and a sense of impending, dangerous change: my brain created a theory to explain what the line might mean, and a story to express how it could play out in the world.

Our brains are primarily storytelling processors, not logic processors. Consequently, “Russia is playing Poker, NATO is playing Chess, and China is playing Go” can both be read as a theory to explain how decision makers across the world made the decisions that got us all into the situation that we are in now, or as a story to explain why the world is in such a mess.

In this case, “What is Winning? Who will Win?” signifies the information gap and the impending/dangerous change. Our brains will not tolerate having such information gaps and/or not having an explanation for dangerous change.

If you are interested in understanding the Human compulsion to create stories and explanations, then go and watch the below video and/or read Will Storr’s book, The Science of Storytelling.

The Science of Storytelling | Will Storr | TEDxManchester

We all tell stories to explain and give meaning to our lives, and we like to learn about explanations and meaning through other people’s stories, and we like to share stories with others who agree with our stories, so that we don’t have to go through the world full of uncertainty and alone.

In every country, the political elite try to tell emotionally persuasive stories, to keep the population on side, and the security elite try to inject some logic into their theories, to maintain a cohesive and coherent narrative for the state. When countries compete with each other, or come into conflict, a large part of the cognitive tension that underpins whatever happens in the world comes from the mismatch between the stories and theories that underpin different countries political and strategic cultures.

Russia doesn’t play Poker, NATO doesn’t play Chess, and China doesn’t play GO. Even though we would like other people to create and share stories about themselves for us to understand, which are true, nothing could be further from the truth. People tell stories about themselves for themselves, and for those that they want to share a world view with.

If you want to understand a political elite, read the stories that they tell each other about their country and what they need to do. If you want to understand what a security elite are going to recommend to their masters, learn how they select, train, and promote their personnel, and learn what you can about the stories they tell to define themselves and their role.

The only significant insight we have into other countries decision making and planning comes from studying the creation and maintenance of their Strategic Culture and Political Culture.

Russia tells a consistent story to itself: Russia is a great power; Russia is under constant threat; Russia should always be on the offensive. China tells a consistent story to itself: China is a great power; China needs to redeem itself after the Century of Humiliation; China should dominate without resorting to conventional war. NATO just got its consistent story to tell itself back: NATO stands together against the reborn evil empire.

“What is winning?” depends entirely on the story that you are listening to and which story you believe.

“Who will win?” depends on how desperately people believe their stories, and on how much blood and treasure the rest of us are willing to sacrifice to crush their story in the service of manifesting our story.

Be careful which stories you create, which stories you take seriously, and remember that people kill and die for their story.

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