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Securing the Benefits of Victory

A friend of mine, in another country, is involved in a dispute with a government agency which he believes has been acting outside its legal powers to the detriment of many of its clients. However he thinks that his representations are now being heard and that the tide of the argument has turned in his favour, says Prof Simon Bridge, Visiting Professor at Ulster University Business School

He summarises his position as being rather like that of the allied powers after D Day: after some years of fighting victory may at last be on the horizon but it will only come if pressure continues to be applied until a surrender is actually confirmed.

This reference to D Day struck a chord because it prompted me to reflect on three books I have read each of which gives a different perspective on the reasons for Germany’s defeat in the Second World War – and all could be correct.

The broadest perspective is given by Paul Kennedy in his book Engineers of Victory in which he analyses the strategic problems still facing the Allies at the start of 1943, all of which had to be solved if victory was to be achieved and all of which, to a large extent, had been resolved by mid 1944.

They included winning the Battle of the Atlantic by defeating the U-boats so that Britain could continue to be supplied and American troops safely transported to Europe. Then there was gaining command in the air so that the Luftwaffe could not disrupt Allied preparations and operations.

The Allies also had to work out how to land an army successfully on an enemy-held shore so that the Allied land forces could cross from Britain to continental Europe and bring their German counterparts to battle. And on top of that they had to learn how to counter the German blitzkrieg tactics which earlier in the war had seemed so invincible. The success of D-Day indicated that all these had been achieved to the extent necessary to make the end result appear to be inevitable, at least in retrospect. However, although D-Day could clearly be seen as a significant success, ultimate victory was not definitively secured for another eleven months when Germany at last surrendered.

A rather different view on when Germany’s fate was settled was indicated in an account I once read of the Battle of Britain. It recorded the post-war reflection of Field Marshall von Rundstedt, one of Hitler’s most senior generals and one-time Commander-in-Chief, who apparently gave it as his view that the outcome of the war was really decided by Germany’s failure to win the Battle of Britain.

His reasoning was that, because Hitler’s main strategic objective was always Russia and expansion in the east, his failure to invade Britain or otherwise take it out of the war condemned Germany to fight on two fronts – and that was what ultimately led to its downfall.

However an even earlier event has also been suggested as having a crucial impact. After seeing the film The Darkest Hour, I then read the book Six Minutes in May by Nicholas Shakespeare, the title of which refers to the duration of the division at the end of the Westminster parliamentary debate about the brief and unsuccessful Norwegian campaign which followed its invasion by Germany early in 1940. It was this vote which convinced Chamberlain that he had lost so much support that he had to resign – but Shakespeare sets the scene by relating an incident in 1948 when Churchill visited Norway after the war.

In a speech of acknowledgement, the then Governor of the Bank of Norway, Gunnar Jahn, recalled an argument he had had in 1942 with a depressed fellow countryman who believed that the Germans would win the war. ‘Oh no’, Jahn had responded, ‘the Germans lost the war when they invaded Norway’ – and then went on to explain that this was because it was the invasion that led to Winston Churchill taking over the leadership of Britain.

So when did German defeat become inevitable?

The leadership of Churchill and victory in the Battle of Britain may have been significant contributory factors – almost certainly necessary but not lone sufficient – and the successful execution of Overlord (D Day) may have been a key turning point because it showed that the Allies had successfully overcome the key strategic obstacles to victory. But even after all that the Allies still needed to maintain their pressure and finish the job.

However an important lesson from this is that in such situations it is only after they have concluded, and thus with the benefit of hindsight, that defeat really looked inevitable. Success has many parents all of whom may have a legitimate claim to have played a key part. There is very rarely a single magic bullet which will ensure success but instead a number of issues all of which have to be addressed if victory is ultimately to be obtained. An implication of that is that, if these issues are not all addressed and pressure maintained to the end, it might still be possible for the apparently successful side to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

But is there another lesson to be learnt from this story – one that is much less obvious because it lies, not in the story itself, but in the impression that is left by its telling? In relating all this have I succumbed to the temptation of thinking that life is essentially about conflict – a situation in which the norm is a succession of bids for victory, because the alternative is defeat? This view leads us to suppose that, unless we know they are on our side, other people are potential opponents against whom we must always be prepared to contend. It would seem this that is what happens in many tribal societies, whether the tribes are different football teams, different gangs or different mafia families – and the consequent lack of trust is self-perpetuating.

However Francis Fukuyama in his book Trust describes how some counties or regions have evolved relatively high-trust societies and have had high growth economies as a result. We tend to think of nature as ‘red in tooth and claw’ and suppose that we also have to compete to survive – but co-operation can also evolve in nature and computer modelling consistently shows that a policy of initial trust, and retaliation only if that is not reciprocated, often leads to the best overall outcome.

Trust can produce win-win situations, whereas victory is at best a winner-takes-all zero-sum conclusion to conflict – and sometimes it is lose-lose as Wellington reflected when he observed that the only thing worse than a battle won was a battle lost.

Are we guilty of looking for fights where none are needed? Business is not essentially about conflict. Its fundamental basis is finding win-win arrangements from which both sides can gain. Good business is done when both buyer and seller are pleased with the result of their contract because both are better off than would otherwise be the case.

The origins of business lie in specialisation and beneficial exchange because it is more efficient for people to concentrate on what they were good at or had good access to and to swop outputs with others who had different advantages to offer – instead of all trying to be jack-of-all-trades in individually own satisfying their wants. Long term business success comes from maintaining good relationships and not from trying to pull fast ones to gain a quick, albeit temporary advantage.

Of course there can be competitors which implies there will be competition but, as Porter earlier suggested, honest above-the-board competition can actually strengthen all the parties involved – whereas all out war is often damaging to everyone.

Is politics essentially the same?

And is its true nature also being misperceived because we look for conflict in the belief that what we are seeking is victory, rather that exploring ways to mutual gain? However sometimes it doesn’t look like that and conflict can arise. And sometimes, while the issues may appear to be clear, what winning means, or what are the key factors in securing it, may not be so obvious.

In a conflict, when is victory assured? If you give up too early your gains may be reversed but, even when you have won in a just cause, if you keep fighting instead of consolidating, you may harm the fruits of victory and even allow your opponents to gain sympathy.

It seems clear that the seeds of the Second World War were sown in the punitive settlement imposed on Germany after the First. So even after harsh conflict, striking a mutually acceptable deal is still to everyone’s benefit.