206 – Does diplomacy need (game) theory? – I

Posted on January 16, 2013 by


I’ve vented my prejudices against “theory” in the past (see my http://wp.me/p81We-xh ). For one, the term “theory” seems to me perilously fuzzy. Here two definitions I got off the net[1]:

1.        a coherent group of tested general propositions, commonly regarded as correct, that can be used as principles of explanation and prediction for a class of phenomena: Einstein’s theory of relativity. Synonyms: principle, law, doctrine.

2.        a proposed explanation whose status is still conjectural and subject to experimentation, in contrast to well-established propositions that are regarded as reporting matters of actual fact. Synonyms: idea, notion hypothesis, postulate.

I’ve put what I see as contradictory in italics: the same word is supposed to signify what has been tested and what is conjectural. It looks like sleight of hand to me, the conjecture trying to masquerade as verified “truth” – and I shan’t spread salt onto the wound by arguing that in practice many conjectures in the social sciences are not prodromal to a resolution through experimentation – simply put, they can never be tested. But then: I’m just a superannuated scientist, and a contrarian to boot.

I’ve come recently across a definition of “diplomatic theory”[2]: “diplomatic theory is reflective in character, permanently indebted to historical reasoning, and unfailingly ethical in inspiration”. (pg. 2) It would appear that this “theory” belongs to definition under (2).


The same source indicates: “Diplomacy turns chiefly on regular and regularized negotiation (…) that can produce the advantages obtainable from the cooperative pursuit of common interests; and it is only this activity than can prevent violence from being employed to settle remaining arguments over conflicting ones”. (pg. 1)

This definition divides the “world of diplomacy” into two halves. One half deals with issues that can be resolved by cooperation; presumably cooperation is based on common values and interests (win-win). On the remaining issues the only possible agreement is to prevent violence: here equilibrium of terror prevails (avoid loss-loss).

This binary view has been formalized in game theory: “Game theory assumes each state is a unitary actor concerned about promoting its national interests, and rationally calculates the payoffs associated with various options (moves); the payoff from a given move will depend on the move taken by the other player(s).”[3]

The author blithely comments: “Although these assumptions may oversimplify real-world international relations, they provide a handy tool for thinking about state interaction.” Game theory then is not a “theory in any sense, but a heuristic: “a simple procedure that helps find adequate, though often imperfect, answers to difficult questions”[4]. Contrary to theories, heuristics are just useful – rather than “true”.[5]

Using historical reasoning I shall discuss the putative usefulness of game theory in further blog entries. I’ll limit myself here to quote the ending of FRIEDMAN’s article: “Progress in positive economics will require not only the testing and elaboration of existing hypotheses but also the construction of new hypotheses. On this problem there is little to say on a formal level. The construction of hypotheses is a creative act of inspiration, intuition, invention; its essence is the vision of something new in familiar material. The process must be discussed in psychological, not logical, categories; studied in autobiographies, not treatises on scientific method; and promoted by maxim and example, not syllogism or theorem.” (pg 43)

According to FRIEDMAN we are confronted with two-fold process. The first is the testing and elaboration of existing hypotheses; the other is the construction of new hypotheses. Their elaboration works according to different paradigms. I’ll maintain that going for the new – raising the horizon of the conceivable – is far more important in diplomacy than trying to solve heuristics that have been shrunk to fit our logical strictures.

In the binary world of the aforementioned definition one exhausts the possible scope of negotiations sooner or later. Stasis ensues as we are left to contemplate the impossible. Yet, true diplomacy is the art of going beyond the impossible. Diplomacy is where there are no rules – if there are, well, it’s just administration.

[1]          http://bit.ly/VF4jPA

[2]          G. R. BERRIDGE – Maurice KEENS-SOPER – T. G. OTTE (2001): Diplomatic theory from Machiavelli to Kissinger. Palgrave, Basingstoke.

[3]          J. Martin ROCHESTER (2010): Fundamental principles of international relations. Westview Press, Boulder. (pg. 132)

[4]            Daniel KAHNEMAN (2011): Thinking fast and slow. Farrar, Straua, Giroux, New York. For a summary see: http://bit.ly/SZtXe8

[5]          See e.g. Milton FRIEDMAN: The methodology of positive economics. In Milton FRIEDMAN (1966): Essays in positive economics. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.