207 – Does diplomacy need (game) theory? – II

Posted on January 18, 2013 by

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Let’s recall the definition of game theory as applied to international relations: “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).”[1] How useful might such a “theory” be?

Game theory emerged after WWII: it found ready use in dealing with the menace of nuclear weapons in a Cold War (that is bilateral) context. It is credited with creating language that made the “balance of terror” acceptable to both sides. Meanwhile we speak less about the “balance of terror”. For one, nuclear weapons look increasingly obsolete – too much of everything[2]. In any case the “freeze moment” did not last long – direct and head-on confrontation was replaced by proxy-wars. As an alternative, soft power was injected into the stalemate, undermining legitimacy of the warriors. Both sides upgraded their conventional defenses in order not to be obliged to resort to nuclear weapons (see my http://wp.me/p81We-xu ). New technologies (star wars) have made mutual destruction less assured. Destabilizing asymmetries have emerged: rogue states and terrorist groups can credibly threaten suicidal policies – and get away with it.

DHLOS  (3)-M

© Dimitra Stasinopoulou

One begins to wonder whether game-theoretic models would seem to have a good fit with context as it evolves. Why? For one, games presuppose definite beginning and end. This is seldom the case in reality. True, a negotiation may have a beginning, but there are real and invented antecedents to it entering the negotiation as carry-on “baggage” (no limit to size or content). Questions like: “Who started the fight? Who was here first?” float about – even if their presence may be denied. In fact, getting the parties to define their negotiating stance – and to talk to each other – may be the most difficult part. While an agreement may be signed, this is not the end; in a sense it is just the beginning, for the agreed text is necessarily (and often intentionally) vague. As the context changes the outcome is revisited, adapted, or altered.

Also, diplomacy never ends – it just evolves into a different setting. To imagine it as a game, or even as a reiteration of the same game, is too coarse an approximation. A good example is the evolution of international relations at the very end of WWII: as Germany and Japan were defeated, the partnership among the Allies in defeating the Axis yielded confusedly to competitive visions of the post-war settlement. An unseemly scramble for preponderance ensued. The Soviet Union’s past contribution to victory counted little against the security needs of the country which was the strongest[3]. Goerge Kennan suggested containment in dealing with the Soviet Union. To his dismay political containment hardened into military confrontation, and even rollback of borders.

Let’s move on: the state as “unitary actor”? Does such an entity exist, or is it sheer “reification” of a complex institution? Questions like: “To appease? To confront? How to play to domestic politics?” will be debated among decision makers, and more often than not the issues are left undecided, or muddled. In the end their will be judgments, rather than rational or coherent decisions. Furthermore, policies are expressed through personalities, who often work at cross-purposes: the imperiousness of Douglas MacArthur, the superficial assertiveness of Harry Truman, the introversions of James F. Byrnes all contributed to the foreign policy disarray of the US after the great guns of war fell silent[4].

Payoffs? Nothing more uncertain than payoffs in international relations. What was the payoff for the US as it surreptitiously opposed the Soviet Union in Afghanistan after 1980? The collapse of the Soviet Union – which happened? The emergence of the Taliban and al Qaeda – which happened after that? The current destabilization of nuclear Pakistan? Such unintended consequences have been called: “blowback”[5] and occur all the time – some of them may even yield agreeable surprises.

More fundamentally: game theory assumes the players have unchanging attitudes. Humans however – and the institutions they build even more – act highly contextually. We harbor mixed, confused, and contradictory feelings; we are influenced both by others and the context. Game theory does not capture such subtleties, and is therefore likely to lead us astray. Rather than provide a new and scientific framework for an understanding international relations, game theory may degenerate into conventional narrative on stilts.

Where does game theory come in useful then? It turns out, not when applied to an individual, or a single event, but in studying evolving strategies of populations, game theory provides deep insights. “Evolutionary game theory differs from classical game theory by focusing more on the dynamics of strategy change as influenced not solely by the quality of the various competing strategies, but by the effect of the frequency with which those various competing strategies are found in the population. Evolutionary game theory has proven itself to be invaluable in helping to explain many complex and challenging aspects of biology. It has been particularly helpful in establishing the basis of altruistic behavior within the context of Darwinian process.”[6]

I dimly perceive a future for game theory in diplomacy – as a way better to understand adaptive behavior of people – and how such behaviors influence policies, or assist in implementing them. One of the areas least studied in diplomacy is how the legitimacy of the “unitary actor” emerges and is sustained. Though rooted in the individual, legitimacy is a complex emergent property – not just an extrapolation from individual attitude[7]. Game theory may yield insights.


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

[2]         Wilson WARD (2013): Five myths about nuclear weapons. Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, New York.

[3]            For a masterly (and soberly) presentation of this “change in game plan” see: Melvyn P. LEFFLER (1992): A preponderance of power. National Security, the Truman administration, and the Cold War.  Stanford University Press, Stanford.

[4]          I may mention in passing that after surrender in Tokyo Japanese troops abroad were used by the victorious Allies to quell independence movements in countries like Indonesia, Malaya, and Vietnam. In China they fought on both sides of the civil war. See: John W. DOWER (2010): Culture of war. Pearl Harbor – Hiroshima – 9-11 – Iraq. Norton, New York.

[5]          Chalmers JOHNSON (2000): Blowback. The costs and consequences of American empire. Little, Brown, New York.

[6]          http://bit.ly/10c5bPo

[7]          http://wp.me/p81We-zK