Thomas L. Knapp
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Tom Knapp is Managing Editor of Free-Market.Net and publisher of Rational Review.

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Ground Zero Sum

Game theory1 is something that post-World War II generations take for granted. Most of us couldn't define it if asked to -- we may never have even heard of it unless we've seen "A Beautiful Mind" -- but it's the basic underlying rationale of American foreign policy and has been since the Cold War began to take shape.

Game theory is applied to the analysis of situations on the premise that the "players" in situations will seek to "optimize" the outcome in ways that positively affect their interests; that international relationships function in much the same was a game, where the players strive to be winners and, if not the winner then at least not the loser.

In the half century since the RAND corporation started trying to systematically apply science and mathematics to the problems of diplomacy and military strategy, a veritable new language has sprung up to describe international relations.

The Soviet Union had its own game theorists, of course, and so the theory as practiced lent itself well to the conduct of the Cold War, from "containment" to "detente." Diplomats like Henry Kissinger and Andrei Gromyko were masters of keeping the lid on by seeking -- and attaining -- constant stalemate in the "games" they played so artfully. The U.S. and the U.S.S.R. constantly sought advantage on the one hand while seeking to deny advantage to the opponent in the "game" on the other. The policy of Mutual Assured Destruction was an artful example of the application of game theory to politics: it didn't guarantee victory but, instead, guaranteed that the "player" who resorted to nuclear warfare would be the loser, or at least one of the losers.

The concept has become so embedded in American thought that we seldom notice the ways in which it continues to shape our perceptions and constrain our actions. Every news story relating to international affairs is permeated with game theory concepts. What will country X's next "move" be? Is such and such a development a "signal?" What's the "exit strategy?"

The problem with game theory is that, as practiced (although not necessarily as mathematically described), it assumes that all participants in "the game" will play rationally in order to preserve their existence and advance their interests. These rational players may roll the dice, but they won't risk their whole stake on one roll unless the outcome is virtually certain to be in their favor. International relations isn't a zero sum game2 -- there is no final winner or loser. The board does not get put away at the end of the day. The victories and defeats are small and incremental and within the larger structure of the ongoing game and it may even be possible for more than one player to be victorious in a given round of play. A game theory victory is more the equivalent of taking a trick in a lifelong Wednesday-evening spades tournament than of a checkmate in one chess match.

Al Q'aeda doesn't do game theory. The ideas and policies of an Osama bin Laden aren't crafted with Cold War exigencies or even post-Bismarck realpolitik in mind. For all that he may hijack modern aircraft or ever so carefully assemble a pipe bomb, the modern terrorist is a creature of the Crusades, not of the War College. He is not out for temporary advantage, but for permanent victory.

The people who hijacked four planes and flew three of them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon weren't "signaling." They weren't making a "move" calculated to produce an intermediate situation from which other "moves" were possible. Their only "exit strategy" was fiery death.

If Al Q'aeda has any truck with game theory at all, they believe they have the ultimate ace in the hole: the referee (his name is Allah) is on their side.

This seems to be something that America's political leaders haven't caught onto yet. That's not surprising. The same misunderstanding has plagued U.S. policy in the Middle East for the last half century.

The Bush administration has spent the last year busily rearranging pieces on some map in the White House situation room, trying to figure out what "moves" will result in something like the pre-9/11 status quo and what "signals" must be sent to various "players" to get the pieces back in nice, neat little rows.

The result? Al Q'aeda is just as effective and more popular than it was on September 10th, 2001. The U.S. has been dragged into war in Afghanistan (a war that is being lost if it is not lost already, with the Taliban still in control of vast portions of the country and Iran moving in as "our" puppet government's patron and benefactor). Iraq seems to be the next prospective quagmire. The American people are no safer than they were on the morning of September 11th, 2001 and considerably less free. U.S. policy threatens to destroy even the facade of stability in the Middle East and Central Asia and plunge both regions into another period of unremitting war like those which have gone before.

The "war on terror," if it is to be won, must be a zero sum game, not a horse-trading festival where various participants jockey for minor advantage and accept modest penalties. Had it been so treated, al Q'aeda would have ceased to exist months ago under the pressure of the assassination of its leadership and the destruction of its combat units by small-unit (Ranger and Marine), helicopter-borne raids on Tora Bora and other strongholds.

It is by no means apparent, of course, that the Bush administration has any desire to "win" this "game." Instead, they seem to regard both the terrorists and the American people as minor pieces to be played in an eternal quest for personal power and political advantage. That's why U.S. forces spent weeks bombing Korean War-era anti-aircraft weaponry and doing "nation-building" in Afghanistan's lowlands before belatedly turning their attention to the real enemy (who, of course, had substantially left the area in the interim).

The Cold War is over. It's time for America to choose leadership that understands that and acts accordingly by returning to a foreign policy of non-interventionism where possible and total victory where necessary. The first step is a total withdrawal of U.S. military forces from the Middle East and Central Asia.


1. "game theory, n. A mathematical method of decision-making in which a competitive situation is analyzed to determine the optimal course of action for an interested party, often used in political, economic, and military planning." [The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company]

2. "Zero-sum games are games where the amount of 'winnable goods' (or resources in our terminology) is fixed. Whatever is gained by one actor, is therefore lost by the other actor: the sum of gained (positive) and lost (negative) is zero. This corresponds to a situation of pure competition." [F. Heylighen (1993): "Zero sum games", in: F. Heylighen, C. Joslyn and V. Turchin (editors): Principia Cybernetica Web (Principia Cybernetica, Brussels), URL: http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/ZESUGAM.html]