Tuesday, December 11, 2007

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Restraint and resolve in game theory

Nobel Prize winner Roger Myerson has written a very accessible paper on what game theory can teach powerful states about when it's useful to impose binding constraints on their actions. Here's the abstract:

A great power’s use of its military forces may be rendered ineffective or even counterproductive when there are no clear internationally recognizable limits on this use of force. Professor Myerson derives this conclusion from the basic observation that our ability to influence potential rivals depends on a balanced mix of threats and promises. Potential adversaries should believe that aggression will be punished, but such threats will be useless unless they also believe our promises that good behavior will be better rewarded. A reputation for resolve makes threats credible, but a great power also needs a reputation for restraint, to make the promises credible as well. Thus, international restraints on a nation’s use of military force may actually increase the effective influence of its military strength.
Here's a link to the paper itself. No one familiar with Tom Schelling will be surprised, but Myerson's presentation is extraordinarily lucid.

The most important paragraph:

Thus, if we want our application of military force to deter our potential adversaries, rather than stimulate them to more militant reactions against us, then we should make sure that the limits of our forceful actions are clear to any potential adversaries. We need a reputation for responding forcefully against aggression, but we also need a reputation for restraining our responses within clear limits that depend in a generally recognized way on the nature of the provocation. These limits must be clear to our potential adversaries, who must be able to verify that we are adhering to the limits of our deterrent strategy, because it is they whom we are trying to influence and deter.

posted by Dan on 12.11.07 at 09:46 PM


Nation-states do not have 'behavior' which can be influenced by another non-sentient nation-state. People have behavior, not states. There is no female ship, yet we call them 'she,' there is no 'Fatherland' or 'Mother Church,' yet we humanize these institutions in the process of identity formation with myth-building polemics.

It would be more helpful to assemble a foreign policy with people who have some professional understanding of people behavior, instead of relying upon people who think states have behavior.

posted by: a Duoist on 12.11.07 at 09:46 PM [permalink]

Although Duoist may wish for a "de-anthropocentric" approach to foreign policy vis-à-vis state “behavior,” nay, human-derived state actions(?), we (nation-states and people) live in a world where states fear other states (Iran fears the U.S. and vice versa–perhaps more so under W but also under Clinton...). To ignore the state "behavior" of the "Fatherland" or impact of the "Mother Church" would be ignoring history. This history is reality and so is "anthropocentralizing" state behavior.

One does not need to subscribe to the "States are People Too" argument to understand that so long as people dictate state action–human behavior becomes state behavior. Can Duoist really claim that fear and uncertainty at the people level is really different from the state level in many situations? Bush fearing Iran does not stem from Ahmadinejad threatening to withhold saffron shipments to the U.S. (which by the way would really ruin W's special saffron burger recipe). Rather it’s Ahmadinejad's behavior (words and deeds) that scare the crap out of Bush (and Israel). Note that the recent NIE (again a report regarding the behavior of people) has done little to ease W's fears. Even during Bush’s (in)famous “axis of evil” speech, he made clear that actions from regimes such as Ahmadinejad’s or Kim Jung Il’s are the real threat. That said, should we really do foreign policy at the level of analysis Duoist recommends. Is this even possible? Maybe I'm just an IR kool-aid drinker who subscribes to the writings of Ken Waltz to Alex Wendt: states are uncertain of the intentions of other states and in many cases, do in fact “fear” one another. But Duoist may say, "there you go again! States are not uncertain-people are!" I’m not saying that states should always be treated like people, but only pointing to the reality of world politics. The attribution of behavior to a state does not, for the most part, come out of thin air. During the interwar period, Europe (sorry, the many peoples of Europe) was/were, by most objective measures, fearful of the Fatherland, er, I mean Germany. At the same time, most Germans were ashamed and later became quite proud of the Fatherland. The perceptions of people became perceptions of the state as it should have. The point of my rant is to simply say to Duoist: It’s not that easy! As social scientists (or scientists-in-training) who study world politics, and policy-makers that often rely (not so much with W) on social scientists, the application of “human-like” characteristics, attributes, and (gasp) behavior at the state level is unremarkable.

posted by: DP on 12.11.07 at 09:46 PM [permalink]

What happens if several or many factions within one “nation-state” struggle with each other and the central government has very little knowledge about or control over their actions. Would a game theory have worked to prevent Professor Kahn from proliferating nuclear technology from Pakistan to other countries? Is game theory relevant when ample evidence shows that the Bush Administration was going to invade Iraq no matter what anyone else conceded?

While I am just sitting here shooting from the hip, I can not think of one example where or when such a game theory applies. It’s difficult to find a place or event that is so straightforward. Have you ever heard the Asian expression, “automatic Americans”?

Lots of times, sitting down and drinking tea with a faction leader while you wear a pistol in your belt works better as long you have a long discussion and explore many many options until 2:30 in the morning. And don’t forget to smile.

Bob Spencer

posted by: Bob Spencer on 12.11.07 at 09:46 PM [permalink]

And what about irrational agents? How does a rational theory that seems to want to practice historicism ever manage to account for the irrational?

posted by: Ben A. on 12.11.07 at 09:46 PM [permalink]

These limits must be clear to our potential adversaries, who will interpret the green light that a firm military riposte to their aggression is off the table.

Did Ahmadinejad pick up some game theory over at Iran's Science and Technology University?

posted by: Americaneocon on 12.11.07 at 09:46 PM [permalink]

The entire idea sounds like something developed by diplomats in striped pants and top hats sitting around Paris salons between sessions of the League of Nations. Reality is never so controllable.

posted by: Useless Sam Grant on 12.11.07 at 09:46 PM [permalink]

In the international arena, American ex post reneging on deals can only be punished reputationally in a repeated game--i.e, we don't renege now because we want other people to trust us in the future. (External restraint is not a possibility when the rest of the world relies on US military power as the near-exclusive guarantor of international order.) A democratic republic with changing public sentiment may have trouble establishing the intertemporal continuity of behavior needed to pull this off, unless some concepts of national honor are built up in the minds of the electorate and policy elites.

posted by: srp on 12.11.07 at 09:46 PM [permalink]

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