The Middle East Game: von Neumann Solution

by Caela

Back in 1948, RAND Corporation was established. It was the greatest monument to John von Neumann’s game theory. It began as the air force’s Project RAND (Research ANd Development), a scientific consultancy initially contracted to Douglas Aircraft conceived as a peacetime Manhattan Project. RAND went on to hire a diverse group of specialists, scholars and consultants that ranged from John Nash to Condoleezza Rice. But on its first decade, the guiding spirit of RAND was unquestionably, John von Neumann.

Game theory provided useful models for nuclear deterrence and arms races. It opened the doors to questions such as would the Soviet Union launch a first strike against the United States if it meant loosing twenty million people in the counterattack? Take for example America’s submarines which are constantly in motion, the Soviets would never know where they are all at any given time thus being unable to destroy them all at once and knowing that some could launch a counterattack at the Soviet Union – and knowing that the Americans knew that the Soviets knew this – were cornerstones of the policy of deterrence. And until now, that policy keeps the world safe, it keeps a world from engaging in a major war and destroying itself in the process.

The policy of deterrence made sense – and still does – and wouldn’t have been conceived before the Peace of Westphalia (1648) and the emergence of the concept of sovereign states which dictates the very structure of international politics and determines the pattern of relations. It kept the world safe through the Cold War. But at dawn of the New Millennium, nations face a new kind of enemy which knows no border and have nothing to lose.

Going back to von Neumann’s Game theory, it is also applied in war bargaining particularly in the war inefficiency puzzle which launched the Rational Choice Theory of international relations. The game-theoric explanation to democratic peace (i.e. democracies don’t fight each other) is that public and open debate in democracies send clear and reliable information regarding their intentions to other states. However, when it comes to nondemocratic entities, it is uncertain what effects concessions will have or if promises will be kept. Thus there is mistrust. Such is often the cause of conflict between a democratic government and separatist groups. It, however, does not even begin to cover what we face today.

The enemy we face today have nothing to lose: no territory, no economy or citizen to protect and it recognizes no limits to its authority (which they claim as mandated by the Qur’an) and ideology (promulgated by institutional means). So, how do democracies defeat such power?  The answer may lie as well, after all, with the game theory.

In this case, we look at this from a mathematical point of view, since infinitely long games are not considered outside the field of mathematics. We have to consider the possibility of an infinitely long game for they don’t have elections, no term limits. They are willing to fight no matter how much it costs them or how long it takes. The resources are infinite: one side with the nuclear arsenal of the obscenely powerful and the other with the incandescent, destructive power of the utterly delusional.

We have to acknowledge that terrorism is the symptom, not the disease. Terrorism has no country. It’s transnational, as global an enterprise as Coke or Pepsi or Nike. At the first sign of trouble, terrorists can pull up stakes and move their “factories” from country to country in search of a better deal. Tony Blair was right when he said that “[i]t is global. It has an ideology.” And that is the enemy. And given enough time, its propaganda will convince the majority and it will be the end of the way of life as we know it. It will be the end of our democracies and civilizations which took centuries to build.

In applying game theory, we can look at this like a modified version of chess. Let us take the enemy as Player 1 and democratic nations as Player 2. If we modify the rules to make drawn games a win for Player 1, it will be a determined game. Thus if the play lasts long enough without Player 2 winning  then Player 1 can eventually force a win. Player one simply has to play not to lose by making sure that Player 2 does not have a winning strategy. The game is not about how to best play it; it is about having a winning strategy.

So, how do we win? Yes, it is essential that we bring peace between Israel and Palestine. Yes, it is essential to take military actions to keep in line the extremists. But the most important part of the winning strategy had long been articulated by Tony Blair: “We will not win until we shake ourselves free of the wretched capitulation to the propaganda of the enemy that somehow we are the ones responsible.

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