Game theory and the Arab-Israeli conflict

Lee Smith writes about his conversation with Israeli Nobel laureate Robert Aumann.  Aumann believes that game theory applies to international relations:

In Aumann’s view, the post-Oslo period shows that Israel’s behavior leaves it at a serious disadvantage in a repeated game. “In games that repeat over time,” Aumann wrote in an article called “The Blackmailers’ Paradox,” “a strategic balance that is neutral paradoxically causes a cooperation between the opposing sides.” Aumann offered the example of two men forced to split $100,000. Person A assumes that they will split it evenly and is astonished when Person B explains that he will not accept anything less than $90,000. Afraid that he will leave empty-handed, A relents and takes one-tenth of the money. In this situation, A acted as if this were a one-time game, but had he understood it as a repeated game and refused the split so that both he and B walked away empty-handed, he would have shown for future reference that he was every bit as determined as B. This in turn would make B more willing to compromise. “Likewise,” Aumann wrote, “Israel must act with patience and with long-term vision, even at the cost of not coming to any present agreement and continuing the state of belligerence, in order to improve its position in future negotiations.”…

“The way to make peace is to make your intentions clear,” Aumann told me. But Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza brought not only the second Lebanon war but also the bombardment of southern Israel and most recently the Mavi Marmara incident. To explain what was wrong with the Gaza withdrawal, Aumann drew on an unusual source for a scientist, the Bible, quoting Jeremiah 2:13: “For my people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.”

God’s people, according to Aumann’s interpretation of the passage, have done two stupid things—not only did they abandon God but they also worshipped broken idols. “It’s one thing to do something unconscionably bad,” Aumann said. For him, an expulsion that uprooted thousands of people who have yet to get their lives back in order was “unquestionably immoral.” “If it brings the peace,” Aumann said, “if the ends justify the means, that’s one thing, but this doesn’t even achieve the means. It was morally wrong and strategically stupid. The expulsion from Gaza is unprecedented. Jews have been expelled throughout history, but we own the dubious distinction of being the first people to have expelled ourselves. Never before had this happened, and it led to disaster. Our standing in the world was not improved. We didn’t get sympathy. We get sympathy when we act decisively—after Entebbe, Osirak, a lot of sympathy came after the Six Day war.”

When policymakers and analysts use the same sort of examples to draw the same historical conclusions, they’re dismissed as right-wing ideologues, and Aumann has endured the same treatment. The Nobel committee nonetheless realized he’d hit on a truth that explains a fundamental aspect of who we are as political beings—or who we are when we are most human, sitting across the table from our neighbors trying to figure out how to live together. The paradox is that there can be no co-existence if one person isn’t willing to negotiate as hard as the other. The appeaser will always be swallowed up and simply cease to exist. It is stubbornness rather than the willingness to make immediate concessions that brings about successful negotiations. In other words, if you want peace, prepare for war.

Hat tip: Michael Totten

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