Tuesday, August 19, 2008

McGame Theory

Warning: Article contains some low-brow game theory

McCain's has one and only one claim to the Presidency: he claims he is a foreign policy expert who's going to be a safe pair of hands to guide the country through the dangerous times that lie ahead.

But as Jonah's post below points out, he really has a totally simplistic view of the world which in many ways is much worse than Bush II's. The pre-9/11 W. was a `"I just want to stay at home and eat hot dogs" kind of guy. Ballpark franks were much better than genuine frankfurters and the suspicious foreigners who made them. It was 9/11 that made him and his gang of neocons into rampaging pre-emptors and intervenors.

But McCain it turns out was a rabid pre-emptor to begin with - it didn't take 9/11 to turn him into a raging hawk from a wussy Scowcroft-realist. This Matt Welch article mentions that McCain wanted a ground war over Kosovo in 1999. This excellent NY Times story and this wonderful article by John Judis point out that McCain was into "rogue-state rollback" also in 1999. Rogue states were autocracies like Iraq, North Korea and Serbia. September 11 just added more names to this list like Syria and Iran.

Basically, McGame Theory sees the non-democracy world in terms of one giant game of Chicken. This is how nerdy game theorists conceptualize the high school game where two people drive towards each other at high speed. Let's call the strategy of driving straight at high speed Hawk. In a conflict interpretation of the game, Hawk might be invading another country or demanding a huge amount in some international negotiation. If both players do this, you have an impasse and even war. (In the high school game, cars would crash!). To think through the game, we have to attach payoffs to combinations of strategies. So, for the case of example, lets say if both players play Hawk, the payoff to each player is -1. But a player might play Dove and swerve off the road or give in to the opponent's demand or acquiesce to his invasion. In that case, at least you avoid a war or a crash so let's say the player who swerves gets zero and the player who plays Hawk gets 2. Finally, if both back off and play Dove, no-one really wins but no really loses so let's say the payoff for both players is 1.
Let's call the two players Rowena and Colin with two strategies Dove and Hawk. Then, Rowena's payoffs from the four possible strategies are:
Colin's strategies
_____Dove Hawk
Dove__1____ 0
__Rowena's strategies and payoffs

So, if Colin wants Rowena to play Dove, he should play Hawk. Then, Rowena gets -1 if she plays Hawk herself and zero if she plays Dove - so she should play Dove. If instead we play Dove, we'll get exploited as Rowena gets a payoff of 2 from screwing us while she gets only 1 by being a nice Dove.

So this simple game represents the logic behind deterrence - if we're tough and our opponent sees the game as Chicken, they'll back off. The idea is that the costs of all out conflict are so high that giving in is better. Seems simple and even simplistic but then so is McCain. After 9/11, McCain was constantly on TV and according to NYT said:

' In the spotlight, he pushed rogue state rollback one step further, arguing that the United States should go on the offensive as a warning to any other country that might condone such an attack. “These networks are well-embedded in some of these countries,” Mr. McCain said on Sept. 12, listing Iraq, Iran and Syria as potential targets of United States pressure. “We’re going to have to prove to them that we are very serious, and the price that they will pay will not only be for punishment but also deterrence.”

This is fine if the world is always Chicken. Maybe the game is not Chicken but this so-called coordination game (in game theory this is usually called the Stag Hunt game). If both play Dove, Rowena gets a payoff of 2. If she plays Hawk while Colin plays Dove, she only gets a payoff of 0.5. The cost of war is too high so Rowena prefers to play Dove if Colin plays Dove. But if Colin plays Hawk and Rowena plays Dove, she gets a payoff of -1 as she's exploited. If she instead plays Hawk along with Colin she gets a payoff of 1. This information is summarized here:

Colin's strategies
_____Dove Hawk
Dove_ 2 ___-1__
Rowena's strategies and payoffs
Hawk _0.5__ 1

The logic of this game is that Rowena wants to be peaceful and play Dove when Colin plays Dove but turns aggressive and plays Hawk when Colin plays Hawk. She in fact prefers the (Dove,Dove) scenario to the (Hawk,Hawk) scenario. In this game, the cost of being passive in the face of aggression is so high that it's better to be aggressive. maybe the leader or the country loses a lot if they are dovish in the face of hawkish behavior. So, it might be better to meet aggression with aggression. Moreover, in the absence of aggression, the gains to aggression are more than outweighed by the costs so it is better to stay at peace. So, in this game, two countries can live at peace and both play (Dove,Dove) but if one plays Hawk so will the other. This coordination game captures the idea of escalation while Chicken captures the idea of deterrence.

If the world is like this, Colin's strategy of being hawkish to create deterrence backfires and leads to escalation. Georgia may have made this mistake (among many others, such as expecting the US to help out), if it thought Putin would back off . But he instead escalated the conflict and proved Georgia was the chicken.

And of course the Iraq war and the Bush doctrine of pre-emption persuaded North Korea and Iran to speed up their nuclear programs. Basically, strategies well-suited to a game of Chicken just totally backfire if the game is really a coordination. This is not rocket science and has been known to political scientists for decades (see for example Jervis's classic Cooperation under the Security Dilemma). And even though it's pretty simple, it requires a level of sophistication that McCain just simply lacks. Swanning around the world and collecting passport stamps doesn't necessarily give you real insights. And if you were just a bully to begin with, it makes you even more dangerous than Bush II. McCain's foreign policy is going to be even worse than Bush's. The sooner the media gets over their love affair with his affability and humor and starts reporting his true beliefs and philosophy, the better it will be for voters.

1 comment:

Stephen said...

Apparently, contemporary Republicans have also forgotten that they are living in a world where the game is repeated, in which case the well-known results of the Folk Theorem imply that the higher payoff equilibrium to the one shot game can be implemented via simple tit-for-tat strategies. My guess was that George Kennan's intuitive grasp of this was what led him to propose the relatively dovish strategy of deterrence rather than the favored strategy of the hawks of the time who wanted to march on Moscow.