Prisoner’s Dilemma and World Politics

13 May

World politics (WP) is a discipline that evolves continually. WP as a multidisciplinary discipline studies the behavior of the states and other actors such as non-governmental organizations (NGOs), international organization (IOs) and Transnational Corporations. But theorizing almost anything in WP easily becomes entangled in web of controversy. For that reason, scholars strive to find new theories or tools in order to capture the essence of the field. This essay aims to explain why the Prisoners’ Dilemma (PD) captures WP by focusing in its main features. The first part analyses game theory started in the 60’s.  The second part points out the essence of PD while highlighting the work made by some GT scholars. The third part provides evidence to support my main argument; PD does capture the essence of WP. The last section brings together my final remarks or conclusion.

1.     (GT)- Game theory:  an overview of the IR

GT has been defined as the mathematical expression of how expectations of outcomes cause outcomes. This mathematical manner illustrates actors/players’ behavior allowing a better understanding of the real world and its essence. GT is based on four assumptions (1) players are rational (2) players make decisions in order to obtain a gain [players are gain-maximizers] (3) player’s decisions are linked, and (4) there is a great incentive for defection/betrayal.

Based on the above four assumption, I can argue that GT perfectly describes the structure of the system, where states, as the main actors/players, seek to maximize their gain by pursuing relative gains (RG). In addition, GT, illustrates how due to mistrust and uncertainty, states cheat in the system. States are not sure about other’s intentions, therefore, they decide to follow their own individual and selfish national interest rather than cooperate. This first section shows how GT captures the essence of WP largely explains by neo/realism theory described by the most important classical intellectuals such as Thucydides, Machiavelli, and Hobbes or neo/realist scholars such as  Hans Morgenthau in his book “Politics among Nations: struggle for power and peace”, Kenneth Waltz in his books “Man, state, and War” and “Theory of International Politics

2.     Prisoner’s Dilemma (PD): its importance and its relation to WP.

Game theory can be found in different forms: stag hung, chickens game and PD. The latter one is a 2X2 game that illustrate the situation in which to players have the option to either defect or cooperate. But without knowing opponent’s intentions, players opt to cheat, even when the payoff for cooperation is greater.

The PD proves that the system is governed by mistrust and the likelihood for defection is greater.  Robert Axelrod in his book “Evolution of Cooperation” runs PD model to demonstrate that cooperation can emerge even among enemies. By applying PD, he found that TIT-FOR-TAT is the best strategy to win the game and be better off. The strategy knows as TIT-FOR-TAT means cooperation in the first move and then imitation of opponent’s movement.  In chapter # 4, Axelrod offers 2 case studies that demonstrate the accurateness of his finding. The case-studies are: (1) WWI and (2) evolution of the species. The former one illustrates how during the WWI soldiers from enemy countries developed altruistic practices. By using the principle “live and let live.”  and that proves that under particular conditions and during particular periods of time, enemy soldiers restrained to attack each other: friendship emerged!

The importance of this book, therefore, the significance of PD, is that validates that cooperation can emerge even between enemies when the game is repeated over and over: Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma (iPD). Robert Axelrod demonstrates that cooperation can emerge in anarchy.  Therefore, cooperation does not need the existence of central authority.

This important finding can be supported by other IR tool:  the Shadow of the Future (SOF). The repetition of the game lengthens the SOF, because states can built a reputation and can know each other better. But even more important, states can identify and punish defector while rewarding good behavior. As the evolutionary-learning theory by Modelski (1990) suggests, states learn over time and their learning can speed up by rewards and punishment with the likelihood to reach an ethical learning.

3.     Evidence: how and why the PD

The importance of GT no matter is form, is that demonstrates the cooperation can emerge in a world governed by anarchy. This finding offers a better understanding of WP that believes in altruism, governance and ethical improvement. PD and iPD demonstrates that it is possible to mitigate anarchy and that it is possible to move forward from the sour and static neorealism theory. However, I am not arguing that GT and iPD are able to capture the whole essence of WP, because none of the theories of IR is able to accomplish such endeavor. Each theory, neo/realism, neo/liberalism and constructivism masters different variables able to explain some, but not all, state’s behavior. It is important to understand that neither power nor institutions nor norms will capture the essence of WP per se. (and I do not believe they seek to do it!).

Game theory and  PD has been used by other important scholars. One of the most fascinating is Bruce Bueno de Mesquita “the Predictioneer’s Game”. By using GT, he aims to predict events and state behavior in WP (e.g. Iran bomb). The accuracy of his model base on GT tells its ability to captures the essence of the field. He not solely focus on the main variables, he goes further and investigates for actor’s preferences and interest, what they want and what are they able to sacrifice. At the end, he can obtain a better picture of the future.

Final Remarks: Capturing the essence of WP is relative!

WP is a multidisciplinary discipline in continuous evolution. WP is not a freeze image; WP is more an album with different snapshots. Therefore capturing its essence is not an easy feat. However, PD does a great job! It captures the essence, part of it, based on the accuracy of its assumptions (explained in section #1). Section #3 demonstrated that under some circumstance, IPD is a very precise IR tool that allow scholars to make predictions as Nostradamus did with natural events. Section #2 argued that event when theories are not making to predict, forecast is desirable in WP.

For me, iPD and PD captures the central issues of WP such as anarchy, self-interest, gains (relative and absolute), cooperation, defection, SOF, and BOP. Its applicability is enormous. PD can be used to explain the reality of International politics. One example of that is the book the “Tragedy of Commons” by G. Hardin. In this book, the author show us how the personal benefits of using the common is clear while pointing out collectively negative impact we cause to the common good. This book really struck me, because reflects the main issue of international politics: how achieve that actors/players/ states renounce to their selfish interest while opting for collective decisions/action that benefit the environment and the structure of the system. G. Hardin, same as other scholars have been using GT and PD without noticed perhaps. In the end, this way to illustrate rational choices provides us the best tool for understanding world politics.  Leaving parsimony on the side! For all the above reasons, I conclude this essay where I began; PD does capture the essence of WP in a fascinating, accurate, clever and creative way.

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