Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Quote of the Week

"Here perhaps we perceive a disadvantage peculiar to civilized modern students of international affairs, by contrast with, say, Machiavelli or the ancient Chinese. We tend to identify peace, stability, and the quiescence of conflict with notions like trust, good faith, and mutual respect. To the extent that this point of view actually encourages trust and respect it is good. But where trust and good faith do not exist and cannot be made to by our acting as though they did, we may wish to solicit advice from the underworld, or from ancient despotisms, on how to make agreements work when trust and good faith are lacking and there is no legal recourse for breach of contract. The ancients exchanged hostages, drank wine from the same glass to demonstrate the absence of poison, met in public places to inhibit the massacre of one by the other, and even deliberately exchanged spies to facilitate transmittal of authentic information. It seems likely that a well-developed theory of strategy could throw light on the efficacy of some of those old devices, suggest the circumstances to which they apply, and discover modern equivalents that, though offensive to our taste, may be desperately needed in the regulation of conflict."
That's from The Strategy of Conflict by Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling, a leading scholar in international affairs and a pioneer in applying game theory and economic methodology to the study of conflict, war, and nuclear strategy.

A key insight of his was to fully appreciate how weakness can often be beneficial in bargaining situations. By voluntarily constraining your freedom or limiting your options when choosing a course of action, you restrict your ability to capitulate. A mundane example of this dynamic might be urban cyclists who ride with no breaks, no helmet, blow through cross-traffic, and engage in bike salmoning: drivers and pedestrians wanting to avoid an accident have no choice but to get out of the way.

For more check out this short video interview with Schelling that provides a nice overview of his long career and research focus. Fascinating stuff.

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