London- Those who are good at prevailing over their opponents do not get involved.
Sun Tzu — The Art of War
At different times in the course of our lives we will all find ourselves in situations of conflict where we are called upon to make a strategic decision. To help us to do so we rely on experience, intuition and habit.
Politicians and generals with a lot at stake when pursuing their goal select the best strategic criteria for deciding which of several possible courses of action they should take. Most of these criteria stem from “ Game Theory ”, pioneered in the 1940s by the Hungarian mathematician John von Neumann. Von Neumann interpreted such pastimes as chess, draughts, cards, and other parlour games as conflict situations, proving that there is always a “right”, or more exactly, an “optimal” way to play such games.
The nominal inspiration for game theory was poker, occasionally played by von Neumann.
As he himself said, “ Real life consists of bluffing, of little tactics of deception, of asking yourself what the other fellow is going to think I mean to do. And that is what games are about in my theory. ”
The idea of a game mirroring conflict in the real world is an old one. In the medieval Welsh story Mabinogion two warring kings play chess while their armies battle nearby.
The Chinese game of “Go”, Hindu “ Chaturanga ”, and many other games are actually battle simulations, as was the
“Kriegsspiel”, devised as an educational game for Prussian military schools.
The development of game theory achieved something of a pinnacle during the Second World War and again in the Cold War, where it was seen as a sophisticate mathematical tool for minimising losses and optimasing gains.
Following the initial euphoria regarding possible further applications of this fresh new discipline, it nevertheless became apparent that, where human behaviour is concerned, not everything can be explained by mathematics.
When considering a wide variety of different conflicts, it is notable how one party may be prepared to endure far greater losses than its opponent, depending on its own particular constitution, history, religion, system of values an so on.
Thus the outcome of any action, or battle, may coincide numerically with that envisaged by game theory, but at the same time generate highly divergent psychological reactions, given that rival parties will have different perceptions of their quantitative losses.
The most prestigious and influential book on strategic decision – making still remains “ The Art of War ”, compiled more than two thousand years ago by a mysterious Chinese warrior and philosopher named Sun Tzu.
The highest peak in the application of knowledge and strategy would be to render all conflict altogether unnecessary: “ To overcome others’ armies without fighting is the best of skills. ”
The main limitation of game theory, or of any abstract theory, is the conceptualisation of a highly idealised person – conceived as completely rational human being – faced with uncertainty. But idealized man, the statistical surrogate of average man, has never existed in the real world.
The problem inherent in the use of any sort mathematical argument to try and illustrate human behaviour can be depicted as a two person game, where on one side the statistician strives to bind nature to more and more detailed laws, whilst on the other nature constantly invalidates them.
Be that as it may and despite its rather limited practical use, game theory has given us the language and the methodology to deal with conflict situations, as in the case of the “ Minimax Principle, ” a rule for minimizing the possible loss in a maximum loss scenario.
The merit of this Principle is that it enables us to define the mathematical equilibrium between two conflicting parties. In politics, as in war, aiming at the minimum loss in a no – win scenario means granting political and/or strategic concessions to the opposing party.
Turning now to the real world, it is known that at the root of the present conflicts in Ukraine and Iraq lie the unsolved problems of, in the first case, the Russian speaking minorities living outside the Russian Federation and, in the second, the Sunni Muslim, Kurdish and Christian minorities living in a country ruled over by a majoritarian Shiite Muslim population.
For ethnic and religious minorities rooted in specific geographical areas is hard to accept rules and legislation of an alien party, which has obtained its overall majority only through full consensus in other areas.
The sole way forward is to envisage what kind of concessions might conceivable be and, if any exist, to what extent; hence the need for the Minimax Principle. Otherwise wars and massacres will continue. The clock is ticking.