What’s in a Game? Aumann on the Blackmailer’s Paradox

Jewish Current Interest has an important post on Nobel prize-winning Robert Aumann’s game theory applied to the current state of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Since I think game theory is extremely important, I offer it here with comments. (Hat tip: Judith Weiss)

June 18, 2007

War, Peace and Game Theory

Robert Aumann, Israel’s 2005 Nobel Prize winner in Economics (“for having enhanced our understanding of conflict and cooperation through game theory analysis”), argues there is not a leadership crisis in Israel but a crisis among the people – an overriding yearning for peace that will produce war instead (hat tip: Naomi Ragen):

    It’s not just the [failed and defeatist] policies. It’s also the defeatist state of mind. All day long people are screaming “Peace, peace, and gestures, gestures!” Concessions and disengagements were made and settlers expelled. All this has ultimately achieved the opposite result.

    We have to stop the empty slogans such as “Peace is made with enemies and not with friends.” In order to achieve peace we must first and foremost be prepared for war. We have to change this state of mind at the core. It wasn’t only the Romans who said that those who seek peace should prepare for war. Even in game theory, for which I received the Nobel Prize, says so. We have to be emotionally prepared to bear and to inflict casualties – and not to scream “peace, peace,” all day long. Only if we are prepared to kill and be killed – we shall not be killed. This is the paradox of war.

I was always struck by that platitude: “Peace is made with enemies, not friends.” No, peace is made with people who are prepared to drop their enmity. If you make peace with enemies who have no intention of making peace, you commit suicide.

Another stupid remark: “War doesn’t solve anything.” I have an idea where the remark comes from, but why and how would it become a truism?

In an extensive interview in January 2005, Aumann described how game theory sets forth certain basic principles that Israel has forgotten during the decades-long onslaught on its legitimacy:


    Aumann. . .[T]here is almost nothing as ever-present in the history of mankind as war. Since the dawn of history we have had constant wars. . . . A tremendous amount of energy is devoted on the part of a very large number of well-meaning people to the project of preventing war, settling conflicts peacefully, ending wars, and so on. Given the fact that war is so, so prevalent, both in time and in space, all over the world, perhaps much of the effort of preventing or stopping war is misdirected. . . . [G]iven the constancy of war, we should perhaps shift gears and ask ourselves what it is that causes war. Rather than establishing peace institutes, peace initiatives, institutions for studying and promoting peace, we should have institutions for studying war. . . . It’s like fighting cancer. One way is to ask, given a certain kind of cancer, what can we do to cure it? . . . Another way is simply to ask, what is cancer? How does it work? . . . Once one understands it one can perhaps hope to overcome it. . . .

This historical observation about war is crucial. This is the main point that Eli Sagan makes about the dominating imperative: “rule or be ruled” is the basic political axiom of the last ten millennia. Overcoming it is something just a little short of a major miracle. The Europeans, now so proud of the fact that they’ve gotten beyond war and conflict (hence they can look down on the cowboy Americans and the militaristic Israelis), would do well to remember that they were at war with each other right up to 1945.

War is what I would call a hard zero-sum game. It’s not an “I’ll take half, you take half” zero-sum solution. It’s a “I’ll take it all, you take none” solution. Not only is it that “if you win, I lose,” but, “I cannot win unless you lose.” If you try and make peace with hard-zero-sum players, you cooperate with their determination to make you a loser. Trojan Horse, anyone?

Aumann’s judo move — study why people go to war, rather than how people can find peaceful solutions — is interesting. Note how he’s still profoundly in the camp of peace: war, in his metaphor, is a cancer. But how do you fight it?

H: So, the standard approach to war and peace is to . . . try ad hoc solutions. You are saying that this is not a good approach. . . .

Aumann: Yes. . . . Saying that war is irrational may be a big mistake. If it is rational, once we understand that it is, we can at least somehow address the problem. . . .

Nothing illustrates the difference between honor-shame and guilt-integrity cultures better than the difference between what is “rational” in the two cultures. Honor-shame cultures are notoriously zero-sum. “I win, you lose” is reasonable precisely because “rule or be ruled” dominates the interaction between alpha males. In civil society, rationality is recognizing one’s “interests” and accepting positive-sum solutions that benefit everyone. What strikes many of us in civil society as irrational — insisting on pride even when it’s disastrous for everyone’s interests — actually makes sense in a world where honor depends on dominance. But that underlines the dual and related issue of a) what emotions are mobilized by the two approaches, and b) what emotions the peer-group values. One of the things that shifted southern attitudes towards dueling at the turn of the 19th century was when the public “peer group” stopped admiring the winners.

H: Here in Israel, we unfortunately have constant wars and conflicts. . . . You presented [at the Center for Rationality] some nice game-theoretic insights.

Aumann: One of them was the blackmailer’s paradox. Ann and Bob must divide a hundred dollars. . . . Ann says to Bob, “look, I want ninety of those one hundred. Take it or leave it; I will not walk out of this room with less than ninety dollars.” Bob says, “come on, that’s crazy. We have a hundred dollars. Let’s split fifty-fifty.” Ann says,” no.” . . . [I]t’s not enough for her just to say it. She has to make it credible; and then Bob will rationally accept the ten. . . . This is the blackmailer’s paradox. It is recognized in game theory . . .

What is the application of this to the situation we have here in Israel? Let me tell you this true story. A high-ranking officer once came to my office at the Center for Rationality and discussed with me the situation with Syria and the Golan Heights. . . . He explained to me that the Syrians consider land holy, and they will not give up one inch. When he told me that, I told him about the blackmailer’s paradox. I said to him that the Syrians’ use of the term “holy,” land being holy, is a form of commitment. . . . Just like in the blackmailer’s paradox, we could say that it’s holy; but we can’t convince ourselves that it is. One of our troubles is that the term “holy” is nonexistent in our practical, day-to-day vocabulary. It exists only in religious circles. We accept holiness in other people and we are not willing to promote it on our own side. The result is that we are at a disadvantage because the other side can invoke holiness, but we have ruled it out from our arsenal of tools.

Or as a lawyer I know puts it: if you act crazy enough, everyone will let you have your way. But what’s true in the immediate case is not true in the long run. If you give in to the blackmailers, rather than educate them, you doom yourself to a life of blackmail.

H: On the other hand, we do have such a tool: security considerations. That is the “holy” issue in Israel. We say that security considerations dictate that we must have control of the mountains that control the Sea of Galilee. There is no way that anything else will be acceptable. Throughout the years of Israel’s existence security considerations have been a kind of holiness, a binding commitment to ourselves. The question is whether it is as strong as the holiness of the land on the other side.

Aumann: It is less strong.

This idea of “nothing holy” is actually, in a weird way, related to the great Jewish innovation, iconoclasm. To dedicated secular iconoclasts, nothing is holy. In the world of honor-shame, honor is sacred. In the world of integrity-guilt, understanding the “other” has become sacred: egolessness. Or, as Baba Ram Dass reported back from India – “shame and fame are all the same.”

After years of inculcating an excessive, self-denying respect for the “Other,” accepting competing “narratives” as equally valid regardless of their basis in fact, and luxuriating in post-Zionist moral equivalence, Israel need to recover a sense of its own holiness. It needs to re-establish certain basic facts. Some of them are set forth in a short video that Melanie Phillips last week correctly described as “must-see.” Unless it reasserts them, Israel will eventually become a victim of the blackmailers arrayed against her.

One can go in the holiness direction, although I think that a combination of dignity and far-sighted self-interest might go a long way as well. But it means learning to value yourself enough to fight for yourself, even kill for your own survival.

The self-abnegation that has seized upon Israelis has a dual and doubly troubling etiology. On the one hand, Israeli/Jewish susceptibility to guilt means that, even though Arab irredentism forced it into an occupation, it feels primarily responsible for the “guilt” of being an occupier. (Note that occupying is a desiderandum in Arab culture.) On the other, Israelis and Jews are deeply humiliated and shamed by the images of that occupation/oppression that come to them primarily via a media that channels Pallywood. How many liberal Jews squirmed in pain before their liberal friends when Sharon was calling the shots? So when the media go on their feeding frenzies (like at Qana), the Israelis cannot apologize enough, and even when they point the finger at an enemy who hides among civilians (an unthinkable anathema to Israelis), they do it feebly. Wouldn’t want to look like we were demonizing the poor people.

So we have now an Israel reluctant to defend itself, a Jewish “left” that deals with its moral narcissism and embarrassment by violently attacking its own people, and an incomprehending outside world that adheres to a political correct doctrine that deafens it to the song of the canary in the mineshaft.

13 Responses to What’s in a Game? Aumann on the Blackmailer’s Paradox

  1. Bruce Kodish says:

    Here we have a significant part of the mad interaction in a nutshell.

    The PCP-HSJ game as it continues to be played could lead to the destruction of Israel and Western Civilization.

    We must stop playing their game.

    The HSJers must be forced to play our game.

    The HSJ players must begin to experience some consequences for their actions until they begin to act like mentsches.

    We must ‘pound’ this into the skulls of the befuddled for as long as it takes.

  2. Barry Meislin says:

    I’m not sure how useful game theory really is in this case.

    The Palestinian goal is to erase Israel from the map. They will use any opportunity, employ any strategem, mouth any declaration, bear any burden to achieve that goal. (Of course, the nations of the world, Israel included, seem very eager to underwrite their efforts.) They are very patient and they are convinced that Israel will eventually disappear.

    (Regarding strategies, for example, if Palestinians believe that Palestinian statehood is the way to achieve the goal of Israel’s disappearance, then they will embrace it immediately. Tellingly, up to now, they have rejected statehood (even while claiming to aspire to it—for popular consumption) because they believe that statehood would hinder the achievement of the ultimate goal. And given the nature of asymmetric warfare, they certainly have a point. Of course, one could also say that they have never been given what they wanted; but one making such a claim ought to be reminded of what they really want.)

    Once again, the Palestinian goal is to erase Israel from the map.

    Now if one is NOT convinced of this basic fact, it really doesn’t matter how many words are spewed forth, or how much analysis is spent to try to make heads or tales of the “perplexing” situation. Or how many innovations or compromises might be initiated. Or how many Quartets or Quintets or Trios or Duos might be convened.

    On the other hand, if one IS aware of this basic fact, then the only real response for Israel (and those who support her existence) is that Israel enable herself to truly defend herself—both militarily, and socially—in the forging of a decent (or as decent as possible) society, which is every Israeli’s responsibility. (In other words, corruption, government and otherwise, is fatal. So is a unbridled greed together with an absence of social concern. One doesn’t need a prophet to see which way the winds might blow.)

    And if Israel does not prove to be able to defend herself, then at least she will have the honor of having tried to do so. All this whining about anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism might be useful in a righteous world—perhaps—but in a world where anti-Zionism is virtue personified, and anti-Semitism is politically correct, then pointing it out and complaining about it is merely pathetic. Less than useless.

    Regarding the example of the woman in the room, her wanting $90 of the $100 is not accurate simply because the Israel/Palestine situation is as follows: the woman wants all of the $100; moreover, she also wants the man dead and she’s holding a gun. (And she also may not really care whether she herself survives, so great is her desire to do away with him—as Iran, shaheed-generator par excellence (let us return to the real world) certainly “understands.”

    How does game theory deal with that? Of course, one can talk about this til one is blue in the face….

  3. igout says:

    Game theory. Even to use those words with a straight face is part of the problem. What we all facing is neither a game nor it is theorectical.

    Very smart people can arguify unpleasant facts into happy notions. Western intellectuals, Jews and non Jews, have been doing so for many decades now. The chatterboxes have had their day.

    At the stage we’re now at, I’d trade the whole damn lot of them for some old Colonel Blimps.

    An Isreali Col. Blimp. I can’t quite picture him, but I hope he turns up soon.

  4. fp\http://fallofknowledgeandreason.blogspot.com/ says:

    I am with barry here, and i am probably the only one here who has been involved with game theory in politics professionally: you don’t need game theory to understand what is going on here. It’s so damn obvious.

    Kenneth Levine has expressed the israeli “guilt” and “peace, pls, peace” much better in 2005: The Oslo Syndrome.

    I must turn the argument around: israel seems to be as blinded by “guilt” as the arabs are by shame. without a major shock they won’t get their act together and the question is only whether this shock will not be the one delivering the lethal blow. the chance that the arabs will change before that happens is almost nil.

    note that this already happened once in 1973: wishful thinking of peace allowed israel to be attacked and it was then when it got its act together and counter attacked. the circumstances are MUCH MORE dangerous now and a shock now may not lend itself to a defensible response.

  5. fp\http://fallofknowledgeandreason.blogspot.com/ says:

    http://www.israpundit.com/2006/?p=5140

  6. Bruce Kodish says:

    I have no significant disagreement with Barry, igout, or fp.

    But we are not dead yet nor under the thumb of sharia law and Israel is not yet kaput.

    Some people who do not yet understand the problem may come to see. So the analyses of Auman and Landes have some use.

    Despair is the first part of surrender.

  7. fp\http://fallofknowledgeandreason.blogspot.com/ says:

    bruce,

    if the arabs don’t see the damage they do to themselves without the world letting them realize it themselves, why would the israelis?

    if you read levine you will understand the psychological outlook of people under siege. and if he, as a psychiatrist and historian, is right, then how and why will israelis “see” all of a sudden, when they had 40 years to see what is obvious?

    wishful thinking is one of the major roots of the problem.

  8. fp\http://fallofknowledgeandreason.blogspot.com/ says:

    and this is one reason why game theory is not the salient one here:

    http://www.solomonia.com/blog/archives/015900.shtml

  9. Bruce Kodish says:

    It seems silly to me to reject insights from game theory because it doesn’t provide the total answer to the problem.

    Levin’s work on the Oslo Syndrome seems very relevant, too. So?

    There are Israelis and other concerned people of Israel who have woken up from their wishful thinking.

    My only point, projecting a viewpoint of absolute hopelessness is a prescription for total failure. We’re not there yet.

  10. Richard Landes says:

    I’m not sure how useful game theory really is in this case.

    The Palestinian goal is to erase Israel from the map. They will use any opportunity, employ any strategem, mouth any declaration, bear any burden to achieve that goal. (Of course, the nations of the world, Israel included, seem very eager to underwrite their efforts.) They are very patient and they are convinced that Israel will eventually disappear.

    so they are playing a “hard zero-sum” game. and we need to understand that, rather than imagine that by offering them blandishments, they’ll cooperate (Oslo logic). to hard zero sum players, for whom any victory for the other side (like existence) is a loss, their concessions are failures, and ours concessions are invitations to aggression.

    (Regarding strategies, for example, if Palestinians believe that Palestinian statehood is the way to achieve the goal of Israel’s disappearance, then they will embrace it immediately. Tellingly, up to now, they have rejected statehood (even while claiming to aspire to it—for popular consumption) because they believe that statehood would hinder the achievement of the ultimate goal.

    actually i’d rephrase that in honor-shame terms. the real problem for them is that to even admit israel’s existence, even as strategy to destroy it, would be humiliating. the diff btw hamas and plo is that the latter has been willing to swallow their pride in foreign languages.

    And given the nature of asymmetric warfare, they certainly have a point. Of course, one could also say that they have never been given what they wanted; but one making such a claim ought to be reminded of what they really want.)

    precisely. and we should never forget.

    Once again, the Palestinian goal is to erase Israel from the map.

    Now if one is NOT convinced of this basic fact, it really doesn’t matter how many words are spewed forth, or how much analysis is spent to try to make heads or tales of the “perplexing” situation. Or how many innovations or compromises might be initiated. Or how many Quartets or Quintets or Trios or Duos might be convened.

    precisely. that’s why i think game theory is impt. we do a stupid thing when we think only in terms of positive-sum, and working to get to “yes”.

    On the other hand, if one IS aware of this basic fact, then the only real response for Israel (and those who support her existence) is that Israel enable herself to truly defend herself—both militarily, and socially—in the forging of a decent (or as decent as possible) society, which is every Israeli’s responsibility. (In other words, corruption, government and otherwise, is fatal. So is a unbridled greed together with an absence of social concern. One doesn’t need a prophet to see which way the winds might blow.)

    And if Israel does not prove to be able to defend herself, then at least she will have the honor of having tried to do so. All this whining about anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism might be useful in a righteous world—perhaps—but in a world where anti-Zionism is virtue personified, and anti-Semitism is politically correct, then pointing it out and complaining about it is merely pathetic. Less than useless.

    not sure i understand you here. but in a world where it’s the “positive-sum” types (“progressives”) who demonize israel and idealize the palestinians by seeing them as frustrated positive-sum players, there’s something to complain about.

    Regarding the example of the woman in the room, her wanting $90 of the $100 is not accurate simply because the Israel/Palestine situation is as follows: the woman wants all of the $100; moreover, she also wants the man dead and she’s holding a gun. (And she also may not really care whether she herself survives, so great is her desire to do away with him—as Iran, shaheed-generator par excellence (let us return to the real world) certainly “understands.”

    How does game theory deal with that? Of course, one can talk about this til one is blue in the face….

    good analogy. game theory might say: you may have to kill the shaheed. and not apologize for doing it. certainly not try and cajole her.

  11. fp\http://fallofknowledgeandreason.blogspot.com/ says:

    i did not reject game theory. it is very useful in a lot of circumstances. it’s just that it is not necessary here to understand what’s going on. it overexplains.

    there may be those who woke up in israel and even in the west. the problem is that they do not determine policy and events.

  12. Fat Man says:

    Flavius Vegetius Renatus, wrote in the “De re militari” (390 C.E.): “Qui desiderat pacem, bellum praeparat; nemo provocare ne offendere audet quem intelliget superiorem esse pugnaturem”. (Whosoever desires peace prepares for war; no one provokes, nor dares to offend, those who they know know to be superior in battle.)

  13. [...] positive-sum relations with the other… all attitudes for which there is little evidence (and much counter-evidence) in current Arab political culture, one can expect those newly empowered voters to fall prey to the [...]

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