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.