The Strategy of Conflict

A point that one can reasonably make about “game theory” is that the reason why “game theory” is often overlooked in the way of understanding the basics and fundamentals of life is because many people either do not have the experience to understand the subject, or they are largely unaware that they actually have the experience to understand the subject. Thus, one of the main reasons why I perused the subject known as “game theory” – in addition to learning the subject for my own benefit – is to make it as understandable to readers as possible, based on the personal understanding of the subject I have gained through personal experience.

I concluded my previous remarks about “game theory” with the issue of “second-strike capabilities.” I pointed out that Russia and China both have what is known as “second-strike capabilities” vis-à-vis the United States. As a result, the brooding and fretting over the issue of “surprise attacks” or “sneak attacks” is largely a futile enterprise given that both sides have viable “second-strike capabilities.” Because there is no advantage in a “sneak attack” or “surprise attack” for either side, it follows that “the incentive to strike at all will be reduced.” But in a situation like the one between Russia and Ukraine where the former has second-strike capabilities whereas the latter does not, it follows that the advantage for the side with second-strike capabilities lies in striking first.

Also, what Schelling argues is that an “arms race” or the buildup of military capabilities and technologies does not necessarily translate into higher risk of war or instability. Rather, what an “arms race” and a buildup of military capabilities and technologies does is that it makes one’s “second-strike capabilities” less vulnerable in the event of a “sneak attack” or “surprise attack.” Schelling argued that “the likelihood of successfully wiping out the other side’s missiles becomes less and less as the missiles on both sides increase.” Thus, there is a reason why Iran has so many drones in addition to having what is perhaps the largest supply of missiles in the Middle East, despite the sanctions aimed at stymying Iran’s ability to proliferate drones and missiles.

In a nutshell, the name of the game from a conflict and war perspective is to “preserve the invulnerability” of one’s “retaliatory forces.” How that aim is achieved varies for different individuals and parties. Moreover, the mass or scale of an attack is largely irrelevant if the other side wields the capabilities to retaliate. Arguably, the debate over whether a threat is “massive” or “limited” is largely irrelevant once it is clear that both sides have the ability to retaliate against one another.

In turn, it is theoretically possible to have communication, dialogue, and negotiations in order to avoid “misapprehension” and to de-escalate the situation and in turn prevent an “inadvertent war” while sustaining an “arms race.” Another point to note is that the danger which lies in provocations is that a provocation aims to “goad” the other side into attacking. Why anyone would provoke the other side in a strategic context defined by “Mutual Assured Destruction” (MAD) and why one side would be goaded into actually attacking the other side in response to a provocation is anyone’s guess.

Also, the ultimate aim of inspections when all is said and done is to make the side being inspected more vulnerable to an attack. Hence, the occasional intransigence towards international bodies and the occasional shutdown of surveillance cameras and the restarting of centrifuges and so forth. However, if inspection means that the enemy will be made more vulnerable to an attack, then there will automatically be a focus on both sides on over-inspection and over-surveillance.

But according to Schelling, in the event of “mutual deterrence” and a “balance of terror” as a result of concealable, mobile, and potent “second-strike capabilities,” bargaining and negotiation are made more effective and more results-oriented by a rather distasteful method these days, namely, hostage-taking. As Schelling wrote:

“As long as each side has the manifest power to destroy a nation and its population in response to an attack by the other, the ‘balance of terror’ amounts to a tacit understanding backed by a total exchange of all conceivable hostages. We may not, of course, want to exchange quite that many hostages in support of this particular understanding with this particular enemy. But in a lawless world that provides no recourse to damage suits for breach of this unwritten contract, hostages may be the only device by which mutually distrustful and antagonistic partners can strike a bargain.”

The moral of the story is, perhaps, to stay home more, adopt a natural and solitary way of life, and to travel less than before.   

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