A popular illustration of game theory goes something like this. Suppose you are one of five isolated players, each of whom starts with $100 and a button. The players have one choice they can make, to push the button or not. Pushing the button by any player has two consequences. The first is all other players lose $30. This means that, if, say four players pressed the button, you would lose $120, so you are down $20 as against the $100 you began with. But pressing the button by any player has another consequence. And that is, it halves that player’s own losses. So if you too pressed the button, you would lose only $60 and get to keep $40. And these rules of the game are common knowledge as every player knows them. Should you press the button? This seemingly trivial game tells a lot about human behaviour, motivation and why rational leaders seem to make irrational decisions.
In an ideal world, no one should press their button and all five players make $100 each. But it’s not an ideal world and each player can have different motivations. You don’t know the other four players. Can you really trust them? While you are noble and will do the right thing, what if the others don’t think that way? So if you do push your button, you will still get $40. Not as good as getting all $100 but definitely better than losing $20. Or perhaps you don’t really care that much about $100 dollars and would just like to shake things up by pushing the button. Or you may decide to resist pushing the button because it is the ethical thing to do (even if you lose $120), as a mark of good faith because you figure you’ll play this game again. All these decisions seem rational from a certain view point and yet only one of them allows the full potential of every player’s payoff.
Replace the players with countries, the payoffs with self-interests of those countries, trust levels between them with common knowledge and buttons with military conflict and suddenly the game looks far more ominous that merely pushing buttons for dollars.
Last month, Pakistan upped the ante along the Line of Control by mutilating two Indian soldiers. The blame game squared on the Pakistani army, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) or militants, depending on which report one read. But regardless of the perpetrators, it was a provocation that worked. Confidence-building measures faltered and the animosity between the countries was injected with a fresh dose of venom. Political jingoism and rightful indignation notwithstanding, the Pakistani army, ISI, militants and the Pakistani populace are four different players, each with very different motivations and self-interests. Clubbing them together will result in a flawed strategic response at the very least and possibly a disastrous one, considering that in this game the buttons are nuclear.
Given that Pakistan is barely one-tenth of India’s gross domestic product, any military conflagration would irreversibly destroy its already precarious economy, especially since its military is still committed and smarting from heavy engagement in Afghanistan and its own hinterland. Ironically, the group that loses most if the economy nosedives is the Pakistani military high command. This is because of two reasons. One, despite its best packaging efforts as a victory, the Kargil misadventure put Pakistan’s military in poor light—having provoked India and got a bloody nose in the bargain. A similar or worse defeat could trigger a major upheaval in their close-ranked organization. Second, and perhaps more paradoxically, it is the Pakistani military that controls and benefits from a large chunk of their economy. As Ayesha Siddiqa points out in her book Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy, a tiny minority of serving and ex-military officers control a disproportionate quantum of the Pakistani economy. So, rationally speaking, they stand most to lose if the economy teeters, as it undoubtedly will in the event of a conflict. But in many ways the Pakistani army’s raison d’être is the myth of a belligerent India and if that is not constantly propped up within its populace, sounder voices would start questioning the political, social and economic supremacy of the military.
The delicate dance that the Pakistani high command therefore does is to keep tension with India in slow controllable simmer. ISI has decades of experience in using militants for such war of attrition and the exit of the Americans from the region give them the elbow room needed.
Michael Kinsley, a Washington Post correspondent, used the following metaphor to describe game theory. Imagine you are chained to another man’s ankle while standing on the edge of a cliff. One of you will be released and given a reward if the other gives in. But the only persuasive tool you have for making the other person give in is by threatening to push him off the cliff. But that will doom you too. There is a way out, though. You start dancing closer and closer to the edge of the cliff to convince him that while you may not take an irrational step like pushing him off the cliff, you are prepared to take far larger risks than he is.
And while military leaders who control their country dictatorially can and must do such a dance to survive, democratically elected counterparts shouldn’t mimic their foolhardiness and send wrong signals to their populace.
Raghu Raman is an expert and a commentator on internal security.