Does Donald Trump deserve the Nobel peace prize?
If US President Donald Trump can orchestrate peace talks to create a de-militarized Korea, which is a showpiece for amity, it will truly be a big deal
The apparent rapprochement between North and South Korea is an event of momentous significance. The border of the two countries represents one of the last remaining front lines of confrontation between the once formidable Communist bloc and the capitalist countries led by the US. North Korea is a nuclear power and the face-off between North Korea and the US has been dangerously shrill in recent times. Despite considerable progress having been made in North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s nuclear programme, US President Donald Trump seems to have engineered a de-escalation of tensions. Does he deserve the Nobel peace prize?
The discussion of rationality in game theory offers some clues. The legendary rocker Jimi Hendrix famously asked his fans: “Are you experienced?” Nerdy game theorists are content to inquire—“Are you rational?” They do it not so much out of an egoistic impulse to show you down (although there is a little bit of that) but out of sheer necessity. None of their analysis could even begin if they did not set forth for each player a well-defined optimization problem.
In everyday parlance, the word rationality has come to have a positive connotation. But, in game theory, rationality is a value-neutral concept, simply denoting the desire of a person to maximize her pay-off. So one could have “crazy” rationality, for instance that of Adolf Hitler, or “altruistic rationality”, like that exhibited by Mother Teresa, or a rationality that reflects some combination of the above.
Once pay-offs are defined with respect to the operative value systems, a game theorist merely analyses strategies and outcomes without commenting on the values themselves. So, a game theorist could opine whether Trump and Kim have played intelligently with respect to their value systems but not on the value systems itself.
However, another thread of game theoretic literature interprets rationality as, exclusively, the pursuit of selfish ends, and asks if such a pursuit can bring about social order. It believes a social order not based upon the pursuit of self-interest is built on foundations of straw. This literature reprises a much older literature in political theory, associated with Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau who wondered if a self-interested society would lead to anarchy. It also relates to Adam Smith’s famous dictum that it is the pursuit of self-interest that animates the butcher and the baker to put meat and bread on our table, not their benevolence.
The problems of collective action, including the prisoners’ dilemma, the problem of assurance, and chicken, often referred to in this column, fall within this mode of inquiry. Here, selfishness is justified but if and only if it leads to the public good. When it does not, as it often happens, an attempt is made to explore if redefining the rules of the game can bring about the social optimum. If there is no institutional mechanism that would lead to order under the assumption of self-interested behaviour, one may conclude that there is something ethically wrong with that mode of action.
It is this line of inquiry which we must invoke to judge whether Kim’s and Trump’s actions have achieved the level of ethicality to qualify for the Nobel prize (yes, if Trump gets it, then Kim should too). Since some good has already been achieved, should one conclude that their seemingly narcissistic behaviour was good?
Here, it is useful to remember an adage from the much older science of decision theory—just because a decision leads to good outcomes does not imply that it was the right decision to make. Similarly, bad results do not allow us to conclude that the decision leading up to them was faulty.
This is especially true in situations that involve a high amount of unpredictability. For instance, the captain of a ship stuck in a night blizzard in the Arctic Sea has to decide whether to steer port or starboard. He estimates that with the wind blowing from north to south, steering right would move the ship in a south-eastern direction, away from the ice formations in the west. He sallies forth and lands safely on shore, only to discover next morning that he has missed an iceberg by a few feet. Staying still till the morning light would have been his best course of action, although “hindsight bias” leads us to believe he was a genius.
In the case of the North Korean missile crisis, the provocations of Trump and Kim fed off each other to create an unacceptably high risk of a major catastrophe. The fact that the face-off did not lead to disaster, and, in fact, seems to have brought about some good, does not mean that either of the gentlemen is to be complimented for their high-wire acts. As for Trump, he should be careful not to celebrate too soon.
Kim still has his nuclear arsenal intact. It is self-evident that he will need a credible commitment from the US not to attack North Korea before he starts disarming himself. He could demand that the US significantly reduce its military presence in South Korea and Japan. Irrespective of the status of the friendship talks, this prospect would be palatable to South Korea only if it can obtain a guarantee that Russia or China will not collude with North Korea to invade it. Given all this, if Trump can orchestrate peace talks to create a de-militarized Korea, which is a showpiece for amity, it will truly be a big deal.
But this will leave the US with a significantly reduced base in East Asia. So, all things considered, its a bit premature to tweet a Hosanna.
Rohit Prasad is a professor at MDI, Gurgaon, and author of Blood Red River. Game Sutra is a fortnightly column based on game theory. Views are personal.
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