21 December 2013

"The Strategy of Conflict" and "War and Peace."

The Strategy of Conflict, Thomas Schelling
War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy (trans. Anthony Briggs)


The Strategy of Conflict, Thomas Schelling

I am always suspicious of superlative praise.  When I hear that a book "changed the way I look at everything," I think that such a person's vision must never have been too clear.  And when someone tells me that "everything makes sense now," I consider all the irrationalities of a rational life, and wonder how that can be.

This skepticism prompts me to say that The Strategy of Conflict is a flawed book, and it did not change the way I look at everything, and it did not make sense out of the world.  Those are the sorts of changes reserved to lesser books - The Secret or The Alchemist or Atlas Shrugged.

To The Strategy of Conflict I give much higher praise: this is a book that made me think differently and deeply about very important things.

Thomas Schelling, the author, wrote the book during the late fifties, having become dissatisfied with the lack of serious theoretical analysis of international relations.  He applied game theory, the study of decision-making, to the conflicts and problems of the world.  So many countries acted in such bizarre ways that defied conventional wisdom: why did these crazy patterns tend to work?  And if we can explain these choices, can we learn how to make even better ones?

Take, for example, Schelling's discussion of the problem of how two hostile nations can come to a major and mutually-beneficial agreement, when neither one can trust the other's good faith.
If each party agrees to send a million dollars to the Red Cross on condition the other does, each may be tempted to cheat if the other contributes first, and each one's anticipation of the other's cheating will inhibit agreement. But if the contribution is divided into successive small contributions, each can try the other's good faith for a small price. Furthermore, since each can keep the other on short tether to the finish, no one ever need risk more than one small contribution at a time. Finally, this change in the incentive structure itself takes most of the risk out of the initial contribution; the value of established trust is made obviously visible to both.
I should caution you now: when you read this book, you will be sorely tempted to dismiss it as obvious conventional wisdom.  You might read a passage like the above, and roll your eyes: "Well of course they have to start off small, and build up trust!  Everyone knows that!"

Everyone doesn't know it, not really.  They can construct all kind of just-so stories to justify other ways of understanding negotiations.  You can consider, for example, the recent diplomatic agreement between Iran and the United States, and the many pundits who scorned the agreement's efficacy. “To try and go strike a deal for a deal’s sake could jeopardize U.S. security interests," argued House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA).  "[S]ince when do we trust Iran? Iran has demonstrated again and again it cannot be trusted."

Yes, partisanship more than reason is probably at work there - any lasting peace deal would be a feather in the President's cap - but this sort of argument about trust should be dismissed out of hand when it ignores the function a small and incomplete deal might have in building that trust and credibly indicating the possibility of further deals.

Interestingly, Schelling also discusses exactly this sort of criticism within a country, and how it can serve the interests of a negotiating partner.  Because of criticism like this, President Obama's options are significantly constrained, in a very evident manner.  The Iranian negotiators are aware of this, and are aware that a deal that is not favorable enough to certain U.S. interests will not be approved.  And so, Obama's negotiating team begins to move towards compromise from a significantly more advantageous position.  And in order to maintain this advantage, Obama will not work too hard to silence his critics - they are helping him (of course he has to appear to at least try to rebut them, to maintain good faith).

The Strategy of Conflict goes many more levels deeper than just these two, and its explanations are useful in many other situations.  As a high school teacher, for example, I have been ceaselessly astounded by how easily classroom interactions are motivated by the same factors as a state on the world stage.  A student angrily defies me - I might want to ignore them, since arguing or punishing them will be disruptive and time-consuming, but I have to maintain a certain norm of behavior and expectations in the classroom environment.  The student implicitly threatens this norm for their own advantage, and the question becomes: at what point will my own need to maintain my disciplinary credibility outweigh the inconvenience of dealing with this disruption?  Response must be appropriate to the scale of the conflict, or else I will appear capricious (undermining the very norm I'm trying to uphold).

This theory agrees with every teacher's normal experience: classroom management is a continual balancing act, with the cost of inflexible enforcement exceeding its benefit - but with a certain standard maintained.  A child can only be allowed to flout authority if they can be credibly seen to be unable to obey - if they're disturbed or weird enough that it won't be seen as undermining expectations for everyone else.

The Strategy of Conflict supports much of its argument with the mathematical underpinnings of game theory, and I admit I had to re-read several sections three or four times because of my sad ignorance.  And there are serious problems with some of its discussions of world conflicts - most particularly predictions about Vietnam and the domino theory.  So as I said, it is in some way a flawed book.  But I have yet to encounter a more cogent and amazing look at human interactions, or a more rewarding work of nonfiction.  You should absolutely and certainly read it - if you can find a copy!


War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy (trans. Anthony Briggs)

Salon's Laura Miller has written a thoughtful piece on the appeal of long books, which have never (she argues) gone out of fashion.
Part of the allure is simple gluttony: If you’re loving a book, it’s delightful to know that there’s plenty of it. But I believe there’s also an inherent appeal in fat novels, something that only written fiction can offer and that short stories, for all their felicities, aren’t able to provide. You can be swallowed up by a long novel, immersed in the world its author has created in a fashion that no other medium can rival. No, not even boxed sets of HBO series consumed in day-long binges! This immersion reminds many of us of our first, luxuriant plunges into books as children, and any author who can take us back to the place where we forget where we are and how much time has passed will pretty much have us eating out of her hand for good.
This explains so much of the appeal to me of War and Peace, that most cartoonishly famous of the long books.  I was fortunate enough to read it while on vacation, and so I could sink into it for four or five hours at a time.  It might have been impossible to really enjoy it any other way, in fact; I think if I had read it in fits and starts, then I would have lost some of the many threads that weave through the plot.

Tolstoy writes of Russia during the wars with Napoleon, and focuses on two main characters: Pierre, a bulky blockhead of a man, and Andrei, a soulful and smart fellow.  Pierre is a roustabout who receives an inheritance and becomes nouveau riche, marrying badly and squandering much, before embarking on a spiritual quest.  Andrei, on the other hand, is the perfect specimen of Russian aristocracy - tasteful, intelligent, and dedicated to military success.  He has his own journey through the trials of war, culminating in a moment of heroism, immediately succeeded by a moment of insight into the uselessness of war.  Andrei works to reconcile his life and his new understanding, while also holding together a family that crumbles under the travails of Napoleon's invasion and retreat.

This duo, introduced to the reader as friends in the beginning of War and Peace, hold the story together and are joined by dozens of other characters in one of the most remarkable explorations of a society and an event that I've ever seen.  And when you read the book for a time, you sink into it and forget yourself.  The dividing line between reality and fiction fades, and you subsume into the luxurious language as it unfolds the complicated plot and complicated philosophy.
What he loved was having a good time and chasing women, and since, according to him, these tastes were in no way dishonourable, and he was incapable of considering how his gratification of them might affect other people, he genuinely considered himself beyond reproach, he felt a real contempt for rogues and scoundrels, his conscience was clear and he walked tall.  Men of pleasure, masculine versions of Mary Magdalene, are secretly convinced of their own innocence, and like their feminine counterparts they base this on the hope of forgiveness.  "She shall be forgiven because she was full of love; he shall be forgiven because he was full of fun."
Much like Victor Hugo in Les Miserables, Tolstoy indulges himself with lengthy personal discussions of events and history.  He sets them within a context of the book, but then ushers the reader aside, huddling down and speaking frankly.  I have been telling you this story, the book says.  But here, let us talk about this one thing for a bit.  Take, for example, the author's discussion of the popular "great man" theory of history:
Many historians tell us that the French failed to win the battle of Borodino because Napoleon had a cold, and if he had a cold the orders he issued before and during the battle would have marked him out even more clearly as a genius, and Russia would have been destroyed and the face of the world would have been changed.  To those historians who maintain that Russia was formed by the will of a single man, Peter the Great, and France was turned from a republic into an empire, and the French army marched into Russia all by the will of a single man, Napoleon, the argument that Russia retained power because Napoleon had a bad cold on the 26th of August must seem highly persuasive.
War and Peace is an amazing book.  When I read it, a sprawling world of character and history took over my reality.  You should absolutely read it - but only if you can devote hours at a time to losing yourself in Tolstoy's world.

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