Evolutionary game theory and international relations

The North Korea Paradox: Why There Are No Good Options:

Denny Roy, a political scientist who studies Asian security issues, told me last fall that North Korea “intentionally employs a posture of seemingly hyper-risk acceptance and willingness to go to war as a means of trying to intimidate its adversaries.”

This puts the world in a quandary: How could any outside threat possibly exceed the risk that North Korea already takes on itself? How could any concession remove the North Korean weakness that drives its behavior?

Basically North Korea is a weak state. Its only leverage is to hold the world hostage and act crazy. Unfortunate, but true.

But this piece reminded me a lot of stuff that John Maynard Smith described in Animal Signals. Sometimes it is the weaker and more vulnerable animals which have to engage in high risk agonistic competition, so that they can show more fit individuals that there is going to be a significant cost in initiating hostilities.

It also reminds me of high school. If you are smaller than average, it is best to make it clear to larger bullies that you won’t be passive. You may lose the fight, but by escalating rapidly you can dissuade a bully from targeting you, as opposed to someone who is more likely to be an easier victim.

Of course, bullies need to be “rational” actors here….

4 thoughts on “Evolutionary game theory and international relations

  1. Well, they need to be either rational or irrational in a way that works to your benefit.

  2. One of the big open questions in this kind of analysis is the extent to which seemingly irrational actions are really crazy like a fox schemes, a question that has also been raised repeatedly re Donald Trump. (I am still undecided in that case and in the case of Korea’s current leader.)

    My own experience as a lawyer seeing people talk frankly about how to handle litigation and business conflicts has been that both genuinely crazy and crazy like a fox actors are out there in the world, with the former being more common than the latter (perhaps somewhere between 60-40 and 70-30), but not overwhelmingly so.

    Thus, perhaps 30-40% of seemingly crazy actors are “crazy like a fox” either as a conscious strategy, or because they have unconsciously adopted an adaptive strategy culturally. Probably about half of the people who are “crazy like a fox” (about 15%-20% of the total) are doing so consciously, while the other half do so unconsciously.

    The “genuinely crazy” category also really breaks down further into two subcategories.

    Probably two-thirds to three-quarters of the “genuinely crazy” individuals (20%-30% of the total) are people who are fish out of water employing strategies that are adaptive in the cultural context during which those strategies were formed but don’t work in the cultural context in which they are operating.

    This could involve someone bringing culture of honor values to a routine business negotiation in a business climate that doesn’t share those values. Other examples include Middle Easterners who have grown up believing that he who talks loudest over everyone else wins (which is stupid in an American court room and can get you thrown in jail summarily by a judge), or people who don’t realize that they aren’t entitled to the second chances or reconsideration of issues later in a legal culture that is big on once and for all resolutions of issues. They don’t have some elaborate scheme (conscious or unconscious) to gain advantage; they just have vestigial instincts with cultural sources about life strategies that have become ill adapted to their current circumstances and lack the extraordinary self-awareness needed to discard and replace those instincts and strategies later in life.

    The reminder (perhaps 7-13% of the total and a quarter to a third of the “genuinely crazy”) are literally people who suffer from some mental health condition or cognitive deficit.

    For example, someone with bipolar disorder may make aggressive statements that are out of bounds in manic phases and then go silent to their own detriment during depressive phases. Many people with schizophrenia struggle to separate paranoia and an unfounded tendency to see conspiracies in mere incompetence, with genuine concerns about misconduct by others (“just because your paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you”). Still others act irrationally due to cognitive deficits, acting on confused and inaccurate beliefs about reality.

  3. Just adding, because my comment isn’t as clear on the point as it might be, that the large majority of people are neither genuinely crazy nor crazy like a fox. Perhaps 10%-20% of people seemingly act irrationally although this percentage is very context and client base dependent.

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