Wednesday, 4 February 2015

On International Politics and World Peace

Back in the 90's when I was in school and the US imposed sanctions on India for its nuclear tests, we cried hypocrisy. How could the US punish India for building nuclear weapons when the US also stockpiles them? I've come a long way since then, but only after a lot of self-education, education which I unfortunately didn't receive in school. 

Self interest and game theory

The thing about international politics and diplomacy is, no political action is a result of principles, other than those associated with self-interest. This is a historical fact. Countries do not build alliances or rivalries based on principles, they do so based on what maximises their own self-interest. 

This can be modelled using game theory. Draw a checker box. Put one player on the x axis, and the other one on the y axis. On each player's axis, list the name of the interaction i.e. cooperating, trading, going to war, etc., with the the player. Now in each box on the checkerboard, enter the values of one players's action given the other players action. These could be positive, negative or zero values. For example, the value of player 1 going to war while player 2 is at peace might give player one a high payoff and player 2 a negative payoff. Whereas the payoff to the players if they both decide to trade with each other could result in each of them getting an even higher payoff compared to the payoff that one got by attacking the other. In this way, countries pick the box with the highest value for themselves. The cost-benefit equation is of course more complicated than this, as any political scientist or economist will tell you. Like a giant live chess board of life, each country has to look at the best way to maximise its own interests in real time. The main difference is that chess is a zero sum game, whereas in politics more than one country can win.

This is the real driver behind political policy and action. When you look at history afresh after having learned this, you find no reason to use infantile terms and phrases like "we're friends with this country", "these countries have always been friendly", "these countries are enemies", etc. Another thing you feel no need to do is to cry hypocrisy at the actions of other countries - "this country is being hypocritical". 

When the US imposes sanctions on other countries for conducting nuclear tests when they themselves own an arsenal of nuclear weapons, this might be technical hypocrisy, but that's missing the point. The US does it because it's in their interest to do so. When you have nuclear weapons, it makes sense to prevent countries that are not aligned to you from obtaining the same weapons. It's just good strategy. Countries are only allies because it's in their mutual benefit to be allies. Because it pays to be allies more than it does to be something else. Here's another example - when the US commits to religious tolerance but backs Pakistan and Saudi Arabia with military aid. This isn't hypocrisy in a political sense. You say what you need to for votes, to define your value system (all countries run on value systems) but your actions have to be concurrent with good strategy, with game theory. In the end, self-interest wins out. 

How countries evolved

If every country had to follow principle-based politics, the world would be a better place, as long as every country agreed to follow the same principles. But they don't. Countries that exist today didn't exist 10000 years ago. We started off as nomads and hunter gatherers. Over time, different groups of people came together because division of labour made sense. These different groups had different principles, but they all focused on maximising their payoffs, whatever they were. Groups with different resources decided to trade with others as they both needed resources that the other had. Some developed a trusting relationship based on reciprocal cooperation, they didn't need to safeguard themselves against each other militarily. 

But what if there's a change of leadership and policy? Now one civilisation grows stronger, and begins to conquer more land and people. The other civilisation has a choice, do they ignore the first one, join forces with it, let themselves be conquered and assimilated, or turn into conquerers themselves to avoid being taken over? Also, military might isn't the only tool to use in your defence. There's also religion, which makes cultural assimilation easier, and economic conquest, where countries subjugate each other economically. Trusting your neighbour explicitly means giving them a chance to exploit you, and you won't do that if you think there's a chance that they will. Replay this scene for different groups across thousands of years, and through numerous conflict and death, we have the world today, fragmented groups with different value systems and ideals, terrified of being exploited or losing out. Hence, there's not much trust.

Self interest and trust

Which is not to say that trust doesn't exist. It does, but it comes about when it's in the players' self interest. The US and Canada can have a porous border because there's very little risk of a war breaking out between them because they have been at peace for so long and have reached numerous lucrative trade agreements in the process. If this peace was broken by say, America invading Canada and taking even some of their land, it would hurt trade, and Canada might align itself with an enemy of USA. It pays to keep your neighbours as allies to act as buffers between your other enemies. What we call international trust is ultimately all about money and security. Self-interest wins.

Here's another example - the Nordic countries being at peace. Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Norway all have porous borders, as do other European countries. The likelihood of a country misusing this trust and upsetting the status quo is low because the consequences would be dire. Border security would be strengthened, relations would sour, money would be lost, everyone would suffer. The payoffs from committing such an action wouldn't justify the costs. This is why the Nordic countries are at peace. They weren't always at peace. A long time ago they were at each others throats. But back then, it paid to conquer and kill each other more than it did to trade and cooperate freely. This also explains why Russia recently annexed part of Ukraine. The payoff (in terms of access to resources and trade routes) exceeded the cost (meagre threats from NATO?). Self-interests wins.

The situation today

Look at the two major power blocks today - the US and China. It used to be the US and the USSR. Preceding World War 2, the US was just another country gaining affluence through trade and innovation. Following World War 2, it emerged as a dominant superpower and its alliances with a number of European partners was sealed. But competition emerged with the USSR, whose economic and social polices rivalled that of the US. Here we have a case where countries have an internal value system linked to their economic systems, so they become economic competitors to protect their social systems. The US was terrified of communism, and the USSR was intent on spreading it. So they both embarked on policies of expansion. The USSR annexed and funded countries that embraced communism, crushing any opposition. The US did the same, backing fascist murderous dictators worldwide as long as they rejected communism. The devastation this wrought was immense in terms of human life. But it was in both countries' interests not to stop their activities, because then the enemy would have an upper hand. 

You see this mirrored today with the US and China, with China funding infrastructure projects in a number of Asian and African countries in exchange for political support, while the US can only count on its bases like South Korea and Japan for leverage, in addition to NATO. China knows North Korea is a powder keg but continues to maintain friednyl relations with them because they can use North Korea as leverage against the US if they need to. It pays to keep them close as an ally. Which is why the US has a military presence in Taiwan and the Pacific. Self-interest always wins. 

You also see this mirrored today with nuclear weapons. No world leader truly believes that these weapons are good, but they can't help keeping an arsenal as long as their enemies have them too. It's only the smaller countries with no ambitions of power that don't need nuclear weapons, but they are either aligned to a power block (like Bhutan), or are not threatened by one (like Oman).

Books like Isaac Asimov's Foundation series really open your eyes to these sorts of situations and decisions. You begin to see beyond the values that you were raised on, the values that countries should be run on, and see the world for what it really is, a blank slate ready for exploitation by power-hungry people ready to exploit anything.

Which is not to say that values don't matter. Of course they do. But they keep changing, and we need to be mindful of this, and ensure they change in a way that's best for all of humanity (if we are to take a humanistic approach towards existence). The Mesopotamian civilisation used slavery because it made sense to do so, values be damned. This doesn't make it right, but it made economic sense at the time, and later for thousands for years, until we decided that slavery was wrong. This didn't happen overnight. It took time. it's the same for universal suffrage, or homosexuality. Values change. But change takes time.

Attaining world peace

So how do you reduce international conflict and attain world peace? Again, you can use game theory to figure this out. Prevent countries from warring with each other by making it too costly (relatively speaking) to do so. People will always strive for power and self-interest. You can't take this urge away. You can only develop a political ecosystem in which acting upon the urge is too costly given more attractive alternatives. An ecosystem is which countries are incentivised to trade and cooperate peacefully with each other.

One way to do this is to build trust between all the different countries that currently exist. One way to do this is by removing any perceived threat between two countries and increasing trade opportunities. And you do this by economically developing every country equally. Remove economic gaps, invest in education and healthcare, make all countries economically powerful so they can serve as trading partners with each other. This serves as a status quo, a deterrent to attacking each other. Over time, this becomes trust. 

Of course, this should work better if the countries have similar value systems, as differing value systems pose a threat. For example, the world's number one economy - China - is communist, while the US-NATO power block isn't. Both blocks trade profitably with each other, but mistrust exists. A common value system would probably remove this. Remember that power blocks are only formed as reactions against perceived threats from other blocks. The other way to attain world peace is of course to ensure that there is only one power block in existence - yours.


This Crash Course World History series is extremely informative w.r.t observing patterns in group behaviour across human history. By watching a concise approximation of human cooperation and conflict across time, you begin to observe patterns in group behaviour. Watch if you have 20 hours to spare. 

World history Part 1 -

World history Part 2 -


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