Democratic War Games

Who knew that game theoretical calculations are made when countries make their decision to go to war? This article, written by Bruce Bueno De Mesquita, asserts that many of these types of policy decisions are deliberate and premeditated and use game theory as its foundational structure. At first thought, the basis and firm-footing of this notion can be considered very obvious. It seems more than possible that countries bear in mind the many probable reactions by allies and enemies prior to flirting with war. But if these decisions are strategically planned, just how calculated can they be? What are the outcomes? To put the implications of game theory in war into perspective, the author points out that democracies tend to be highly particular about the wars they fight, and with good reason –“[o]ver the past two centuries democracies won about 93% of the wars they initiated” (640).

From this information alone, we can derive that war assessments are not merely analyses of costs versus benefits. Rather, they resemble more of a SWOT analysis given that they are significantly more considerate of the prospects and dangers of engagement.  Even so, SWOT analyses, arguably, do not go far enough to provide strategic insight, especially for countries with allies, stakeholders and interests in different regions in the world. Game theory anticipates the effects of strategic moves on a number of variables and attempts to accurately predict how other parties will respond.  Democracies generally win the wars they initiate because they calculate the political and social welfare costs of wins and defeats – hence why most democratically initiated wars often result when negotiations – a high benefit, low cost strategy – have been unsuccessful.

Given the author’s mention of the historical success of democracies, I could not help but to think of the decision for the United States and Britain to go to war with Iraq in 2003. The war was a controversial foreign policy act at its inception and 10 years later, it remains contentious to this day. Were objectives aligned with outcomes and the actions of the other players considered? Were the differing opinions about the role of among those “players” in the international community taken into account?

I’m sure that there are other wars that can be critiqued from a game theory perspective, but what game theory helps us to recognize is that no military act or act of diplomacy comes without forethought. And with democracies and all other governments in mind, it is interesting to think about how tenets of game theory not only affect war decisions, but all international policy decisions. The prediction and control of the external behavior of nations, especially the violent sorts such as intervention, hostilities, and war, is an ongoing game that involves many players and the complex reasoning processes of such decision-making affects all of us.

Gavin Grant
Temple University