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Iterated Interactions

Why Eschatological Narratives Are a Bad Idea for Policy Making

Published onMar 25, 2022
Iterated Interactions

Boris Steipe 1,2, Yi Chen 2, Thomas Meier 2, Rolf Scheuermann 2

How does the war in Ukraine even make sense? That must be one of the most often asked, and most resoundingly unanswered, questions in March of 2022: How does this make sense?

Here we look at the issue from the perspective of game-theory, which analyses how cooperation can establish, thrive – or degrade into confrontation. A simple game in which interacting players can cooperate or choose conflict can be intuitively mapped to recent real world events, and doing so is intriguingly explanatory. We find that a common trope of the apocalypse – the “End” – plays a crucial role. Whenever a relationship is perceived to have an “End” that looms in the future, then cooperation between players must break down. Such an End can take several forms: framing the game as a winner/loser struggle makes an ultimate End inevitable; in a multi-player setting, marginalizing a player and preventing them to “play” results in a perceived End as well; and finally, when ideologies take hold, and a player no longer seeks to maximize their own gains, but to minimize the gains of the other, that too results in an inescapable cycle of confrontation. This simple model is a useful pattern that we can apply to the multiply entangled realities of international politics; not only does it help us to understand some of the motifs that determine such relations, it also highlights how individual events may depart from the premises of this model, and lead to unexpected outcomes.

Once this is realized, the contours of a way forward become more clear. A framework is required that is open ended and inclusive, alliances that are committed to a common good and are jointly robust against exploitation, and, perhaps, a framework that is value-based and transcends our current, transactional relations.

Let us start with teasing apart a pattern in behaviour that we commonly simply view as “evil”: here too, the medium is the message.

The Politics of Poison

An assumption for policy decisions – and that includes the decision to invade a neighbouring country with military force – is that they are fundamentally rational; while a decision may be taken by an erratic individual, it needs to be implemented by many – and if we only see collective madness, we miss the fact that there are actually beliefs and values at play.

What would be an example for this?

Consider the highly publicized assaults on decency and international norms that Russian state actors have engaged in over recent years. The distressingly long list includes the breach of the Budapest Memorandum3 as well as the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security4 through Russia’s invasion and annexation of the Ukrainian Crimea peninsula in 2014; the death of 298 civilians on board Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in July 20145; the public announcement of the Poseidon “apocalypse torpedo” in 2018 – a weapon targeted to maximize civilian casualties of a nuclear conflict and to make large areas of land uninhabitable for generations6; the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter with the chemical warfare agent novichok in Salisbury, UK in 20187, and – most probably – a similar assault on Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in 20208; the deliberate destruction of a defunct satellite with an anti-satellite missile in November 2021, which indiscriminately ejected a cloud of lethal shrapnel into the already congested low-earth-orbit space and forced evasive action of the International Space Station9; the military invasion of Ukraine after weeks of categorical denial and duplicitous verbal assurances, followed by a relentless campaign of war crimes against Ukrainian civilians that were documented in real-time through reports in social media; putting Russia's nuclear deterrence forces on a “special regime of combat duty”, along with the targeting of nuclear infrastructure such as the Chernobyl nuclear accident site, and the Zaporizhzhian power plants, which aims to create a lingering sense of uncertainty about catastrophic radionuclide contamination in Ukraine and beyond. This is a long list, which does not even include the atmosphere of rapidly growing oppression and totalitarian overreach within Russia itself. So far it has culminated in a new repressive censorship legislation of March 4th 202210 and a speech of President Putin of March 16th, 2022, announcing “clearances” in the Russian society11. The common denominator of all these actions is a kind of poison, poison that erodes the capacity of individuals to trust their surroundings, each other, and any meaningful future at all.

As uncomfortable as this makes us, there is a pattern in this: these systematic violations of ethical, political, and legal norms are too many and too well orchestrated to be incidental to other objectives. Such poison appears to be the objective in itself. But why?

Iterated games of conflict and reward

A simple but fundamental model of reciprocal interactions was popularized by Robert Axelrod (1984)12. It is a game theory model that has been widely used to analyse trust-based behaviour in reciprocal interactions. The basic scenario is very simple, and that is exactly why it is so fundamental. Two parties, call them A and B, are exchanging something and receive rewards as a result of their interactions. Both have to choose how to interact, and they have two options: either to cooperate with the other, or to engage in conflict. The rewards depend on their behaviour.

So, what should one do? It is easy to see that cooperation is tempting, but too risky. The only safe way to interact is confrontation: one is guaranteed to have at least a little reward, whereas cooperation risks to be left with nothing at all. That’s sad, but given the parameters of the game, really the only rational thing to do.

But that is not at all how the real-world works. The real world does not consist of single interactions, never to meet again – or rather, this only works as the business model of the tourist trap. In the real world, interactions happen again and again, and turn into relationships. And in such iterated behaviour, the interactors quickly realize that they profit greatly from cooperation. A sustained sequence of cooperative acts doubles the reward at every move! That’s great: we buy your gas, you buy our technology, and we both enjoy the profits and the stability.13

When cooperation becomes irrational

Now, we know that this is not how things played out, so what happened instead? If we consider our scenario of “iterated interactions” to be bounded – i.e., there is an End, and we ask: what is the best move for the last interaction, we are back at the single move scenario. Since there is no possibility to retaliate in future moves, the rational choice is confrontation.

Figure 2a: Iterated interactions are modelled between two players, in a sequence from left to right. In a bounded iterated interaction, the rational choice for a last move is confrontation.

But this does not mean that all previous moves should be cooperative – on the contrary. If we know that the last move consists of mutual confrontation, there is no incentive to cooperate in the move before it either. And this reasoning applies backwards, all the way to the first move. Provably. The surprising consequence is: bounded iterated interactions always turn out to be non-cooperative. And to have any chance of cooperation, the number of interactions must not be bounded.

Figure 2b: Since the rational choice for a last move in a bounded set of interactions is confrontation, this makes confrontation also the rational move for the second-to-last interaction, and the one before it, and so on. The potential for cooperation collapses entirely just from the simple fact that an End is expected.

This is simple but has profound consequences.

It explains part of why sustained cooperation has been so hard. The message is: we think this game is bounded, so it must lead to confrontation. We therefore will adopt a confrontational mode by default.

What went wrong?

But why would the “game” have been perceived as bounded? What is this dooming “End” we are speaking of? This requires speculation about individual beliefs and perceptions. Let's start with ourselves14 in “the West”: We have all felt over the last fifteen or twenty years that Russia has become less relevant, marginalized in our shared discourses. Our attention has turned to China, and the question whether the win-win scenarios that China offered were truly cooperative. And our attention had been absorbed by inner strife and a polarized political discourse: a United Kingdom that removed itself from the European Union; a politically divided NATO; a politically polarized USA and the perception that it would no longer be a reliable partner; the million Americans and Europeans who died in the COVID pandemic – to name only a few.

As it turns out, Russian information warfare specialists had their share in our shifting attention as well, once they had learned to insert themselves into Western social networks and to amplify our latent disagreements into divisive debates with the sole objective to sow discord. That social poison attack was highly successful, damaging our social and political coherence in ways that could simply not have been achieved by military threats or actions. However, though these campaigns were successful by their own measure, in other ways they were not: none of this made us look more favourably on Russia15, on the contrary: every new revelation of troll-factories, every reprise of cold-war rhetoric, every report of atrocities in Syria, reinforced our perception of an unsavoury player that one would rather have nothing to do with.

From a Russian perspective however, an additional narrative took hold, in addition to an End that derives from disinterest. This resulted from the doctrine of “containment”, the active marginalization to undermine Russia's interests and perceived legitimate role in the world16. Events that fuelled this perception include the Western rejection of full participation and integration of Russia into the post-Cold War system of security, especially the NATO, the EU and the OSCE; the admission of former members of the Warsaw Pact into NATO, including the former Soviet republics of the Baltic states, and announcing perspectives for memberships of Ukraine and Georgia; the USA invasion into Iraq without a legitimating mandate by the United Nations, where Russia would have had an equal say; the building of an anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system and the announcement of establishing it in Poland, the Czech Republic and Romania; the Western support of several democratic movements and revolutions including the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the Arab Spring; and increasing attempts to diversify Western energy supplies away from Russia, which constitutes a severe risk for Russia’s economic growth. There were many reasons to do so: a move towards renewable energy sources, our commitments to self-determination and to values that emphasize democratic legitimacy and the rule of law – nevertheless: once the corresponding sub-games become competitions, with winners and losers, they are no longer open ended. This perception is shared by large parts of the ruling class and the military, as well as a large part of the Russian population. In the second half of his speech of February 21st, 2022, Putin at length explained his continuous and growing disappointments with the West along these lines17; his solution, which reflects a broadly shared consensus is a need to re-establish Russia's status as a global power – to make Russia great again!

But why move on Ukraine now? There are several reasons that could have played a role: the damage done by the Trump administration is being recognized, publicized, and undone, and transatlantic alliances are being reaffirmed; the pandemic has become less lethal due to successful vaccines and vaccination; the Green Deal of the EU was scheduled to reduce European dependency on Russian gas and oil and thereby diminish Russian influence and income; while Russian national GDP has been falling behind Western and especially Chinese economic indicators; the military withdrawal from Afghanistan hand in hand with the almost unchallenged return of the Taliban regime seemed to prove the Western unwillingness or even inability to use and exert military power under unfavourable circumstances. The total of these factors can easily sum up to a perception of a closing window of opportunity on the one hand and just the right moment on the other: Russia might still(!) have the power to act and create new realities – as it did in Crimea – towards a revisionist, expansionist national ideology that aims to establish Russia in the borders of the former Soviet Union, but this opportunity will cease before long. Thus: when, if not now? Leaving the game earlier rather than later may become rational.

This is the context of the particular message of real and metaphoric poison: these actions do not merely signal that confrontation is the new default for Russia, as an End is being perceived. They signal that Russia is leaving the game. That too has its “reason”: when you are not allowed to participate in a game, your rewards are automatically zero. A reward of zero is the same as if you had invested trust in attempts to cooperate but then had been taken advantage of – in this case, the outcome is even worse than that of a confrontational relationship. Thus, the strategic messaging is: no one else will be allowed to play either. You cannot afford to simply ignore us, we still have the power to break your world, and to turn your dreams to ashes too. Defining a new game frees Russia from following rules that it perceives to be superimposed by the West. Instead, spaces of creativity open up to establish a new game altogether, with rules that have one’s own “legitimate” interests as their premise.18

Such a view from game-theory offers explanatory value and hints at the contours of a rationale behind President Putin's actions. But does it make matters simple?

Entangled games of the real world

The real world is, of course, a multi-player game, not just more complicated, but truly complex. It turns out, many of the sub-games that comprise it depend on each other and cannot be decomposed into pairwise relations. For example, if a player can offset a retaliatory response to an aggressive act of one partner through tacit compensation with another partner – the classic divisa et impera strategy – then the balance of payoffs may make it worthwhile to take advantage of a trusting partner. This is relevant, because we tend to treat the “West” as one player, but our actual interactions have often expressively diverging objectives– e.g., those of the USA and the EU; the UK tends to take intermediate positions, and the EU itself is far from a consistent body of states – thus, a single actor may exploit a conflict scenario for higher rewards than the pairwise model would predict. Further “independent” players such as China, India, North Korea, etc. add significant further complexity to the game. Strategies that foster disagreement play an important role and we have witnessed frequent attempts by Russia to divide the “West”; admittedly, the dominant player in the “Western” alignment, the USA, has not always acted in accordance with the interests of its partners either. The pre-war diplomatic initiatives of President Macron (and Chancellor Scholz) appeared distinctly different from the US-objectives.

On the other side, Russia is not a unified entity either. Putin’s networks are centralized and vertically structured. This maximizes control, but is not well suited to grow competence, resilience, and flexibility. These systems reportedly suffer from a high degree of nepotism, embezzlement, and mismanagement; a difficult landscape of economic realities; and a lack of appreciation for unbiased, differentiated appraisals. Internal (in)stability and (in)security further degrade efficiencies; and the very significant resources that flow into the internal security apparatus detract from investments in productive facets of society, and even from adequately funding the over-stretched military. In such a situation, internal competition and distrust makes cooperative interactions much less likely; moreover, the multitude of internal, competitive “games” have payoffs that are hard to compare, which further decreases predictability, or even understanding.

Figure 3: A conceptual map of reciprocal interactions between and within nations, roughly split up into four alignments, but covering only about a third of the global population. Russia is decomposed into selected subsystems. While this sketch is vastly simplified, the assumption that relationships can be approximated as pairwise interactions is a fundamental premise for modelling policy.

Such a network of games is further complicated by the question what is considered a reward or gain in each individual game. In economics, where game-theory is widely applied, such rewards can be expressed in terms of money. However, very few of the sub-games shown in the figure above relate to money, and a brief glance into history shows that the rationale of decision-making has to be defined very widely. Most decisions – although ex post framed in a rational narrative – are heavily influenced by psychological preconditions and needs. These range from the individual level (e.g., quest for glory, recognition and a “name in history”; feelings of precariousness, anxiety, and inferiority; pathological states like narcissism, despotism etc.) to the societal level (mentalities, tropes, discourses etc.). What may look arbitrary or irrational in one of the sub-games may promise high gains in another. The former US president’s “America first” credo is a case in point: willfully breaking rules and conventions in international games – whether political, economic, concerning refugee rights, healthcare, disaster response, the climate crisis, or moves to destroy international organizations like the WTO and the ICC, the list is far too long – was behaviour that yielded high gains at home, with his potential donors and voters, where it mattered, precisely because of the shrill and loathsome posturing that it involved. Indeed, his voting base was smitten with the “weak man’s idea of a strong man”19 that was being projected. Does Putin follow the same playbook? The invasion of Ukraine may have promised – at least in Putin's eyes – high rewards in other sub-games that involve the military, the security apparatus, or the Russian population. Or was the final decision simply the result of a problematic personality structure, and the real focal point is a sub-game in Putin himself? At least some of the expected gains will not be found in this conflict at all, but somewhere “at home” in Russian internal affairs.

It's no longer a game

Thus, the assault on Ukraine proceeds in a context of several “games” – military, economic, foreign, home, security, prestige etc. – each of which define “gains” in different ways. As a result, it appears to us that Russian leadership itself does not have a clear understanding of the rationale behind this war, at least not one that can be publicly communicated: the given justifications sound incoherent to us, even ridiculous to the degree that we are tempted to see purposeful strategic messaging in their very lack of reason. Moreover, it is no longer conceivable that the costs of Russia’s war in terms of manpower, equipment, credibility, and economic burden can be even remotely offset by gains Russia could make in Ukraine. Western analysts widely agree that the war against Ukraine appears to have been a mistake of historic proportions, and unless Russian analysts have access to information that no one in the West is aware of, or unless they follow completely different rationales, they could only agree.

But now real people are dying, real futures are being destroyed, real lives have been shattered – on both sides of the conflict. While we can pursue the logic in abstract terms, none of this would have forced Russia to go to war. What went wrong?

Perhaps the games had simply become too complex. In that case one would expect that simple ideologies take hold and displace more differentiated views. The risk of this grows, the smaller and the more aligned the inner circle of decision makers becomes – but also the less informed and capable of critical reasoning a voting population is. War is the most simplistic approach. Thus, it would be of paramount importance to simplify the game, especially when the number of decision makers one is dealing with is small. One way to do this is to reduce the number of players by establishing robust alliances: cooperating players who trust each other on the basis of shared values, not merely opportunistic manoeuvres. This has an added benefit: members of a mutually trusting, committed alliance cannot be played against each other for the benefit of a third party. Thus, the cooperative mode of interaction becomes overall more likely. The degree to which the international community has now acted on this principle by uniting behind a regime of sanctions – and this includes traditionally “non-aligned” nations, as well as the private sector – is remarkable, and was surprising even to the West.

However, and perhaps counterintuitively, collapsing all sub-games into a single game is not a viable strategy, because there is one game, the gorilla among the games, that must not be coupled into the mix. This is the game about global nuclear annihilation, and it is played according to the rules of deterrence theory, in particular the reasoning under which the world’s nuclear powers aim to preserve their local scope of action while avoiding crossing the red lines of nuclear escalation. This “indirect strategy”, as the French general André Beaufre called it20, actually predicts that adversaries will seek so-called piecemeal gains through creating faits-accompli that fall just short of triggering of the apocalypse21. In this perspective, the 2014 invasion of Crimea becomes an apocalyptic prophecy. Similarly, welcoming Ukraine into the European Union will create a fait-accompli at the other side – if Ukraine could survive long enough. However, as soon as the “nuclear” game collapses into the mix – and this cannot be stressed enough – then the red line to global nuclear escalation has already been crossed in Ukraine, as this is being written.

In the End

What is our bottom line here? First, as apocalypse scholars, we need to point out the dangers inherent in the very idea of an End in relations. The existence of an End corrodes the entire game. Marginalization defines such an end, but competitive winner / loser scenarios do so as well, as a matter of principle – both ultimately lead to bounded games. Once the loser perceives their loss to be an apocalyptic End, it does not matter if the “winner” disagrees with that perception. At that point the game will degenerate into its confrontational mode in which everyone loses. Some soul searching about that point is in order.

Secondly, alliances matter more than ever. They must be built on cooperation and trust, to be effective, and to obtain the rewards of cooperation. This is emphatically not a return to cold-war block mentality, but a shared system of human values that create the conditions in which long-term cooperation is possible. Such alliances must be “smart”, flexible, and detailed, to allow for sufficient agency outside the nuclear red lines. They must be open-ended and provide for visions that recognize the needs of our partners in East and West, North and South, visions that are defined in a way in which all participants see the benefits. They must be free from historic grudges, and free from any exceptionalism.

Crafting the parameters for such alliances will be hard. But there is a prevailing sense that the Ukraine war is a watershed moment, and such new thinking is indeed required.

One final thought: what if the “games” were no longer transactional in the first place? What if the interactions become true encounters in which the other is mutually recognized and appreciated? From a German perspective, this is quite easy to imagine: we look at friends in France and Israel, and realize: we kind of like each other, and we wish each other well. The personal experience of shared humanness needs to have its proper place in our repertoire of policy.


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