Conflict, Strategy and Game Theory

Image courtesy Wallaad

The most exiting academic course I have ever taken was “Conflict and Strategy” taught at Harvard University by Nobel Laureate Thomas Schelling, one of the most brilliant persons I have known. After I took that course in late 1984, and another that he taught in early 1985, he invited me to stay on to follow a Doctoral program under his supervision and also to function as his Teaching Fellow for the duration of the Doctoral program. He would also secure my acceptance  by Harvard into the Doctoral Program and also find me funding till I complete my program. I readily accepted his offer (who could refuse it?) subject to my securing study leave from the Government of Sri Lanka; this I obtained without any difficulty.

The course Conflict and Strategy, with reading material running into thousands of pages, was based on a variety of conflict situations and the strategies resorted to overcome them. Game Theory was at the heart of that course. It was for his path breaking work on Game Theory that Schelling was selected for the award of a Nobel Prize. In fact my arrival at Harvard was an outcome of an acute conflict situation that developed a few months earlier when I was GA Jaffna.  I had bluntly contradicted, in conversations with foreign diplomats and local and overseas  media,  the factually incorrect Government’s statements relating to the civilian deaths in the immediate wake of an ambush in Jaffna in which 13 soldiers were killed by Tamil militants. The July 1983 program was a sequel to that ambush and the follow up statements and actions of the Governmnet . The initial decision of the State to take disciplinary action against me was dropped when it was discovered  that I was equipped to  disprove the Government statement and also that  I could substantiate my own statement. The alternative was to remove me from Jaffna but preferably without provoking a major backlash. I was quietly transferred to the “pool”; before this news spread, generating a backlash, I applied for permission to enter Harvard University on study leave. That permission was promptly granted.

Conflict and Strategy was reputed to be a prestigious but difficult course. For the latter reason, and also because Schelling had preferred a small class with no Teaching Fellow to assist him by taking tutorials and in marking exam papers. The number in class had fluctuated around 30, small enough to warrant dispensing with  a Teaching Fellow. He did not want any Teaching Fellow who might unwittingly distort his teaching. On the few occasions on which the size of the student body opting for that course had unduly expanded, a typical Schelling strategy was employed to cut it down to size. On the first day, as the  first assignment, each student was asked to submit a one page justification of  his/her  need to     follow that course. Invariably, less than 30 wrote and submitted that paper. Thus, without the need for Schelling to read any of those papers, the class was pruned to a manageable size.

For the next three or four years, while working hard on my Doctoral thesis on, “ A Comparative Analysis of Preferential Policies in the USA , India and Malaysia”, under the supervision of Schelling, I also functioned annually as his Teaching Fellow in two courses at the Kennedy School of Government  and two courses at the Harvard School of Arts and Science. I noticed that though South Asians public servants were well represented in the student body of the Kennedy School, and some of them were very bright, very few of them opted to enroll in the Conflict and Strategy course.  One or two South Asians cross registered from other Schools, e.g. Jehan Perera from Harvard Law School. In fact he turned out to be one of the best students in that year. Some other very bright students were not interested in this subject and therefore did not fare as well. Armed service personnel, especially from Singapore, were well represented in the class and most of them did very well. Perhaps they were already oriented to be interested in strategies .

Many of the conflicts and strategies Schelling dealt with were pulled out of history books or from international relations (e.g. from the Vietnam peace process), domestic political issues ( such as civil rights), personal relations in a neighborhood or within an institution or within a family, interactions on the streets between motorists or between a motorist  and a pedestrian, the relations between opposing armies or within an army, etc. He also dealt with social issues such as voluntary or prescribed gender or racial segregation. Schelling was a film fan, especially of cow boy films and thrillers, and many of the examples came out of well known films. A particularly gripping thriller titled “Dr Strangelove” listed Schelling as a Consultant in its credits. Schelling pointed out that even infants displayed strategic thinking. For example, an infant may opt to ignore ( did not hear? did not understand? )the mother’s call to come back ; if the infant turns round and catches the mothers eye, the option to ignore her call would be lost. Similarly, a pedestrian in a hurry to cross the road may avoid looking directly at an approaching car, hoping that the car would slow down to let him cross the road. But if their eyes meet, the motorist may accelerate, forcing the pedestrian to let the car pass before crossing. The strategy is similar to that adopted by the head of a dominated country dodging face to face contact with the head of a dominant country to avoid carrying out a direction from the latter. The strategy that is deployed may be essentially the same despite widely different circumstances.

Some students would object that many of his illustrations were based on dramatized situations and not very useful in real life. Schelling would reply that any alert student should be able to identify daily, before that student reaches home, many instances in which the strategies covered in the course are played out, consciously or unconsciously.  Other students would object that the course substitutes amoral rules for moral codes. Schelling would reply that this course does not claim to teach morals, but only to act intelligently and rationally in line with whatever objective we have. If the objective is morally flawed, the fault lies in the objective and not in Game Theory.

Schelling would avoid bringing religious issues into the class room, but I am tempted to point out that all the great leaders, ancient and modern, secular and religious, were strategists. To be a great leader you need to be successful, and to be successful you need to be a strategist; without good strategy you will be a loser, leading your followers to doom. In the 20th century we have seen National leaders with noble objectives and effective strategies, e.g. Gandhi, Mandela, Martin Luther King and Ho Chi Min, successfully leading their followers. One of my favourite passages in the Bible exhorts us to be as harmless as doves and as wise as serpents. Doves are usually associated with peace, harmony and non violence, but are also considered to be  stupid; snakes are widely considered to be mentally alert strategists , but also as evil and cruel. My understanding of the Biblical passage is to be harmless but strategic.

I am daily reminded in numerous instances, in which strategy is deployed, consciously or unconsciously, successfully or unsuccessfully, of the teachings of Schelling. In some ways the three recent Provincial Council Elections and the forth coming meetings of the Human Rights Council and the Commonwealth Heads of Governments have setup the political field for the deployment of strategy. We read in the daily and Sunday papers and news broadcasts and telecasts of evidence of this. A combination of factors, much of it beyond the control of any one player, determine the nature of the playing field. Given this reality, what is the optimum strategy for each player. Those who are not smart may perish.