The Use of Irrationality in Foreign Affairs

Jan. 7, 2016 The North Korean regime has mastered the art of uncertainty to manipulate the world.

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By George Friedman

On Tuesday evening, U.S. time, the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea detonated a device which it claimed was a hydrogen bomb. The announcement was guaranteed to raise international alarm sufficiently significant to overshadow everything else going on. The North Koreans knew this when they made the announcement. Assuming for the moment that the U.S. evaluation of the blast was that it was not a hydrogen fusion device, which the White House already was hinting at the next day, why would the North Koreans provoke the United States? Why were they so confident that the U.S. would not have done something North Korea didn’t anticipate, such as devastate North Korea with its own, very real and deliverable nuclear weapons? On the surface, the North Koreans were acting irrationally. There was a risk, however small, that they would provoke a reaction from the U.S. to which they had no counter.

In my years of playing poker, one of my pleasures has been to play with people who believe that poker is a game of mathematics. I love these people, like my Uncle Max, because I know they will be leaving some money to me. The problem they have is that the math they will be using is known to me, and therefore they are transparent and predictable. Their mathematical rationality betrays them.

Poker is not a mathematical game except at a rudimentary level. Poker is a game where greed and fear compete with each other inside each player’s soul, while reason tries to calm then down while using their warnings as guide posts. Part of poker is controlling yourself. But the most important part of poker is manipulating the fear, greed and reason of other players, causing them to do foolish things. The only way to do that is to construct a framework of uncertainty at the table. Occasionally, without any apparent logic, a good player does something completely demented. This can include anything from raising someone with three of a kind showing, to calling a bet, failing to bet when you have a flush, or putting mayonnaise on a corned beef sandwich. At other times, play coolly and rationally and use mustard.

Your goal is to create a sense in others that you are an unpredictable soul, not out of calculation, but out of foolishness and carelessness. Each month there is going to be one magnificent hand, and you play poker to maximize the income from that hand. The rest of the time you try to stay even while building a pattern that is designed to undermine the other players, and let loose their greed and fear, so that, once a month, when the hand is dealt, no one knows what you are doing, and you clean the table’s clock.

This is a variety of game theory, a system of mathematical modeling that tries to render this process and others into a formal theory. The paradox of game theory is that anyone consciously using it at the poker table, or in international affairs, will fail. The art of poker or diplomacy — its duplicity and cunning — must be embedded in the player’s soul, so that it is not a matter that needs to be even contemplated, but a way of life designed to extract maximum benefit in any situation by placing the other player at a massive disadvantage by not being able to understand the true intent behind any move you make. The opponent’s greed and fear run amok, and his reason flees.

Consider two American Presidents, Richard Nixon and Barack Obama. In 1973, during the Arab-Israeli war, the Soviets mobilized an airborne division threatening to intervene in the war. Richard Nixon took U.S. nuclear forces to DEFCON 3, and let the Soviets know that a nuclear response was possible. Nixon had cultivated a persona of unpredictability and occasional irrationality in foreign policy. The Soviets could not figure out whether Nixon would actually go nuclear, and because they couldn’t stand the risk, they stepped down. Two points. First, Nixon was reputed to have won large amounts of money at poker during his service in the Pacific in World War II. Second, it could have been that appearing irrational came naturally to him. In either case, he had prepared the ground for a critical moment by causing Soviet fear to override its greed.

Barack Obama is the opposite of Nixon. He behaves in extremely prudent and rational ways constantly. He has adopted a strategy of distancing the United States from crises, and not allowing political pressure or emotionalism to draw him in. The Iranians on Dec. 26 fired missiles in the area of a U.S. aircraft carrier. Obama did the rational thing and refused to respond in kind, containing the crisis. The Iranians knew that he would be rational and they fired the missiles without significant fear of an American overreaction. If Obama had been in the same situation as Nixon in 1973, the Soviets would have known Obama was bluffing. His rationality has predictability built into it and that predictability limits his options.

The North Koreans have mastered the art of irrationality — or are simply irrational. It is the genius of the master when it isn’t known whether the irrationality is real or not. The North Koreans have built nuclear weapons in order to guarantee the survival of their regime against foreign intrusion. The uncertainty as to whether or not they would actually use those weapons, or even whether they have a deliverable capability, causes major powers to be very careful not to arouse North Korean insanity.

Consider this. In discussions on the future of North Korea’s weapons program, the North Koreans have attended multiple conferences in the past that included the United States, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea. North Korea, one of the poorest countries in the world, created a situation in which five of the most significant countries in the world sat at a table with North Korea as if it were a major power. The North Koreans have crafted a vision of themselves as quite mad, and the world has accepted this vision. Other countries cannot afford to take the chance that they aren’t, particularly when the North Koreans periodically do and say things that appear crazy. But when you step back from the table and think, the North Koreans have achieved exactly what they wanted — they have convinced the world not to press them and on occasion they get the United States to give them money to stay calm.

All this should not be overestimated. That’s not because this tactic doesn’t work but because the sphere in which it works is limited. Our ability to make effective forecasts is based on the fact that the broad movement of the international system is rational and therefore predictable. Countries do not develop because of clever leaders but because of the underlying power and constraints of their nations. The smartest prime minister of Iceland is still the prime minister of Iceland and is constrained by Iceland’s limits.

At the same time, there is an area of the tactical, where the broad sweep of history doesn’t intrude, and where the behavior of leaders matters. In the end, the North Koreans are not going to invite total annihilation by using nuclear weapons, but they are going to use uncertainty to manipulate the world. Or perhaps, in the short run, the North Koreans are actually irrational and the U.S. is assuming they are not. Or perhaps the U.S. thinks they are. At this level, everything fragments into tiny prisms. Fear and greed – and the reason that tries to rule them – is what really matters. It may not make history. But it certainly makes events.

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