fbpx

Trump: Perhaps the Last, Best Hope on North Korea?

While the odds seem stacked against significant change from the rescheduled summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, whatever the odds of a positive outcome, they represent an improvement on the status quo. For this, Trump deserves credit. It is difficult to think the summit would be scheduled with any normal politician in the White House.

As I’ve written before, Trump’s base does not support him despite his “craziness,” they support him because of his craziness. Trump’s craziness is the commitment mechanism his voters have been desiring in order to see change in Washington, change long promised by the Republicans but never delivered.

So, too, in foreign affairs. Being “crazy” is not always a winning strategy in foreign policy, but it isn’t always a losing one either. North Korea has been using it as a winning strategy for over half a century.

It’s the “craziest” player who wins in games of “chicken,” which is the game the U.S. and North Korea have been playing for decades. The canonical game is well known from the movies. Two boys face each other in their roadsters. At the given signal, they speed toward one another on a collision course. The one who swerves is the “chicken,” the one who does not swerve wins the game. If neither swerves, the cars collide, resulting in injury, or worse, to the drivers.

The figure below sets out the game. There are three (Nash) equilibria to the game, two equilibria in which collision never occurs, and one equilibrium in which collision occurs sometimes. (A Nash equilibrium exists when no player has an incentive to deviate to another strategy given the strategy the other player is playing.) The numbers are there only for concreteness; they don’t represent an objective value, as only the ordinal ranking of the outcomes by the players matter.

Who swerves?

One boy swerves and the other doesn’t in the game’s two pure-strategy equilibria. The one who doesn’t swerve receives a payoff of “5,” the one who swerves, the chicken, receives a payoff of “–5.”

A problem exists with having two or more equilibria in the game, how does one know which player will swerve and which will not?

A player developing a reputation for not swerving can select one of the equilibria as a prediction for the outcome in the game. North Korea and the U.S. have been playing chicken in the decades after the Korean War, typically with the United States “swerving,” playing chicken, to North Korea’s not swerving. (Another solution is having a commitment mechanism, like the doomsday bomb in the film, Dr. Strangelove. The world gets blown up automatically in response to a bomb dropping on the Soviet Union. The dark joke in the film is that the device had not yet been publically announced, and so could not act as a deterrent.)

Changing the outcome of the game from one equilibrium to another when the players have settled expectations of who swerves and who doesn’t is fraught with difficulties. Basically, the traditionally-swerving player needs to work to convince the traditionally-winning player that he’s now the craziest player. While the United States is the player, a new president at the nation’s head provides an opportunity to rework old relationships.

But transitions are fraught with difficulty, and risk. In a game in which it’s all up in the air, the third equilibrium seems to be the most sensible prediction. In this equilibrium, however, both players are playing their strategies probabilistically. That means there’s a chance neither player will swerve, and a head-on collision will result.

As I mentioned, the numbers in the game illustrated here are made up. Nonetheless, with the payoffs in the game above, solving for the “mixed-strategy” equilibrium in which players play strategies probabilistically, both players swerve with a probability of about 78 percent. One player swerves while the other player does not swerve about 21 percent of the time (which each player “winning” 10.5 percent of the time), and neither player swerving – a crash – occurs about one percent of the time.

Real life games of chicken are much more complicated. But the simple game can provide some insight into what’s going on between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump.

Kim Jong-un has been used to winning. He has the reputation for not swerving. The strategy has allowed him to get stuff from other nations for himself and his cronies for decades. There was little reason for him to think he needed to change his strategy. Indeed, he likely calculated nuclearization as a step to continue his winning streak.

President Trump steps into this with a similar reputation for crazy behavior. John Bolton helps him with this (writing as late as this last March for the legality of attacking North Korea). This raises the question in Kim Jong-un’s mind: Are Trump and Bolton crazy enough not to swerve?

While potentially risky, Trump’s approach is one of the few that holds any real promise of changing the traditional play of the game. To be sure, if Kim Jong-un were suddenly to become reasonable, or was replaced by someone reasonable, that could change the game to something entirely different.

Absent something that drastic, however, the only alternative to the certainty of the status quo game, that is, North Korea certainly wins and the U.S. certainly swerves, is to mix it all up, intentionally to throw everything up in the air. With Trump, the U.S. now plays the mixed strategy instead of playing the chicken. If he can make Kim Jong-un swerve, then there’s the possibility of a establishing a new play to the game, one in which Kim Jong-un doesn’t habitually roll the U.S.

But what of the possibility of collision as a result of Trump having the U.S. now playing the mixed strategy? The risk is that neither player swerves and there’s a head-on collision. The answer is, better today than tomorrow. A nuclear North Korea with ICBM capabilities does not make the outcome of a chicken game which North Korea wins any better for the U.S., for South Korea, or for the world. It makes it far worse.

So, yes, there’s risk in what Trump is attempting. But the gamble only gets worse for the U.S. and its allies in the future. Having our “crazy” President Trump in charge right now could very well provide the U.S. the strongest hand it will ever have for engaging Kim Jong-un, at least before he becomes even a greater threat.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on June 05, 2018 at 20:53:24 pm

Good analysis. China desires very much to assert and possess primacy of the seas licking its eastern and southern coasts and this can never be attained in a meaningful way if China must continually play in their own backyard pool, (as they see it), a game of Marco Polo with western (primarily U.S.) fleets patrolling to protect the security interests of allies South Korea and Japan, where the status quo is one of permanent heightened alert of threat by North Korea.

I do believe Trump's leadership style is one that unsettles, even intimidates Kim Jong-un , but I don't discount that China has undoubtedly also played a role in coercing Kim to come to the table. China wants to make their own pool-rules and what games to play in it, and that means the consequences, once acceptable, even desirable, of permitting N. Korea's perpetual naughtiness now runs contrary to China's goals and no longer serves the same purpose for China as it did in the past.

read full comment
Image of Paul Binotto
Paul Binotto
on June 06, 2018 at 10:04:22 am

Can we dispense with printing more of these testosterone-laden analogies and begin a discussion of "one rock, one humanity". Our children would appreciate it.

read full comment
Image of Pablo Pfal
Pablo Pfal
on June 06, 2018 at 10:13:58 am

What our children will appreciate is being able again to look at, as you say, this "one rock" realistically and truthfully, as it is, not as Utopiac's perceive it, or wish to be.

read full comment
Image of Paul Binotto
Paul Binotto
on June 07, 2018 at 11:36:07 am

I an agree with the "Utopiac's" comment. What would you like to see the "one rock" look like for our children?

read full comment
Image of Pablo Pfal
Pablo Pfal
on June 07, 2018 at 11:50:19 am

I read the articles on Law/Liberty to try to understand the educated thoughts on both. Where do I find the truth?

read full comment
Image of Pablo Pfal
Pablo Pfal
on June 07, 2018 at 13:36:49 pm

The world will never be any different tomorrow, than it was yesterday or today, until history ends, only the faces will change, and I am not being cynical; this is only realistic.

The better question is how will we/ought we leave our children best able to respond to an unchanging world? I would argue, by preparing them to cope and respond appropriately to the un-pleasantries of an imperfect world.

And, I am not advocating teaching, "dog eat dog", and, most certainly not, "roll-over and play dead". It is frequently misunderstood that "turn the other cheek" admonishes one to be a door-mat.

read full comment
Image of Paul Binotto
Paul Binotto
on June 08, 2018 at 13:28:39 pm

"The world will never be any different tomorrow, than it was yesterday or today, until history ends..."

Those words are worth more thought and worth saving. If I accept the full content of your response I could use the comment as a basis for "preparing them to cope and respond appropriately to the un-pleasantries of an imperfect world"

Thank you for taking the time to respond and being "only realistic"

read full comment
Image of Pablo Pfal
Pablo Pfal
on June 09, 2018 at 08:10:45 am

Pablo,

I only offer you this final thought, as you seem genuinely interested - If you happen to be a man of faith, in my opinion, the single most important thing you (any father) can do for children to prepare them for life in this unchanging world is to let them see you practice and live your own faith with courage, and without shame or apology.

Best, -Paul

read full comment
Image of Paul Binotto
Paul Binotto

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

Related