Are you deeply interested in what’s going on in the current crisis between Russia and Ukraine right now, but don’t know much about either Russia or Ukraine? Do you want to get involved in prognosticating what’s going to happen, but don’t want to bother with the tedium of studying Russian and Soviet history, or the interminable drudgery of learning the Russian or Ukrainian languages?
Not to worry. Famous economist Daniel Altman has a solution for you. It’s called game theory, and it explains everything you need to know, without having to know… well, anything, really. Let me say at the outset, I do not know Dr. Altman, and I have no personal issue with him or his body of work as an economist. (He is big, apparently, in international development and globalization circles.) Indeed, I do not work in his field at all, and I am not qualified to judge it. He has gained my attention, however, by working in my field, and doing it poorly.
Altman’s argument is that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a master of game theory. He’s so good at it, in fact, that he’s already won the game he’s playing over Ukraine and we clueless Westerners don’t even know it yet. “Reasoning,” Altman tells us in a recent Foreign Policy article, is Putin’s “strong suit,” and the West “could learn a lot from him.” Putin, he thinks, is working from a set of internal rules that game theorists would recognize, and unless we get up to speed pronto, he’s going to keep taking us to the cleaners. (The idea that Putin is simply running the table against an overmatched and disengaged United States foreign policy team doesn’t enter into any of this, apparently. That explanation doesn’t fit the theory – and isn’t usually bruited about in polite academic conversation.)
Now, to people unencumbered by higher education or formal training in the social sciences, this might all seem silly. Who can divine the behavior of nations, and especially of mercurial leaders like Vladimir Putin, from models? Would anyone actually rely on that kind of analysis? (Sadly, the answer is yes, and some even pay for it quite handsomely, as it turns out. Just ask political scientist Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, who sells the results of an algorithm that predicts all kinds of stuff – a secret and proprietary formula, of course – to business and government for big bucks.)
For those who’ve never sat through a university department meeting or been trapped in the hell of a mediocre academic conference, here’s how this kind of intellectual painting-by-the-numbers works.
First, start with a model or a theory. In this case, it’s game theory, the idea that human beings are reducible (as in some cases they are) to little robots that maximize gain and minimize loss. If you’ve ever played the classic computer game SimCity, you’ve already engaged in a nicely rendered version of game theory: the little citizens, the Sims, act in predictable ways that you, as the mayor of SimCity, can shape with policy choices. Raise taxes or let crime go up, your Sims move away. Lower taxes and provide better public services, and your Sims will make cute little parks and churches and have babies.
Next – and this is key – don’t allow the model to be contaminated by pesky stuff like evidence. It just gets in the way. If a closer look at events and actors produces complexities that can’t be explained, change the scale of the theory to a higher level of abstraction so you can ignore them. (Remember: from a high enough altitude, Massachusetts and California look alike.) And keep it simple: the less specificity, the better.
Altman, accordingly, claims that Putin’s actions reflect “a simple three-step process designed to guarantee success” that “come right out of a game theory textbook.” The rest of us might call them “common sense,” but let’s take a closer look.
Overestimating Putin’s Savvy
First, Putin is making sure to “locate the opportunity.” Putin, Altman tells us, “only plays games that he knows he can win. Like a game theorist, he looks at his possible moves and the moves of his opponents.” This, I guess, is supposed to fly in the face of conventional wisdom about how the rest of us do things, which is…what? That we prefer the games we’re not good at, and then play as though there is no opponent? (“Okay, men, I know you’re all scrabble champs, but take this football out on the field at the 30-yard line, and just play. If there’s another team, we can’t spend a lot of time worrying about what they’re gonna do.”) As long as Putin isn’t a complete idiot, anything he does fits this “rule.”
Next, Altman notes that Putin is applying the maxim that one must “change the status quo.” If Putin doesn’t act, Altman writes, “then the world will go on its merry way, which is not what he wants.” He’s arguing that Putin’s Russia is no longer a status quo power; that is, one satisfied with the nature of the current international order. Fair enough, although I and millions of Ukrainians had already reached that conclusion. But the notion that any world leader is ever content to have the world “go on its merry way” is a ridiculous abstraction. No one, whether running a government or a household, acts that way. Altman is only telling us that Putin is trying as best he can to shape his environment to his advantage, just as you and I, unskilled in the mysteries of game theory, do every month when we pay our bills.
And then there’s this: Putin knows he must “force the opponents to accept the new status quo.” Altman then delivers a Deep Revelation, which will surprise exactly no one: “Putin’s favorite kind of opponent is the one who accepts losing, thus confirming the change he desires. In order to ensure that his opponent accepts the loss, Putin must make any other reaction less desirable.”
Let’s just ponder that. Putin, apparently, is far savvier than the rest of us, in that he likes to play games against people who don’t mind losing. Unlike, say, you or me, who obviously prefer really tough, die-hard opponents who never accept a loss. And he has a point: who hasn’t enjoyed a good game of poker with the fellow who always upends the table at the end of the night, scatters all the chips, and demands all his money back? We all love that guy. We’d much rather play with him than with the cheerful loser who settles up and then quietly skulks out of the room with empty pockets.
All of Altman’s elegant restatements of common sense might serve as a useful heuristic to simplify Putin’s actions if there were some kind of evidence to support his explanations. Instead, Altman’s evidence is the worst kind there is: the tautological use of the outcome of the Crimean crisis itself. Instead of basing his argument on things we might have learned about Putin or the Russian decision-making process, Altman instead merely reverse-engineers conclusions based on what he knows has already happened to prove that Putin knew what he was doing all along. (The fact that the crisis isn’t over yet is, apparently, of no concern.)
This is a serious intellectual error, and surely Altman knows it. It is the equivalent of arguing that because you left your home one morning in Boston and ended up in Philadelphia that night, it must be because Philly is where you meant to go all along. While that might make a logical first pass at an explanation, it makes no provision for any other events, like getting lost, cutting the trip short, or a flat tire. If a leader ends up with a certain outcome, it must have been the one he wanted, because that’s what happened, and all that’s left is to reconstruct the obviously logical and conscious choices that got him there.
Altman’s analysis on this point worth is reading at length, to see just how hard he hammers a big, square peg into a tiny, round hole:
Putin’s actions in Ukraine are a case in point. His overarching goals are to enhance Russian power and push back the West by expanding his spheres of control and influence. His preference might have been to do this in Ukraine peacefully and across the country as a whole, but he was also willing to use violence and take what was available piecemeal.
Note how this carefully covers all of Putin’s possible actions. If he gained Ukraine peacefully, that was his goal. But if he had to use violence…well, that could have been his goal, too.
Here is how he may have seen the game play out late last year. First, he would offer a package of financial aid to Ukraine. He knew his ally, the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, would accept. If all was well thereafter, mission accomplished — Ukraine would once again be Russia’s client state. If all was not well — that is, if there were political upheaval, protests, unrest, or all three — then the country would be unstable. And an unstable Ukraine would be ripe for the picking, especially since parts of it were strongly sympathetic to Russia.
If Ukraine did become unstable, then Putin’s next move would be to invade Crimea and somehow legitimize its return to Russia. This would be the first step in a piecemeal recovery of power over Ukraine. Achieving the change itself would not be difficult. But he would also have to force his opponents to accept it.
Get that? We know Putin is successfully applying game theory because Altman can posit each of his steps as being intentional, because Putin has clearly succeeded, and this success itself is evidence that he’s doing things according to the game theory playbook. Putin had a plan to “somehow legitimize” the seizure of Crimea, and we know this because so far, the seizure of Crimea has been “somehow legitimized.” This is purely circular reasoning.
It is also pure nonsense. The fact of the matter is that Altman has no idea whether anything he is positing is true. He has no way of knowing, and presents no evidence at all, about whether any of this was a plan, whether it was improvisation, or just (at least so far) sheer good luck. Altman’s evidence for his whole case is that so far, things are working out for Putin, and from this, he draws the conclusion that Putin is playing his own version of a careful application of classic game theory. Unless Altman’s had a recent chat with Putin we don’t know about, this amounts to nothing more than guessing.
Game Theory or Petty Revenge?
This is the kind of theorizing that is best facilitated by not knowing too much about the subject. I and others could just as well argue (and have) that Putin is, in fact, acting irrationally because he is risking things he had already gained. Indeed, leave aside the straitjacket of formal theory, learn a bit about the actual historical and political situation in the region, and Putin’s actions can just as easily – if not more so – be explained as those of a vengeful, petty product of the Soviet system than those of a careful game player.
Why? Because Putin could have “won” this crisis by never starting it. Over the course of a decade, especially once the Orange Revolution was defeated, Putin had gotten just about everything he wanted from Ukraine, including a leader in Kyiv who practically had “Property of the Kremlin” stamped on his forehead. Putin’s attempt to force the Russia-or-Europe choice down Yanukovich’s throat (which apparently actually happened in an expletive-filled dressing down Putin gave him in Moscow) was irrational overreach by the Russian President that provoked the Euromaidan movement – exactly the reaction Putin didn’t want. By some reports, Putin was genuinely taken aback, then surprised, and finally enraged by Yanukovich’s ouster, and he reacted with visceral anger, setting in motion events whose end are nowhere in sight even for Putin himself. The Russian invasion of Crimea is now endangering things Putin values – like Russian economic stability purely so he claim something – a base and a military presence in Crimea – he already had.
Not content to reduce Putin to the President of SimCity, Altman packages up some lessons for the rest of us. “Assess vulnerabilities, both present and potential,” he suggests – for those of us, of course, to whom it has never occurred to do risk analysis – because “the games Putin will play are not always readily apparent. Ukraine was not obviously unstable, but Putin had the foresight to see how it might become destabilized.”
Excuse me? Ukraine was not obviously unstable? Perhaps it could seem that way if viewed from outer space, but to anyone who’s spent more than a few minutes studying the former Soviet region, Ukraine was the most unstable place in Europe outside of the former Yugoslavia. A Ukrainian civil war has been worrying all of us who study this area and has been a constant fear among specialists in this subject ever since the Soviet collapse. This is a classic moment where theory is invaluably aided by steering clear of any kind of contact with reality.
Next: “Learn about your opponent’s objectives.” Indeed. How often those of us who write and lecture on strategy have foolishly told our students: “Ignore your opponent and his goals.” But now we’ve been set straight.
Altman predicts, by the way, that “Putin’s remaining moves are fairly straightforward” and that he will not invade eastern Ukraine. Instead, “he will finally appear to listen to reason” and “disown the pro-Russian forces there (whose actions he instigated), while privately reassuring them of his support and explaining that it was not the right time for further action.”
I suppose all of that is possible, although I can think of a lot of reasons Putin won’t invade Ukraine’s east that have nothing to do with game theory and have everything to do with him not being completely crazy and reckless. And if he does invade, I’m sure Altman will have an explanation about why this really fits the theory, because the incentive structures were changed, and Putin saw new payoff expectations, and…well, you get the idea. It’s not that hard to drown a bad prediction in a swamp of theory always teeming with analytical leeches that can drain any meaning from any outcome.
In the end, this is the kind of analysis that gives academic theory a bad name. Theory, when used as a tool instead of pursued as an end itself, does actually serve a purpose. It helps to make order out of random bits of data, and to allow us organize the chaos of events into coherent sets of relationships and explanations. Unfortunately, over the years academic theory has devolved into boring intellectual jousts that explain almost nothing.
When applied to the real world, as in Altman’s thought exercise, the apparatus of theory does little more than act as window-dressing to make guessing seem scientific. Jamming the template of game theory over something like the behavior of Vladimir Putin, especially this early in the crisis, is a kind of stunt: it’s a way of theatrically pushing data into one end of a big box and then pretending to read an objective answer at the other, the way Adam West’s Batman used to punch clues into the “Bat-Computer” and then watch it spit out a little card telling him exactly where the Riddler was about to strike next.
Those of us who think Putin is acting emotionally in an insulated, low-information environment (including Angela Merkel, whom Altman tut-tuts for not getting what Putin is about) are not just making it up as we go or randomly picking motives. We’re reaching that conclusion because we’ve been watching this situation for a long time, and in context, Putin’s actions seem reckless and violent. If Putin’s motives are as Altman describes them, then his actions are not only unreasonable, they run a great risk of being, in the end, self-defeating. But to see them in that context is more in keeping with the nature of the man as we’ve come to know him, the regime he’s created, and the culture in which he lives, all of which explain more to us than positing his choices as just another day at the office for the President of SimCity.
Tom Nichols is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and an adjunct at the Harvard Extension School. His most recent book is No Use: Nuclear Weapons and U.S. National Security (Penn, 2014).The views expressed are entirely his own.