Brian Gongol Show on WHO Radio - February 21, 2016

Brian Gongol

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Please note: These show notes may be in various stages of completion -- ranging from brainstormed notes through to well-polished monologues. Please excuse anything that may seem rough around the edges, as it may only be a first draft of a thought and not be fully representative of what was said on the air.

This week

But first...Game theory in Washington

The parlor game of the past week has been for people to speculate on how the Republican Presidential nomination might work out if nobody captures a majority before everyone gets together in Cleveland.

It's an exercise in what is called game theory -- figuring out how different decisions, incentives, partnerships, and rivalries lead to likely outcomes. Lots of commentators have suddenly discovered what's called the "prisoner's dilemma" -- a condition in which the the worst possible outcome emerges from everyone doing what appears to be best for himself. In this case, the prisoner's dilemma is that everyone in the Republican race knows that Donald Trump could lose if he's up against a single rival -- but everyone in the race thinks that he should be that single rival left standing, so they all stay in and Trump gets to remain in the lead.

Game theory is an enormously valuable tool, and understanding how it works can be a hugely powerful advantage in the world. Rational people choosing to cooperate or compete with one another can make their own situations far worse or much better, depending on how well they think through the process.

That's why it is mind-boggling to see how little our highest-level diplomatic leaders -- from the President on down -- seem to understand game theory as it applies to international affairs.

Nobody's saying that things are simple right now. The conflict in Syria, for instance, involves a multitude of actors, and the enemy of our enemy isn't necessarily our friend. Meanwhile, what China is doing in the South China Sea and what North Korea is doing with its missile program are both multi-dimensional, multi-party situations that aren't easy.

But we are being gamed. We are being gamed hard. At least in the case of the South China Sea, we're up against a "frenemy" who's thinking through the possibilities and mapping out a plan that puts us in a bad situation, almost no matter what we do.

If we deny the validity of China's claims to the man-made islands they're building, then what are we going to do about it if they decide to defend those claims anyway? Are we willing to go to war over a property argument? Is there really an authority to whom we can turn to judge the matter for us? There's no sign the UN is going to do anything about it if China decides to start shooting at our airplanes and ships for challenging the claims.

But if we acknowledge those claims according to international law, then what happens to trade routes? What happens to our allies affected by those claims? What happens to our ability to project power into the region if we're needed?

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