Thursday, February 22, 2007

The latest (March, 2007) edition of Scientific American has an interesting item by Earth Institute director Jeffrey D. Sachs with the title above. It basically a retelling of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 and the lessons that can be drawn therefrom.
Now, the Earth Institute is certainly a worthy institution. Its mission statement says,
"The Earth Institute at Columbia University brings together talent from throughout the university to address complex issues facing the planet and its inhabitants, with particular focus on sustainable development and the needs of the world's poor. The Earth Institute is motivated by the belief that science and technological tools already exist, and could be expanded to greatly improve conditions for the world's poor while preserving the natural systems that support life on Earth."
The site is a wealth of information about research being undertaken in support of sustainable development. Jeffrey Sachs himself is an economist with special interests in development issues, and there's no doubt that he is "on the side of the angels". His telling of the tale, however, leaves little to the imagination about what his politics are. He's an American liberal who looks back to the Kennedy era as a sort of lost golden age. What is left out is as significant as what is included in his brief summary. The omitted fact that the USA started this whole game of brinkmanship by installing nuclear missiles in Turkey the year before is a convenient omission- one almost universally ignored in most popular western accounts of the crisis. For a fuller story of the Cuban missile crisis see the Wikipedia article on same. As a good liberal Sachs praises Kennedy- a praise that is hardly universally voiced- and ignores the good faith initiatives of the Soviets. Also, like a good liberal he ignores not just the crazies on the American side but also an equally detached set of hardliners in the Cuban ruling class. In the endgame the missiles in Turkey were removed albeit "secretly" without fanfare, and Sach's claim for the Kennedy administration that they "stressed the need to avoid humiliating one's adversary" really applies much more to the Soviet actions as opposed to the American ones. It was also the one, only and last time that the Soviet ruling class ever exposed their strategic nuclear forces in a position where they might escape from their immediate and total control (into the hands of Cuban ideologues in this case).
Anyways, whatever one may think of the moral rectitude of the various players in this game a point Sachs makes is that it was indeed a "game". He says,
"Today's game theorists would describe Kennedy's strategy as 'generous tit-for-tat(GTFT)' (The Soviet moves should also be so described- Molly). A player adopts a position of cooperation as long as the other side does too. If the second player begins to cheat, the first player stops cooperating as well, to show the cheater that there are adverse consequences to the collapse of this arrangement. The door remains forgivingly open to future cooperation, however, if the cheater reverts to form. And generously the first player might initiate renewed cooperation, with a view to enticing the former cheater to reciprocate. GTFT is so successful and robust that many evolutionary biologists suppose that the basic strategy is somewhat hardwired in human attitudes.".
Whatever one may think of Sach's assignment of blame and praise the essential point that he is trying to make is true. There are ways towards peace and security that are different from and more effective than the bluster of the present American administration and their equally ideologically driven Islamofascist opponents. The two sides actually mirror each other very well. Have a look at the essay for the full story. It will likely be posted on the net next month at the Scientific American website, which is usually one month behind the printed version.
It's also an example the application of game theory in real life, something that Molly will return to as she slowly posts her complete review of 'A Beautiful Math' on this site. The book is long finished, but reading is faster than writing about it.


Sometimes Saintly Nick said...

I do not believe that the Bush administration knows much about peacemaking, negotiating, or diplomacy beyond threats of force and violence.

mollymew said...

I agree. The Bush administration appears to be ideologically driven and oblivious to ordinary reality. Certainly I see enough of this amongst a subset of my anarchist comrades, but their disconnection with reality has little effect outside of the closed world of "anarchism". Bush's advisors have an enormous effect in the real world.
What I should point out is that a "conservative" view of the world doesn't necessarily involve a blinkered view of reality. It wasn't the American "liberals" who ended the Vietnam war and opened up to China. It was cynical conservatives who knew enough to 1)cut and run and 2)take self interest as more important than professed ideology.
It's a matter to think about.