Disarmament Insight


Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Fun and Games

The New York Times has just published an interesting profile of Harvard scientist, Professor Martin Nowak, director of the university's Program for Evolutionary Dynamics. Nowak is a gamer - that is he takes informal ideas and builds them into versatile mathematical models in fields as diverse as economics and cancer biology.

What's this got to do with human security or disarmament diplomacy? For some time, we on the DHA project have been thinking about what insights from the natural and behavioural sciences could do for work in these areas. We explored some of these in a recent book we published, entitled "Thinking Outside the Box in Multilateral Disarmament and Arms Control Negotiations" (click on the pink book at left to explore its contents).

The underlying theme in Nowak's many projects is that of cooperation, "one of the most puzzling yet fundamental features of life".

It's also a particular source of fascination for me because international relations are essentially problems of cooperation played out among states with different levels of interest, power and resources - inspired in part by the work of scholars like Robert Axelrod and Thomas Schelling.

In some multilateral contexts structural or institutional factors can constrain the ways in which cooperation can develop. I discussed this in a chapter of our book called "Cooperation and Defection in the Conference on Disarmament" using some simple insights from game theory like variations of the classic Prisoners' Dilemma. I talked about the importance of "clusters of cooperators" in a population, who can change the rules of the game in real life situations as varied as the spread of viruses to the core group behind the 1997 Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention.

My hunch is that behind all of the complexity of multilateral relationships lie some pretty basic rules-of-thumb, which could be summarized like this:

1. Figure out what's in your best self-interest, but take a broad view and look in the longer term if you can (call it enlightened self-interest, if you will).

2. Identify others you can work with to pursue your interest. Common interest is the best basis for sustained cooperation.

3. Cooperate. In the short term you may face opposition and obstacles from "defectors". But don't worry so much about it. You're stronger in a cluster, and over the long term you'll change the rules of the game - or pay-off structure - of interactions for everyone. Social interactions matter.

In contrast, Nowak has been working on problems like the spread of cancer cells in the body. But he realised the tools he was using might be applied to human problems, especially when applied to thinking about social networks:

"Dr. Nowak and his colleagues found that when they put players into a network, the Prisoner elsewhere in the network are not able to undermine their altruism. "Even if outside our network there are cheaters, we still help each other a lot," Dr. Nowak said. That is not to say that cooperation always emerges. Dr. Nowak identified the conditions when it can arise with a simple equation: B/C>K. That is, cooperation will emerge if the benefit-to-cost (B/C) ratio of cooperation is greater than the average number of neighbours (K). "It's the simplest possible thing you could have expected, and it's completely amazing," he said."

John Borrie


Carl Zimmer, "In Games, an Insight Into the Rules of Evolution", New York Times (31 July 2007), see http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/31/science/31prof.html

John Borrie, "Cooperation and Defection in the Conference on Disarmament", in Thinking Outside the Box in Multilateral Disarmament and Arms Control Negotiations", Geneva: UNIDIR: 2006.

Picture by revlimit retrieved from Flickr.