The prisoner’s dilemma is the best known strategic theorem in social science. It helps us understand what influences cooperation and competition. The paradoxical outcome is that, under certain conditions, individuals will not cooperate, even when it is in their best interest to do so.
Let’s use the prisoner’s dilemma game theory insight to examine the latest example of Cuba’s non-cooperation in its relationship with the United States and the Obama administration’s response or lack of it.
General Castro and President Obama are partners in a negotiation, analogous to the partners in crime of the prisoner’s dilemma. Public opinion is our prosecutor.
The prisoner’s dilemma was developed by scientists at the RAND Corporation and later formalized by a Princeton mathematician. Its applications in economics, business, politics, and social science are extremely sophisticated, and they are used to model behavior between nuclear powers and hostile states with national rivalries.
It is hard to conceive a more graphic example of a failure to protect US national security interests.
The prisoner’s dilemma entered popular culture with the film A Beautiful Mind, which is based on the life of John Nash, a Nobel Prize winner in Economics for his work on game theory.
In the simplest version of the dilemma, two criminals are interrogated in separate rooms and offered a choice of testifying against the other or remaining silent. Testifying means a lighter sentence for the testifying criminal if the other one refuses to testify and remains silent. The testifying criminal will receive the favorable treatment of a state’s witness. The criminal who does not testify will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
However, if they both decide to testify against each other, the prosecutor will be able to ask for the harshest sentence for both of them. The best outcome for both is when they cooperate with each other by staying silent, thus denying the prosecutor the ability to convict them.
And yet, because prisoners are unable to know what the other will do, each can improve his personal situation by testifying against the other. In this simple prisoner’s dilemma, testifying — that is, betraying the other — is the dominant strategy for each. Paradoxically, when each prisoner follows a purely logical thought process and seeks to improve his own situation, both prisoners find themselves in a worse situation.
It was recently reported that an unarmed US Hellfire missile was somehow mistakenly shipped to Cuba from Europe in 2014. This happened just as the Obama administration and Cuba were negotiating what ended up being the current rapprochement between the countries.
At a minimum, the Obama administration should have negotiated with the concern that Cuba would share the missile’s advance targeting technology with potential US adversaries such as Russia, China, and North Korea. Quite likely, Cuba’s espionage capabilities were involved in this mysterious “misshipment.”
[adrotate group=”8″]For two years, the Castro regime refused to return the missile and, incredibly, the Obama administration did not make its return a non-negotiable condition for the reestablishment of diplomatic relations, which took place 13 months after it was known that the missile was in Cuba.
It is hard to conceive a more graphic example of a failure to protect US national security interests. Just as troubling, the administration has kept this information from Congress and has withheld it from any public discussion of the new U.S.-Cuba policy.
If General Castro had any interest in cooperating with the United States to maximize the possibilities of a good relationship between the countries, he would have immediately returned the missile to a friendly administration committed to accommodating his demands.
Instead, the General, as modeled by the prisoner’s dilemma, has betrayed his negotiating partner-in-crime and has pursued his own self interest. What is irrational is that the Obama administration has broken faith with the US national security interest by failing to vigorously condemn the Cuban regime’s unlawful behavior.
In this example, Cuba, the non-cooperative betraying criminal, has received the favorable treatment of being rewarded with diplomatic relations. And the accommodatingly silent Obama administration ought to be harshly sentenced in the court of public opinion for its failure to act in the best interest of the United States to get the missile back.
History will determine how the prisoner’s dilemma works out in this instance.