Le’ Notes #17: Rational choice theory, part 2

This post continues the discussion on rational choice theory from Note #16. Now, I explore the core assumptions of rational choice theory and their application in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

Previously, we’ve seen an application of game theory in assessing a wartime decision and a bit of the debate surrounding the rational choice theory school. Now, let’s dive in deeper into the rationalistic school and explore the core assumptions, which include bargaining theory, brinkmanship, and miscalculations/misperception.

Of course, this means borrowing a lot from behavioural economics, so we’ll have names such as Von Neumann and Thomas Schelling.

The birth of the rationalistic school can be traced back to 1948, or the dawn of the nuclear age. Thanks to nukes, we can no longer “learn by doing”, since the first nuke to fall will be the last breath we take, and since the ancient Romans had no nukes, learning from history seemed irrelevant. Thus, people sought out a new way to manage conflict and war, which resulted in game theory. Game theory was favoured since it would provide a rigorous basis for a new “science of war”. One of the favourite economists (surprisingly, most game theorists are not from the military) was Von Neumann, who’s practically the godfather of game theory.

So, what exactly is the rationalistic school? As mentioned earlier, it assumes that actors are always behaving rationally. Or at least as rational as they can be under the given circumstances at that point in time.

There are three components to the rationality assumption:

  1. Purposive action. Outcomes are explained by a goal-oriented action. These actions are taken solely to achieve an outcome, regardless of habit, tradition, or social appropriateness.
  2. Consistent preferences. Actors have a list of ranked preferences which often stay the same within a given period of time. Their actions are based on these preferences.
  3. Utility maximisation. Actors, after weighing their preferences, will proceed to choose the best possible course of action from a set of possible alternatives.

As such, a rational actor is not affected by anything other than the preferred outcome and will always choose the best alternative among a series of actions available.

Now, the rationalistic school might seem a bit too rigid and idealistic. And here’s where Thomas Schelling comes in. Schelling was a controversial figure even within the rationalistic school. He was mostly hated for being not rationalistic enough (see Shubik [PDF]) or trying to reduce conflict (or the avoidance thereof) into bare, deductive logical reasoning devoid of politics and culture (see Lebow [paywall]). Nevertheless, without Schelling, we might not have the foundations of deterrence and bargaining theory of war.

Schelling is often known for his contributions to the game of conflict avoidance. His works, Strategy of Conflict and Arms and Influence, build on the rationalistic assumptions and explore how states supposedly “bargain” with other states. Failures in the bargaining process then tend to be associated with the outbreak of war.

One of Schelling’s contributions is the term “brinkmanship”. Brinkmanship is, as Schelling defines:

It is the tactic of deliberately letting the situation get somewhat out of hand, just because its being out of hand may be intolerable to the other party and force his accommodation.  – Schelling, Strategy of Conflict, p. 200

Okay, that’s rather obscure. Here’s a way to make it more realistic: by drawing analogies to what Bertrand Russell termed the “game of chicken”. Imagine two drivers from the cast of Initial D facing off against one another. Both drivers are to drive into one another. the first one to swerve loses (is “chicken”). However, if both decide to continue driving, both of them crash and die in an amazing Eurobeat inferno together. Thus, the objective is to see which person can make the other person “chicken” out the first while at the same time, avoiding the fatal crash.

*Eurobeat intensifies*

Now, imagine that same game but this time, with states armed to the teeth with weapons. A mark of true brinkmanship would be when a state increases the risks of war to such a degree, the other state doesn’t want to take the risk of war and proceeds to accommodate what you want.

There are also other terms, such as deterrence and compellence, but I’m not going to go into them for the time being.

Brinkmanship in the Six Day War (1967)


The Arab-Israeli War in 1967


One example of brinkmanship can be seen in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. For a chronological summary of the war, see Yost [paywall]. Here are some of the major events which are often thought to lead up to the war: (1) the continued El-Fatah raids by Syria into Israel, (2) the Samu air strike (3) the blockade of the Tiran Strait. Yost concludes that the Six Day War was unintentional, with both sides responding disproportionately to one another.

Mor [paywall] presents an alternative view of the war with a focus on Nasser. Popular explanations hinged on psychology (i.e. the “pathologies” of Nasser’s thought process in influencing his decisions) and brinkmanship, which frames the blockade of the Tiran Strait and withdrawal of UNEF troops as a “brink” that Nasser crossed, leading to the war. Mor provides an analysis of Nasser’s decision-making process, arguing that Nasser was strategically rational. However, Nasser failed to “learn” where the brink was, which in Mor’s view, was when Egypt entered the Arab defence pact with Jordan and Syria. On the other hand, Israel then failed to “teach” Egypt where the lines should be drawn. Nasser’s rationality then backfired, providing reason for the Israelis to launch an attack.

The Six Day War highlights the relation among states when facing a hostile situation marred in uncertainty. It specifically emphasises misperception inherent in deterrence strategies. This is especially evident on the Egyptian side during the events leading to the war. To achieve his political goals, Nasser began to start putting pressure on Israel as a form of deterrence. However, Nasser was sending the “wrong signals” to Eshkol, who interpreted the movement of Egyptian troops into Sinai and the blockade of the Tiran Strait as signs of an imminent Egyptian attack. If uncertainty did not exist, perhaps the events would have unfolded differently, with both sides opting not to go to war. However, in this case, the “brink” was unclear to Nasser and caused the Israelis to take the risk of war.

Furthermore, the Six Day War also shows that two states can still be rational actors and still decide to go to war. This was evident in the acts of both Nasser and Eshkol. Nasser was a rational actor; he was aiming for larger political gains, i.e. subduing Israel and increasing Egypt’s clout in the Arab world. Eshkol, in deciding whether to go to war or not, was also rational. In the face of a seemingly hostile neighbour and lack of support from their ally, the U.S., Eshkol decided to launch a preventive war to secure Israeli interests. The political gains achieved turned out to rewrite the entire Middle East in Israel’s favour and deterred further hostilities from other Arab neighbours.

There are also other accounts on the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Popp [paywall], for example, argues that both states were rational and the war did not “spiral out of control” and thus, dragging both states down the proverbial cliff. Kurtulus [PDF] rejects the notion that the war was a preemptive one, considering that the war was missing two characteristics of a preemptive war — vulnerability of offensive weapons and the acute character of
the crisis.

The bells ring…

Here’s a quick recap of the day:

  • The rationalistic school assumes that all decision-makers act on the rationality assumption, where they seek relevant information and choose the best alternative out of the many available in pursuit of the best outcome. Nothing else influences this, including politics, culture, or even habit.
  • Schelling introduced the concept of brinkmanship, which attempts to explain failures in the bargaining process, leading to the outbreak of war. Schelling has also been criticised for being too rational and detached in his analysis.
  • The 1967 Arab-Israeli War remains a hotly debated issue; nevertheless, it is a good case study to apply Schelling’s bargaining theory.


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