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Obama: Stag Hunter

Yesterday, President Obama delivered an extended address on US national security status and policy. The main theme of his future-oriented policy emphasized the importance of foreign cooperation to long-term stability and security. Throughout the speech, Obama emphasized that the warlike posture the US has adopted since Sept 11, 2001, is doing more harm than good because it is much harder to build alliances. Instead of funneling money into combat/tactical programs, he argued that it makes more sense to funnel money into foreign aid, to build up good will, to support emerging democracies, and help other nations build up their infrastructure and economies. All of these things diffuse violent radicalism because individuals in a free society can focus on cultivating their own opportunities. There is no hopelessness which breed fear and anger, and without fear and anger, no one will be looking around for someone to blame.

To a philosopher, Obama has done a good job of channeling John Rawls. The final point, that people do not turn to violence when they feel free and hopeful, is the essence of Rawls's view of the well-ordered society. If I have no grievances that cannot be addressed through some open, effective procedure, I have no reason to compromise the good will of my fellow citizens with propaganda of the deed or direct action against oppression. There is no oppression to act against. The larger point, also well-understood by Rawls but general to Game Theory, is that by extending the network of cooperation, we diminish motivation to engage in violent conflict. Rawls calls that a well-ordered society, but for Game Theorists, a more colorful bunch than Rawls, use the term "Stag Hunt."

Imagine you live in a hunter/gatherer society. If you want protein, you have two options: hunt stags with the group, or hunt rabbits alone. Rabbits don't provide a whole lot of protein, but you are likely to catch one, though you may have to work for a long time, snaring, trapping, or rock-hurling. The important thing is that you can catch a rabbit alone, with no help from anyone else in your society. Stags provide much more protein, but you can't bring down a stag alone; you need the cooperation of the other hunters in your society. The need for cooperation is both good and bad. The benefit is that you personally will have to do less work as the task is distributed across the rest of the hunters, and you get more protein than you could get from the rabbit, even after dividing it. The downside is that you have might not catch a stag, and if you don't, you won't have any time left for grabbing rabbits.

The choice is simple, you have to choose between a meager sure thing or a plentiful risk. If you have reason to believe that the other hunters are likely to abandon the stag hunt to catch rabbits, you're better off catching rabbits. If you have reason to believe that the other hunters are dedicated to the group hunt, you're better off cooperating, even if it means losing out on a sure thing.

Stag hunts are lurking behind much of what Obama said about foreign aid, and it's a good model for thinking about long-term security. If we turn the future into a cooperative endeavor, sending out lots of aid and support, helping developing nations develop, those governments will not want to support action against us. Maintenance of good relationships becomes too important, even if some small, sure gain can be had by sacrificing that relationship. Consider the case of North Korea: an isolated nation with few allies, an aggressive foreign policy, and lots of economic problems. They would be better off backing down from their insistence on maintaining military power (and the illusion of its superiority), but they have not (yet).

As the world's nation-states become more connected through communication technology and economic cooperation, stag hunts should become more common. We can all go after the big stag: global peace and prosperity, knowing that we all share in the benefits, and we collectively make do with the shortcomings. That last point is an important one, though. We have to collectively make do with the shortcomings. That is, when something doesn't work out, we need to maintain the base of cooperation, sharing whatever we do have, to establish and maintain that basis of goodwill. Otherwise, we'll just be chasing rabbits.

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