Generational Dynamics: Forecasting America's Destiny Generational
 Forecasting America's Destiny ... and the World's


A beautiful mind? The world is paralyzed into a "Nash equilibrium"

Today, 61 years after the end of World War II, the countries of the world are struggling to maintain a status quo that can't last too much longer. (17-Jul-2006)
Summary When a game reaches a "Nash equilibrium," named after John Nash, the Nobel-winning mathematician portrayed in the movie "A Beautiful Mind," it means that every player has to play the same move over and over again to avoid losing. The world today is in a kind of Nash equilibrium, where every country is paralyzed into inaction, for fear of disturbing the equilibrium and starting a war. That leaves things to the terrorists, who are doing all they can to destroy the equilibrium.

You may have seen the 2001 movie "A Beautiful Mind" the mathematician who won a Nobel Prize in Economics in 1994, even though Nash himself was nutty as a fruitcake.

He won his Nobel prize in the field of game theory. Game theory is a branch of mathematics where you study games like "rock, paper, scissors." Each player makes a "move" and then, based on the rules, the player gets a payoff (positive or negative). And, as documented by the World Rock Paper Scissors Society (serving the needs of decisions makers since 1918), even this extremely simple child's game can be played with very complex strategies.

A "zero-sum game" is one in which the sum of all the players' payoffs is zero. Poker is a zero sum game, because if you win then someone else loses.

There are obvious examples of games in international relations. One country may invade another if it thinks it can win -- territory, resources, etc. Two countries may be enemies, but still not go to war, since each believes that both countries will have negative payoffs in the case of a war, no matter who wins. A war is seldom a zero-sum game.

This brings us back to John Nash. His concept of the "Nash Equilibrium" is as follows: In many games, you reach a point where each player has to play the same "move" over and over again, or lose. In other words, no deviation in strategy for any single player is profitable.

When you apply this definition to international relations, you can easily get a bunch of examples that appear to follow the Nash Equilibrium concept:

It's worth taking a moment to see what attitudes were like following the end of World War II. There had been two horrible world wars, and it was generally accepted that we might well be headed for a third world war, this time with the Communists.

So there was no Nash equilibrium after World War II. There was no paralysis, no fear of doing something to solve the world's problems; instead, the great fear was that doing nothing would lead to disaster.

Here's what Hannah Arendt wrote in the preface to her 1950 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism:

It's amazing what the survivors of World War II did. They carefully set up worldwide organizations -- the United Nations, the World Bank, the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization, etc. -- whose purpose was, most of all, to prevent another world war. They accomplished huge things. They set up country boundaries, set up world monetary policies, as well as trade and commerce policies. They made sure everyone would be fed. They attacked all of the miseries of the World Wars -- poverty, famine, disease and war -- so that nothing like World War II would ever happen to their children or grandchildren.

But the people who set up those organizations and did those great things are gone now, and the people left behind don't have the skills to make them work effectively.

Today we're much closer to World War III than we were in 1950, but there's no will today to do something to prevent it. What we're seeing is that nations around the world are trying not to disturb the equilibrium, trying not to make things worse, with the result that nations around the world are becoming paralyzed into inaction.

So, for example, the Darfur genocide has continued, and the U.N. has been ineffective in stopping it, and can't even vote to call it a genocide. Attempts to stop Iran and North Korea from developing nuclear weapons are ineffective, and only illustrate how ineffective the U.N. Security Council is. America is unable to stop arguing long enough to agree on an immigration bill, and Congress is so ineffective that and Congressional calendar this year is just 97 days. Even China is paralyzed, with the the People's National Congress unable to pass a law to end the country's mass riots.

Today, most of the world is in a kind of Nash Equilibrium: Almost any invasion of one country by another would end up attacking other nations' interests, resulting in a spiral to world war.

But, as the Mideast situation shows, this equilibrium is very fragile, because generations keep changing, and population keeps growing, and technology keeps changing, and so forth.

If only the world would stop changing, then the Nash equilibrium could be maintained. But you have young generations in Gaza, Lebanon, Sri Lanka, al-Qaeda, Kashmir, Chechnya, etc., who are UNSATISFIED with the current equilibrium and with the NEGATIVE PAYOFF they're getting from doing nothing. These young generations are using terrorism to destroy the equilibrium, since being a victim of terrorism is a negative payoff for doing nothing.

There are a number of regions of the world experiencing this tense kind of equilibrium -- the Mideast, China, North Korea, Kashmir, Chechnya, Sri Lanka, etc. Once the terrorists succeed in making it too costly NOT to have war, then war will begin in one of these regions. And it doesn't matter who's first -- my guess right now is that it will be the Mideast, but that could change -- then the equilibrium is destroyed for all these regions, and world war ensues.

Copyright © 2002-2016 by John J. Xenakis.