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Negotiate while playing

For a few months now we have been following, with interest and concern, developments in the Ukraine, Scotland, Greece, Spain and Catalonia. In all these cases, territorial reconfigurations are being discussed, and all have produced confrontations and negotiations. As a result, it has become popular to talk about game theory and we have heard international experts talking about games. It would be a shame if people thought that this was trivializing the importance of these conflicts, comparing them with games. It is simply about the fact that negotiations and many games have three elements in common: victory, defeat, and especially, the importance of strategy. The personal consequences are very different, but some of the mechanisms of both processes are quite similar, and for this reason we can compare them.

I am not a player, nor an expert in games. But I do have some experience in negotiations. It is from this exclusive perspective that I would like to make a few comments, which can be applied to all the cases that we are talking about, and mention some examples ...

1. Objectives. It is not always the case that the scenario which the parties claim as their objective is exactly what they truly want, nor the optimal result of the negotiation. Sometimes there are objectives that have an instrumental nature. They can serve to hide some of your cards; to make threats regarding the ability to cause catastrophic situations (bluff); to hold back the possibility of some final compromise (hidden cards); or one party might even think that a partial victory could be a better scenario than the complete defeat of their adversary, taking into account that the game must continue... (Many Scots thought that a Scotland with new powers could be better than a Scotland segregated from the United Kingdom.). It is also true, and this has been known for centuries, that sometimes there are objectives that have very little to do with the conflict itself, and respond to internal problems of one of the parties, and that are hidden or muffled by the popular fervor generated by the external confrontation (Putin ...?).

2. Scenarios. In any negotiation in which there are elements of value to distribute, each party must consider at least four scenarios: A. Total victory (achieving all its objectives). B. Total defeat (achieving none of its objectives). C. Mutual destruction (destruction of the elements under discussion). And D. Agreement (achieving some of the objectives without damaging those obtained by the other party). I believe that only D is sustainable in the long term. (The mistaken ending of the First World War caused the Second World War.) It is in fashion to talk about win-win solutions-- I don’t believe in this much when it’s a zero-sum game, but I know that there are always elements that, due to their nature, when changing hands have more value to the winners than to the losers, and as such a change in possession improves the overall situation. (For Russia, taking over Crimea is much more important than for the Ukraine to lose it.)

3. Disasters. During negotiations it is quite common to speculate about the possibility of unilateral actions on one side, or forceful actions on the other with catastrophic results for both. (The threat of Greece leaving the euro, or that of the EU expelling it ...) I think these arguments are very weak for two reasons. First, because nobody thinks that, in this day and age, any sensible government would choose the principle of dying while killing, and accept major damage simply to cause more harm to the other. It would mean abandoning sanity and being carried away by impulse. And second, because not everyone who makes such threats has the means to carry them out. Before you say it, you should see if you have the tanks, the national or international legal instruments, or the money necessary. (Again Greece ...)

4. Two final notes. First: I have not considered a scenario in which one of the parties refuses to play. It is absurd and very dangerous, but it happens sometimes. (I won’t name an example...) And second: there is a huge difference between political negotiations and games. In games, the individual players play against each other, but in political negotiations what is at stake is the well-being of many people. Prudence demands that we don’t forget that it is no game. (There are jobless and evicted people in Greece, and there are the dead in the Ukraine ... I won’t go any further.)