The World According to Realists or, “Never Go In Against a Sicilian When Death is On the Line”

Feb 9, 2010

In World Politics yesterday we covered the Peloponnesian War, the Melian Dialogue, and the security dilemma as an introduction to realist theory. Students played a version of the 2-person non-iterated prisoner’s dilemma game developed by my former professor Robert Darst, with the winners receiving candy and the person with the lowest possible grade receiving an extra credit point toward their final grade. The students learned that the incentive structure in the game is a powerful causal variable affecting outcomes: when the game is structured so as to reward rational, self-interested behavior, cooperation becomes foolhardy, even if your intentions are noble. Realists would say this reflects the nature of the international system under anarchy.

Then again, game theory also predicts that if you change the parameters of the game you change the possible outcomes. The clip above from The Princess Bride demonstrates the basic idea of game theory, and also how changing the nature of the game is the best way to get what you want. But there’s many a slip between cup and lip – between manipulating perceptions within the context of the same parameters and changing the game itself. Unfortunately, realists are not optimistic about the latter happening unless a world government is established.

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Charli Carpenter is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of 'Innocent Women and Children': Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians (Ashgate, 2006), Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights
Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond (Columbia, 2010), and ‘Lost’ Causes: Agenda-Setting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security (Cornell, 2014). Her main research interests include national security ethics, the protection of civilians, the laws of war, global agenda-setting, gender and political violence, humanitarian affairs, the role of information technology in human security, and the gap between intentions and outcomes among advocates of human security.