Saturday, January 27, 2007

Chess and Diplomacy

As I noted back in August, in a piece titled "Texas Hold'em," the U.S. approach to foreign policy has long been more analogous to poker than to chess. As the diplomatic conflict with Iran heats up again, it should come as no surprise that poker and chess analogies should again come to the fore.

On Tuesday, a piece appeared in Al-Jazeerah titled "Texan Poker Bluff and Persian Chess Moves" by K. Gajendra Singh. It suggested that the Iranians are engaged in some smart, chess-like maneuvers: "Like (the Chess King) Ali Khamenei might remove from the centre (Knight) Ahmadinejad with his awkward moves. Iranians have shown Chess like long term planning and finesse to counter US moves in the region, even offering full cooperation in 2003 (an honourable draw), if US normalized bilateral relations disrupted since 1979 . Always many moves ahead they nurtured SCIRI, Dawa and other Iraqi groups and Kurds. Since the invasion of Iraq , they now occupy and control the centre (as in Chess board) , with open and hidden threats to any US moves."

More recently, and practically as a response, the former CIA Director James Woolsey wrote an incindiery opinion piece in an Israeli publication titled "Chess with Tehran: If we are forced to strike Iran, we should do so decisively" where he writes: "If we were to look at the world as a chessboard, and the Persians after all invented chess and are very good at it, and if we were to think of Iran as a chess master and look at its various pieces, I think we might characterize its nuclear weapons program as its queen, its most lethal and most valued piece." I would suggest we read that as a direct threat of violence.

As David Shenk suggests, chess has always been an excellent metaphor for political maneuvering and may even have helped to invent it. During the feudal period, chess offered kings used to bloody conflict over land a powerful model for the "bloodless war" of diplomacy. Of course, American diplomacy today is not especially diplomatic, let alone bloodless. And that is precisely why it cannot be sustained long term and cannot win the day against the Iranians, at least on its present course. Like an overly aggressive attack in chess, our language of escalation will have to burn out, allowing our opponents to gain the inevitably strong counter attack.

A better model of chess-like political maneuvering is offered by none other than former chess world champion Garry Kasparov, whose opposition party has been gaining some legitimacy thanks to its astute and deeply conceived tactics. In an interview today by Melanie Kirkpatrick in the Wall Street Journal titled "The Other Russia The man who would checkmate Vladimir Putin," Kasparov points to several interesting quiet moves his party has made of late to gain strength for the coming battle in the post-Putin era. Though he is "a famously aggressive player" and author of the forthcoming Attacker's Advantage, the eminent GM knows well not to blunder into an attack without first building his resources and accumulating positional advantages, which are like allies in the attack. His smartest move has been to form a coalition called "The Other Russia" which brings together all of the opposition parties as a way of marshalling their forces. As he notes, "The big advantage of the Other Russia, and I think it's our biggest accomplishment, is that we've established the principle of compromise, which was not yet seen in Russian politics. It was always confrontation. It was a mentality of a civil war. We eliminated it."

What's more, he knows that building and planning for the attack can take a long time. Only when the moment is right do you seek decisive advantage: "As the new year unfolds, Mr. Kasparov predicts 'a political crisis' in Mr. Putin's government, along with 'less stability, more uncertainty.' That's the opening for the Other Russia. 'We should keep our group together, close to the wall, to get into the hall when it's broken. But not too close to be buried under the debris.'"

I think Kasparov's political aspirations and chances of success have too long been underestimated in the U.S. Especially seen in contrast to U.S. diplomatic blundering, he seems to be playing a brilliant and strategic political game.


Anonymous said...

One difference between a real military conflict and chess is that control of the center is not as strong; in chess, when you control the center, typically it is assumed that you also control your own back rank. If this is not the case in the real situation, then it is a military disaster, since you would surrounded on all sides.

Anonymous said...

Michael ---

Thank you for a well done and thought provoking entry.


Anonymous said...

Also in this situation the "center" (aka IRAQ) is 20,000 miles from washington and 400 miles from Tehran. how's that for a strategic advantage?

Anonymous said...

Hey, Grandmaster Goeller,

As an ordinary A player that plays more like a B player and should finally be awarded his ordinary master of the arts degree in political science in May of this year, I can tell you that not only is American foreign policy more akin to poker than it is to chess, but so is diplomacy and, more generally international relations. That's because if we look at chess from the standpoint of game theory, we would find that it is a game of perfect information (everything we need to know about it we can see on the board). Poker, by contrast, is a game of imperfect information (your opponent, unless he's either clumsy or foolish enough) will not let you know what set of cards he or she has. We all know that states do keep certain matters secret from each other and that they spy on each other, thereby making their knowledge of one another rather asymetric. It is therefore doubtful that any government has all of the complete information that it can have on any other government, thereby putting them in an environment of imperfect information. Hence, the field of international relations is more similar to poker than it is to chess.

Ari (Grandmaster Minkov)

Unknown said...

Poker is the same with chess in such a way that both game use thinking skills. However, with poker, strategy and great mathematical skills are required to win a game. It would be great to get a poker tip from a professional whether one is ready to play with a large or small group.