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A new letter from the Director of the Centre for International Security Studies

6 August, 2014

CISS Director James Der Derian reflects on the recurrence of history in his ninth Director's Letter.

MH17 Crash Site

I’m not sure if history repeats or merely rhymes, but after emerging from two weeks off the grid in the Canadian wilderness, only to see a Malaysian airliner shot down over Ukraine and a war in Gaza as well Cold War and 1914 analogies in the headlines, I felt like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day  - or worse, Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow (do not wait for tomorrow to see this sleeper). Indeed, I thought the two films better models than the game theory that seems to be driving the current crises, in particular,  ‘Chicken in Gaza’ (who will swerve first?) and ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma in the Ukraine’ (will Putin opt for self-interested tactical choices rather than cooperative strategic ones with better outcomes?).  

Common to all such models is a learning curve: how many iterations of bad choices are needed before players learn to make the right one?  In game theory, potentially an infinitude; but life is finite.  I learned a valuable lesson in this regard while teaching the Prisoner’s Dilemma at Gardner State Prison in Massachusetts.  My student cons had set up iterated PD games with unsuspecting players from the yard (Boston cream pies as incentive), and to my surprise they quickly proved that identity (defined mainly by loyalty) is a more important variable than interest (of the self-maximizing kind) in determining the outcome of the games (whether players defected or cooperated).  This might have been a lesson learned the hard way –  most of the cons were after all serving time, some of them a lifetime, for having made the wrong decision  – but the exercise nonetheless provided a persuasive critique of realist theories that seek to extrapolate universal principles of self-help from what are little more than mixed metaphors dressed up as predictive models.

GazaPerhaps, then, Murray, Cruise and Nietzsche are right:  history is eternal recurrence.   When you know that every choice, small or big, will come back to haunt you, you are more likely  - contrary to rational choice theory -  to consider other options and abide by other principles than sauve qu’il peut.  A policy of maximising self-interests – better translated as devil take the hindmost - might work in the short sprint but we are, as economist John Maynard Keynes noted, all dead in the long run.  It is obvious that when bad decisions result in high costs to others, those others are unlikely to wait until the next life for re-payment.  And everyone is likely to be held accountable by History (if not by a Higher Authority) for repeatedly bad decisions (especially really bad decisions like killing civilians and downing civilian aircraft).

Writing this letter aboard a 777 (yes, like the last one) can trigger dark thoughts. But the closer we get to Australia, the more the bad choices recede.  It would be an illusion, as globalization and interconnectivity shrink the world, to mistake isolation for safety.  But Australia’s much-vaunted ‘tyranny of distance’ also provides new perspectives and different options.  I like to believe that my perch in middle-power Australia, cosmopolitan Sydney, and pluralist CISS offers a comparative advantage for thinking critically, acting responsibly, and constructing new models for global security.

Time Cold War II

But half the battle is getting the message out, to provide a clear signal amidst all the media noise. To that end we have - through the good works of project coordinators Raelene Loong and José Torrealba, videographer Jack McGrath and Conceptavision, rapporteur extraordinaire, Ben Foldy, media interns Lucy Sunman and Jayson Waters - upped our public outreach. The redesign of the CISS and Q website is nearly complete, interviews from the successful Q Symposium are now posted, and the Project Q video is ready for viewing.  Our first research workshop, ‘Dual Use Research in Australian Life Sciences’, organized by Adam Kamradt-Scott, is about to commence, to be capped by the book launch of American Biodefense by CISS staff member Frank Smith.  If a ground hog pops up in the next few weeks (remember, this is Down Under), I doubt he will see a shadow.

James Der Derian, Michael Hintze Chair of International Security

Contact:Raelene Loong
Phone: 61 2 9351 7663
Email:raelene.loong@sydney.edu.au

Associated Keywords

CISS   Gaza   MH17