Vladimir Putin and Game Theory

You know, I try to have some love for all my brethren in the social sciences, but sometimes the economists make it so difficult.

Last week, an economist named Daniel Altman wrote a lot bit of fluff in Foreign Policy about how Putin is really a brilliant game theorist, and how game theory really explains his successes in Ukraine, and …well, the usual stuff, written by someone who (at least as far as I can tell) knows very little about Russia or Ukraine. So here’s what I said in yesterday’s Federalist:

Altman’s argument is that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a master of game theory. He’s so good at it, in fact, that he’s already won the game he’s playing over Ukraine and we clueless Westerners don’t even know it yet. “Reasoning,” Altman tells us in a recent Foreign Policy article, is Putin’s “strong suit,” and the West “could learn a lot from him.” Putin, he thinks, is working from a set of internal rules that game theorists would recognize, and unless we get up to speed pronto, he’s going to keep taking us to the cleaners. (The idea that Putin is simply running the table against an overmatched and disengaged United States foreign policy team doesn’t enter into any of this, apparently. That explanation doesn’t fit the theory – and isn’t usually bruited about in polite academic conversation.)

Now, to people unencumbered by higher education or formal training in the social sciences, this might all seem silly. Who can divine the behavior of nations, and especially of mercurial leaders like Vladimir Putin, from models? Would anyone actually rely on that kind of analysis?

Sadly, many people do — and the government, I am pained to report, actually pays some of these folks quite handsomely for it.

Anyway, I take the rest of the argument apart here at The Federalist, if you want to read the whole thing.

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