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INTERVIEW: Anatol Rapoport

Metta Spencer — November 1984

Anatol Rapoport has spent most of his career studying game theory — searching for ways to specify what types of decisions are rational and productive. He is particularly famous for his work with “Prisoners’ Dilemma” — a type of game in which the two players have some common interests and some conflicting interests. This game very well describes the situation of, say, two superpowers in an arms race: Both sides are losing money and safety by carrying it on, yet neither side is prepared to disarm unilaterally, lest the other side attack.

He is an emeritus Professor in the Mathematics and Psychology Departments at the University of Toronto, but he is far from retired: A campaign is underway to create a programme in Peace Studies, and Professor Rapoport has returned to Toronto to occupy the so-far unfunded “Chair of Peace studies. The Peace Calendar discussed his vision of the peace studies programme.

The Peace Calendar: How do you see yourself functioning in this chair of peace studies?

Rapoport: Well, the chair is not yet established. When it happens, then I suppose there will be some proposals for time release for other professors who. indicate an interest in participating in a programme of peace studies. They will have time off from their other teaching duties. In that case my work will be a matter of cooperating with interested members of the faculty in organizing that programme.

TPC: So someone in English or History would take time off to teach a course in peace studies?

Rapoport: Or in science or economics or so forth. In their particular areas. My role would be one of coordination.

TPC: So it won’t just be an interdisciplinary programme in which students take a course (in, say, the history department) that includes a little material on peace.

Rapoport: The centre will be peace studies from those various points of view.

TPC: So maybe you can talk about the kind of curriculum that you’d like to see in that kind of programme.

Rapoport: I usually divide peace studies into three different categories. There is an approach to peace studies that I call the affect oriented approach, where the centre of interest is the way people feel. For example, problems of interpersonal hostility, and inter-racial, inter-ethnic, or inter-religious prejudice. So peace education in this area would aim to make people more aware about where this hostility comes from, and the first step to emancipation from it. This kind of orientation, in my opinion, has only limited relevance to the big problem of war. By the big problem I mean specifically a war between the superpowers involving nuclear weapons and total destruction. At any rate, such studies are one dimension of peace studies — a dimension of most interest to religious groups, to psychiatrists, to psychologists — to people whose prime interest is the inner life of humans, the psyche, and how it relates to problems of war and peace.

Another quite different approach to peace is what I call the systemic. It takes for its point of departure the international system. This system has its own built-in dynamics. The main forces of these dynamics were different in different ages. There was a time empire-building was the principal force driving the dynamics of the system. At another time it was competition for markets. Today it is the arms race. Now, note that here very little is said about the psychology of people and their aggressiveness. It is possible to have a war of total destruction triggered by the arms race without anyone hating anyone I Without any ethnic hostility! Without even any ideological clashes! The role of ideology has been vastly exaggerated. Of course, it plays an important part nowadays because of the publicity that is given to it. But when you consider, for example, the European wars of the 18th century, there were no ideological conflicts. All of the European states subscribed to exactly the same ideology. — they were all absolute monarchies.

TPC: What were they scrambling for — territoriality?

Rapoport: Territoriality. Then there were dynastic wars: Who’s going to be the next King of Spain. Whether Maria Theresa can be recognized as the Empress of the Holy Roman Empire. It was such problems that they were concerned with. They didn’t hate each other. They were all cousins. All these kings and queens were related to each other and on very cordial terms. They hadn’t the slightest idea about ideological conflict. That went out with the wars of religion.

TPC: It’s hard to imagine how they mobilized troops under those circumstances.

Rapoport: They didn’t. There were standing armies — professionals. The army man served 25 years in this standing army and he was very highly trained. For this reason, the wars were not particularly bloody, because it was: a very bad thing to lose an army. The soldiers had to go through very intensive training. They were brainwashed to respond to orders immediately, blindly.

The close-order drill, which still governs the training of troops today, was introduced in those days precisely because the battle of those days simulated the parade ground. The squares marched, they turned flanks, they performed their ballets on the battlefields. There was no need for ideology. Only during the Napoleonic era did war become democratized!

See, there were periods of democratization and de-democratization in war. In the very primitive days when war affected everybody, and practically every able-bodied man had to participate in warfare, we would say that war was a democratic institution. In the 18th century, it was exactly the opposite. War was highly professional; morale was not of importance. Only obedience was important. There was no such thing as patriotism. Please note that in the 18th century, the generals could very frequently go from one sovereign to another without any stigma, without any onus, just like a corporation lawyer goes from one corporation to another.

TPC: Just entirely mercenary?

Rapoport: Their job was to see to it

that campaigns were properly organized and that battles were fought with correct tactics. But we tend to think of the clashes of ideologies because in our memory there’s still World War II, and we tend to think there will be the same thing in World War III, and that is a grave mistake. Ideologies played an important part in World War II.

TPC: And you don’t think it plays any part now?

Rapoport: No! If that were the case then there wouldn’t be any detente between the United States and China. For example, in the fifties it wasn’t the Soviet Union, it was China that was the arch enemy. There was the Korean War and then later Vietnam. American marines were told by their officers during political indoctrination: “The war with China has already begun. It is only a matter of time until we go in.”

TPC: Well, even during that time, though, there wasn’t any great affection toward the Soviet Union.

Rapoport: Yes, yes. But what I mean to say is that today the relations with China are almost cordial. What is different? Does China subscribe to a different ideology than the USSR? Maybe it does but it’s still Communist ideology; it’s still anathema as far as our ideologues are concerned. So how come Nixon goes to China and admires the Chinese wall and eats a Chinese dinner and then embraces the Chinese premier? So one shouldn’t take this ideology seriously. It’s a hoax. It is something that is sold to people in order to make them support the…

TPC: Ah, but so long as they have bought it, once it’s been sold to them, it’s a dynamic force; it’s very hard to.

Rapoport: Yes, but it isn’t the people who are going to launch the war. It’s the button pushers who’ll launch the war, and they don’t give a damn about ideology.

TPC: Hm. I distracted you from where you were.

Rapoport: No, not at all. This is very relevant. So, as I say, the systemic point of view has to do with the dynamics of the system itself. The ideology may at times be a driving force in it, but at the present time, it’s the arms race. The only conceivable war aim today is to knock out the opponent for otherwise he will knock out you. It’s been said that the nuclear war could have no winners. I say on the contrary: If it comes to a nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States, both will win. The aim of both is to destroy the other. They will both win.

TPC: There’s a little cartoon where the jack-in-the-box pops out after it’s all over, saying, “The Winner!” and there’s nobody around.

Rapoport: Well, you can define victory in that way; nobody is left around and there are still more missiles left on one side than the other, that’s the winner. It’s scorekeeping.

TPC: When we get back to peace studies, let me see if I understand. You would be urging people to emphasize this level of study?

Rapoport: And also the third level, which actually is the one that I am most concerned with. I am also somewhat concerned with the second. I am very little concerned with the first.

TPC: The first is the psychological.

Rapoport: Yes the psychological.

The second is the systemic. The third is the cognitive — a critique of strategic thinking. It has to do with the analysis of the land of reasoning that goes into the designing of military and foreign police strategies. This where the sort of considerations come in that are derived from what I call the “higher game theory.” The part of the theory of games that is concerned with conflicts where the interests of the participants are not diametrically opposed. They are partially opposed and partially coincident.

TPC: “Mixed motive games?”

Rapoport: Mixed motive games. This is what I am most concerned with showing how inevitably and inexorably the planning and the strategic thinking of the power elites leads them into thinking and formalizing operations as if they were zero-sum games, games of complete opposition. Once a situation is formalized then, of course, their logic takes over. Then the principal question becomes, not “Where are we going?” but “Who is ahead?” Because that’s the proper question to ask in a zero-sum game.

In a chess game it is proper to ask “Who has the advantage?” And that’s the only question they ask. The only question! So that the entire foreign policy is organized around being ahead. Mostly, of course it’s in the military sphere, but some of it spills over into the economic sphere and the political sphere and so on. But it’s a matter of a race as to who is going to lord it over whom.

There is a Russian expression that says “Kto kovo?” literally “Who-whom?” “Who will lord it over whom?” Russian is very pithy. All you have to say is “Who-whom?” Who’s going to be at the top and who at the bottom? The American “Who’s ahead?” means the same.

TPC: It would seem to me that, rather than by trying to influence the general population, it would be especially valuable to bring this logic to bear on people who are training in strategic studies, and make them aware of the extra dimensions that they otherwise ignore.

Rapoport: Provided the awareness of absurdity of what they are doing is sufficient to veer them away from doing it. I don’t have any illusions about changing the way of thinking of people who are actively engaged in these strategic preparations. What I conceive of peace education to be is to bring this kind of analysis to the general public so they will not be mesmerized, not be intimidated by the claims of power elites to rationality and expertise.

TPC: How about pushing to get a Ministry of Peace in every cabinet so as to have someone speaking for that perspective whenever the Defense Minister is doing his number?

Rapoport: Yes. You see, what I have in mind is not only a critique of strategy but also of cognition. It has to do with the analysis of how we know what we know and what do we mean by what we say, and how words relate to their meaning. Semantics.

Semantic analysis is an important part of cognitive analysis. For example, the fraud that is associated with the use of the word “defense.” Weapons of total destruction do not defend anybody.

TPC: You said the other day that we’ve now got to a point where peace researchers are beginning to do studies that have practical value. Can you talk about possibilities in the future you see for peace studies?

Rapoport: The old idea about peace research as seeking ways out of the impasse looking for peacekeeping strategies. I never thought much about this conception of peace research because there’s no dearth of peace-keeping strategies being constantly proposed and anyone of them would do. I do not see the object of peace research as being analogous to that of medical research, to which it is sometimes compared. In medical research they always want to find means to combat disease, and peace researchers want to find means to combat war. But the analogy is a false one because when medical researchers find something, there’s an infrastructure which permits it to be implemented. Let the new drug found that is effective, then every hospital will have it and it will be used, see? Now, no matter what kind of proposal you make for the alleviation of the war danger, for making a more just world, it will not be implemented simply because there is no machinery for implementing it. Machinery for implementing the results of war research exists. Let there be a new effective weapon, for example, it will be implemented. No question about it.

TPC: Yes.

Rapoport: Another important point: In medical research it is really not necessary to find sufficient causes for diseases: but only necessary causes. To make disease you have to find sufficient causes for it in order to generate it, but in order to combat disease, all you have to do is find a single necessary cause. If you eliminate necessary causes, you eliminate diseases.

TPC: Yes, I follow you.

Rapoport: Now the necessary cause of wars is known, so there is no use looking for it. The necessary cause of war is weapons. They may not be a sufficient cause of war, but they are necessary. So if you eliminate weapons you can’t have war on any significant magnitude. People tell me that without weapons people would fight with sticks and stones. As far as I am concerned, they are welcome to it. I don’t give a damn how they knock each other over the heads with sticks.

TPC: A stick is a weapon too.

Rapoport: Yeah, sure. But then if that is the case you can revert back to the affect oriented research and see what makes people knock each other over the head. That’s not where we’re at. The obvious necessary cause of wars of destruction is weapons. One need not look further. However, I do look to peace research to find ways and means of making people more aware of these problems. So the most important product of peace research is material for peace education. Take the recent findings about the nuclear winter. That was certainly a product of research. It provides the wherewithal to go to the people and say, “This is what nuclear war will be. It will spare nobody. No matter who your leaders tell you will “prevail,” nobody is going to survive a nuclear war.

I think one of the most significant pieces of peace research that was ever done was done by the Pentagon. It was the Pentagon Papers. Of course, the value of it was the fact that it was published. It. was not supposed to be published. But now that the decision processes that resulted in the Vietnam war are revealed, this is fuel for peace education.

TPC: Yes, a case study.

Rapoport: The most important product of peace research is peace education. Take the study that I showed you the other day — the young man who studied the military related research in Canadian universities: That’s a piece of research, right?

TPC: Yes.

Rapoport: It should be used in peace education. People should know how war-serving science has been incorporated in universities.

TPC: Exactly. Okay, how soon do you expect to have our peace studies programme going?

Rapoport: As soon as funding is available.

TPC: So we’ll soon have undergraduates majoring, getting a degree in peace studies?

Rapoport: Uh huh. I would hope also for a doctoral programme.

TPC: Good, but, tell me, what can graduates do with a degree in peace studies?

Rapoport: It seems facetious to say this, but I mean it in all seriousness. One of the functions of being educated is to teach others. An important task of a competent sociologist is to train other people to be competent sociologists. The more people we have who are competent in sociology, the better society could we have. It is important to be knowledgeable in these things. What good is a musician? Performers are dime a dozen. A good solid musician also teaches others, and when one becomes knowledgeable and appreciative of music, it makes for a better life.

I take simply the point of view that an unexamined life is not worth living, as Socrates said. To examine life, you have to have knowledge. Now the peace studies could certainly revolve around solid pieces of knowledge: The history of militarism. The history of pacifism. The changing nature of war. The changing nature of war strategy, if you will. How the military science affects the other components of society. All of these matters belong to peace studies.

On the affect side, how does ethnic prejudice arise? How does it propagate? How does it spread? What are its results? What are the dynamics of communal warfare where hundreds of thousands of people are killed? Investigation of all these questions belongs to peace studies.

You are talking about getting a job. Somebody with a degree in peace studies should get a job teaching peace studies.

TPC: I would hope they would also be involved in the government, because it seems to me that that’s where they are really needed.

Rapoport: Yes, that is what I would fervently hope for. Except that this hope is very dim. It might come to that, though. After all, they do hire psychologists and historians in government. They might also hire peace specialists.