Notes on Schelling’s “Strategy of Conflict” (1960)
The Strategy of Conflict, published in 1960 by Thomas Schelling, is:
A series of closely interrelated essays on game theory, [which] deals with an area in which progress has been least satisfactory—the situations where there is a common interest as well as conflict between adversaries: negotiations, war and threats of war, criminal deterrence, extortion, tacit bargaining. It proposes enlightening similarities between, for instance, maneuvering in limited war and in a traffic jam; deterring the Russians and one’s own children; the modern strategy of terror and the ancient institution of hostages. (source)
In this post, I’ll:
Share some overall thoughts on the book
Share the Anki cards I made for myself when reading the book
I intend this as a lower-effort alternative to writing notes specifically for public consumption or writing a proper book review
If you want to download the cards themselves (along with other nuclear-war-related cards) to import them into your own deck, follow this link.
List some other resources that people could consider reading/watching if they want to learn about game theory and (nuclear) war
My hope is that this post will draw some effective altruists’ (EAs’) and rationalists’ attention to this interesting book, help them decide whether reading it is worth their time, and help them quickly gain some key insights from the book. (See also Should pretty much all content that’s EA-relevant and/or created by EAs be (link)posted to the Forum?)
Overall thoughts on the book
I read The Strategy of Conflict because someone told me they think this is a good book to read if one wishes to understand how international tensions might escalate to nuclear war, how many weapons might be used in a nuclear war, and whether countervalue targeting would occur. The book’s concepts, framings, insights, and examples indeed seemed useful for that purpose, as well as for a surprisingly wide range of other issues.
This was despite me already knowing some game theory—maybe around as much as one learns in a typical undergraduate economics degree? That said, I expect someone who already knows much more game theory than I did would get somewhat less out of the book.
I’ve ranked this as roughly the 9th (out of 44) most useful-seeming EA-relevant book I’ve read since learning about EA. If I wasn’t doing research related to war, I think I might’ve ranked it closer to 20-25th.
There were some sections of the book that I found uninteresting and/or hard to follow—particularly chapter 9, which I ended up partly skimming. This was basically due to some parts of the book using lots of symbols and equations without regularly reminding readers what the symbols stood for or regularly walking readers through the intuition of what’s going on. But perhaps more maths/econ/technically minded people would have no trouble with those parts of the book.
I also skipped Appendices B and C, as it sounded like they would be hard to follow and would cover relatively technical points about game theory that might be outdated by now anyway (i.e., perhaps the field has already elegantly resolved the issues Schelling was noting).
My anki cards
What follows are the Anki cards I made for myself. Some include direct quotes without having quote marks, while others are just my own interpretations (rather than definitely 100% parroting what the book is saying) but don’t note that fact. It’s possible that some of these cards include mistakes, or will be confusing or misleading out of context.
The indented parts are the questions. The answers are in “spoiler-blocks”; hover over them to reveal. And the parts in square brackets are my notes-to-self.
What two legal privileges does Schelling mention that corporations have?
The right to sue and the right to be sued
Schelling says “The mandatory secret ballot is...
…a nuisance to the voter who would like to sell his vote, but protection to the one who would fear coercion”
What term does Smithies use for the tactic of deliberately exhausting one’s annual budgetary allowance so early in the year that the need for more funds is irresistibly urgent?
[Smithies’ book was called The Budgetary Process in the United States, so I’m guessing he used the term in relation to the US government specifically.
Cited by Schelling.]
Schelling defines tacit bargaining as...
bargaining in which communication is incomplete or impossible
Schelling notes that the concept of “coordination” that’s relevant in tacit bargaining is also often relevant in explicit bargaining. What are 3 common features of agreements which illustrate this?
Agreements often involve “mathematical simplicity” (e.g., $2500, 1%, 50⁄50)
Agreements often mimic precedent more than is logically or legally necessary
Agreements often follow mediator’s suggestions more than is logically or legally necessary
[p.67-68. I’m paraphrasing. I just chose the first 3 examples; he also gave others.]
Schelling suggests a big part of bargaining skill is...
The ability to effectively influence how the problem is formulated, what analogies or precedents the definition of the bargaining issue calls to mind, and the kinds of data that may be available to bear on the question
What point from Schelling’s discussion of tacit bargaining reminded me of the landmine ban treaty and Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons?
The claim that it can sometimes be necessary/important for the terms of agreement to be qualitatively distinguishable from the alternatives, and not simply distinguishable by degree
Schelling suggests that forces taking/sacrificing any land beyond their side of 38th parallel or the Taiwan Strait could have...
…signalled a determination to advance even farther and/or an intention to retreat even farther
[And it thus could’ve been unstable. P.76]
Schelling gives a three-part typology of games of strategy, in which one type is pure-conflict games. What are the other two types?
Pure common-interest games / coordination games
Bargaining games / mixed-motive games
[p. 88-89. I’m not sure if these are the standard terms nowadays.]
Schelling gives a three-part typology of games in which one type is games of luck. What are the other two types?
Games of skill
games of strategy
Schelling highlights 5 areas of asymmetries between the two players in a threat situation which make threats a rich subject for study. These are asymmetries in…
The communication system
The enforceability of threats and of promises
The speed of commitment
The rationality of expected responses
(In some cases) the relative-damage criterion [note: Schelling highlights that threats can be effectively made even in some cases when execution would harm the threatener more than the target]
Schelling says enforcement of agreements/promises depends on at least two things:
Some authority somewhere that can punish/coerce players
An ability to discern whether punishment/coercion are called for or not
[I think this idea could be roughly paraphrased as:
The ability to guarantee that punishment would happen if noncompliance is detected
The ability to guarantee that noncompliance would be detected
Schelling defines a “strategic move” as:
“A move that influences the other person’s choice, in a manner favourable to one’s self, by affecting the other person’s expectations on how one’s self will behave”
[p. 160. “One constrains the partner’s choice by constraining one’s own behaviour”.]
What does Schelling suggest operates similarly to the “threat” of inadvertent war?
The risk that limited war could escalate to general/all-out war (with that escalation not necessarily depending on deliberate decisions by leaders)
Schelling suggests compellent threats often take the form of administering punishment ___, whereas deterrent threats often take the form of administering punishment ___.
until the other person acts (in the desired way); if the other person acts (in the undesired way)
Punishment could include things like increased risk of general war.
He wasn’t saying that compellant threats always take the form of administering punishment until the other person acts. They could also take the form of administering punishment if the other person doesn’t act in the desired way.]
What are 2 key points about how the “threat” represented by risk of inadvertent war might deter aggressive acts and crises?
Such acts and crises would probably increase the risk of inadvertent war (and both parties know this, giving them incentive to avoid such acts and crises)
The risk isn’t fully controllable by the “threatener”, making it more credible as a threat
[Schelling, p. 189-190.]
The risk of inadvertent war can operate like a threat. If provocative acts are taken despite this “threat” yet war still doesn’t result, this…
isn’t strong evidence the “threat” was a bluff; the actors involved may have just gotten lucky
[Just as surviving a single round of Russian Roulette isn’t strong evidence against the gun being loaded.
Schelling, p. 189-190.]
The risk of inadvertent war can operate like a threat. Does this require that either actor intended to use that risk as a threat?
[Schelling, p. 189-190.]
Schelling says there’s a distinction between nuclear and other weapons in the sense pertinent to the limiting of war. He also says that, if he’s right about that but nevertheless the US wants maximum freedom to use atomic weapons, then we ought to, in the interest of limiting war, …
destroy or erode the distinction between nuclear and other weapons as best we can
[This is to make it less likely that limited US use of nuclear weapons is charged with excessive symbolic significance, as evidence of the US rejecting all relevant limits and distinctions.
Schelling argues that a limitation on the number of missiles two adversaries can have might be more stabilising the larger the number permitted. He gives two reasons for this:
That would increase the number of missiles each side should expect each side would have left over if it was struck first (since each missile has a <100% chance of taking out an enemy missile)
That would increase how many more missiles either side would need to add to its stockpile in order to be capable of a first strike that leaves their adversary with less than some specified number of missiles for retaliation
[The first effect increases the expected size of retaliation, thus deterring first strikes.
The second effect makes it harder to cheat on the agreement by disguising/hiding extra missiles, and to break the agreement and race to achieve a dominant number of missiles.
He doesn’t suggest that this is a complete analysis or his all-things-considered view. This doesn’t seem to account for risks of inadvertent or accidental escalation.
I think MIRVs hadn’t been developed when he first wrote this. I think the existence of MIRVs makes this false, since each MIRVed missile can carry multiple warheads and thus might take out more than 1 enemy missile in expectation.]
Schelling highlights 9 institutional and structural characteristics of bargaining situations that may affect how commitment tactics are/can be used. These are…
Use of a bargaining agent
Secrecy vs publicity
A restrictive agenda
Possibility of compensation
Mechanics of negotiation
Principles and precedents
[p.28-35. That’s a very long answer. It’d be good if I could somehow categorise or chunk these ideas.]
Some other resources on similar topics
Six years later (in 1966), Schelling published the book Arms and Influence
I haven’t read this, so I can’t compare it to The Strategy of Conflict myself
But it’s possible it’s more up-to-date and useful
An interesting study I read kept referencing that book and didn’t reference The Strategy of Conflict
On the other hand, I think I recall another source referencing The Strategy of Conflict as an essential classic without mentioning Arms and Influence
I recently finished the 24-part lecture series Game Theory with Ben Polak from Yale.
I found that useful, interesting, and surprisingly engaging (the lecturer is good at avoiding dryness and bringing the topic to life)
In 2008, RAND produced the monograph Dangerous Thresholds: Managing Escalation in the 21st Century
The whole text is available as a free PDF at that link
This is focused on war (especially but not only nuclear war), but still includes a fair amount of theory, at least in Chapter 2
I only read the summary and the first two chapters, but found it very interesting and useful
I might read the rest later
The main reason I’ve hesitated is that it’s from 2008, and the topics beyond Chapter 2 seem like the sort of things that may have changed notably in the 13 years since then
Let me know if you’d find it useful for me to share the Anki cards I made when reading that (it wouldn’t take me long)
Note: This post contains only my personal opinions, and was written in a personal capacity rather than in my capacity as a researcher for Rethink Priorities.
 I generally prefer listening to audiobooks rather than reading physical books/ebooks, but in this case I downloaded the free PDF into my iPad’s Kindle app. This was because a few reviewers of this book on Audible suggest that they think they’d have been better off with a physical book rather than the audiobook, because the book uses a fair few equations and graphs.
 See here for the article that inspired me to actually start using Anki properly. Hat tip to Michelle Hutchinson for linking to that article and thus prompting me to read it. Note that some of the Anki cards that I made and include in this post violate some of the advice in that article—in particular, the advice to try to ensure that questions and answers each express only one idea.