Thinking Aloud: Darius’s Rules of International Engagement, #2

May 27, 2015 by Darius 

[If you study international relations and political science, it’s impossible to avoid coming across Carl von Clausewitz.  While Clausewitz’s credentials may have been a bit thin in his primary specialty, military theory, he has given us a number of pithy quotes.  One of his most famous is “War is the continuation of politics by other means.”  Most of the time, though, we never get to war: politics alone suffice.  In my study of international relations, politics, and world history, I’ve discovered a few fundamental themes that seem to get lost in the shuffle.  I’ll call them “Darius’s Rules of International Engagement.”]

Here’s my second rule: chess is a great game, but it is an absolutely terrible analogy for international engagement.

The appeal of chess as an analogy is easy to see: politicians and others long to see themselves as the grandmaster behind the board, manipulating pieces to concoct a brilliant trap for the opponent to stumble into.  Unfortunately, on closer inspection, the analogy falls apart.  Here are five reasons why:

  1. In chess, there are rules. Players take turns moving; pieces move only in certain ways.  Departure from these rules means the game is forfeited.  In the real world, rules are not nearly so enforceable.  Despite many attempts to the contrary, rules are whatever the player can get away with.
  2. Speaking of rules, chess pieces move the same way for the entire game. In the real world, actors, whether they be pawns or queens, change.  It would be incredibly awkward if, in the middle of a chess game, a pawn decided to change color.  Anwar Sadat, president of Egypt, did exactly that in July 1972 when he expelled thousands of Soviet military advisors from Egypt.  Egypt has been a stable US ally ever since.  In the world of international engagement, no actor’s loyalty can be wholly taken for granted.
  3. In chess, there are two sides, never more, never less. In the real world, two-sided conflicts simply don’t exist.  More than 2,000 years ago, in the Peloponnesian Wars, we learn that Athens fought Sparta.  More correctly, though, Athens and its Greek allies fought Sparta, its slaves, and its Greek allies, while the neighboring Persian Empire supplied Sparta with massive amounts of money while remaining technically outside the conflict.  The current multilateral warfare in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, for example, with multiple players, some of whom come and go throughout “the game,” are more the norm than people generally acknowledge.  Maybe strictly two-sided conflicts are possible, but I have yet to see one.
  4. In chess, the sole goal of the game is to checkmate the opposing king. Everything can (and often is) sacrificed to achieve this single goal.  In real life, there are usually layers of goals, some of which are competing.  More importantly, sacrifices have a human cost.
  5. Chess is a zero-sum game. Any gain for one side is a loss for the other.  In international engagement, though, conflict often results in losses for everyone and, conversely, cooperation often yields gains for everyone.

With a bow to Terry Pratchett, perhaps a better analogy for international engagement is, “Not like a chess game.”

For Darius’s first rule of international engagement, see

For more on chess and international relations, see

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