Opinion News
December 31,2017

Perceptual dilemmas

Rizwan Asghar

South Asia is home to more than one-fifth of the world’s population, making it one of the most populous geographical regions in the world. Millions of people in Pakistan and India have been living in social deprivation and debilitating poverty for decades. However, the governments of both countries continue to divert a massive amount of resources away from humanitarian and development projects and spend them on an all-out arms race involving both conventional and non-conventional weapons. What explains this upside-down pyramid of priorities?

Traditionally, academic scholars and analysts have looked at the arms race phenomenon as an iterated prisoner’s dilemma game. There are four collectively exhaustive possible outcomes if Pakistan and India decide to build or not to build weapons: mutual arms reductions; Pakistan’s military build-up and India’s unilateral reductions; India’s military build-up and Pakistan’s unilateral reductions; and a build-up of weapons on both sides. According to this model, both Pakistan and India will prefer to build up armaments regardless of what else may happen.

In a state of nature structured like a prisoner’s dilemma, both sides want to build-up arms while the other side chooses to disarm itself. But an interesting aspect of this game is that if both players choose to engage in an arms race and build up arms, the outcome is less covetable than what would have been had both players decided not to start an arms race. But the problem with an analytical framework for prisoner’s dilemma is that states get stuck with their dominant strategies in equilibrium due to the circumstances they find themselves in. And the presence of an ongoing arms race eventually ends up undermining their security interests.

An alternative way to view the arms competition is through the lenses of the ‘perceptual dilemma’ model. It would not be wrong to argue that a great deal in the course of military and strategic ties between two countries depends on how we perceive the intentions of others. In contrast with the prisoner’s dilemma, both players prefer a mutual agreement on arms reduction in a perceptual dilemma. But neither of the two players would want to be the only one to disarm. This is because the player who does so would end up with a relatively worse payoff. As a result, once leaders start to realise that their utility from mutual cooperation is higher than that of unilateral military build-up owing to a series of economic and moral reasons, cooperation becomes a less risky option —even for self-regarding state actors.

The perceptual dilemma between Pakistan and India can be resolved if both players can successfully persuade each other that they are truly interested in reducing their reliance on nuclear arms and prefer mutual reductions to a unilateral arms build-up. The key challenge here is to convince the other side of one’s true preferences. Yet, the primary responsibility in this regard lies with the Modi government. Over the past two decades, there is a particularly strong perception that India’s military posture is on a course towards regional military superiority. As a first step, New Delhi will have to adopt a larger strategy of disarmament and easing military confrontation in order to be able to remove this perception.

In their efforts to become a regional hegemonic power, India’s political and military establishments have seriously disturbed the existing military-strategic equilibrium, which has made its own strategic position in the region more vulnerable. The pertinent question here is: will India ever be able to seek any military advantage if it continues to look at its two nuclear-armed neighbours – Pakistan and China – as its adversaries?

Both Pakistan and India can certainly circumvent this perceptual dilemma if New Delhi ensures that it will refrain from seeking unilateral military advantages and is prepared to find a mutually acceptable diplomatic solution to all disputes, including Kashmir. From a military perspective, Indian policymakers need to realise that their efforts to achieve military hegemony in the region will be of no avail as Pakistan will never allow this to happen. Over the past few years, I have consistently taken the position in that Pakistan and India need to reduce their reliance on nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, this goal will not be achieved without developing a framework for a sustained dialogue between both countries.

If we examine the evolution of our foreign policy from the advent of the nuclear age in South Asia to the present, we realise that Pakistan has adopted a more cooperative approach towards India. On the other hand, India has adopted a more aggressive approach by using terrorism as an excuse for non-cooperation. The entire world is now aware that India has been involved in aiding terrorist organisations that are operating on Pakistani soil. The revelations made by Indian spy Kulbhushan Jadhav serve as undeniable evidence of how New Delhi has tried to instigate instability in Balochistan and our tribal areas and spent millions of dollars to subvert the economic corridor that has been developed between Pakistan and China.

This discussion makes it clear that modelling the arms competition between Pakistan and India as a perceptual dilemma rather than as a prisoner’s dilemma offers us better insights and an opportunity to debunk popular misperceptions. Many famous game theorists, including Steven Brams and Mark Kilgour, have argued that the arms competitions have persisted because all players look at the situation as a prisoner’s dilemma. In the early to mid-1980s, the Soviet Union and the US had more than 60,000 nuclear warheads in their arsenal because they chose to continue conforming to the dictates of the prisoner’s dilemma.

Similarly, over the past seven decades, both Pakistan and India have largely failed to cooperate on security issues and constrain the arms race because our policymakers on both sides have been blind to the opportunities of coordination by the poverty of their fixed, win-lose mindsets. We cannot establish peace and stability in South Asia unless we resolve these perceptual dilemmas.


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