Given the difficulties and dangers of power it must certainly be used carefully. By the circumspect use of power I mean using it in such a way that means are carefully crafted to complement ends and that likely utility is applied as the test before action is taken. In order to see how this is possible (and practical) I look at two sets of guidelines, one entirely pragmatic the other with an ethical basis.

There are two sets of guidelines that serve as useful checklists,  

  • Establishing reciprocity
  • Just War Theory

Both of these demonstrate the need for hard headed but clear sighted choice of the means to be used to pursue ends.  

Establishing Reciprocity

The first set of guidelines are derived from the the game of prisoners dilemma, this is a simple game that involves 2 players who act independently. They are given the choice of cooperating or cheating. They have to get as high a score as possible, they can either cooperate or cheat. Cooperation is where they both decide to tell the truth, cheating is where they blame the other (essential they can either fess up or blame the other). The rewards for what they chose to do vary; the reward for cooperation is less than that for cheating but both sides score equally, if you cheat you can get the maximum score unless your opponent also cheats in which case you both lose - the dilemma is simple, what do you do? The choices generate a table of possibilities as follows;

Prisoners Dilemma Rewards

Player 1
Cooperate Cheat
Player 2 Cooperate

  3/3   (win/win)

1/5 (lose/win)


  5/1   (win/lose)

1/1 (lose/lose)


The game is set up to be played repeatedly. In order to explore the best strategy to win the game people were invited to put their approaches into computer programs to run against each other. Many kept score in some way and tried to predict when they should be better cheating. The surprise result was that a very simple program won repeatedly against all other programs, it was called Tit for Tat Note: Reciprocity . The strategy that won simply started with cooperate and followed 1 rule, if the other side cheated its next choice would be to cheat, but after that it would unfailingly revert to cooperation. 

The key work that reported this finding (still studied) is by The Evolution of Co-operation  Axelrod

At its simplest a set of guidelines can be developed from Tit for Tat which are as follows;

  • Always be willing to co-operate
  • Never allow the other (person/side) to get away with an action that benefits them and disadvantages you - always retaliate
  • Make sure that the retaliation is both appropriate and proportionate; this is vitally important, never be taken advantage of (no bluster, act) but also never escalate
  • Always go back to co-operation, do not bear a grudge, don’t keep score don’t try and second guess, there is no vendetta
  • Make clear what you are doing, be explicit about the return to co-operation and spell out both that you will talk and that you will not be taken advantage off
  • For all of the above reasons, language must be deliberate and measured

A few observations about this.

  • If you say there is a red line, then there is; don’t say it and then fail to act
  • Never escalating is difficult, it means calibrating the response; if you punish attacks made with home made rockets, which kill no one with air strikes that use several aircraft destroying not just military targets but having widespread collateral damage in residential areas and kill civilians, by the rules here this is a disproportionate response more likely to lead to a continuing cycle of violence if not to escalation.
  • Retaliation can just leads to vendetta unless cooperation is, explicitly the next step
  • Co-operating means just that, engage and do it; you can’t say the door is open and merely wait, be proactive, set up the meeting and send out the invitations, mean it.
  • Reality is complex and messy it is not a game of prisoner’s dilemma; analysis of the situation and the design and selection of means requires a great deal of due care and attention – don’t bomb Libya without a state building programme for the aftermath
  • This is quaint likely to be a slow process, starting is likely to be difficult if political forces, intent on winning by force have to be overcome
  • There are a number of academic papers that worry about the first mover advantage, this can arise when the “opponent” knows tit-for-tat will be used all they do is cheat on the first move and secure a perpetual advantage. In practical politics this can be ignored, the initial gain will become smaller and smaller and in real situations never start with a clean sheet, there is just a need to start from the messy now. Cooperation is being established in the future not the past Note: First Mover Advantage