In September 2000, Ariel Sharon, then head of the Israeli opposition party Likud, went for a walk on the Temple Mount, a part of Jerusalem sacred to Muslims. Fifteen months later, militants sponsored by Pakistan’s secret service—the Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI—attacked the Indian Parliament. In each case the actions achieved the provocateurs’ goals, which differed from those of the legitimate governments. Sharon’s walk helped to upend the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians mediated by U.S. President Bill Clinton and contributed to the start of the Palestinians’ Second Intifada. In Pakistan, the army was distracted from efforts to suppress militant groups supported by the ISI when President Pervez Musharraf moved troops from the Afghanistan border to the Indian border, a response to Indian mobilization following the attack on its Parliament.

This type of provocation has a long and continuing history. In 1919, for example, Irish-American “athletic clubs” in Chicago created disturbances that caused widespread rioting between the Irish-American and African-American communities that already viewed each other with suspicion. And within the past year, attacks on institutions in Iraq have plainly had the goal of persuading the departing American troops to stay, fomenting more conflict.

The ability of provocative actions by extremists to manipulate international conflicts has received little attention from researchers in the past. But now a study by Sandeep Baliga, an associate professor of managerial economics and decision sciences at the Kellogg School of Management, and Tomas Sjöström, a professor at Rutgers University, outlines why those actions have their impact and what circumstances determine the results of their manipulations. It also shows why extremism and terrorism are in no one’s best interests.

Subtlety and Stealth
Provocateurs obtain their goals by subtlety and stealth, Baliga and Sjöström show. “People often think that extremists want to stimulate the withdrawal of their antagonists directly through their provocative acts,” Baliga explains. “But our message is the complete reverse. They want to suck you into a bigger fight, which then forces you to withdraw. They don’t expect you to withdraw after their one puny attack.”

Furthermore, the strategy of provocation depends on political preferences of the individual, government, or other organization that they target.

Those results stem from the application of basic mathematics. “Our paper uses game theory methodically to study a topic in international security and politics,” Baliga explains. “And judged purely as a game theory exercise we hope the analysis is subtle and interesting. It’s basically a new game that introduces an outsider—the provocateur who attempts to influence a game played by other players.”

Baliga and Sjöström based their study on a game that they developed in 2000 and published in 2004, which was inspired by Nobel Laureate Thomas Schelling’s concept of “the reciprocal fear of surprise attack.” In Schelling’s metaphor for conflict, a homeowner who has heard a noise at night grabs a gun and walks downstairs, where he confronts an armed burglar. Neither protagonist wants a gunfight, but both suspect that the other might fire first—or think that his antagonist believes he will fire first. “Each becomes aggressive because they fear the other party’s aggression. In game theory, we say their actions are ‘strategic complements’,” Baliga explains. Those fears can prevent the nonviolent outcome that both prefer.

In their game, Baliga and Sjöström applied that thinking to nations and analyzed whether two belligerent countries in a similar position can calm themselves down by talking before fighting breaks out. “We showed that you could escape violence,” Baliga says. “That’s surprising because you have huge incentives to bluff, pretend you’re nice, and take advantage of the other side by lulling them into a false sense of security. This incentive to bluff prevents fully truthful communication from occurring. But we showed that enough communication can occur to get out of it.”

Extending the Game
Baliga and Sjöström’s extension of their game to include provocateurs came out of discussions about the events of September 11 and the Iraq war. In November 2008, a fresh incident brought extremist provocation further into focus. A “terrorist attack in Mumbai raised tensions at a time when Pakistani President Zardari wanted improved relations with India,” Baliga and Sjöström write in their paper. “ISI-sponsored militants seem to deliberately inflame the conflict between Pakistan and India, partly because India is seen as an implacable foe, but also because the conflict relieves the pressure on extremists supported by the ISI.”

To model their new game, the two researchers imagined an extremist sending a public message to two countries involved in a tense standoff. The extremist could be either a hawkish provocateur or a dovish pacifist who seeks to influence the action of one of the players. A hawkish extremist, such as the ISI, seeks an aggressive action by one of the players, such as the leader of Pakistan. Examples include a build-up of weapons or movement of troops to a contested territory. A dovish extremist, such as the United Kingdom’s Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, seeks a conciliatory action, such as the pursuit of peace negotiations.

The model developed by Baliga and Sjöström predicts how the preferences of the player whom the extremists try to influence affect the success or failure of the manipulation. A hawkish provocateur wants the targeted government leader to react to a provocative act by acting in a hawkish way—moving troops to a border, for example—for fear that the perceived enemy will be doing the same. A dovish extremist instead wants the targeted leader to tamp down tensions—withdrawing from the border, for example, believing the other side is doing the same.

Dovish, But Not Too Dovish
The model shows that a hawkish extremist will employ provocation only on a leader who is relatively dovish. Why? A hawkish leader is a “hawkish extremist sympathizer” and will take aggressive actions anyway. There is no need for the extremist to influence him and warn the other side of impending action. And a very dovish leader will not make any aggressive move even if the other side is aggressive, so provocation will backfire. In both these cases, provocation is counterproductive. Therefore, Baliga explains, “You should expect to see provocation by hawkish extremists when the player they’re really trying to influence is dovish, but not so dovish that he won’t respond to aggression by antagonists without aggression.”

According to Baliga, the strategy of Pakistan’s secret service exemplifies that point. To manipulate the democratically elected Pakistani leader, who wants to take a dovish approach to India, the ISI works to antagonize India. When India responds, the Pakistani leader feels obliged to take an equally aggressive stance. But before the Pakistani army attack on India at the Kashmiri district of Kargil in 1999, there was no terrorist activity. In that case, the ISI knew the army was going to take the action they would have advocated anyway, so there was no need to provoke India.

This means even the absence of provocation provides information in the same way as the dog that did not bark in the Sherlock Holmes story Silver Blaze; it would reveal that the leader is not particularly weak and, on balance, might be more likely to be hawkish. So, even a hawkish leader suffers from the possibility of hawkish extremist action.

The model also shows that dovish extremists cannot dampen tensions. If a dovish extremist sends a message that his country’s leader is pacifist only when he truly is a pacifist, then the other side might back down. Yet if such a message would work, the dovish extremist would also send it when his leader is strong, because at least it gets one of the sides to back down. But if that message is sent under false pretenses, the dovish extremist’s credibility would suffer. No one would believe his message and tensions would not be reduced.

Baliga states the ultimate message from the study. “Dovish extremist action cannot work and hawkish extremist behavior makes everybody worse off all the time,” he says. “Both players, even if their preferences are aligned with the hawkish extremists, would love to kill off extremism. That would make the world a better place. The power of provocation lies in our response to it. If you could completely ignore the provocateurs, their ability to strike fear would die. The tricky thing is that both sides have to ignore provocation.”

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