Trump and Putin’s Game Theory

Why Cooperation Won’t Last

People protest against U.S. President-elect Donald Trump as electors gather to cast their votes for U.S. president at the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, U.S. December 19, 2016. Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

What happens when one unstoppable force meets another? We’ll see at the first face-to-face Trump-Putin meeting, which will probably take place in the next few months. Despite the mercurial nature of both men’s style of governance, we know at least one thing to be true about them: both have a loose relationship with the truth. They readily exploit fake news, and they believe that reality is what they say it is. Worse, both men have a strong paranoid streak, with Trump primarily seeing enemies at home and Putin primarily seeing enemies abroad. Both are also certain of their own greatness: Trump regularly asserts that he’ll be the greatest president since time immemorial, while Putin asserts that he and Russia are one and the same.

It’s hard to see how such men can come together on anything of substance. Imagine for the sake of argument that Russia and the United States do indeed share a variety of common national interests. Imagine, as well, that they hammer out a deal: the United States will do A, B, and C in exchange for Russia’s doing D, E, and F.

Given the traits that they share, a rational Trump could never believe that Putin will stick to his word, just as a rational Putin could not believe that Trump will stick to his. This would be true even if, objectively, a deal might benefit both sides: each side would stand to gain even more if it failed to do its part of the bargain while its interlocutor stuck to its own. U.S. President Ronald Reagan understood this when he famously stated that the United States should “trust, but verify” Moscow with respect to nuclear arms reductions. But nuclear weapons can be counted, and their reduction can therefore be verified. In contrast, it would be difficult to verify any Russian withdrawal of troops from the occupied Donbass, especially since Putin insists that there are no troops there at all. Likewise,

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