The Cold War, A Political Game

By: Maxim Belov

Despite being backed by most policymakers, the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan was doomed to fail from the start. However, the Afghan quagmire did not result from military inferiority, rather from a strategic one. Our strategy was simple: win the war. Anything short of victory was a failure. On the other hand, the Taliban was fighting to survive; it could be killed but could not lose. While seemingly complex, most decisions during the war could be explained by Game Theory – an attempt at introducing mathematics into value-based decision making.

Under game theory, there are two possible games: finite and infinite.

Finite games are those in which both actors have a set of relatively simplistic objectives they are trying to achieve. The rules, objectives, and actors are known to everyone andcannot be changed. For example, soccer or speech tournaments are well-known finite games.

Finite games differ sharply from infinite games. Actors and rules are in a state of constant flux with only one point of stability: the objective of the game, which is always value oriented. It is impossible to win the infinite game. One can only “not lose” the game by investing time and resources into “not losing.” Not coincidentally, the infinite game is self-perpetuating and goes on forever. Business is an example of the infinite game. Enterprise existed long before any company currently operating and will exist long after those companies have shut down.

The final caveat to game theory is that the actors may be diametrically opposed in nature. It is entirely conceivable that an infinite actor will be pitted against a finite actor. An infinite actor, who cannot win but also cannot lose, will always out-perform a finite actor because the finite actor does not have a third option, they must either win or lose.

Using Game Theory to explain conflicts is by no means a new innovation. Nonetheless it serves as a powerful tool in explaining those conflicts, such as the Cold War.

Throughout the Cold War the United States practiced a containment strategy against the Soviet Union. This policy didn’t aim to win every conflict with the Soviet Union. Rather, the goal was to make a Soviet victory so expensive the Soviet Union would be forced to dissolve. Containment proved wildly effective.  Bankruptcy forced the USSR to collapse. The United States was playing an infinite game. There was no set amount of debt the U.S. wanted to impose and no set amount of time in which the U.S. wanted the USSR to collapse. The objective was to contain the USSR infinitely. By sharp contrast, the USSR’s objectives were to spread Soviet Communism to as many countries as possible. This was a finite objective that viewed every invasion as either a victory which proliferated communism or a defeat which strengthened capitalist nations.

In the first iteration of the Cold War, the Soviet Union was defeated because, fundamentally, the U.S. could not lose. However, in the defeat of the USSR, a cruel twist of irony put the U.S. on the receiving end of the policies that helped it prevail.

When the USSR collapsed, many Americans, including her policy makers, hailed the event as an American victory over communism; America recorded in its history books that the American strategy during the Cold War was always a finite one. The illusion became reality and the United States began approaching geopolitics with the same finite strategies that forced the collapse of the USSR.

The Rise of Vladimir Putin has brought a new, infinite geopolitical strategy for Russia, which now aims for the containment of the United States and the protection of “Russian ideals.” Bush, Obama, and now Trump all entrenched themselves in a finite strategy by responding to every crisis as it’s arisen. Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt, Iran, Syria, and ISIS are all receiving wildly different treatments based on the situation. This approach is not inherently wrong, it just does not perpetuate the kind of geopolitical clout the United States needs to maintain. For example, in Syria, Russia and the U.S. are working together to stop ISIS; in Ukraine, Russia is the violent enemy to a U.S. ally; and in Iran, Russia has been a mediator trying to disarm Iran. By constantly treating Russia differently, the U.S. is making it hard for American allies to predict what will happen next, forcing them into a finite game they do not want to be playing. Putin’s strategy is different. In all these scenarios, Russia is simply protecting its interests and destroying its enemies, making Russia much more adaptive and dynamic in its responses to its geopolitical opponents.

Russia is not alone. China is also employing its own infinite strategy to constantly encourage massive economic growth while the U.S. is content using finite strategies such as protecting American manufacturing jobs which preemptively limits our options. For the U.S, beating China means repairing a failing manufacturing sector; China’s objective is simply to grow, so it does not matter if China’s manufacturing is #1 or #2 as long as the economy maintains its explosive growth. This has left China with alternative paths the U.S. has largely ignored, such as investment in Africa or the development of a strong national infrastructure. Even if the U.S. manages to win the manufacturing war, we would still be outgunned on every other economic front.

If American policy makers maintain a framework that views every crisis as a victory or a defeat instead of as part of a larger American geopolitical grand strategy, it is safe to say that an American victory is unlikely in this modern reincarnation of the Cold War. None of this is to say the U.S. will collapse. However, our ability to maintain our current international clout is in jeopardy. The question policy makers need to address now is simple: how can the U.S. craft a long-term goal instead of focusing on short term gains?


The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Texas Speech Team.

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