Art of Deterrence, blackmail & threats

How does a country North Korea able to hold the entire world ransom? This belligerent state is in open hostility with three of the world’s super powers USA, Japan & South Korea. Even its staunch ally is fed up with its whimsical policies but tolerates it because the alternative would be US troops at Chinese borders. Rogue nations have a limited lifespan but this country has established a multi-generational hereditary rule.

10th March 1959 paper “ Theory and practice of blackmail” by Daniel Ellsberg (infamous for releasing 1971 Pentagon Papers on American Military strategy during Vietnam War) has some relevant insights applicable to the current Korea situation. Here are few notes that I made:

  1. There are 4 kinds of solutions that two parties can negotiate (Win-Win, Win-Lose, Lose-Win and Lose-Lose) Although we all want to have most of the dealings in area where we win, loose-loose is not something that can be overlooked.
  2. The more civilized, advanced & cultured your target is the more they are susceptible with the consequences of your extortions. Infamous precedence & demonstrations of ruthless action/culling of non-compliant is important to create a right aura. Most diplomats spend years posturing before firing a bullet or declaring war. Having a single minded obsession is what it needs to win the war of deterrence. A sheep in wolves’ clothing often gets away with the best deal.
  3. Understand the notion of Critical risks. A threat need not be credible to ensure compliance. If the pitfalls of disobedience are grave enough and the benefit of resistance low, you can expect favorable response. Simply put, a servant is more likely to hand over their employer’s assets than their own.
  4. The problem with any blackmailer is convincing that they are ready to punish for non-compliance even if it comes at great cost/hardship to them. If your threat is not “sufficiently likely” or sufficiently damaging, then the victim’s behavior cannot be altered. Nobody is likely to pay up for a long-shot. A party prepared for annihilation is toughest to handle diplomatically. To be successful in blackmail you need not be wearing the vest but you need to convince the other party that you are prepared for it. Without the credibility, guts & commitment, all your ultimatums will be discounted as bluffs.
  5. Sun Tzu: in his famous “Art of war” had once said on how to project for a nihilistic standoff: “When an army feeds its horses with grain and kills its cattle for food, and when the men do not hang their cooking-pots over the camp-fires, showing that they will not return to their tents, you may know that they are determined to fight to the death.” Today A suicide bomber wearing a vest might lose everything, but he can also inflict serious damage in the process.
  6. Successful extortionist doesn’t try to alter the victim’s behavior but influence their rational decisions & choices amongst the alternatives. The choices are dependent on the subject’s expectations on outcome & preferences.
  7. Also the word rational should not be confused with reasonable (one can be insane/ unrealistic and yet perfectly rational) Only a rational man can be blackmailed. Hence it is important for the extortionist to keep the tempers of its victims under check, pushing them over the edge will only lead to bad repercussions. However it is important that all the time the victim should be fearful of the blackmailer.
  8. Coercion operates on “your expectation of my behavior”. So not only my choices should make a difference to your behavior, but also impact the outcomes of your actions/inaction. A successful coerce “to influence you to choose the action I prefer you to take, by increasing your expectation that if you do not, I will choose some response leading to an outcome still worse for you than compliance.”
  9. Not all rational people can be coerced. Some find it distasteful, against their principles or as a trendsetter making them vulnerable to greater demands later that they refuse to comply irrespective of the severity of the punishment. So coercion is a lot to do with psychology & mental build of the subject.
  10. Nothing unleashes creativity than stress of impending doom and loss of rationality. If you box someone in a tight corner, you will get the most unexpected of the responses. So be prepared for the most unusual & ingenious counteracting strategy from your victims. It is important to stay credible and your demands within permissible limits, if you wish to expect a rationale human response from your victims.
  11. Threats fail because of variety of reasons:
    1. If the perpetuator underestimated the required credibility needed to sway the action.
    2. If the victim did not find the perpetuator’s commitment credible.
    3. If the victim was irrational, impulsive or careless
    4. If the victim is committed in the action, we are trying to deter.
  12. What if the victim fails to comply? The coercer has 4 options:
    1. The blackmailer can irreversibly give up his “freedom of choice” to carry out the threat. This means that agents/associates (who have no incentive to disobey) get clear irrevocable instructions. This limits the blackmailer options by “tying one hand” and making the world know that “failure to punish” is not an option. This might reduce his payoff and up his stakes, but sends out a clear signal that is loudly heard. Companies enter agreements/contracts/obligations (poison pills) to show commitment.
    2. Rather than making it irrevocable, he can make failure to punish costly. National leaders make public pledges (long emotional speeches), mobilize the army to make it abundantly clear that failure to act would lead to grave danger (like losing face & political leadership). Making a “low likelihood” threat imminent often leads to prompt compliance. By making the opponent know that it will be irrational to break the pledge, compliance of the victim is achieved.
    3. Suicidal threats: He can punish himself for the victim’s resistance. By staking his reputation, honor or prestige he can make it known that the threat is real. Essentially he is making aware that backing off is going to hurt him more than it would in a rational transaction. By proving his irrationality, he is trying to convince the subject that their ability to predict him is completely wrong. It should be noted that the blackmailer is still trying to appear to be rational but unrealistic in the first two strategies. However academicians are still debating on efficacy of the credibility gained through this tactic.
    4. The blackmailer first tries to exploit the uncertainty in the opponent’s mind making him unsure of the true risk-reward equation. Then by appearing irrational (erratic, inconsistent & unpredictable), the blackmailer convinces the opponent that their understanding of the situation is faulty. A civilized, gentle opponent not used to such dealings might decide to limit the losses and run away from the situation rather than investing more through a standoff. This diplomacy is highlighted in Hitler’s policy of “Political Uses of Madness.”
  13. The ability to go on the “verge of war” without an actual war is the art that can be mastered only with practice. Carrying on the threat is a loss-loss scenario which both parties avoid because of the fallout & chaos that it results in. Blackmailers also need to calculate risks before taking any action/counter-action.
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