Videos 5 & 6: Trust and arms control & Prisoner’s Dilemma activity

In Video One, students heard four definitions of trust in the context of U.S.-Russia relations. Now focusing more on the dynamic of these nations as nuclear-equipped powers, Dmitry Suslov states, “You cannot trust the country [...] that you observe through the prism of a rifle.” The Prisoner’s Dilemma activity, explained in Video Five by mathematician Benjamin Allen, is to prompt student thinking about the questions of trust and cooperation that play out when two nations or individuals must consider taking a short-term risk to promote longer term mutual gains.

The original Prisoner’s Dilemma game puts players in the place of two criminals who are arrested and are each given the choice to either remain silent or to reduce their own prison sentences by betraying the other. Their options are as follows:

  • If A and B each betray the other, each of them will serve 2 years in prison
  • If A betrays B but B remains silent, A will be set free and B will serve 3 years in prison (and vice versa)
  • If A and B both remain silent, both of them will only serve 1 year in prison (on the lesser charge)

Though there is incentive for each to pursue their own self-interest by betraying the other, the result is a greater reward for the group if they risk cooperating and remain silent. This model has been applied to the Cold War dynamic in which nations had the option to arm or disarm nuclear weapons. The greater reward is for both sides to disarm, and eliminate the need to maintain stockpiles of weapons, but if one side disarms alone, it will be vulnerable. The short activity has students repeat the choice to arm several times, reflecting on how their decisions play out in the context of their own and their partner’s actions over time.

Students can be asked to view Dmitry Suslov’s statement on trust and arms control before or after taking part in this activity.

When viewing these videos, students will need to know the following terms:

  • Arms Control: The regulation of weapons, including nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. It can involve diplomatic negotiations and international agreements about the development, proliferation, and reductions of weapons.
  • Nuclear Deterrence: The strategy of accumulating nuclear weapons to deter enemy attack by demonstrating the ability to retaliate.

When debriefing they can be asked to consider:

  • What does Suslov mean when he says that nuclear deterrence excludes trust from the very beginning?
  • How does he differentiate between building trust and managing mistrust?
  • When reducing or managing weapons capabilities, what possibilities do you see for cooperation or trust?
    • Is cooperation possible without trust or vice versa?

After taking part in the Prisoner’s Dilemma activity, students can be asked to consider:

  • What did you and your partner take into consideration when deciding whether or not to disarm?
  • In later rounds of the game, did past behavior influence your choices? How did this impact your ability to trust or cooperate with your partner?
  • How did your own experiences making these decisions inform your thinking about the choices that nations make when deciding whether to trust each other, or whether to cooperate in the absence of trust?