Two prisoners are brought into a precinct. Separately, the individuals are approached by an attorney to negotiate a ‘deal’ for prison length. These prisoners are presented with options: defect or cooperate. In defecting, prisoner A rats out prisoner B. In cooperating, prisoner A does not rat out prisoner B, in assumption (or hope) that prisoner B will also cooperate. Prisoner B is given mirrored options. The payoffs depend on the option the prisoners choose. If prisoner A betrays B while B cooperates, prisoner A comes out on top; if both prisoners cooperate, they both win- a mutual benefit; when both rat out each other, both lose; and, when prisoner A cooperates, but B betrays, prisoner A loses. If this sounds familiar, it is because it is a popularized international relations (IR) theory coined as the Prisoner’s Dilemma, and stems from rational choice-Game Theory in political science academia. In recent, however, this dilemma has found scholarship in explaining international law of treaties.
Because there is no domineering international legislature or centralized lawmakers, it remains very difficult to implement international law. Thus, treaties become monumental in maintaining international harmony and cooperation. They can be thought of as an international public service/good.
As mentioned, treaties are designed to encourage international relations among nations. Therefore, when nations became signatory to a treaty (and upon ratification of a treaty), they make a public commitment to abide by its rules/articles.
How to implement a treaty once a country goes rogue becomes a focus of debate. Dating back to the Vienna Convention, Article 60 governs ‘rules of release’- put simply, when it is acceptable for a member state to remove itself from treaty obligations. Largely, this depends on a concept very familiar in contract law- ‘material breach.’ A material breach in the context of the Vienna Convention and treaty interpretation is defined as a violation of a provision essential to the accomplishment of the object or purpose of the treaty. For example, if a treaty between nations was written with the main objective being not to proliferate weapons, and then nation A contracts with an organization to acquire weapons, nation B (or others directly affected) has fallen victim to a ‘material breach’ and has met the necessary means to remove itself (themselves) from the treaty. Although the likelihood of being released from treaty obligation is much more complicated and in depth than the example I have provided, the salient features are present. Personally, I am in agreement that treaties can be assessed as contracts. In contracts, just as in treaties, a party evaluates the costs avoided by committing a breach, and the deprivation of benefits because of the breach. This article 60 ‘release’ is very important to keep in mind when assessing treaties and applying a theory such as the one discussed above.
When putting the prisoner’s dilemma in application to international agreements, it seems that the most advantageous choice would be for all to cooperate with each other, that way, as the example in the preceding paragraphs explain, both (all) win. Below, I have mapped out the options between the nuclear weapon states and the non nuclear weapon states party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Of course, nothing is as simple as the table illustrates above, but a loose idea of what could happen is still valuable insight. The above table depicts a situation that when one party betrays while the other cooperates, the betraying party wins much, just as in the traditional prisoner’s dilemma. However, I want to comment on two points. First, that both parties have the possibility to win much, and both have the opportunity to betray the other, leaving neither party a winner in this particular context due to the grave severity of nuclear proliferation. Second, if a nuclear weapon state betrays while a non-nuclear weapon state cooperates, it does not necessarily mean that the nuclear weapon state ‘wins’ because the non-nuclear weapon state now has the prospect to legally repudiate its treaty obligations, giving that state the option or incentive to acquire nuclear weapons also.
Pay-off scenarios such as the prisoner’s dilemma become much more complex when there are more than two parties: either a group of people or a multi-party treaty, such as the NPT. The reason for this illustration above is to remind all of us and our leaders that nothing in international relations is black and white, win or lose, or yes/no- there are always confounding variables, making it all the more imperative that weapon states and non-weapon states stop flirting the line of catastrophic nuclear disaster by indulging in pride games all for short-term gains and pay-off probabilities, and instead begin to take treaty obligations such as the NPT seriously.