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Gunman’s Dilemma : Strategy of the Underdog

The conclusion of the “gunman’s dilemma” described in the film is quite unbelievable, contradictory to our common notion. the black man should intentionally “waste” his chance of shooting in order to increase his probability of survival! If he does so, the red and the blue will both choose the most rational option of “ignoring the black”, since each of them is the biggest threat to one another. The more they consume themselves in fighting each other, the more chance the black can interfere in this battle and become the final winner.

Although the concept of “firing into the air” seems quite hilarious, the idea of noninvolvement itself has long been practiced in the human history as the name of the “Underdog Strategy”. Such underdogs, who never have sufficient power to oppose champions by themselves, tend to choose the option of neutrality among the fight. The most famous example of this tactic would be Switzerland, the oldest neutral country on Earth. Their code is simple : “Remain unengaged in any kind of international conflicts, except when themselves are attacked”. The tradition dates even back to the 16th centuries, and they had kept the code even during the World War I and II, joining neither the Axis nor the Allies. And such a bystander position enabled their land to remain untouched while all the rest was burning with bombardments.
In order to ensure their safety, Switzerland always have maintained a certain level of military power to defend themselves against possible infringment of the treaty. The concept is called “armed neutrality”, the basis of most of the other neutral countries. Although the military power of Switzerland have never overwhelmed their neighboring countries, they at least had the ability to resist the invasion in their homeland. Indeed, Switzerland had won several battles with those who disrespect thier neutrality. The case of Swabian War against the Holy Roman empire serves as an example of their martial independence.

But what if the country is too weak to even defend themselves from the conquest? They can utilize thier “existence” itself as a diplomatic measure to deal with superpowers, who don’t want to increase the number of possible enemies. In the history of East Asia, countries existed on the Korean peninsula have been masters of such art. For example, when Liao dinasty invaded Goryeo of Korea at the end of the 10th centuries, an official named Seo Hui was dispatched to have a meeting with the enemy commander, Xiao Sunning. Seo Hui had already perceived that the invasion was not their main focus, but only a step of preparation for thier conquest of the Song dynasty, the other Chinese superpower of the era. Liao’s invasion to Goryeo was thus an intimidation to stop possible aid of Goryeo to Song. On the other hand, Seo Hui also noticed that Liao didn’t want to consume their troops in the preparation stage, and used their anxiety as a bargaining chip. Facing 800,000 soldiers who try to threaten him, he remained calm all the way in the meeting and even demanded a new territory in return for Goryeo’s neutrality, and Xiao Sunning could do nothing but accept it. At the end, Seo Hui returned with not only peace, but also a new land which they could pioneer.
While Goryeo could finish everything peacefully, a more extreme measure was needed later at the 17th centuries, in Choseon dynasty. At the era of the king Gwanghaegun, two superpowers named Ming and Qing both demanded Choseon to join their army and fight against the other. Both of them had enough power to revenge if Choseon had ignored thier requests. Facing the dilemma, Gwanghaegun came with a creative solution. He first accepted Ming’s request and sent the army, but with a secret message to the Marshall Gang Hong-rip to surrender during the battle! And the message was delivered to Nurhaci, the Qing emperor, to convey that Choseon has no intention to stand against powerful Qing. On the other hand, to Ming he attributed the surrender to the personal decision of Gang Hong-nip, and claimed that Choseon tried their best to help Ming at the battlefield. As a result, Gwanghaegun succeeded to take a golden balance between Ming and Qing, having ensured peace throughout his reign.

Gunman’s dilemma provides a mathematical background to the old wisdom: sometimes the non-intervention can be the most powerful strategy for weak countries to survive. And we can find various historic cases that the wisdom was actually brought into practice, without distinction of the East and the West.




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September 2015