IN SEARCH OF A STABLE EMPIRE:Napoleon and cooperative game theory

By Mark Young

President, Rational Games, Inc.

I took the occasion of a short vacation on Corsica this spring to tackle a fairly hefty biography of Napoleon.  It was fascinating reading, although the “musical chairs” carousel of alliances forged both through battles and strategic marriages with the English, the Hapsburgs, the Russians, the Prussians, and many smaller players was fairly dizzying.  But the question occurs to me:  viewed through the prism of cooperative game theory, was this an “Unstable Core”?

In game theory, on the fairly problematic assumption that players will always go for the highest payoff, coalitions are “unstable” if incentives exist for any player to improve their position by defecting to another coalition.  In the case of Napoleon, an uneasy coalition with the Hapsburgs and several others collapsed when the Sardinians went over to the English and the Prussians proved to be unreliable vassals.  And in the end, of course, it all found an ignominious end on the island of St. Helena.

But what caused the instability?  I would venture to suggest:

  1. The initial driver of all the Napoleonic coalitions (and there were several) was simply his outsize quest for glory and pure narcissism.  This was not shared by any of the other players, and it proved to be a flimsy start to any sort of cooperation.
  1. Fickle home fronts in several countries, but most notably France, whose citizens only twelve years after decapitating Louis XIV were only too willing to lionize and worship this new upstart Emperor. All went well as long as the battles went well.  When the tide turned in Russia in 1814, however, home front support crumbled fairly quickly.  The icon on the pedestal turned out to have clay feet.
  1. Cooperative strategy shifted as the fear of Napoleon grew in Europe. Most tellingly, the English managed to make peace with the Russians, in the calculated realization that this was the only way to stop the juggernaut.  And this defection was within the existing coalition, with the lead simply passed between players.

And less than 100 years later, different players in all these same countries repeated the “Sleepwalkers” dance almost exactly, as brilliantly depicted by Chris Caldwell, with even deadlier effects.

The lessons of negotiation history are stimulating indeed.

Comments welcome!