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When Canada confronts a bully, tit-for-tat is best

Tom Koch is a medical geographer and ethicist at the University of British Columbia and the director of Information Outreach, Ltd. in Toronto. He is the author of 15 books, including Thieves of Virtue

How do you negotiate with a bully? Can you reason with an egotist who will not listen to another point of view? The answer for game theorists and strategists has been clear for almost 40 years: tit-for-tat. The basic rule is be nice – and respond in kind.

It seems to be the idea behind Canada's increasingly strong reaction to U.S. tariffs and "Buy American" policies. In the past, Canada has been content to play the long game of adjudication rather than rapid response. But in aerospace and lumber disputes, tit-for-tat is the new Canadian order of the day.

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In 1979, University of Michigan political-science professor Robert Axelrod sponsored a competition for the best strategy to encourage co-operation in competitive situations. The winner was a very short, two-step program scripted by a University of Toronto psychologist and philosopher, Anatol Rapoport. He called it Tit-for-Tat, and there were just two rules: Co-operate on the first move, then respond in kind to whatever the other person does in each future meeting.

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Mr. Rapoport's program won again in a later competition with a much larger field of competitors – some submitting lengthy and detailed strategies. And perhaps best, in reiterative games where the cycle of negotiation goes on and on, Tit-for-Tat was still the hands-down winner. It triumphed not by "beating" the other player into exhaustion but by eliciting behaviours that maximized the potential for both players to do well enough.

It makes intuitive sense. If a co-operator never responds in kind to aggression, there is no reason for the aggressor to be anything but forceful. But if force is met in kind, aggression becomes exhausting. With the rule "respond only in kind," tit-for-tat assures that when co-operation is offered, it is accepted. I'll fight, it says, but I'd rather not.

I learned this in the schoolyard long ago. If you slap me and I do nothing, then I'm a wimp and fair game for a beating. But if I slap you back, well, the confrontation becomes painful no matter who "wins." If you stop fighting, however, so will I, and that's the end of it.

Tit-for-tat doesn't end in continued escalation and ongoing strife because at the first sign of accommodation one responds in kind.

This has never been Canada's policy of international engagement. In successive battles over softwood lumber, for example, Canadian politicians have preferred the long game of adjudication rather than a short-term, comparable response to unilateral, punitive U.S. tariffs. Time and again, World Trade Organization adjudicators have exonerated Canadian policies, but each time the process took years and cost millions.

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But times are changing. Ottawa's threat last week to reconsider the purchase of new military jets from Boeing after it called for a trade review of Bombardier was a classic tit-for-tat move. So, too, is British Columbia Premier Christy Clark's suggestion to Ottawa to bar coal exports from B.C. in retaliation for the current softwood-lumber battle.

Note that bluster and shaming are not part of the program. Threats score no points. There is no advantage to calls upon a prior history of shared hardships or proclamations of long-term friendship. Those things are irrelevant, and the rules are simple: proportional response and, when the opportunity arises, co-operation.

Tit-for-tat is not a zero-sum game. Beginning with co-operation, it assumes the best outcome will probably be less than everything. Nobody gets everything, but all get enough to maintain a peaceful equilibrium.

It may be a game strategy, but as we're discovering, it's one with real-world applications. In the current climate of escalating political conflicts – from U.S. trade to North Korea to the Middle East – it's certainly worth trying. Politeness is too often mistaken for weakness by the bullies of the world. With tit-for-tat, nice guys don't need to finish last.

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