How 'Settlers Of Catan' Explains International Relations

Rules depend on either collective trust or the ability to enforce consequences.
01/03/2017 11:56 pm ET Updated Jan 04, 2017

The only game that combines ruthless competition, economic cooperation, and rules-based order.

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Like many people around the world, I’ve fallen in love with ‘Settlers of Catan’.

It’s not because I have a special affinity for wood, or sheep, or bricks.

It’s not because I have a thing for hexagons.

It’s not even because I enjoy ruining my friendships.

Besides the simple fact that it’s fun, ‘Settlers of Catan’ (together with gin rummy, which I’ll discuss in another post) is the best representation of international relations in game form. And it raises fascinating questions about the nature of rules and how we create them — questions that are unfolding on the international stage today.

Cooperation in a Competitive World

Some games, like ‘Pandemic’, are almost entirely cooperative. On the other end of the spectrum are games like ‘Risk’ — either entirely zero-sum (“my gain is someone else’s loss”), based too much on chance, or both.

‘Settlers’ gets it just right. It’s basically competitive and zero-sum; you have to build and grow your settlements, cities, and roads to get to ten points before anyone else. There’s a finite amount of the space and resources necessary to expand. The robber and certain bonus cards allow players to go on the offensive against other players. There’s a good chance players will be at each others’ throats as the game winds on.

But on the margins, economic interdependence allows for some cooperation. Players can only start off with a certain amount of the necessary resources. Some territories are more productive than others. Yet at various points in the game, any player will need brick, wood, iron ore, etc. So, players trade their comparative advantages; a player with a surplus of iron ore can exchange with a player who has a surplus of brick. Both benefit.

‘Settlers’ captures the balance of competition and cooperation in the international system better than most other games. International relations is fundamentally competitive and tense, with some countries and groups of countries jockeying for advantage against others. Economic realities don’t change that, but they do create incentives for cooperation and trade — to a point. Economic tools are also powerful weapons; I’ve seen ‘Settlers’ players effectively sanction another player by conspiring to prevent that player from acquiring critical resources.

Creating Rules

But what’s most interesting about ‘Settlers’ is the role rules and norms play.

Lots of players insist on playing the game “by the book.” Others make agreements to play the game in a certain way. A common example is agreeing to remove the robber entirely from the game. Another is making more complex trades possible, such as providing resources during one turn as an IOU for resources during another turn.

The emergence of new norms and rules agreed to by the players themselves reflects tells us something about how rules emerge in international and domestic politics. Rules don’t have authority in and of themselves. Rules gain authority because we attribute authority and legitimacy to them, or because we perceive that those who enforce the rules have enough power to inflict a serious punishment.

Why do we obey road rules? Probably because it’s in our interest for all of us to be constrained by rules that ensure safety, and if that’s not good enough, because we think there’s a reasonable chance the police could arrest us. When people in ‘Settlers’ agree not to use the robber, they agree that the benefit of knowing the robber won’t be used against anyone outweighs the cost of being constrained from using it for individual benefit.

How Does This Apply in the Real World?

In the foreign policy world — and especially in the Asia-Pacific policy world, where I was firmly embedded in my past role as a State Department officer — you hear a lot about rules, norms, and international law. A few examples:

  • In President Obama’s final Asia policy speech in Laos on September 6, 2016, he talked about how the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) “establish[es] the rules of trade for nearly 40 percent of the global economy.” He says that “bigger nations should not dictate to smaller nations, and [] all nations should play by the same rules.” And “across the region, including in the East and South China Seas, the United States will continue to fly and sail and operate wherever international law allows, and support the right of all countries to do the same.”
  • Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel R. Russel, addressing the House Foreign Affairs Committee in September, describes our “keen interest in upholding a rules-based order worldwide, one in which all countries, regardless of size, act according to shared norms and shared principles.”
  • After an international tribunal ruled against China’s Nine-Dash Line maritime claim in the South China Sea in an arbitration between China and the Philippines, the U.S. Department of State’s statement emphasized that we “strongly support[] the rule of law,” that the “Tribunal’s decision is final and legally binding,” and that “we encourage claimants to clarify their maritime claims in accordance with international law.”

Why do rules figure so prominently in U.S. foreign policy rhetoric? Without a strong supranational governing authority in international relations, can rules even be enforced? And, supposing rules can’t always be enforced, why bother trying to create and reinforce rules in the international arena?

The United States has a strong domestic legal tradition, and we bring a sort of preachy moralism to the world that can be deeply annoying to countries that feel the United States is an unwanted global police officer. But the rules we advocate constrain us and other powers as well, and many countries in a weak position suddenly find they like those rules.

Rules almost always benefit the weak over the strong. If you have power, you benefit from fewer constraints. Big businesses and rich individuals generally favor fewer regulations. A Hummer driver benefits less from road rules than a Prius driver. An experienced Catan player probably doesn’t want to add constraints that equalize the game.

What’s happening in the world today is that China is gaining far more economic power than its neighbors and partners. That increases those neighbors’ dependence on China, therefore reducing their autonomy. Consider this Forbes list of the top ten China-dependent countries. It includes Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Japan, Korea, and Australia.

Perhaps that wouldn’t be a problem, but for China’s pattern of using its clout to roll over the sovereignty of other countries. China has not only occupied maritime outposts claimed by the Vietnam and Philippines in the South China Sea — it has constructed military fortifications and deployed military hardware on those outposts that allow Chinese forces to project military power throughout the region.

Policymakers don’t like to use the term “balancing” anymore to describe countering another nation-state’s power. But when you hear countries like Vietnam talk about the need for rules, that’s implicit balancing of China. It’s like saying everyone should agree not to use the robber for the good of everyone, when only one player regularly uses the robber. A reasonable hypothesis for an international relations student to test: the uptick in references to rules in the region correlates with the growth of Chinese economic power.

As in ‘Settlers’, rules depend on either collective trust or the ability to enforce consequences. Collective trust is out of the question when it comes to China, which has flagrantly violated international law.

How about consequences? In ‘Settlers’, there are some things you can do against one errant player. There’s collective offense — agreeing to use the robber against one player, or working together to obstruct the player’s roads and settlements. That’s roughly equivalent to military/security consequences. Then, there are economic means and diplomatic isolation tactics — the player’s behavior has isolated the player so much that the player can’t get trades or use others’ ports, for example.

The United States is the only power today that both advocates for rules and has the clout to impose consequences for breaking those rules. Only the United States can put significant military assets in the South China Sea. Only the United States can provide the leadership necessary to coordinate diplomatic isolation against China. Only the United States can actually use economic levers to set rules for a regional trading bloc as it sought to do with TPP (though TPP, apparently, cannot survive the consideration of our wise populace and distinguished politicians).

An Ode to Making Rules, From Catan to Kathmandu

Whether we can succeed in backing up the rules we seek is a very open question. But, as in ‘Settlers of Catan’, it’s a worthwhile endeavor.

The beauty of ‘Settlers’ is that it parallels the development of domestic societies and the international system so well, raising the same philosophical and strategic questions in the process.

You start with Hobbesian anarchy. Life is “nasty, brutish, and short” (on an entirely unrelated note, this is also a good description of Donald Trump’s hands).

But over time, we realize that life could be better and longer if we all constrain our worst instincts, even if it means constraining some of our freedom. Rules don’t have authority on their own; we decide rules are worth having.

So, when you play ‘Settlers’, don’t just insist on following the standard rule book to the letter. Watching what additional rules people propose — and what rules stick — is part of the fun.

Rules-based international order, too, is worth our efforts. China sees rules as irritating constraints on its power and believes that its position in the world gives it the right to act as it wishes. Rules can be irritating constraints on our power, too. But the United States is ultimately better off when we have a grand strategy based on shaping good rules that apply to us and everyone else. It makes the game safer, more predictable, and better even for the smaller actors.

And successful rules don’t just help nation-states; rules serve the human beings that form the nation-state.

A young woman stitching together a jacket in a Vietnamese factory benefits if her export company only gets trade preferences in the United States if it meets high labor standards on the factory floor.

A cobbler in Senegal, making shoes by hand at an open-air market in Dakar, benefits if competing mass manufacturers from Asia are constrained by rules that level the playing field.

An oceanographer in Australia benefits from rules that prevent countries from dumping waste in the ocean and destroying ecosystems. And small fishers benefit when everyone’s catch is regulated, thus ensuring enough for everybody.

We are all settlers in the world. The rules that policymakers create and enforce may determine whether our lives are nasty, brutish, or short.

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