The Credibility of the Dark Side

A recurring theme in international relations, and the social sciences more generally, concerns the importance of credibility. In situations as diverse as nuclear deterrence or hiring a babysitter, judgments of whether another actor will do what they say they’ll do can dramatically alter the outcomes of any social process. Since credibility forms the basis for action in many instances, thinking through its basis matters a lot. Is credibility a property or a trait of an actor? Is it entirely situational? Is it conditional on a combination of actors incentives and type?

Its in that spirit that I want to investigate why anyone would ever trust Darth Vaderand to show why under some circumstances trusting a Sith Lord is the rational choice.

In the trilogy, people do trust Vader. Emperor Palpatine, for instance, allows Vader wide discretion and ample resources in pursuit of his goals. Of course, the emperors trust is clearly limited. Given that the only path toward career advancement for a Sith Lord hinges on killing ones supervisor, the principal-agent problem recurs in the Sith master-apprentice relationship in an unusually severe fashion. Nevertheless, the Emperor succeeded for more than 20 years in taming Vader through monitoring, cleverly aligning Vader’s interests with his own, and the ultima ratio regis of the Emperors own skills in the force. One could even argue that, despite Palpatine’s eventual death at Vader’s hand, these strategies succeeded in taming Vader, since they only failed after Luke reawakened the identity of Anakin Skywalker.

More interesting are instances in which Vader deals with people outside the imperial hierarchy. The Empire Strikes Back offers two important examples: the deal over Cloud City that Vader strikes with Lando Calrissian and the deal over Han that Vader strikes with Boba Fett. To Lando, Vader promises that Cloud City will remain under Calrissians control if the smuggler-turned-industrialist turns over his old friend to the Empire; to Boba Fett (and other bounty hunters), Vader promises a substantial reward for the one who finds the Millennium Falcon–so long as its occupants remain alive (No disintegrations).

(I pause here to note each characters motivations more precisely. Lando wants to protect himself and, more charitably, the inhabitants of Cloud City from imperial reprisals. Boba Fett wants to pull off a double play, finding the Millennium Falcon for the Empire and delivering Han to Jabba the Hutt, thereby netting two bounties. Vader is primarily interested in using the Falcon and its inhabitants to lure Luke to Cloud City–hence his relative lack of interest in Leia and Chewbacca, despite their roles in the destruction of the Death Star, and his indifference to Solos survival or even value as a source of intelligence about the rebellion; They never even asked me any questions, Han says after being tortured. By this point in the trilogy, its already clear that the Force-dominated master storyline has substantially departed from the superficial conflict between the Rebels and the Empire.)

The Vader-Calrissian deal represents a classic case of an obsolescing bargain. In action that transpires offscreen (and before the damaged Falcon reaches Bespin), Vader requires Calrissian’s cooperation to keep Han, Leia, Chewbacca, and the droids in Cloud City. With Luke having disappeared after the Battle of Hoth, seizing his friends represents the Vader’s best chance to lure the young Jedi-manque out of the shadows and into the Empires clutches (and thence, Vader hopes, to overthrow the Emperor and rule the galaxy as father and son). The original bargain, as Vader dictated it to Calrissian, must have been something like:

  1. The Empire requires that this ship and its passengers remain on Cloud City until Luke Skywalker arrives.
  2. Once Skywalker arrives, we will use your carbon-freezing facilities to incarcerate him for transport to Coruscant.
  3. In exchange, once Skywalker has been frozen, the Empire will resume its ignoring of your illegal gas-mining business and the Falcon and its occupants will be free to go.

We can reconstruct the elements of the deal by looking at Calrissian’s guarded conversation with Leia and Han, which establishes that part of the deal was long-term immunity from Imperial interference:

So you see, since were a small operation, we don’t fall into the uh jurisdiction of the Empire.LEIA
So you’re part of the mining guild then?

No, not actually. Our operation is small enough not to be noticed which is advantageous for everybody since our customers are anxious to avoid attracting attention to themselves.

Aren’t you afraid the Empires going to find out about this little operation and shut you down?

Thats always been a danger looming like a shadow over everything weve built here. But things have developed that will insure security.Ive just made a deal that will keep the Empire out of here forever.

Similarly, Lando believes, on Vader’s testimony, that the Sith Lord doesn’t want [Han and Leia] at all. He’s after somebody called Skywalker . Lord Vader has set a trap for him. (Interestingly, this suggests that Luke Skywalker, Hero of the Rebellion and presumably the Empires public enemy number one, is somewhat less (in)famous than Osama bin Laden.) We discover through dialogue the other elements of the plan as Vader progressively breaks his promises, as when he informs Fett that Han will be encased in carbonite–to Calrissian’s surprise:

Lord Vader, what about Leia and the Wookiee?

They must never again leave this city.

That was never a condition of our agreement, nor was giving Han to this bounty hunter!

Perhaps you think you’re being treated unfairly.


Good. It would be unfortunate if I had to leave a garrison here.

And, later, when Vader learns that Luke has walked into his trap:

Good. See to it that he finds his way here. Calrissian, take the princess and the Wookiee to my ship.

You said theyd be left in the city under my supervision.

I am altering the deal. Pray I don’t alter it any further.

Calrissian found Vader’s pledges credible enough, given the alternatives, to believe him. After all, had Calrissian not trusted Vader to carry out his pledge at the beginning (when, thanks to Fett’s sleuthing, the Imperial fleet arrived just before Solos damaged vessel), then the best outcome would have been to abandon Cloud City and warn off the Falcon–since at the end, given the option between abandoning Solo and his family or abandoning Cloud City, Calrissian chooses the former. Yet Vader chooses to press his advantage instead.

We might say that this just goes to prove that you shouldn’t trust a Sith Lord, except that Vader has simultaneously upheld his agreement with Boba Fett. Indeed, as far as I can tell, the Vader-Fett deal has only become sweeter for Fett over the course of the film.

Fett’s initial deal with Vader is easily stated: Fett will provide information to Vader about the whereabouts of the Falcon, and in exchange Vader will provide a substantial reward. Fett and Vader must later (and offscreen) come to a subsidiary agreement about the disposition of Solo; presumably this happened at the moment of maximum leverage, when Fett had decided to disclose the Falcons destination to the Empire but before the disclosure itself. Theres a separate bounty from the Hutt’s on Solos life, and Fett must have asked Vader for permission to return Solo to Tatooine for the additional reward. Its intriguing to think what this subordinate bargain must have entailed: Did Fett offer the Empire a discount on their substantial reward for the information leading to the capture of the Falcon? Did the Hutt’s bounty on Solo exceed the bounty the Empire put on the Falcon? Did Fett manage to extract Solos life without conceding anything to the Empire at all?

Note, by the way, that Fett is the only person in The Empire Strikes Back who achieves all of his goals.

Why does Vader live up to his bargain with Fett, and why does Fett trust Vader to do so? Unlike the Calrissian-Vader deal, once Vader has what he wants, he continues to work with Fett (instead of having Slave One destroyed by Star Destroyers from orbit, for instance). Partly, this may follow from Fett’s potential value to the Empire (and Vader) down the road. Fett’s lone-wolf tactics achieved what a major Imperial fleet could not, and presumably at far smaller cost (even if the bounty was enormously large, it could not possibly match the expense of manning and operating Vader’s Super Star Destroyer for an hourmuch less the expenses of the rest of the fleet that followed the Falcon from Hoth). There will be other fugitives to catch in the future, and having Fett willing to work for the Empire again is worth the short-term saving of stiffing him on the reward (or just killing him). This is the difference between the single-shot and the repeated-play Prisoners Dilemma.

But there are larger considerations. Fett is part of a community of bounty hunters, who have capabilities the Imperial Fleet clearly cant match. (Notably, even though Palpatine and Vader presumably could do what Fett does through their mastery of the Force, the opportunity cost of their doing so would be too high, implying either that Fett is very good at what he does or that Palpatine and Vader are doing lots of important things that require their attention offscreen.) To offer a bounty to Fett but refuse to pay it (or to alter the deal with Fett as Vader does with Calrissian) would, in the long term, impose even greater costs on the Empire.

So it turns out that a Dark Lord can make credible commitmentsbut only under certain conditions.