Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Political science and craziness Part II: Nuclear deterrence for fun and profit

Welcome back for Part II in what political science has to say on the strategic implications of being, or at least seeming crazy.  In Part I, I gave you an example of a simple game with two players.  One player threatens to detonate a bomb unless the other hands over his watch.  If the recipient of the threat is worried that the guy with the bomb is actually crazy enough to blow them both to smithereens, he might actually hand over the watch, so someone who seems crazy can get a free watch, but someone who actually is crazy might eventually blow himself up.  Therefore, there is a strategic benefit to seeming, but not being crazy.  I wish I could claim credit for this observation, but credit goes to Nobel prize-winner Thomas Schelling.  You should read The Strategy of Conflict.  It will be central to this series.  Go.  Read.  But come back and read this too.

Today, we move on to nuclear deterrence and nuclear war.  So, let's hear a bit from the funniest movie ever.

The parallels to the bomb-for-the-watch game should be pretty obvious.  Doomsday scenarios kill everyone.  Under what circumstances can a person credibly threaten a doomsday scenario?  Not when they are sane.  In the Dr. Strangelove scenario, the Russians have a solution.  Take the decision out of human hands, and automate it, with a machine that cannot be turned off.  Deter an American attack with a doomsday machine such that any attack on Russia will trigger destruction of all life on earth.  Unfortunately, the machine was turned on before the announcement was made at the Premier's birthday party.  Oops.

If the Russians could turn it off after General Ripper ordered Wing Attack Plan R, they would because triggering the device intentionally would be fucking crazy.  But, they can't.  If the device could be turned off, it would be pointless.  The device basically allows the Soviets to act crazy by preventing them from doing the sane thing.

Schelling actually addresses this point directly.  Sometimes, you can benefit by restricting your own choices.  If you can make it impossible for your army to retreat, for example, you can deter the opposing army from attacking, even if your army is comparatively weak.  If the opposing army doesn't have the will to sustain losses, they might not attack, even if they expect to win the battle.

War, nuclear weapons, and willingness to do crazy shit.  In Dr. Strangelove, the Russians built the doomsday device because they couldn't keep up with the arms race, the peace race, etc.  If they had told the world rather than waiting for the Premier's birthday party, maybe it would have worked.  Then again, General Ripper was pretty fucking nuts, and a lot of other stuff went wrong too...  But seemingly crazy people can extract concessions...

And with nuclear weapons, what can seemingly crazy people get?

Well, there's North Korea.  Are/were the Kim Jong __s crazy, for real?  They certainly get portrayed that way, but every few years, they rattle their sabres, conduct some missile tests, remind everyone that they have nukes, and we give them food, etc.  And we don't go to war.  They threaten nuclear war, implicitly at least, over a pittance, and we give it to them.  Does that remind anyone of Part I?  Now, remember that it is seeming crazy that gets you free stuff.  The actually crazy guy with the bomb in the Part I scenario will eventually blow himself up.  The DPRK is still there.  Royally economically fucked, and hell on earth for anyone who isn't in the Kim inner circle, but still there.

And then there's Donald Trump.  Donald Trump says our foreign policy needs to be more unpredictable.  Donald Trump seems anxious to use nuclear weapons to fight rather than deter.

Maybe we should start thinking about what insights we can glean from Schelling about Trump.  Coming soon to a blog nobody reads, Part III in Political science and craziness...

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