'People, ideas, machines' III: More on the fallacies of nuclear deterrence amid danger, exertion, uncertainty, and chance
Schelling's game theory was dangerously misleading... How should we think of deterrence? ... What new capabilities should we prioritise?
‘There is a slow train coming up around the bend.’ Bob Dylan.
‘We came to assume that the lethality of our nuclear weapons would deter Soviet leaders reliably and predictably, virtually regardless of the local conditions in Moscow.’ Payne
‘People, ideas, machines — in that order!’ What Colonel Boyd shouted in the Pentagon for years…
Von Braun (left) and von Neumann
My previous blog covered Payne’s first book. This blog covers The Great American Gamble: Deterrence Theory and Practice from the Cold War to the 21st Century (TGAG). As well as studying the subject as an academic, Payne also served as an official and advised the US government. He explains ‘the slow train coming’ — how US theory and policy on nuclear deterrence developed, the theoretical and other errors, the misguided thinking about Soviet attitudes, why these ideas will fail to save us and so on. The book is a ‘conclusive demolition of the mainstream of theoretical, policy, and strategy error, which we have been truly fortunate to survive — to date’ (Colin Gray).
Payne explains how people now base ideas about nuclear deterrence on deep assumptions that are ~60 years old, were wrong then, and should be abandoned.
Instead of doing one long blog covering the whole book, I’ll post notes/thoughts day by day. I’ll try to limit restating stuff from the first book and make this as additional as possible. (I’ll therefore edit a bit as I go along and move material around.)
Unquestioned assumptions and covid lessons
Covid showed how leaders can stumble into disaster because they have meetings based on big assumptions they’ve never really studied and questioned. All sorts of critical questions are therefore not even discussed and meetings with senior people can therefore easily instead focus on second and third order issues in confused ways, often generating destructive ideas, chaos, and wasted effort.
For example, in February 2020 meetings of key ministers and officials were largely determined by crucial assumptions such as:
There’s nothing that can be done other than ‘flatten the curve’ a bit to achieve herd immunity over a few extra months.
The public won’t accept serious limits of freedom anyway, even if some East Asian countries — ‘irrationally, because it won’t work’ — reject natural herd immunity.
A vaccine is practically near-100% impossible quickly enough to have any significant effect.
These three assumptions were so deep and widespread that at the start they were not seriously discussed never mind rigorously questioned therefore other crucial issues were also not properly discussed at the start.
Ramp up testing? Why bother when it will all be over shortly and we won’t force people to do anything anyway?
Do a Manhattan Project-style vaccine taskforce? It’ll all be over in a few months, the thousands dead will be dead, then there’ll be herd immunity so why spend billions on a crash vaccine program that probably won’t get anywhere for years anyway, look at HIV?
The three assumptions were totally false and were dropped but thousands died because of the time it took to force explicit discussion of these assumptions and break down their logic. The first time there was a graph of multiple waves, and a concept of managing them, was when Ben Warner scribbled it on a whiteboard in the PM’s study in the evening of Friday 13 March, many weeks after covid was global news and had spread so far in Britain that thousands of deaths were already inevitable. It took several meetings over the next week to shift enough key people from those assumptions so that policy could change. Similarly in 2021 No10 defaulted to unquestioned assumptions therefore failed to get ahead of anti-viral procurement, which could have rendered omicron largely irrelevant relative to what happened (by eliminating most hospitalisations).
In the 1960s, civil defence was essentially dropped in the west because the false logic of Schelling took over. We must drop this logic on nuclear deterrence. We should therefore also consider new defences and capabilities.
An example of two obvious big questions for the UK…
Given the inevitability of future pandemics and the cumulative probability of WMD attacks growing over time (without dramatic political changes), should we invest in new civil defence structures? For example, should we encourage the building of shelters that could double for pandemics and nuclear attack, with off-grid energy and recycled air etc?
What intelligence investments and changes in priorities/targets make sense given the costs of intelligence ‘failures’? (I started asking this question with officials in 2020, including viz Russia, but it can’t easily be publicly discussed.)
Such investments would be costly but what are the true tradeoffs? Failure to plan properly meant future generations in the UK will be paying off hundreds of billions in debt incurred in the covid meltdown. If we’d invested modestly in diagnostics pre-2020 we would have made between a 10X and 100X return. If we’d invested in a system to develop vaccines at war-speed, the way General Groves would have done it and we can now see we could have done it (even faster than we did after the shift in policy April 2020), we could not only have averted almost all the costs of covid here, we could have made a fortune selling vaccines to the rest of the world. One can imagine roughly the order of a 1000X return on a billion dollars.
What price should we pay today to avoid tens of millions of deaths? What sort of capabilities should we invest in now that could avert or mitigate such disasters?
Notice that we have practically dismantled the vaccine taskforce, not invested in novel vaccine ideas, and the government is actively trying not to learn the expensive lessons just forced upon us by fate. And you will see no debate in Parliament about this. Our MPs collectively are largely happy to try to forget, even as new and bigger dangers approach. It resembles the pattern of failure over deterrence of Germany viz Belgium: in 1866, 1870, and 1914 you can read almost word-for-word identical errors written in Westminster — then we committed similar errors with Hitler. On one hand it seems crazy to think we could be arguing about lockdowns with a worse-than-covid pandemic before too long but on the other hand, history suggests this is pretty likely, if we don’t blow ourselves up first.
All bold below is added unless stated otherwise.
Reminder: Ask Me Anything, tomorrow evening, 1800-2000.
TGAG, Foreword, by Colin Gray
The Foreword is by Colin Gray, now dead, one of the foremost scholars of military strategy of the last few decades.
1. TGAG provides a framework to understand how and why deterrence theory developed.
2. It tells the story of US policy and relates it to the theory.
3. Payne can ‘demonstrate, even prove’ his argument.
[T]he true glory of this analysis is the near crystal clarity of the all too meaningful distinction he draws between the strategic ideas represented by the brilliant Harvard economist, Thomas C. Schelling, and those of no less brilliant Herman Kahn…
Dr. Payne demonstrates, not merely suggests or illustrates, the significance of strategic theoretical ideas as a true driver of policy and defense plans. Those among us who have believed that ideas merely decorate and rationalize material forces, should be humbled by the evidence presented here.
Schelling’s vastly speculative abstract ideas were chosen to be the footings for the construction of U.S. strategic policy and the procurement of its matching posture. It may come as something of a shock to many of us to be reminded, or simply to have it so well revealed, that neither of the principal rival theories of nuclear deterrence rested upon anything more solid than a chosen logic and intuition (i.e., native wit and guesswork). Both Schelling and Kahn were empirically challenged, as Dr. Payne shows beyond a possibility of serious doubt. Neither of them was deeply steeped in strategic history, while, of necessity, neither could draw upon historical evidence of nuclear deterrence in action. It has to be said that such experience as the superpowers had of nuclear deterrence in the late 1940s and the 1950s, was not a dominant source of inspiration for the theories of Schelling and Kahn.
Payne is strongly critical of Schelling.
The book is consistently critical of Schelling’s ideas, as theory and as expressed in policy, strategy, and posture…
Errors were similar across Democrats and Republicans.
The conflict was not between ‘rational strategic persons’ but flawed humans in often dysfunctional institutions inevitably surrounded by Clausewitz’s ‘climate of war’: danger, exertion, uncertainty, and chance.
The book is —
… an extended reminder of just how fortunate we probably were to survive the Cold War. He rubs our noses in the unarguable fact that nuclear deterrence is all theory, and much of it is not very convincing theory at that…
When we consider the Soviet/Russian and U.S. strategic nuclear postures as complex somewhat interdependent systems, especially in their full political, military, human, social, and technological contexts, it is hard to resist the judgment that we are fortunate to be here today. Complex systems have ‘normal accident’ rates…
I commend the work for its conclusive demolition of the mainstream of theoretical, policy, and strategy error, which we have been truly fortunate to survive — to date.
If we do not change the track we are on viz deterrence policy, we are heading for catastrophe.
Declassified 1960s studies by the Pentagon concluded that ‘differing measures of protection for society against nuclear attack were technically feasible’. E.g In 1965 McNamara observed in a classified memorandum for President Johnson that, ‘appropriate mixes of Damage Limiting measures can effect substantial reductions in the maximum damage the Soviets can inflict, but only at substantial additional cost’.
Such defence was ruled out.
In the 1960s, the idea became embedded that America should remain vulnerable to nuclear attack and trying to reduce this vulnerability itself was dangerous as it would ‘destabilise’ deterrence. E.g In 1963, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara said that mutual deterrence with the Soviet Union was incompatible with significant defensive capabilities intended to limit societal vulnerability.
This idea remains in place:
… with few exceptions, the theory of “stable” deterrence underlying those policy decisions continues to provide the dominant narrative about deterrence and measures of merit for U.S. strategic force acquisition.
As former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger observed, U.S. doctrine from the mid-1960s onward was based on the belief that “vulnerability contributed to peace, and invulnerability contributed to war.”
This belief reflected a curious mixture of prudent skepticism regarding the potential for societal defense and naïve hubris regarding the reliability and predictability of deterrence.
Fundamental to the logic is
… the belief that deterrence could be orchestrated to function predictably because all “rational” opponents would respond prudently and cautiously to U.S. nuclear deterrence threats… [Stable deterrence] was thought to ensure that, short of insanity, no leader — past, present, or future — would choose a nuclear fight.
The 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty greatly limited development and deployment of societal defenses against any strategic missile attack. Given society was to be vulnerable to missiles, this move subsequently justified the elimination of most strategic defense and America has remained vulnerable to strategic nuclear attack.
With defence ruled out, deterrence became primarily about calculating offence.
The basic point should be stressed in the clearest terms: analysing possibilities of the destruction of a large part of the human race and our civilisation, those responsible for policy decided and repeatedly confirmed that they would not build defences because defences were themselves dangerous.
This logic sets assumptions today, often un/sub-consciously. People say things publicly and in meetings based on these assumptions without necessarily knowing the history or having questioned them. We must question them.
[T]his purported wisdom from the Cold War now fares very poorly. The implications of that fact are enormous for U.S. deterrence policy and practice, U.S. strategic force acquisition, and ultimately, U.S. security.
Thomas Schelling v Herman Kahn
They had different ideas about:
How ‘rational’ agents behave.
How deterrence works.
What forces the US should prioritise.
Schelling set forth the definition of — and recommended as a U.S. policy goal — a “stable” balance of terror with the Soviet Union.
“Stable” deterrence could be orchestrated to proceed from mutual prudence born of mutual vulnerability. According to Schelling, the U.S. offensive nuclear force requirement for this “stable deterrence” could be the relatively modest level of capabilities necessary to threaten Soviet society with destruction. The purported benefit of mutual threats along this line was enticing: in the absence of the “reciprocal fear of surprise attack” that might ignite a nuclear war, a “stable” balance of terror could be established to provide reliable, predictable mutual deterrence. Schelling’s priority, thus, was minimizing the “reciprocal fear of surprise attack” that might upset this “stable deterrence.” This, according to Schelling, meant eschewing societal defenses — or as Schelling put it, “the forbidden defense of human resources” — because he believed they would contribute to the fear of surprise attack. Correspondingly, Schelling viewed the ABM Treaty’s strict limitations on the development and deployment of such defenses as the “high point … of successful arms control.”
Kahn had different views about how the Soviets would behave, how deterrence would work, and therefore what forces should be prioritised.
Kahn specifically recommended against a “stable” balance of terror, per Schelling’s definition. Instead, Kahn emphasized the requirement for U.S. strategic defensive capabilities to help establish an asymmetrical and advantageous imbalance of terror favoring the United States. Kahn believed that U.S. deterrence responsibilities demanded that U.S. strategy proceed from a position of meaningful advantage. He outlined more expansive U.S. offensive and defensive strategic force requirements for deterrence than those identified in Schelling’s baseline “stable” balance of terror model. He emphasized the value of defensive capabilities both for U.S. deterrence strategy and as a hedge against the possibility of deterrence failure and unavoidable war.
Schelling’s school of thought dominated.
In 1962, McNamara presented a choice to Kennedy:
Prioritise a) the protection of US society or b) ‘stable’ deterrence via ‘mutually severe retaliatory threats and the absence of significant strategic defensive capabilities’?
McNamara preferred a stable balance of terror, no defence, and no offensive capabilities that might disturb ‘stability’. He established “assured destruction” deterrence metrics for force requirements needed to threaten percentages of the Soviet population.
This approach survived until the end of the CW. There was no effective move to deploy ballistic missile defense, air defense, or civil defense.
It is often claimed America sought ‘primacy’ or ‘war-winning’ capabilities. This is wrong.
This assertion, with its explicit charge of U.S. imprudence per balance of terror norms, fundamentally misses the centerpiece and reality of U.S. strategic policy for three decades: its basic continuing orientation has been along “stable” balance of terror guidelines with the corresponding practice of “self-restraint” in the expectation of “Soviet reciprocity.”
This logic continued to drive US debates over new threats. E.g Joseph Nye, Graham Allison, and Albert Carnesale, “Defusing the Nuclear Menace,” The Washington Post, September 4, 1988.
We came to assume that the lethality of our nuclear weapons would deter Soviet leaders reliably and predictably, virtually regardless of the local conditions in Moscow. The objective condition of a “stable” balance of terror brought about by U.S. and Soviet long-range nuclear weapons was thought to ensure that, short of insanity, no leader — past, present, or future — would choose a nuclear fight. The problem of deliberate nuclear war was considered tractable and judged to have been solved.
Payne argues that America should drop this logic for three basic reasons:
Its internal logical incoherence.
The inconsistency of its most basic expectations regarding “rational” behavior with considerable historical evidence and recent findings on cognition.
The dramatic differences between Cold War and contemporary conditions.
… the details of circumstance and the opponent’s local conditions — time, place, culture, ideology, religion, domestic politics, leadership decision making process, and even personality — can be decisive in determining if and how deterrence operates…
[I]n the absence of considerable efforts to understand circumstance and opponent, we are unlikely to anticipate the multiplicity of factors shaping opponent decision making or the weight of those factors. Uncertainty may be higher or lower depending on the details of the engagement and our efforts to reduce our ignorance about the opponent and context. Uncertainties may dominate, however, even following an effort to gain an understanding of the opponent…
Bob Dylan’s lyric that there is “a slow train coming” should speak to us now. Our deterrence strategies will be subject to failure or irrelevance. This is not a question of if, but of when, where, how, and with what consequence?
CH2: Deterrence: In the beginning
In Genesis, God told Adam and Eve that if they ate the forbidden fruit, ‘You will be doomed to die.’ A clear and credible threat. Eve gambled anyway. Deterrence requires the other side to exercise self-control in a certain direction but they may not.
For a strategy of deterrence to work by design requires: attentive players; the expression of threat; mutual recognition, communication and understanding; purposeful decision making by the target audience based on a rational calculation of expected risks, costs and benefits, and the decision to yield to the threat; and, the implementation of that decision.
Deterrence is not the same as directly controlling your opponent or defeating/destroying them. It generally takes less effort. It’s why Sun Tzu famously said that the highest form of warfare is to ‘win without fighting’.
History is full of examples where deterrence has worked but also examples where it has failed. There is inevitable uncertainty about how the other side see the situation. For example, just before Pearl Harbor, Assistant Secretary of State Dean Acheson advised FDR that war with Japan was unlikely because “no rational Japanese could believe an attack on us could result in anything but disaster for his country.” At roughly the same time, Japanese Prime Minister Tojo informed his emperor that, “Our empire has no alternative but to begin war.”
During the Cold War, the US made different statements about its targeting, sometimes emphasising cities, industry, political leadership, command and control. But the basic message was the same: massive destruction. Although some say Reagan shifted from deterrence to ‘nuclear war-fighting’ this is false.
In one of the first attempts to articulate nuclear strategy, Bernard Brodie (1946) wrote:
The first and most vital step in any American security program for the age of atomic weapons is to take measures to guarantee to ourselves in case of attack the possibility of retaliation in kind… Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on, its chief purpose must be to avert them.
In this concept the primary ‘use’ of weapons is not use but threat of use.
Churchill expressed the logic with typical language in 1955:
It may be that we shall by a process of sublime irony have reached a stage in this story where safety will be the sturdy child of terror, and survival the twin brother of annihilation.
The concept was extended from the US itself to Europe/NATO. Instead of focusing on being able to win a conventional war against the SU and therefore hopefully deter it conventionally, NATO instead relied fundamentally on nuclear deterrence against possible conventional attack.
From the 1950s through the 1980s, the United States repeatedly attempted to lead the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the direction of improving its conventional forces to reduce the pressure to employ locally-deployed “tactical” nuclear weapons in response to a massive conventional Warsaw Pact attack. But NATO as a whole never concluded that the basis for Western security could rest primarily on a capability to fight and win a conventional or nuclear war against the Soviet Union — the great proximate superpower. The cost of acquiring such conventional capabilities was daunting, and the prospect of fighting yet another horrific war in Europe during the century was unacceptable. Deterrence of war altogether was the preferred theme…
A basic reason for the retreat from a conventional defense strategy for NATO was the widespread belief that the cost of conventional defense would be prohibitive, and that nuclear deterrence offered an efficient, affordable alternative.
Let that sink in: we knowingly increased the chances of nuclear destruction because nuclear deterrence was thought to be significantly cheaper than conventional capability, what became known as an ‘asymmetric strategy’. E.g in 1952 NATO said it would build 96 divisions, this was soon abandoned as too expensive.
Some European leaders also argued that too much emphasis on conventional defense by NATO might actually undermine European security by signaling to the Soviet leadership that NATO was backing away from its commitment to nuclear defense and deterrence, which would create a possible opening for massive conventional attack.
General Lauris Norstad, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander under President Eisenhower, explained the rationale for NATO conventional forces early in the Cold War:
The function of shield forces is really not to fight, not even to defend, but to complete the deterrent.
The thinking behind US attempts to push Europe to improve conventional capabilities was not ‘we can win conventionally’ but ‘it makes a Soviet conventional attack more fraught with danger and uncertainty, there will be no fait accompli, they must fear the risks of nuclear escalation’.
General Andrew Goodpaster, the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, explained the affordability of this “flexible response” deterrence strategy to Nixon during a 1970 top-secret meeting:
It is based primarily on the deterrent but it cannot be divorced from our actual defense capability. It is a strong deterrent based on a limited defense capability, at medium risk and medium cost. A full conventional defense capability would be a low-risk/high-cost strategy…. At present, we have a high prospect of success against small-scale or limited attacks. That is important. Against a full-scale sustained attack, we have a limited capability in time…. Assured destruction [deterrence] is always the back-up which supports the other elements of the strategy.
This view held steady. In 1987, the U.S. Commander in Chief, U.S. European Command, General Bernard Rogers told the Senate:
There is no way that nations in Western Europe can find the resources for sufficient conventional forces [to offset Soviet conventional superiority]. The resources aren’t there. And so as a consequence it’s that nuclear umbrella tied to the U.S. that is the basis of our deterrent.
In 1988, Supreme Allied Commander General John Galvin similarly warned that ‘we can defend ourselves for two weeks against an all-out Warsaw Pact attack — then we will have to use nuclear weapons.’
Why would this threat be credible to the SU? America was saying — start a conventional war on the other side of the Atlantic and we’ll start a nuclear war leading to the destruction of our own country. Might they not conclude in Moscow that this would not really happen?
Two approaches emerged to answer this question…
Kahn: credible threats mean an imbalance of terror
Herman Kahn was a physicist who worked on nuclear policy at the RAND Corporation throughout the 1950s and later co-founded the Hudson Institute. Kahn wrote On Thermonuclear War (1960), and Thinking About the Unthinkable (1962).
Herman Kahn argued strongly that offensive threats on behalf of others which ultimately would be self-destructive — such as U.S. strategic nuclear threats to the Soviet Union on behalf of NATO members in a balance of terror — simply were not reliably credible, and could not alone serve as the basis for an effective policy of deterrence. The Soviet leadership should not be expected to believe that the United States would, on behalf of its allies, deliberately initiate a nuclear war that it could not survive. Kahn believed that Soviet leaders would see an essentially suicidal U.S. threat on behalf of others as a bluff to be called.
Consequently, Kahn argued that unless the United States was capable of limiting damage to itself in a nuclear war, it could not credibly threaten nuclear escalation on behalf of allies, and extended deterrence could easily fail. The U.S. capability for deterrence, according to Kahn, required U.S. capabilities for defense against nuclear attack. He warned early in the Cold War that no matter how severe U.S. offensive nuclear threats may look, “it will be irrational [for the United States] to attack and thus insure a Soviet retaliation unless we have made preparations to counter this retaliation.”…
In addition, such threats could provide no useful basis for actual war planning because they would be reckless to implement in the event of war. Basing deterrence on threats that ultimately would be self-destructive was folly on multiple levels: it could lead to an incredible deterrent, invite challenges, and offer no useful planning guidance following the failure of deterrence.
Kahn also stressed that America had the bigger credibility problem because it was threatening first use of nuclear in response to conventional attack.
Credibility depends on being willing to accept the other side’s retaliatory blow. It depends on the harm he can do, not on the harm we can do…. It depends on [U.S.] will as well as capability…
About all an unprepared government can do is to say over and over, ‘The other side doesn’t really want war.’ Then they can hope they are right. However, this same government can scarcely expect to make up by sheer determination what it lacks in preparations. How can it persuade its opponent of its own willingness to go to war if the situation demands it?… If we wish to have our strategic forces contribute to the deterrence of provocation, it must be credible…. Usually the most convincing way to look willing is to be willing. (Kahn)
Henry Kissinger echoed Kahn’s critique:
If my analysis is correct we must face the fact that it is absurd to base the strategy of the West on the credibility of the threat of mutual suicide … and therefore I would say — what I might not say in office — that our European allies should not keep asking us to multiply strategic assurances that we cannot possibly mean, or if we do mean, we should not want to execute, because if we execute, we risk the destruction of civilization.
Payne: Kahn’s style made enemies but his logic was sound.
The source of his force structure recommendations was not a frivolous or cold-hearted attitude about nuclear war, but his basic judgment about the requirements for threat credibility and the fundamental conditions necessary to make deterrence “work.”
Thomas Schelling: The Deterring Effect of Uncertainty in a Balance of Terror
Schelling was the most influential western nuclear strategist. He rejected Kahn’s contention that effective extended deterrence required a deliberate threat to initiate nuclear escalation, made credible by U.S. defensive capabilities.
This is why deterrent threats are often so credible. They do not need to depend on a willingness to commit anything like suicide in the face of a challenge. A response that carries some risk of war can be plausible, even reasonable, at a time when a final, ultimate decision to have a general war would be implausible or unreasonable. A country can threaten to stumble into war even if it can not credibly threaten to invite one… Any situation that scares one side will scare both sides with the danger of a war that neither wants, and both will have to pick their way carefully through the crisis, never quite sure that the other knows how to avoid stumbling over the brink. (Schelling)
For Schelling, the effectiveness of a deterrence threat should not depend on whether the target audience actually believes that the threatener would choose deliberately to execute the threat if its demands are not met. Schelling called his approach to deterrence ‘the threat that leaves something to chance’:
The key to these threats is that, though one may or may not carry them out if the threatened party fails to comply, the final decision is not altogether under the threatener’s control. The threat is not quite of the form “I may or may not, according as I choose,” but, has an element of, “I may or may not, and even I can’t be altogether sure.” Where does the uncertain element in the decision come from? It must come from somewhere outside of the threatener’s control. Whether we call it “chance,” accident, third-party influence, imperfection in the machinery of decision, or just processes that we do not entirely understand, it is an ingredient in the situation that neither we nor the party we threaten can entirely control…
What local military forces can do, even against very superior forces, is to initiate this uncertain process of escalation. One does not have to be able to win a local military engagement to make the threat of it effective. Being able to lose a local war in a dangerous and provocative manner may make the risk — not the sure consequences, but the possibility of this act — outweigh the apparent gains to the other side. (Schelling)
Fear of Washington’s unpredictability, and/or the unpredictability of war itself, was enough to make deterrence credible. Perhaps the US leader will lose the plot. Perhaps the fog of war will create confusing accidents. Perhaps nuclear strikes will therefore come even if they are suicidal.
For Schelling, limited/graduated nuclear strikes were a credible deterrent because they demonstrated resolve and highlighted the risks of the SU escalating further.
The [U.S.] risk involved in a bit of less-than-massive retaliation would be a good deal less than it is now because the fear of an all-out [Soviet] strike in return should be a good deal less … the threat of limited retaliation (even on a scale that deserves the word ‘massive') would become a great deal more credible…
If I say ‘Row or I’ll tip the boat over and drown us both,’ you’ll say you don’t believe me. But if I rock the boat so that it may tip over, you’ll be more impressed. If I can’t administer pain short of death for the two of us, a ‘little bit’ of death, in the form of a small probability that the boat will tip over, is a near equivalent. But to make it work, I must really put the boat in jeopardy. (Schelling)
Schelling saw undefended populations, ‘hostages’, as good for deterrence:
Human and economic resources were hostages to be left unprotected… I like the notion that East and West have exchanged hostages on a massive scale and that as long as they are unprotected, civilization depends on the avoidance of military aggression that could escalate to nuclear war.
Defence is not necessary for deterrence:
The … most reasonable way that you threaten the Russians, as they threaten us — the way they kept us out of Czechoslovakia, for example — is not that they would launch thermonuclear war as the first American jeep crossed the border; but in ways that can’t be foreseen, through processes not wholly under control, something would happen, escalate and lead to bigger and bigger clashes, and some day somebody would fire off some nuclear weapons…. This gives the Russians pause … whether or not they are naked to our attack and whether or not we are naked to their attack… Military technology that puts a premium on haste puts a premium on war itself… If the gains from even successful surprise are less desired than no war at all, there is no ‘fundamental’ basis for an attack by either side.
For Schelling, the potential incentive to gain a serious advantage by pre-emptive strike was —
the greatest source of danger that peace will explode into all-out war… It is hard to imagine how anybody would be precipitated into full-scale war by accident, false alarm, mischief, or momentary panic, if it were not for such urgency to get in quick… [The likelihood of war] is determined by how great a reward attaches to jumping the gun, how strong the incentive to hedge against war itself by starting it, how great the penalty on giving peace the benefit of the doubt in a crisis…
There would be no powerful temptation to strike first if each side were confident that its own forces could survive an attack, but also that it could not destroy the other’s power to strike back… If the advantage of striking first can be eliminated or severely reduced, the incentive to strike at all will be reduced… A powerfully stable mutual deterrence results.
For Schelling therefore, forces that could pose retaliatory threats to societal targets were ‘stabilizing’: e.g forces that could attack cities. Forces that could pose an offensive or defensive threat to strategic retaliatory capabilities — i.e could threaten the mutual vulnerability to retaliation that was the cornerstone of ‘stable’ mutual deterrence — were ‘destabilizing’: e.g defences or forces that threatened Soviet missile silos.
Once we have identified the surprise-attack problem as the possible vulnerability of either side’s retaliatory force to a first strike by the other, it becomes necessary to evaluate military strength, defensive measures, and proposals for the inspection or limitation of armament, with precisely this type of strategic vulnerability in mind…
It is precisely the weapons most destructive of people that an anti-surprise attack scheme seeks to preserve — the weapons of retaliation, the weapons whose mission is to punish rather than to fight, to hurt the enemy afterwards, not to disarm him beforehand. A weapon that can hurt only people, and cannot possibly damage the other side’s striking force, is profoundly defensive: it provides its possessor no incentive to strike first.
For Schelling the key was enough bombs to assure the destruction of many cities and therefore the deaths of many ‘hostages’. He sometimes used the figure of 100 cities as a rough estimate.
Bundy, the NSA for JFK, said:
In the real world of real political leaders — whether here or in the Soviet Union — a decision that would bring even one hydrogen bomb on one city of one’s own country would be recognized in advance as a catastrophic blunder; ten bombs on ten cities would be a disaster beyond history; and a hundred bombs on a hundred cities are unthinkable.
Many serious people have suggested that considerably less damage than this would be enough to deter the SU, maybe even less damage than they suffered in WW2.
Summary of disagreements
Kahn argued the credibility of the deterrent should leave as little as possible to chance and a threat resulting inevitably in suicide and ‘assured destruction’ was not credible.
Schelling argued that chance was crucial to credibility.
For Kahn, diverse offence and defence including civil defence was crucial to credibile threats and making the Soviets believe the US might prefer war to surrender over a vital interest.
For Schelling defence was not just irrelevant, it undermined the notion of mutual ‘hostages’ deterring war. For Schelling, deterrence did not require defenses because deterrence did not require that the SU believe Washington would deliberately execute its nuclear threat. In fact, effective US defences would undermine the threat of Soviet attack and therefore undermine Soviet deterrence and therefore destabilise the balance of terror — as the Soviets would then start thinking ‘maybe the US will launch a pre-emptive strike given they are confident in their defences, so maybe we should launch a pre-emptive strike’.
For Kahn, America should not aim for a mutual balance of terror but to be less constrained.
For Schelling, the goal was a mutual balance of terror and ‘destabilising’ it was dangerous.
For Kahn, the Soviets might accept a chance of nuclear war to achieve crucial goals or avoid an awful loss.
For Schelling, a rational SU would not accept such a chance.
For Kahn, deterrence might fail and his strategy would prove better than Schelling’s if it did:
War can still occur and it is better to survive the war than not. Therefore one needs to have systems that can reduce the damage done in a war.
For Schelling, thinking about coming out ahead was itself dangerous discussion that could provoke a surprise attack.
Schelling’s arguments won in Washington.
Not only did they dominate government, it became a common view that they rendered the problems of deterrence quite easy to calculate.
Professor Kenneth Waltz, one of America’s most prominent international relations theorists and past president of the American Political Science Association, observed confidently:
Not much is required to deter. What political-military objective is worth risking Vladivostok, Novosibirsk, and Tomsk, with no way of being sure that Moscow would not go as well?
Professor Robert Jervis, another of America’s most prominent deterrence theorists, reached the same conclusion:
The healthy fear of devastation, which cannot be exorcised short of the attainment of a first-strike capability, makes deterrence relatively easy.
Payne summarises the dispute in a table (location 1191, Kindle).
[Obviously the Kahn v Schelling dispute is directly relevant both to the UKR/NATO situation and to Taiwan. Kahn would point out that threatening China with assured destruction over Taiwan is not credible. Schelling’s argument would be — leave the situation ambiguous and Xi has to worry about what might happen. But given Taiwan is clearly an existential issue for China but is clearly not for America, and both sides know this, it seems a very bad gamble to back Schelling — and an insane act to actually trigger nuclear war if the gamble fails! Further, if the US could reliably defend against Chinese attacks on the US, then, Kahn would argue, US threats would be more credible.]
CH3: The “Stable” Balance of Terror Theory of Deterrence: A Multitude of Virtues
Schelling’s ‘stable balance of terror’ was very welcome to the bureaucracies.
It provided quite a simple way to calculate the number of missiles needed.
It provided a rationale for avoiding a lot of expense, those who argued for building more and spending more could be dismissed as not just wrong but dangerous.
It provided a rationale for avoiding thinking about the specifics of Kremlin personalities and calculations, all sorts of ideas about history and psychology could be swept away confidently. ‘You can sit in your armchair and try to predict how people will behave by asking how you would behave if you had your wits about you. You get, free of charge, a lot of vicarious empirical behavior’ (Schelling).
It could be extended to NATO’s ‘nuclear umbrella’ and justified not spending so much on NATO conventional forces.
It could be embraced by Democrats and GOP.
It made arms control negotiations seem simpler as people could forget about ending the bomb and instead focus on ‘stability’.
Overall it reduced an incredibly complex set of problems to a much more tractable problem that could be approached with America’s engineering mindset. ‘Indeed, discussions of stability often did not even refer to the Soviet Union or the United States, but to “Countries A and B”.’
It was more media and dinner party friendly to focus on pre-war attempts to deter war rather than detailed war scenarios with huge fatalities per Kahn.
It provided a moral justification: ‘The consequentialist argument that the balance of terror would reliably prevent nuclear war with minimal requirements took priority over old Just War principles against deliberately threatening civilians.’
Part of the genius and attractiveness of Schelling’s stable deterrence formula is that it offered an elegant methodology for answering the question, “How much is enough?” for deterrence, with easy guidelines that could be treated numerically; the potentially messy and ambiguous was made clear. The requirements for establishing and preserving stability were simple to understand and to calculate in principle: the number of Soviet city targets could be counted easily, as could the likely number of U.S. nuclear weapons needed and available for retaliation, their probabilities of arriving on targets, and their gross effects on those targets. Stable mutual deterrence to prevent nuclear war could be reduced to a simple formula…
The balance of terror framework and its elaboration were not scientific in any reasonable sense of the word, but benefited from seeming objectivity, precision, and the tools of quantification…
The first principles of deterrence under a balance of terror … could be, and literally were, summarized by advocates in an illustrated children’s book.
Churchill saw the conflict differently:
… antagonisms now as deep as those of the Reformation and its reaction which led to the Thirty Years’ War. But now they are spread over the whole world instead of only over a small part of Europe. We have, to some extent, the geographical divisions of the Mongol invasion in the thirteenth century, only more ruthless and more thorough…
[The cause is] the Communist dictatorship and the declared ambition of the Communist Party and their proselytizing activities that we are bound to resist, and that is what makes this great world cleavage which I mentioned when I opened my remarks.
This persective was considered gauche in many political and academic circles. Instead of the nature of the Communist regime, the stable balance of terror allowed officials to focus on the technical nature of weapons, a much simpler issue.
As Vietnam and Watergate added to political tensions, the balance of terror helped officials and academics navigate treacherous waters:
The attribution of the cause of “instability” to the technical characteristics of the U.S. arsenal and U.S. policies fit well with the emerging revisionist interpretations of Cold War history…
In fact, critiquing U.S. strategic policy along balance of terror lines allowed proponents to combine the trappings of strategic sophistication with the progressive political activism of the 1960s and 1970s. Per the balance of terror formula for stable deterrence, by the mid-1960s it was a relatively simple matter to assert with seeming knowledge that U.S. strategic force requirements had long been met, stability was secure, and Washington should not pursue additional strategic offensive and defensive capabilities lest it “destabilize” the deterrence balance…
Old ideas about war and strategy no longer held because, with nuclear weapons and a stable balance of terror, national security no longer came from superior military capabilities. Having greater capabilities than the enemy, defeating the enemy, taking and holding territory, striving for military advantage, or deploying defenses for society were deemed to have little relevance to modern strategic thought.
McGeorge Bundy articulated these virtues of impartial, even-handed, and benign-sounding mutual restraint in his description of a stable balance of terror:
It deters quite impersonally; no provocative threats are needed to support its power. It deters both sides at once, since the unpredictable risk of catastrophe is essentially symmetrical. It makes full and impartial use of one of the great realities of nuclear weapons: they are far more terrifying to adversaries than they are comforting to their possessors.
This attitude increasingly drove the view that the solution to the arms race was a) stop the ‘action-reaction cycle’, therefore b) focus on stopping ‘destabilising’ US initiatives that provoked the Soviets. This suited academia where people could avoid condemnation of the Soviets and indulge scepticism about America.
In the words of Herbert Scoville, former Deputy Director of the CIA and Assistant Director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, the arms race could be capped because:
… in such a climate there would be little excuse for the Russians to continue building additional ICBM sites. In a situation of stable, frozen deterrence, they would not be needed.
Kubrick discussed these issues with Kahn. In the famous movie, Dr Strangelove, a caricature of Kahn’s view was presented as a cavalier dismissal of tens of millions of deaths. Kahn’s view came to be seen as more willing to embrace the use of nuclear weapons but this was false. Like Schelling he was trying to figure out how best to deter, not fight a war. But the mischaracterisation continues to this day.
[This is a very important and interesting question. To me, Kahn’s view seems more realistic and less dangerous than Schelling’s. Yet for interesting pscyhological/linguistic/media reasons it seemed more ‘warlike’. This, combined with other advantages in the ‘natural selection’ of memes (e.g Schelling’s meme being lower financial cost), meant that a relatively highly educated audience of Washington insiders were influenced by this emotional/moral picture. I’ve said many times that the best educated section of society often adopt ideas primarily for emotional reasons that they pretend (to themselves too) are ‘more rational’ and this is perhaps a good eample.]
CH4: The Competition for U.S. Policy
Obviously the world is complex, US defence policy is complex, one cannot say either Kahn or Schelling was adopted wholesale. But overall policy much more reflected Schelling.
23 September 1961, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s Top Secret Draft Presidential Memorandum to JFK included 200 “urban/industrial” targets with an array of selected Soviet military capabilities in the list of “high priority” targets for U.S. nuclear weapons.
There was a shift in 1970s and 80s towards de-emphasising cities and stressing military targets and Soviet nuclear forces. But policy remained aligned with opposition to new ‘destabilising’ weapons or ideas.
Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) went through phases of support/opposition. It really flared up in 1983 when President Reagan initiated the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), popularly called “Star Wars”. But CW ended with nothing serious deployed.
National debates about BMD from the late 1960s to the end of the Cold War typically found the executive branch and Congress taking opposing positions for or against it at different times. The political consensus necessary to sustain deployment never materialized, and the arguments against BMD throughout the period consistently came from the stable balance of terror canon.
And during the latter half of the Cold War, the United States eliminated most of its strategic air defense capabilities.
Civil defence spending peaked in early 1960s then declined despite studies showing how it could save many tens or hundreds of millions.
Schelling’s concepts on extended deterrence under NATO became embedded.
E.g 1988, Joseph Nye, Harvard professor and an Assistant Secretary of Defense during the Clinton Administration, essentially repeated Schelling’s themes:
Extended deterrence does not require elaborate theories of escalation control. So long as a Soviet leader can see little prospect of a quick conventional victory and some risk of events becoming out of control and leading to nuclear escalation, the expected costs will outweigh greatly any benefits.
Sir Lawrence Freedman, a leading British voice, similarly echoed Schelling:
Since 1945 Europe has been at peace. This underlines the point that nuclear deterrence may be a viable policy even if it is not credible; the legion of uncertainties means that no one could contemplate aggression with a confident forecast of the full consequences. Despite preparations for nuclear war as if it could be tamed and controlled, it is probably the fear of the whole process getting out of control that is the strongest source of caution in the modern world. The Emperor Deterrence may have no clothes, but he is still Emperor.
The official NATO Handbook similarly paraphrased Schelling. Also cf. NATO’s reigning policy for much of the Cold War, Flexible Response, formally adopted by NATO’s Defence Planning Committee in December 1967 as its “overall strategic concept.”
The deterrence concept of the Alliance is based on: … A flexibility which will prevent the potential aggressor from predicting with confidence NATO’s specific response to aggression, and which will lead him to conclude that an unacceptable degree of risk would be involved regardless of the nature of his attack.
Khrushchev directly challenged U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk:
Why should I believe that you Americans would fight a nuclear war over Berlin?
Rusk’s response to Khrushchev was a refection of Schelling’s view of deterrence, not Kahn’s.
That was quite a question, with Khrushchev staring at me with his little pig eyes. I couldn’t call Kennedy and ask, ‘What do I tell the son of a bitch now?’ So I stared back at him, ‘Mr. Chairman, you will have to take into account the possibility we Americans are just [expletive] fools.’
Schelling’s logic is visible through McNamara’s highly classified annual Draft Presidential Memorandums (DPMs) on strategic forces. It’s clear that he ‘explicitly rejected the logic and strategic force goals recommended by Kahn in favor of those compatible with Schelling’s definition of a stable balance of terror’. Payne goes through these DPMs in detail. E.g DPM, 1969:
I believe that a clear and unmistakable ability to inflict 20-30% Soviet fatalities will deter a deliberate Soviet attack on the U.S. or its Allies.
Further, McNamara believed that even after the start of nuclear war the US should consider not striking Soviet cities but instead focus on military targets in the hope that even once nuclear weapons were used the balance of terror might still hold both sides back from all-out destruction. NB. this was not the same as a belief in a ‘counterforce’ strategy (i.e attacking Soviet missiles in the hope of substantially eliminating the threat). To LBJ, 1968:
If we failed to deter nuclear war, we would want to be able to follow a policy of limiting our retaliatory strikes to the enemy’s military targets and not attacking his cities if he refrained from attacking ours.
In 1974, the Nixon White House formed a plan for the employment of nuclear weapons consistent with Schelling’s proposition that, in a balance of terror, graduated nuclear escalation threats could add to deterrence credibility by demonstrating U.S. resolve — “rocking the boat” to reinforce Soviet uncertainties.
National Security Decision Memorandum-242 (NSDM-242, Top Secret) called for:
… limited employment options which enable the United States to conduct selected nuclear operations … these options should enable the United States to communicate to the enemy a determination to resist aggression, coupled with a desire to exercise restraint.
Balance of terror thinking had helped to establish three “no’s”: no major civil defense, no air defense, and no ballistic missile defense deployment programs.
Some parts of the system did press for defensive capabilities but they were consistently knocked back on the basis that they would still allow millions of casualties so the costs plus ‘destabilisation’ meant they were not worth pursuing. Payne records in detail these top secret debates.
Kahn’s retort to this logic was — we don’t abandon lifeboats on the basis they are costly, imperfect, and lower the captain’s fear of collisions thereby encouraging reckless navigation!
According to the calculations presented by and to Secretary McNamara, with no U.S. strategic damage limitation to mitigate the consequences of war, there could have been over 160 million U.S. fatalities. With substantial, expensive damage limitation, however, that number of fatalities might have been reduced by more than 100 million, to 40-50 million fatalities.
But Kahn and his allies lost this argument.
Many think that things like BMD were rejected primarily for technical reasons. This is false. It was a policy choice. McNamara set the threshold for BMD as a ‘genuinely impenetrable shield’ then concluded it would not be impenetrable and should not be pursued. He made assumptions about the scale of survival given investments in civil defence then concluded it should not be pursued. Schelling’s logic was fundamental to his thinking. These assumptions were accepted and, I would say, not explored by political leaders in the way populations have a right to expect given the grave consequences for so many millions.
When Soviets seemed not to share such assumptions, the response of many in DoD was to label them ‘primitive’ and in need of ‘education’! E.g Paul Warnke, a senior arms control negotiator, 1977:
This kind of [Soviet] thinking is on a level of abstraction which is unrealistic. It seems to me that instead of talking in these terms, which would indulge what I regard as the primitive aspects of Soviet nuclear doctrine, we ought to be trying to educate them into the real world of strategic nuclear weapons, which is that nobody could possibly win. Nor could anybody calculate what the consequences would be in the event of a strategic nuclear exchange.
As Payne says, such language ‘reflected the hubris frequently exhibited by balance of terror enthusiasts’.
Interestingly, the same logic was not applied to China in the 1960s/70s. I won’t go into this detail here. Basically, China was seen as much less capable, therefore defences might reduce US casualties to pretty low, therefore the logic adopted was more Kahn-like and less ‘balance of terror’.
Also interestingly, McNamara claimed that:
In long private conversations with successive Presidents — Kennedy and Johnson — I recommended, without qualification, that they never initiate, under any circumstances, the use of nuclear weapons. I believe they accepted my recommendation.
Payne does not make this point but this also goes to the heart of Kahn’s point. For all the NATO talk of being the first to escalate, it is a reasonable assumption to think that many humans would secretly take this view — but this undermines official NATO policy at the time and supports expressed Soviet scepticism about the credibility of US threats to escalate a conventional conflict to nuclear.
Imagine a situation over the next few months in which threats escalate and the White House issues a statement regarding the consequences of a Russian attack on, say, Poland which is supplying UKR with weapons — a statement interpreted as a nuclear threat. Might not those around Putin reasonably think, those guys are not going to start a nuclear war over this, whatever they say to the media...?
CH5: The balance of terror: A bipartisan approach
Schelling had written:
Schemes to avert surprise attack have as their most immediate objective the safety of weapons rather than the safety of people…. They seek to perfect and to stabilize mutual deterrence — to enhance the integrity of particular weapon systems.
This not only influenced McNamara but his successors too.
Nixon opposed BMD for defence of cities (limited BMD to protect US nukes was arguably ‘stabilising’) and applied Schelling’s logic to the SALT talks:
Without the ABM treaty, Nixon argued there would have been a further arms race both for ABM capabilities and more offences to evade them.
The ABM Treaty stopped what inevitably would have become a defensive arms race, with untold billions of dollars being spent on each side for more and more ABM coverage. The other major effect of the ABM Treaty was to make permanent the concept of deterrence through “mutual terror”: by giving up defenses, each side therefore had an ultimate interest in preventing a war that could only be mutually destructive. (Nixon)
In 1972, Henry Kissinger, the immediate architect of the U.S. SALT agenda, explained the ABM Treaty purely in these balance of terror terms:
By setting limits to ABM defenses, the [ABM] treaty not only eliminates one area of dangerous defensive competition, but it reduces the incentives for continuing deployment of offensive systems. As long as it lasts, offensive missiles have, in effect, a free ride to their targets.
NB. Incentives to improve capabilities to reduce deaths are seen as ‘dangerous’. This approach also meant the US largely giving up on BMD viz China and other third parties.
Admiral Stansfield Turner, head of the CIA during the Carter Administration, on the role of arms control:
The key objective of arms control is not control of the number of weapons but a lessening of the likelihood of anyone starting a nuclear war…. The critical step toward that goal is a reduction of the number of weapons that put people on edge by posing the threat of a surprise attack — and those weapons, by and large, are the ICBMs.
The US then spent two decades trying to realise the expected arms control constraints on Soviet strategic offensive forces particularly its large ICBM arsenal.
This logic had strong bipartisan support:
There were very few dissenting voices in Congress or elsewhere to the Nixon Administration’s rejection of substantial damage limitation and an arms control agenda that sought significant BMD limitations as the key to preserving the balance of terror. Indeed, the Senate ratified the ABM Treaty in August 1972 by a vote of 88-2.
The logic proved false. In fact Soviet offensive weapons grew quickly after the ABM Treaty in stark contrast to expectations. The Soviets did not think with Schelling’s logic!
Soviet participants in the arms control process noted after the Cold War that they never considered the ABM Treaty as a route to reductions in their strategic offensive capabilities; in fact, they were pleasantly surprised by the U.S. desire for an ABM Treaty because it allowed the Soviet Union to concentrate its resources on the modernization and strengthening of its ICBM arsenal…
Fred Iklé, Director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency during the Nixon Administration, said:
While President Nixon and some of his senior advisors, especially Henry Kissinger, recognized that this MAD strategy inherited from the Johnson administration was deeply flawed, they felt the United States could not change course, given, on one side, the pressures by arms control advocates and their Congressional supporters, and, on the other side, the exigencies of the Vietnam War.
This is a good example of how path dependent crucial policies can be, how they take on a bureaucratic and political inertia that is incredibly hard to change even when the consequences are potentially catastrophic. And this persisted. This inertia was so trong that even after Reagan introduced the idea of SDI, it was presented as contributing to the balance of terror, not transcending it.
Balance of terror concepts were so deeply ingrained that the SDI’s prospective impact on stability was assessed primarily according to the uncertainties it would force on Soviet counterforce offensive planning rather than for the protection it was intended to provide to U.S. society.
And even a decade after the end of the Cold War, the Clinton Administration continued to describe the ABM Treaty as the “cornerstone of strategic stability” because it provided mutual confidence of each side’s vulnerability.
SDI: a challenge to orthodoxy
The SDI represented a full frontal assault on the balance of terror sine qua non of mutual societal vulnerability. Unsurprisingly, it unleashed a torrent of criticism based on the balance of terror canon: such damage limitation was unnecessary, useless and destabilizing, and would spark an action-reaction arms race. Furthermore, it would be a violation of a “sacred” treaty.
When launched Reagan and Weinberger were clear it was intended to be total and reliable. Soon the language changed and SDI was presented as a more limited defence of ICBMs, NATO forces etc.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the program was reoriented again and renamed Global Protection Against Limited Strikes (GPALS). The U.S. missile defense goal returned to providing defensive protection against limited missile attacks — similar to the goal for the Johnson Administration’s Sentinel program of the 1960s…
Evident in this consistent policy choice was an enduring consensus around the balance of terror-derived propositions that mutual deterrence based on mutual vulnerability was the priority goal for strategic force acquisition and arms control.
MIRV, MX, Trident II, and Counterforce
Although it was, in the view of experts, technically feasible for the MIRV program to threaten the viability of Soviet ICBM silos, it was modified to assure Congress that it would not do so.
The Nixon Administration added a fourth “no” to Secretary McNamara’s earlier three “no’s” against significant BMD, air defense, and civil defense. This fourth “no” was against the acquisition of sufficient prompt, offensive counterforce capabilities to pose a significant “first-strike” threat to Soviet retaliatory capabilities. U.S. officials presented this fourth “no” purely in balance of terror terms…
Similarly the MX’s counterforce capability was limited so that it would not pose a ‘destabilizing’ threat to the Soviet retaliatory capability.
In a ‘perfect refection of balance of terror thinking’, U.S. officials and official reports identified MX and Trident II counterforce capabilities as ‘important for stable deterrence because of their potential to motivate the Soviet Union to take greater measures to ensure that its strategic forces could not be destroyed.’
Richard DeLauer, Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering during the Reagan Administration:
By placing some Soviet ICBM’s and C3 [command, control, and communications] facilities at risk, we encourage the Soviets to divert some of their resources to the defense and survivability of those forces and facilities. Soviet expenditures of this type are not threatening, in fact, we regard them as stabilizing and welcome actions in the ICBM area…
This approach continued even though the Soviets improved their own counterforce capabilities in the 1970s. There were occasional new ideas, small scale new counterforce capabilities, BMD R&D — but overall the original ideas held very steady and dominant.
Cf. Nixon Administration’s National Security Decision Memorandum-242 (NSDM-242) of 1974 (known informally as the “Schlesinger Doctrine” after then Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger), and the Carter Administration’s Presidential Directive/ NSC-59 (PD-59) of 1980. They both suggested some minor changes and these changes were attacked as destabilising.
[Neither] led to a major redirection of U.S. capabilities in favor of the substantial, direct damage-limitation capabilities that might have challenged the basic balance of terror formula for mutual deterrence…
In summary, the fact that NSDM-242 and PD-59 were criticized mistakenly as the rejection of mutual deterrence in favor of “nuclear war-fighting” illustrated the degree to which the simple assured destruction metric and balance of terror norms had become synonymous with deterrence. The United States defense community debated NSDM-242 and PD-59 in the 1970s and 1980s as if they were major policy shifts; in fact they represented revisions to the assured destruction standard but did not call into question the stable balance of terror foundation of U.S. policy. Balance of terror norms enjoyed a powerful political consensus and, in adherence to those norms, the political process beat back the few actual challenges of the era—including President Reagan’s original conceptualization of the SDI, and the occasional, short-lived displays of interest in civil defense. The fate of the U.S. civil defense office immediately following the end of the Cold War reflects the reality of the continuing power of the balance of terror guidelines…
Similarly some tentative moves by Carter towards civil defence provoked serious hostility including in Congress — ‘destabilising’.
The NYT attacked any deviation from McNamara’s thinking as reflective of a ‘warfighting’ attitude, ‘hypernationalism’ etc.
Secretary of Defense Harold Brown made this point clear in his fiscal year 1980 annual Department of Defense report:
In the interests of [deterrence] stability, we avoid the capability of eliminating the other side’s deterrent, insofar as we might be able to do so.
As long as each side has thermonuclear weapons that could be used against the opponent, even after the strongest possible preemptive attack, existential deterrence is strong and it rests on uncertainty about what could happen…
In the light of the certain prospect of retaliation there has been literally no chance at all that any sane political authority, in either the United States or the Soviet Union, would consciously choose to start a nuclear war. This proposition is true for the past, the present, and the foreseeable future. For sane men on both sides, the balance of terror is overwhelmingly persuasive.
In the real world of real political leaders — whether here or in the Soviet Union — a decision that would bring even one hydrogen bomb on one city of one’s own country would be recognized in advance as a catastrophic blunder; ten bombs on ten cities would be a disaster beyond history; and a hundred bombs on a hundred cities are unthinkable.
In 1992, Harvard’s Ashton Carter and Stanford’s William Perry (who shortly thereafter became an Assistant Secretary of Defense and Secretary of Defense, respectively) wrote that “core deterrence” had become “securely established” and that, “virtually all plausible varieties of deterrence of such deliberate attack could be underwritten with a fraction of the existing nuclear arsenals.”
All this echod Brodie:
Unless we are dealing with utter madmen, there is no conceivable reason why in any necessary showdown with the Soviet Union, appropriate manipulations of force and threats of force, certainly coordinated with more positive diplomatic maneuvers, cannot bring about deterrence. That is one respect in which the world is utterly different now from what it was in 1939 or 1914, when deterrence, however effective temporarily, had the final intrinsic weakness that one side or both did not truly fear what we would now call general war.
CH6 Extending Assured Destruction & Balance of Terror Tenets to 21st Century Threats
These distilled ideas have remained guiding principles after 1991 and have been applied to states like Iran and North Korea, terrorists, and China.
They have continued to be used to make decisions about what capabilities to build.
Implicit in multiple claims by US Presidents and other senior officials is they can confidently know what others will dare to do given the threat of nuclear destruction.
Professor Waltz, a noted ‘realist’, is so confident in the logic that he welcomes proliferation:
… with more nuclear states, the world will have a promising future…. The gradual spread of nuclear weapons is more to be welcomed than feared… The history of the cold war shows that what matters is not the character of the countries that have nuclear weapons but the fact that they have them. Differences among nuclear countries abound, but for keeping the peace what difference have they made?… In a nuclear world any state will be deterred by another state’s second-strike [retaliatory] forces. One need not become preoccupied with the characteristics of the state that is to be deterred or scrutinize its leaders…
Much of the nuclear literature is devoted to the problem of credibility, a problem easily solved... Why should anyone want to replace stable deterrence with unstable defense?
Many prominent scholars and pundits have argued similarly. The in-house journal of the US regime, the NYT, wrote in an editorial (10/9/02):
The logic of deterrence transcends any particular era or enemy.
The current US President, Biden, said the day before 9/11:
Name me a time in the last 500 years when a leader of a nation state has said, ‘I know I face virtual annihilation if I take the following action, but I’m going ahead and I’m going to do it anyway.’
And Biden applied this logic to argue BMD would be ‘raising the starting gun that will begin a new arms race in the world’.
Central to this argument is that we do not need to consider specific states or individuals. We can rely on broad ideas about ‘strategic arithmetic’ and ‘human nature’.
As Payne says this belief is ultimately condescending towards potential opponents and views the world as ‘all about us’.
The old logic was applied to new ideas such as the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP) intended to penetrate facilities deep underground (‘bunker buster’). The RNEP was binned by Congress. Such ideas would destabilise and also could encourage nuclear proliferation, it was argued.
The old logic also means that conventional wisdom has abandoned the idea of deterring terrorism — they have no cities and bases therefore they can’t be deterred. Though history suggests opposite (cf. “Special Issue: Deterring Terrorism,” Comparative Strategy, Vol. 26, No. 5 (2007), pp. 371-493).
Washington has stressed ‘strategic ambiguity’.
Consistent with this approach, in late 1995, Assistant Secretary of Defense Joseph Nye was asked by Chinese officials how Washington would respond to a Chinese military threat to Taiwan. Secretary Nye’s reply was a classic reflection of Schelling’s Cold War proposition that uncertainty can deter: “We don’t know what we would do, and you don’t because it’s going to depend on the circumstances.” There remains considerable confidence in the value of uncertainty for sustaining the deterrence of China without stimulating Taiwan toward independence.
… “bumper sticker” conclusions are wielded in contemporary debate with little apparent cognizance of where they came from or why they were afforded credence by some thoughtful individuals during the Cold War. Their pertinence in the very different strategic environment of the twenty-first century remains largely unexamined and unchallenged, as might be expected of purported enduring truths that provide so much comfort and convenience.
CH7 End of the Line: “Rational” Opponents Are Predictably “Deterrable”
Now that both strategic arsenals are redundantly destructive and amply survivable, we can say with still more confidence that existential deterrence is strong, and that its strength is essentially independent of most changes in deployment.
Such views were near widespread and the lessons were extended to new scenarios:
Professor Waltz’s logical extension of balance of terror tenets to the contemporary scene as discussed in Chapter 6 leads him and others to the logical conclusion that nuclear proliferation can expand the geographic scope and number of participants in “stable” balances of nuclear terror. Consequently, there is no overriding reason to seek to prevent nuclear proliferation or to acquire damage-limitation capabilities in response to it.
Payne — such ideas are
… built on wholly misplaced confidence in our ability to predict in detail how opponents will think and behave. Particularly unwarranted is the critical and convenient presumption at the heart of the tenets, i.e., given the proper orchestration of threats, a universal rationality leads inevitably to the predictable functioning of U.S. deterrence strategies.
There is a serious contradiction in the arguments of many against seeking new capabilities:
A. They are useless and unnecessary because U.S. deterrence will work predictably as uncertainty compels any rational opponent to prudence and caution; and
B. They “destabilize” deterrence by motivating opponents to strike first.
But this is contradictory: it assumes that the same opponent will both A) prudently avoid risks and B) recklessly roll the dice!
Lebow, an academic who studies the nexus between history and deterrence theory, concludes that there are three general types of escalation “sequences” that lead to war in crises:
loss of control; and
For Schelling, the inherently chaotic, possibly irrational and even dumb nature of decision-making contributed to deterrence — the Soviets did not need to worry just about deliberate escalation:
The credibility of a massive American response is often depreciated: even in the event of the threatened loss of Europe the United States would not, it is sometimes said, respond to the fait accompli of a Soviet attack on Europe with anything as “suicidal” as general war. But that is a simple-minded notion of what makes general war credible. What can make it exceedingly credible to the Russians — and perhaps to the Chinese in the Far East — is that the triggering of general war can occur whether we intend it or not. (Schelling)
Payne rejects the argument:
Ignored in this central tenet, however, is the fact that the same uncertainties expected to deter must also render unpredictable an opponent’s decision-making process and behavior in response to U.S. deterrence threats. The problem with Schelling’s innovative proposition that is so central to balance of terror tenets is that it posits an unerring consistency of prudent leadership and decision making in response to the unavoidable uncertainties of leadership decision making. The unavoidable uncertainties of decision making and behavior inexplicably fix themselves: in an intense, escalating crisis they somehow miraculously disappear, leaving only the opponent’s consistent prudent behavior, and thus the reliable and predictable functioning of deterrence.
This proposition accepts the unavoidable reality of uncertainties in decision making and thus of an escalation process, yet simultaneously posits certainty with regard to how opponents will make decisions and behave in response to those uncertainties. In effect, crisis decision making is said to include an unavoidable degree of uncertainty and unpredictability, with the exception of how opponents will respond to our deterrence threats; here they are certain to be prudent, cautious and “deterrable.” No explanation is offered or available as to why an opponent’s decision making in response to U.S. deterrence threats should somehow uniquely be free of the inherent uncertainties and lack of predictability affecting all other leadership decision making…
In sum, the basic balance of terror proposition that uncertainties abound in leadership decision making and behavior is sound. The very existence of these uncertainties, however, points not toward a single consistent “rational” mode of opponent decision making — i.e., prudence and caution in the face of uncertainty and thus the reliable working of deterrence — but toward the potential for multiple, unpredictable decisions and behaviors, including surprising decisions to provoke and run great risk. The irreducible uncertainties in decision making and leadership behavior do not ensure the predictable functioning of deterrence; they preclude it.
There is also a dangerous contradiction in the assumption that the US can ‘rock the boat’ by escalating a bit — yet this logic supposedly does not boomerang on the US!
The uncertainties regarding the outcome of an escalation process expected to deter opponents from provocation and escalation are not, for some reason, also expected to deter U.S. leaders from promoting an escalation process. Instead, rational U.S. leaders are expected to embrace escalation steps in order to frighten rational foreign leaders.
Why would foreigners be deterred by rocking the boat but the west not?!
And why would ‘Madman’ work as hoped? The whole point is that opponents should not know whether it is an act — in which case perhaps they will conclude that conciliation is pointless given a Madman opponent? What if they reply with Madman of their own? Are they bluffing — perhaps they really are mad?!
NB. US has been deterred by acting against North Korea out of fear despite overwhelming advantages.
It simply is illogical to claim that an opponent’s behavior will simultaneously be risk-averse and risk-tolerant; that the inherent uncertainties of decision making and behavior can reliably and predictably beget prudent reactions to our threats; and that, in the absence of some intervening factor, the escalation potential of U.S. “boat rocking” will predictably be feared more by opponents than it is by U.S. leaders. Balance of terror tenets offer no basis for accepting these incoherent propositions other than the vapid tautology that only irrational opponents would not respond to our deterrence threats rationally, i.e., as prudently and cautiously as fits our need.
Look at e.g:
Hitler: ‘The forty-eight hours after the march into the Rhineland were the most nerve-wracking of my life. If the French had then marched into the Rhineland we would have had to withdraw with our tails between our legs….”
Hitler: I had no idea how strong the SU was, but even if I’d known “I would have taken the decision to invade anyhow….”
Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, necessary to address what General Tojo described as the immediate “crisis for self-existence.” A prince of the Imperial family: “Japan entered the war with a tragic determination and in desperate self-abandonment. [If it lost] there will be nothing to regret because she is doomed to collapse even without war.”
China, 1950. Mao and Stalin were prepared to attack America despite nukes. “If a war [with the United States] is inevitable, then let it be waged now.”
China/Taiwan, 1958. Mao ordered a massive shelling of the island of Quemoy for the purpose of eliciting U.S. nuclear threats. Mao hoped to buttress his request for nuclear capabilities from the Soviet Union by inciting U.S. nuclear threats. He ultimately reassured Khrushchev at the time that he did not actually intend for a nuclear war on that occasion, but pointed to the certainty of a future nuclear war with the United States over Taiwan. Mao told Russian leaders that he was willing for China to, “take the full consequences of this [nuclear] war,” if the Soviet Union helped China with the necessary preparations: “Mao then wrote to Khrushchev confirming that he would be only too happy for China to fight a nuclear war with America alone. ‘For our ultimate victory, for the total eradication of the imperialists, we [i.e., the Chinese people] are willing to endure the first [U.S. nuclear] strike. All it is is a big pile of people dying.'” Another time: “America’s atom bombs are too few to wipe out the Chinese. Even if the U.S. atom bombs … were dropped on China, blasted a hole in the Earth or blew it to pieces, this might be a big thing for the solar system, but it would still be an insignificant matter as far as the universe as a whole is concerned.”
Cuba 1962. Castro egging on nuclear war. Soviet Vice Premier Mikoyan’s response: “We see your willingness to die beautifully, but we do not believe it is worth dying beautifully.”
Middle East 1973. Arabs not deterred from attack on Israel by Israeli nukes. Kissinger: “Our definition of rationality did not take seriously the notion of [Egypt and Syria] starting an unwinnable war to restore self-respect.”
General Galtieri after the war: “Though an English reaction was considered a possibility, we did not see it as a probability. Personally, I judged it scarcely possible and totally improbable.”
Historical fact: Uncertainty combined with fear of escalation does NOT deter apparently rational leaders from significant provocations that risk catastrophe.
Deterrence may fail.
No generalisations re forces being stabilising/destabilising.
No More Generalizations About the Adequacy of Specific Force Numbers to Ensure Deterrent Effect
No More Generic Claims That Ambiguity Is a “Sound Doctrine” for Deterrence. ‘Ambiguous U.S. threats and commitments may be adequate to deter those opponents for whom an uncertain U.S. threat is sufficient to deter. For other opponents, however, ambiguity may degrade deterrent effect or even incite provocation. Rather than deter, ambiguity of U.S. threat and commitment may offer an opening that provokes opponents who are highly motivated, desperate, or high-risk gamblers… The generalization that ambiguity is “good for deterrence” reflects the balance of terror tenets that uncertainty deters reliably and there is a uniformity in “rational” decision making and behavior. Neither should be assumed in the contemporary threat environment.’
No More Generic Claims That Terrorist Organizations Are “Beyond Deterrence”.
The Question “How Much Do You Know?” Must Precede the Question “How Much Is Enough?”
No More Claims That Action-Reaction—With the United States in the Lead—Is the “First Law of Nuclear Politics”.
Noted independent experts conducted an exhaustive, Top Secret study for the Office of the Secretary of Defense entitled, History of the Strategic Arms Competition: 1945-1972. Completed in 1981 and now declassified, that study emphasizes the inadequacy of the action-reaction model to explain actual U.S. and Soviet strategic armament choices during much of the Cold War: “No sweeping generalizations about action-reaction cycles or inexorable Soviet designs or the momentum of science and technology can survive detailed examination of the sequence of events.” Instead, the study points to the frequent salience of the idiosyncratic political and budgetary preferences of political leaders and to the effects of domestic and international events, “the perceptions of which by one party were virtually beyond being influenced by the other party.” While the study acknowledges that there were some interactions in U.S.-Soviet armament choices, it concluded that “no consistent pattern can be found.” If action-reaction is the “first law of nuclear politics,” it is a law that is violated regularly.
Harold Brown, President Carter’s Secretary of Defense, concluded in 1979:
Soviet spending … has shown no response to U.S. restraint — when we build, they build, when we cut, they build.
The balance of terror tenets are powerful and enduring, at least in part because they explain in simple terms the cause of frightening threats and point to simple solutions which are relatively easy to implement. They define opponents and threats in specific ways that permit the easy, predictable control of each: as defined, opponents can be deterred easily and reliably simply by U.S. acquisition of properly threatening strategic forces and the avoidance of forces that are “destabilizing.” With the easy, “stable” alignment of a relatively modest number of U.S. offensive nuclear weapons to enemy targets, deterrence supposedly is at risk only with irrational opponents. It is hard to imagine a conceptual framework that places fewer burdens on the United States while offering more comforting assurances about U.S. security…
Conspicuously marginalized following the 1960s were great debates over the more fundamental questions: whether the action-reaction “law” could withstand scrutiny; whether the functioning of deterrence could be understood so well that it could be orchestrated in practice and, if so, whether controlling the technical character of the U.S. and Soviet strategic arsenals—unilaterally or cooperatively—actually shaped deterrence “stability"; and, ultimately, whether the goal of damage limitation should be subordinated to the balance of terror tenets.
CH8 What Is New and Different? What Difference Does It Make for Deterrence and Defense?
Kaplan in Wizards of Armageddon:
The idea was that as long as the Soviets knew that we could retaliate, that would deter them. McNamara’s whiz kids calculated that the Soviets would be sufficiently deterred if we could kill 30 percent of their population and destroy half of their industrial capacity…. It all appeared scientific and precise, but in fact it had little to do with any formulation of how much would be enough to deter the Soviets. It was the output of a computer program designed by Alain Enthoven ‘laying down’ 1-megaton bombs against Soviet cities and calculating, at various points, how much additional damage one additional bomb would do.
Professor Douglas Macdonald:
Moderate rationalists steeped in bargaining over flexibly defined interests have difficulty understanding the rigidity of historical ‘necessity’ or moral imperatives in the totalitarian mindset. Policy advice that flows from such misunderstanding is therefore fatuous, if not dangerous.
A passage from the Ayatollah Khomeini, quoted in an 11th-grade Iranian schoolbook:
I am decisively announcing to the whole world that if the world-devourers [i.e., the infidel powers] wish to stand against our religion, we will stand against their whole world and will not cease until the annihilation of all of them. Either we all become free, or we will go to the greater freedom which is martyrdom. Either we shake one another’s hands in joy at the victory of Islam in the world, or all of us will turn to eternal life and martyrdom. In both cases, victory and success are ours.
The need in this regard is for an ongoing net assessment of threats and deterrence requirements to address these questions:
What priority should be attached to which opponents and threats?
Which deterrence goals are most important?
Which opponents are likely to be susceptible to deterrence and in what fashion?
Which U.S. strategic forces, correspondingly, are of highest priority for deterrence purposes?
US should focus more resources on defences and helping the population survive attacks, and stop thinking of such things as ‘destabilising’. In fact, they will widen options against adversaries as Kahn said.
Colin Gray: the U.S. political process disdains answers to questions regarding defense planning and spending which betray uncertainty and speculation about requirements (and thus the need for considerable flexibility), particularly with regard to the acquisition of strategic forces.
Concluding that flexibility is the priority measure of merit because threat conditions are dynamic and uncertain goes against the grain of a rigidly-set acquisition process that demands numeric precision and promises years in advance.
It also casts doubt on the wisdom of comforting old expectations of a predictable opponent, and on the value of “locking in” a particular force number as the target for nuclear reductions. This is sure to alienate established participants and institutions involved in the traditional processes of strategic force acquisition, arms control, and the usual calculation of deterrence requirements.
Gray: individuals with governmental responsibilities typically must “pretend” that there is little or no uncertainty in their planning parameters:
Defence officials and responsible politicians are supposed to know what they are doing. When a Minister talks to the House of Commons, or a senior Pentagon official testifies before a Congressional committee, he or she cannot tell the real story. The truth is that defence planning is guesswork. Instead of saying that, one has to pretend that every dollar, pound, or euro, has been correctly assigned…. When you propose to spend this much money, you need to pretend, or perhaps just persuade yourself, that you know what you are doing…. But how can you know? … Unfortunately for the defence planner, history is resolutely non-linear. It has an uncooperative tendency to produce major and minor irregularities in course. (Gray)
CH9 On nuclear deterrence and assurance
Nuclear weapons can be used to deter non-nuclear dangers including chemical/biological weapons. We can’t know a priori whether non-nuclear deterrence will work. It might, it might not.
Deterrence requirements are NOT set by what may be necessary to ‘fight or terminate’ a conflict.
Deterrence involves exploiting opponents’ fears and sensitivities and may have little or no connection to U.S. preferences for the wartime employment of force for “combat missions.”
Assurance requires the easing of allies’ fears and sensitivities, which again may have little or nothing to do with how the United States might prefer to terminate a conflict.
Whether U.S. nuclear capabilities are regarded as useful or not “to fight or terminate a conventional conflict” may tell us nothing about their potential value for the political/psychological purposes of assurance and punitive deterrence. Deterrence, assurance, and war-fighting are different functions with possibly diverse and separate standards for force requirements…
For deterrence purposes, it is the opponent’s belief about U.S. threat credibility that matters, and that cannot be ascertained from the views of American domestic commentators.
In 1991 there were clear threats from Israel and America that Saddam should worry about nuclear retaliation if he deployed biological weapons. He didn’t.
General Wafic Al Sammarai, then head of Iraqi military intelligence, stated these threats were effective in deterring Saddam.
So the threats did deter but a) in fact Bush and Scowcroft had decided not to use nukes, b) making this public was not helpful re future threats!
We should be able to threaten credibly what opponents value most so we should develop bunker-busting nukes so they never know if they’re truly safe.
The United States can decide what priority it places on the assurance of allies, and how it will proceed to support that goal, but only the allies can decide whether they are assured. In the contemporary environment, available evidence suggests strongly that assurance is an important goal and that U.S. nuclear weapons are critical to the assurance of key allies to a level they deem adequate…
This linkage is not speculative; it is voiced by allies who feel increasingly at risk. Extreme care should be exercised before moving in a direction that carries the risk of unleashing a nuclear proliferation “cascade” — such as moving prematurely in the direction of a wholly non-nuclear force structure.
The US should build more accurate lower-yield nuclear forces to improve the credibility of threats.
Nuclear threats may be important, but high nuclear yields and limited precision may not appear to constitute credible threats to opponents who understand U.S. concerns about inflicting “collateral damage,” and expect that U.S. “self-deterrence” would provide them greater freedom of action. We should not want the relatively high yields and modest accuracies of the U.S. Cold War legacy nuclear arsenal to give an opportunity for contemporary opponents to view U.S. deterrence threats with disdain.
It does not require much foresight or imagination to conclude that — to the extent that the logic of deterrence applies — under plausible circumstances U.S. threats may more readily serve deterrence purposes when U.S. forces can hold enemy sanctuaries at risk with minimal unintended damage. Leaving uncontested an opponent’s potential belief that the United States would be incapable of threatening its sanctuaries, or would be “self-deterred” by enlightened scruples from executing its deterrence threats, may contribute to that opponent’s felt freedom to provoke the United States.
Ideas about global renunciation and dismantling of nuclear weapons all break on the critical issue of verification and enforcement. Only something approaching a world government could do what’s needed [cf. von Neumann’s comments 70 years ago that such ideas assume away political issues like this.]
The 2001 NPR suggested sensible changes including modernising the industrial strategy for nukes. But it violated many of the Cold War assumptions discussed in this book. So it was mostly ignored in DC, not implemented.
The balance of terror tenets, as applied, serve largely to buttress a political agenda of stasis that actually works against the very steps that could facilitate the realignment of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and policy with contemporary realities —including the potential for prudent, deep nuclear force reductions. It is time to move on from the enticing convenience and ease of the brilliant and innovative theoretical strategic framework of the Cold War. That framework is traceable to hubris, unwarranted expectations, and the need for convenience and comfort, however false. It is based on hopes that are beyond realization, and conditions that no longer exist. Outside of the unique Cold War standoff that gave it a semblance of coherence, the balance of terror lodestar will be a continuing source of dangerous and confused policy guidance.
As you can see, many of the false ideas explored in this book have been spread across the old media and Twitter.
America and Britain have not focused the best people at these nuclear problems for decades. A lot of physical and intellectual infrastructure has rotted.
The current situation with Ukraine may be even more dangerous than the Cuban crisis.
In that crisis, JFK was given unanimous military advice to bomb and invade.
He chose a different path. After, Curtis LeMay attacked him over the results which he thought were a historic defeat for America.
30 years later it was discovered that, unknown at the time, there were tactical nukes on Cuba ready to fire.
If JFK had followed the military advice, civilisation would probably have been destroyed.
We got lucky.
If we keep generating crises like this with the poor levels of people and institutions for dealing with them, we will run out of luck.
Dom, tell us. Who was in the right - Will Smith or Chris Rock?
Good to have you back!
Seems to me there is a unity between these books and Tolstoy (at least War and Peace) - the deep problem of how to understand what is going on around you in a chaotic system, despite the ‘fog of war’, and the lure of an easy answer.
Apologies for the long post, but I want to understand what Schelling's ideas actually were, since they seem to be a foundational part of all this.
Also, I like to see an idea presented in its strongest, most convincing form, so I can really get to grips with it and decide for myself if I agree with it or not.
Schelling’s logic seems to have been:
- We (Americans, say) start to build defences, so a nuclear war will be at least less catastrophic for us.
- The Russians see that if we successfully build defences, we will now survive a nuclear war.
- The Russians start to worry that once we have built our defences, we will start a nuclear war by launching a surprise attack.
- Therefore the Russians might panic and launch a nuclear war, as a preventative measure. Or even conclude that it was 'rational' to do so.
So it’s a bit like a stand-off in a Western: as soon as one side goes for its gun (or in this case, defences), the other side will shoot.
Is that the basic idea?