Dom, tell us. Who was in the right - Will Smith or Chris Rock?

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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?

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You should pitch an article on this type of stuff to 'Warontherocks'.

It's an influential US military news site and is looking for stuff at the moment.

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The incompetence of the Russian conventional military effort in Ukraine is terrifying. What if, as we should expect, the management of their nuclear arsenal is similarly incompetent? How likely is an accident or a miscommunication? We have a decrepit remnant of a former superpower, with hundreds of ballistic missiles and thermonuclear warheads, with an aging and possibly unwell dictator in charge, who may believe in mystical and apocalyptic ideologies about the state and people he controls. This is FAR WORSE than anything we faced during the Cold War. The Soviet dictatorship was a model of organizational rationality and skill by comparison. God help us, unironically. Pope Francis's consecration "all humanity, especially Russia and Ukraine" to the immaculate heart of Mary may be the most rational thing anyone has done yet in response to this crisis. We need all the help we can get down here.

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Try this talk from Yale University Sept 2018, by Vladimir Pozner:

Pozner is quite extraordinary, and his talk comes across as a very sensible take on the worsening of US-Russia relations post-Gorbachev. I'd suggest skip the intro, but listen to the talk itself - ca 45 mins. We then found it essential to hear the Q and A session. The very last Q was about the Novichok/Salisbury business, and in the final minutes Pozner mentioned the Magna Carta - did you know there is one copy held at Salisbury Cathedral? I certainly didn't.


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'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.'

This reminds me of an essay discussing Daniel Ellsberg's experiences with decision-making re. Vietnam and his discovery, to his dismay, of 'anti-learning mechanisms' in bureaucracies and institutions, which he sets out in his book 'Secrets'. The essay is Paul Monk's 'Learning to See', and touches on topics in public policymaking of concern to you:



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'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).'

Hire economists, get economists' answers/recommendations.

Sadly, after World War II most academic economics descended into scholasticism - the creation of ever more abstract models, built from reasoning from fanciful but convenient axioms, and the discouragement of discussion of real-world problems. Economists are great at this sort of theorising. But the real-world consequences - you can see for yourself.

Halevi, Varoufakis and Theocarakis write incisively about this - 'Modern Political Economics - Making Sense of the Post-2008 World'


More 'stuff' from Sydney! We're waiting for the rest of the world to catch up to us ;-)

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Is the endgame for working on this problem of the lack of serious long-term thinking in the civil service aiming to educate people internally and change the culture like that, or is there capacity for an effort to bring the wider public on board with a change to how we think about the government?

E.g. is the best we can hope for a Thatcher-style culling?

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Hello Dom. You asked for links to books/articles on the theme “If western countries want to take defence more seriously, what should they really focus on?” May I suggest looking at: The Five Percent” written by Peter Coleman with contributions from the International Faculty of the International Project on Conflict and Complexity. (ISBN 978-1-58648-921-2). Another useful read is “Systems Thinking in Conflict Assessment” (https://usaidlearninglab.org/sites/default/files/resource/files/system%20Thinking%20Concept%20Note.pdf?msclkid=fa2bf1d9af7611ec8ecd837404eca36d) I am not an expert, but my experience of conflict situations has always begged the question “Why didn’t anyone see all the elements of the big picture? Systems thinking helps achieve a comprehensive understanding of a conflict situation in a way that is comprehensible.

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The chronic lack of strategic planning seems desperately important and fixing it seems an inspiring end goal. Does it all come down to who is in number ten or are there other individuals / other roles/departments who could make a difference?

Appreciate your thoughts and really enjoyed the timely posts on deterrence, thanks.

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Thanks for a voice of sanity in perplexing times and for info. The startling number of people on phone in programs who want UK to take the sort of action over Ukraine which would leave the West directly open to nuclear escalation seems extraordinary. No one has heard of Vasily Arkhipov. On top of which we have a prime minister who is actually benefiting enormously from the centre of attention moving nicely away from 1) Partying, 2) Lord Michael Ashcroft’s latest book, 3)post Brexit incompetence, 4)the zero carbon fiasco (price rises can now be blamed on Russia). 5) Repeat of not learning from Covid as you mention, we seem right back to complacently ignoring things like Sygnus and the like again …6) ...7) ....and on. I suppose my question is, is this as good as it gets? Is there any hope whatsoever that there will ever be a proper strategy for anything?

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Hi Dom - please can I email you about speaking at a private, chatham house, event for students in France ?

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Thank you. This is such an interesting and important topic.

Apologies for the long post, but I figured you might appreciate a ‘Slate Star Codex style’ substantial response.

I’m wondering if I disagree with Schelling for slightly different reasons from you and Payne. Let me see if I have understood you (and Schelling) correctly. Please do let me know if I am off target.

It seems I was right about one element of Schelling’s approach: he does partly think in terms of a ‘Western gunfighter standoff’ situation like the one I described above.

But Schelling goes further. He’s saying that even scarier than facing a powerful human enemy is facing an unpredictable process that neither you nor your enemy can entirely control - forcing your enemy to think “If I attack, I might start a chain reaction that will end in massive pain and death for both of us - whatever my enemy feels about it.”

It’s almost as though Schelling was anticipating your concerns about automated processes launching a nuclear war by accident and arguing that’s a good thing - “Let’s make our enemy scared that if he does anything too aggressive, he will trigger one of those processes”. That gets around Kahn’s otherwise very good point that it isn’t credible for the US to say it will end human life on Earth because Russia invades a European country.

So, I think I now understand Schelling’s position. Was he right?

On the one hand, we didn’t have nuclear war and Russia didn’t invade Europe. And we can’t actually run the experiment again. So Schelling has that on his side.

On the other, we clearly came close to nuclear war several times. What prevented it was not rational calculation, it was a couple of Soviet officers displaying extraordinary moral courage and good judgment. And Schelling’s approach has no back-up plan, by design. If anything did go wrong, we all would be dead.

I also think Schelling has a bad model of how other people work, for three reasons. First, I agree with Payne that ‘rational’ and ‘reasonable’ are not the same thing and sometimes Schelling confuses the two.

Second, Schelling has far too much confidence in processes acting as intended on both sides. He gives nowhere near enough credit to chaos and decay. Even if your opponent’s leadership understands that they are dealing with a madman, and furthermore a madman who cannot stop events toppling over into Armaggedon even if he wanted to once the first die is cast, there is no guarantee that every other person in your opponent’s great chain of command will be equally ‘rational’ or fully informed. I’m thinking of ‘Dr Strangelove’ here: General Jack D Ripper comes down with a paranoid conspiracy belief that Soviets are fluoridating American water supplies and so kick-starts the whole murderous Heath Robinson machine that leads to global annihilation. (Oddly, Schelling was an advisor on the film, but then again Kubrick had a habit of seeing through and skewering his ostensible collaborators).

Third, and this is more personal, I just don’t think people respond to incentives in quite the way Schelling believed. After your initial post, I read a bit of Schelling’s ‘Arms and Influence’. His essay on inflicting suffering bothered me. It wasn’t that it was cold-blooded. Sometimes it is necessary to be cold-blooded, or at least to understand how cold-blooded people think. But Schelling’s writing felt wrong, somehow, like an authoritarian, naive teacher or parent smugly explaining that they have everything worked out and that all you need to do is cane children from time to time. Trauma and suffering are not so easily contained and they don’t lead to predictable, manageable results. (Since I mentioned caning, even Lee Kwan Yew, who seems to have believed in caning in principle more than anyone else I can think of, didn’t hit his own children, because he had an abusive father). People are complex, hypocritical. They don’t all react to stress in the same way. It felt like I was listening to a very clever man who had read a lot of history books and had very little real world experience of human beings.

In any case, ‘was Schelling wrong?’ is an academic question, obviously. The important questions are - ‘is Schelling wrong for the present day?’ and ‘are we doing the right thing with nuclear weapons?’.

I feel you have clearly signalled that the answers to that are ‘yes’ and ‘no’ and I look forward to seeing more about both in forthcoming posts.

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“I want the f****** right to vote for any f******* c*** I choose to represent me in Parliament”.

Dominic and All – please bear with me just for a couple of minutes before I reveal the origin of this statement.

For me, this latest blog and others before reflect failure of governments to grasp the fundamentals and complexities of the managing today’s societies and of the human condition itself. The various guises of liberalism, democracy and autocracies on offer in the modern world – all of which are found wanting, are deeply flawed processes of government for the modern era. Most come out of philosophical writings of yesteryear. Our continuing adherence to these political ideologies creates fertile ground for their defence – using nuclear bombs if necessary, and certainly prevents further development of our civilization.

It is absolutely time to reassess and move on – which I thought this blog was all about. Dominic – you alluded to such in your LK TV interview? Whilst some of the analysis and insights presented is outstanding, it is mostly bogged down by misdeeds of miniscule numbers of people (governments) who oversee the nation states. These people who seek or take the positions of incredible power are obliged and enjoy exercising it. They invariably surround themselves with ego boosting yes-people as well as macho war-machines designed to kill fellow humans. In effect – not much more than quasi rule by Monarchs centuries ago. Today they endeavour to feed the media with information that keeps the people onside and in democracies, also helps them hold on to the cherished power.

This is primitive by any analysis – the evolution of how we organize our societies has essentially ground to a halt. IMO the core of the problem in nominal democracies is (i) the way we select the people to rule over us and the protocols of the governing process – again rooted in history and (ii) the generally poor level of people’s awareness of what a good society could look like. Only when these fundamentals are properly addressed can todays’ issues around liberalism, hierarchy/elitism, capitalism, corruption, war-mongering and over-exploitation of our planet start to be resolved.

I am first and foremost very pragmatic, very conscious of existing power structures and do not make seemingly preposterous claims without a great deal of thought. But such an all-embracing transition in the way we live together at least in the UK, can I believe be kicked-off within a Parliamentary term. I have put some flesh on the bones of these ideas in a book, as yet unpublished.

Please let me know if you might be interested in discussing and taking this forward via a secure platform.

When I presented the essence of my “extravagant” thoughts on democracy to a well-known Whitehall Think Tank, it was one of its senior executives who barged up to me at the drinks afterwards and spat-out the above expletive.

I rest my case. Latter-day thinking reigns supreme.

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The opposite side of the deterrence option is to create a relationship with all partners where the mutual benefit of cooperation and self interest is constantly built to such a stage where war between such countries becomes pointless.In the West, we see constant articles about deterrence but little about mutual benefit and partnership.You make the point in other articles regarding the control that fringe minorities with extreme positions have over political parties(eg trans debate).In the West we now see this capture of Governments to such an extent that most of current received wisdom(identity politics, climate, sanctions, war escalation, economic suicide, unipolar world, CBDCs, societal control) is antithetical to a peaceful and prosperous world and where people can live in peace and happiness.The reason that incompetent people gravitate to conflict is that it is much easier to destroy than to build.We need leaders in the West with a vision of a future that is not about control, destruction and coercion.

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