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Saturday, February 17, 2007

Thomas Schelling on Nuclear Deterrence

Two Nobel prize winning economists, Michael Spence and Thomas Schelling,  discuss strategies to prevent the proliferation and use of nuclear weapons:

Mr. Counterintuition, by Michael Spence, Commentary, OpinionJournal (Free): On a recent Sunday, I showed up on Tom Schelling's doorstep for lunch... Tom, now 86 years of age, was my Ph.D. thesis adviser at Harvard...

The last time I saw Tom ... was in Stockholm in December 2005, when ... he received the Nobel Prize in economics for the originality and impact of his applications of game theory to negotiation, nuclear deterrence, global warming, and the surprising effect of preferences for diversity on the composition of neighborhoods. If Tom's work has a leitmotif, it is counterintuition. ...

Tom tells me that he "was in South Korea shortly after North Korea exploded their [recent] nuclear device. ... "The first mission should have been to encourage the three countries most threatened, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan--all of whom have the capacity to develop nuclear weapons--to reaffirm their commitment to the NPT ... with support from the U.S. and the leading nuclear powers, signaling that they had no intention of using North Korea as an excuse to start building weapons. I view this as a significant missed opportunity on the part of the international community and the U.S. to reaffirm the deep importance of the non-proliferation regime."

Tom Schelling expects Iran to get nuclear weapons. "Once a country becomes the owner of nuclear weapons, it is imperative that they learn to deal with them responsibly." He pointed out that it took the U.S. 15 years after World War II to learn to think seriously about the security of its weapons. Before that, weapons did not have combination locks, let alone complex electronic security codes. ...

The issue of learning to be a responsible owner of these weapons goes beyond security and codes. "The Soviet Union," Tom says, "always had civilian officials in charge of the weapons, and never let an aircraft carrying nuclear weapons out of Soviet airspace. China has a very separate army unit for this purpose. Who has control, are they trustworthy... And if [control is] given to civilians, is that an act of mistrust of the military that may have adverse consequences? What are the safeguards against theft, sabotage or unauthorized use, and how will the weapons be protected and hence be credible with respect to retaliation and deterrence?

"These issues were addressed collectively and quietly by the nuclear powers during the Cold War. There was, for much of the Cold War, a surprising, effective, direct and entirely unofficial conversation involving policy makers and 'military' intellectuals..." This took placed because of the recognition on the part of all nuclear powers that there was a shared interest in elevating the level of competence in the nuclear club. "India and Pakistan and China were all involved in these conversations and have deep knowledge of the issues and best practices. Iran should probably be the next member of the group with North Korea to follow. Perhaps China ... could start the process by organizing a conference ... with ... India, Pakistan, and then Iran and North Korea."

It was clear to me that Tom ... was deeply worried that in the post-Soviet period, the isolation of the newly arrived owners of weapons would lead to seriously inadequate strategic preparation, and therefore imperfect deterrence, and the risk of miscalculation or misuse.

"Except for the end of World War II and the devices exploded over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear devices have not been used, and we have come to understand that they are useful for deterrence and not really for anything else. Part of the learning process is learning to be deterred." Iran and North Korea probably think they need nuclear weapons to prevent being attacked by us or others hostile to them. They need to learn that success in this limited objective consists of never using them. ...

Our conversation turns to present times... Terrorists, Tom insists, "also need to understand that nuclear devices are really only useful for deterrence. They would be unlikely to have the capacity to deliver them on planes or missiles, and would be more likely to smuggle them into a hostile country and ... then threaten to detonate them if attacked--or unless their aims and conditions are met. The object should be not to blow up a city but to deter attacks on their country, region or organization." One is struck, once again, by the counterintuitive nature of the strategic issues related to these weapons--one has, to a large extent, a powerful strategic interest in the sophistication of one's enemies. ...

China worries Tom; but typically, it is our approach to China, and not Chinese policy, that is the source of his discomfiture. "I believe that we do not pay enough attention to China. China has a small, well-managed nuclear arsenal, which they have never brandished or threatened to use. China does not react well when we treat it as if it were irresponsible. Recently China conducted a test and shot down a satellite, and was criticized for contributing to the militarization of space. What appears not well known in the U.S. is that China has been trying to negotiate treaties on outer space, antisatellite weapons, and limiting the production of fissile material for a number of years, and has not been able to get the U.S. to participate. Since we are clearly developing antisatellite capabilities, accusations against China for escalation are viewed by them and others as hypocritical."

Here, on display, was perhaps his most striking characteristic--intellectual courage, and an unwillingness to pander to public opinion. ... In the latter stages of the Vietnam War, and at considerable personal cost, he led a group of 12 scholars to Washington to object to the invasion of Cambodia. He thought the invasion was a costly mistake, and not strategically or morally justified. For a period of time, he lost his place at the official table in the formulation of military policy and strategy. But his interest and his influence continued. ...

    Posted by on Saturday, February 17, 2007 at 01:11 AM in Economics, Politics | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (52)

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