The annoying new relevance of the theory of nuclear resistance

S.Sixty years Earlier, a dispute over Soviet missile deployment in Cuba pushed Washington and Moscow into a dangerously all-out war. The crisis has provided the most extreme example in the history of nuclear bronchialism, in a situation where governments repeatedly escalate a very dangerous situation in an attempt to find their way. It also demonstrates the remarkable value of the work of Thomas Shelling, then an economist at Harvard University, who used relatively new tools of game theory to analyze war strategy. The war in Ukraine has made Shelling work, for which he shared the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2005, more relevant than ever.

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Game theory came into its own in the 1940s and 1950s, thanks to the efforts of scholars such as John von Neumann and John Nash, who used mathematics to analyze the techniques available to participants in a variety of formal interactions. Shelling used game theory as a prism to better understand warfare. He saw the conflict as the result of a strategic showdown between rational decision makers who weighed the costs and benefits of their choice. If an attacker expects more from aggression than any price his opponent can impose on him, he may go through aggressive behavior.

For a government hoping to repel an aggressor, the effectiveness of its prevention strategy depends in part on how much it can pay to its attacker. But this is not an accurate science. Both parties may have incomplete information about the relative costs they may incur. As Russian President Vladimir Putin prepares to invade Ukraine, Western democracies, for example, have threatened to impose tougher sanctions. Neither side knew in advance how difficult the sanctions could be, as the details needed to be discussed with allies.

The credibility of the retaliatory threat is also important; Both sides of a potential conflict can pose a serious threat, but if they become hollow they can be ignored. The threat of tougher sanctions by Western democracies – apparently a powerful tool – has probably been weakened by the suspicion that governments were prepared to disclose the rising prices of oil and gas to their citizens. Governments set up various tools to increase the credibility of their threats. An American commitment to protect the Allies can be strengthened by the deployment of American troops within the Allies’ borders, as in the case of losses; It will probably be more difficult for an American president to back down in the face of an attack that claims the lives of Americans. Shelling, for his part, noted that sometimes credibility can be enhanced by taking costly steps or limiting your own options. If the enemy does not withdraw, a general’s promise to fight to the bitter end becomes even more credible if he burns down the bridges that allow him to retreat.

The issue of credibility is further complicated by a showdown between the nuclear-armed powers, both of which have enough weapons to avenge any first attack with their own destructive attack. Attempts to use the threat of nuclear attack to obtain concessions are more likely to fail if the first use of nuclear weapons promises to wreak havoc on one’s own country. War can still happen. The invasion of Ukraine can be seen as an example of the stability-instability paradox: because the threat of a nuclear war is too frightening, small or proxy conflicts become “safe” because the rival superpowers feel confident that neither side will allow it. Excessive growth fight. Some scholars think that it helps to account for many small wars that took place during the Cold War.

And yet the Cold War also occasionally threatened to heat up, as in 1962. Shelling helped explain why. He noted that the threat of nuclear attack could be made credible, even in the context of mutually certain destruction, if some elements of that threat were left to chance. As the conflict between the nuclear powers intensifies, Shelling observes, the risk of an unexpected and perhaps unforeseen development situation getting out of control increases. (When nuclear forces are on high alert, for example, false alarms become much more dangerous.) In such situations the upper hand is maintained in such a way that the parties are more willing to bear this higher risk of an all-out nuclear war. .

This is the essence of Bronxmanship. It’s not just a matter of escalating tensions in the hope of impressing the other party. It is a test of determination – where determination is defined as the desire to carry the risk of a catastrophe. Mr Putin’s move to boost his nuclear readiness may represent an attempt to demonstrate such determination (above the message sent by the attack). President Joe Biden’s refusal can be seen as an acknowledgment of the obvious fact that an authoritarian entangled in a meaningless war can lose less than a prosperous democracy to which Mr. Biden is responsible.

The only winning move

But it is possible that Mr Biden had something else in mind. In his Nobel speech, Shelling expressed surprise that nuclear weapons had not been used in the 60 years since the end of World War II. When he argued for the absence of nuclear use among the superpowers, he felt that restraint in other wars and conflicts was best understood as a consequence of a prohibition: a social conference held in the hands of warlords when they might otherwise consider it strategically intelligent. Placing nuclear weapons.

Russia’s aggression has broken another embargo against regional aggression through violence. And while Western governments feel compelled to respond to limiting losses, they are undoubtedly interested in restoring the old conventions – to show that the world has moved beyond an age where the powerful accept whatever they please. . 3

Read more from Free Exchange, our column on economics:
How oil shocks have become less heinous (March 12)
Vladimir Putin’s stronghold Russia is crumbling (March 5)
How to Avoid Deadly Responses to Globalization (February 26)

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Read more in our recent coverage of the Ukraine crisis

This article was published in the Finance and Economics section of the print edition under the title “War Games”.

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