It’s all about counter-intuition

It’s all about counter-intuition
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First Published: Mon, Feb 19 2007. 07 59 PM IST
Updated: Mon, Feb 19 2007. 07 59 PM IST
On a recent Sunday, I showed up on Tom Schelling’s doorstep for lunch. Tom, now 86 years of age, was my PhD thesis advisor at Harvard, and this conversation—in which we focused on global threats—reminded me of...the past, conversations that affected permanently the way I reason about the world.
The last time I saw Tom was in Stockholm in December 2005, when he received the Nobel Prize in economics for his applications of game theory to negotiation, nuclear deterrence, global warming, and the surprising effect of preferences for diversity on the composition of neighbourhoods. If Tom’s work has a leitmotif, it is counter-intuition.
Tom tells me that he “was in South Korea shortly after North Korea exploded their (recent) nuclear device. When I got back, Henry Kissinger and others were suggesting that this was the beginning of the end of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and era. Condoleezza Rice went to East Asia to organize a punitive response to the North Koreans. In my view, that should have been the second priority.”
“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 and non-nuclear status with support from the US and the leading nuclear powers...a significant missed opportunity.”
Tom Schelling expects Iran to get nuclear weapons. “Once a country becomes the owner of nuclear weapons, it (must) learn to deal with them responsibly.”
He pointed out that it took the US 15 years after World War II to learn to think seriously about the security of its weapons.
The issue of learning to be a responsible owner goes beyond security and codes. “The Soviet Union,” Tom says, “always had civilian officials in charge, and never let an aircraft carrying nuclear weapons out of Soviet airspace. China has a separate army unit for this. Who has control, are they trustworthy? 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?
“There was, for much of the Cold War, a surprising, effective, direct and entirely unofficial conversation involving policy-makers and ‘military’ intellectuals from all the nuclear powers, including enemies, to learn and disseminate knowledge in this arena.” This (was) because all nuclear powers (recognized) there was a shared interest in elevating the level of competence in the nuclear club. “India, Pakistan and China were all involved 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, a highly competent and experienced owner of weapons, could start the process by organizing a conference.”
Tom—who, as chairman of several committees concerned with nuclear weapons policy in the 1960s and early 1970s, participated in the effort that ensured a taboo against the use of nuclear weapons in the Cold War—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 imperfect deterrence, and the risk of miscalculation or misuse.
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. “Lyndon Johnson in 1964 was awed by the fact that nuclear weapons had not been used for 19 peril-filled years. He (said), the use of these weapons, particularly against civilian targets by any state, would result in denial of diplomatic recognition and sovereignty, personal and economic boycotts, and a level of isolation never seen before.”
Before the Johnson administration, the potential use of nuclear weapons was not seen as a taboo. Under Eisenhower, John Foster Dulles is quoted in then-national security advisor McGeorge Bundy’s book to have said that we must get rid of this taboo, and Eisenhower, faced with the threat from the Soviets in Western Europe when Nato troops were weak, probably felt it necessary to take the same position.
(Turning to the) present, in which potential acquirers of nuclear weapons, and of WMD, include terrorist organizations as well, Tom insists, terrorists also need to understand that nuclear devices are 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 hide them in cities, and then threaten to detonate them if attacked—or unless their 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 counter-intuitive nature of the strategic issues related to these weapons.
We spoke, also, about bioweapons. “Three years ago,” Tom explains, “there was concern about the use of smallpox as a weapon... In a meeting that included a number of bioweapons experts, I asked how long it would take for a smallpox epidemic deliberately started in the US to spread around the world. The answer was ‘Not long.’ it really likely that terrorists in West Asia would use smallpox against a neighbour? The interest in infectious diseases as weapons (as opposed to anthrax, for example, which doesn’t spread infectiously) has declined. But...(these) experts are not strategists, and...if (they) hadn’t thought of this, could we be sure that others, including terrorist (outfits), had?”
China worries Tom; but typically, it is our approach to China, and not Chinese policy. “China has a small, well-managed nuclear arsenal, which they have never brandished. China does not react well when we treat it as if it were irresponsible. Recently, China was criticized for contributing to the militarization of space.
What appears not well known in the US is that China has been trying to negotiate treaties on outer space, anti-satellite weapons, and limiting the production of fissile material for a number of years, and has not been able to get the US to participate. Since we are clearly developing anti-satellite capabilities, accusations against China for escalation are viewed by them and others as hypocritical.”
Michael Spence is a Nobel laureate in economics. Read the full text at Readers may send their comments at
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First Published: Mon, Feb 19 2007. 07 59 PM IST
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