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Background: To Bomb Or Not To Bomb

Background: To Bomb Or Not To Bomb

It’s a question that has been on social scientists’ minds for ages: why don’t we just always attack the people we fear, instead of trying to keep the peace?

This issue was particularly acute during the Cold War. In this tense period, entire continents could have been reduced to rubble at the flick of a button in Moscow or Washington. Even though the world came close to a nuclear encounter on a number of occasions, the Cold War never turned into an all-out shooting war.

Military strategists and politicians turned to academia to understand strategic situations and find ways out of the nerve-racking status quo. Game theory, a sub discipline of economics and mathematics, provided decision-makers with a useful lens with which to look at world politics. But politics is more than mere calculations. Therefore, compromise and a human touch were equally essential to maintain an armed peace.

Life on the brink

Two years after the end of World War II, the world was yet again faced with a new threat. The new rivalry between the communist Soviet Union and the free-market oriented United States and their respective allies, became the dominant theme in world politics. Mutual distrust, expansionist intentions, and a massive arms build-up prevented world peace from becoming a reality, despite the establishment of the United Nations.

Both the US and the Soviets rapidly developed a nuclear arsenal as a deterrent. The two adversaries kept each other –and the European continent caught in between– at permanent gunpoint. Neither side could afford to be seen as weaker than the other. This resulted in a decades-long nuclear weapons race. To peace advocates this dynamic of ever increasing nuclear arms stockpiles was considered insane and revolting. But their opposition failed to turn politicians around; Moscow and Washington understood they had to maintain a balance of power. Without the perceived equal capabilities to wreak devastation onto the enemy, war would be inevitable.

This balance of power was essential to global security, but it was also fundamentally unstable. Slight misunderstandings over the other’s intentions could frustrate the fragile equilibrium, sending political tensions sky-high. As presidents and generals struggled to work with this complicated strategic situation, they turned to a new branch of science to analyse global politics. Game theory, an academic discipline combining insights from economics, sociology and mathematics, which became very popular in those dark days of the Cold War. Newly-developed scientific insights provided decision makers the tools to understand this political predicament.

Serious gaming

To understand the ongoing insecurity of life in a world dominated by a high-stakes game, the Pentagon asked top-level researchers to analyse this deadly embrace. Academics simulated both sides’ options. Game theory notions helped develop a model that described the strategic situation. It presented politicians with a framework for understanding and forecasting the actions of their counterparts. As game theory featured prominently in public discourse, math became an almost military doctrine.

Since game theory presents a simplified version of reality, models require basic assumptions. First, players in ‘the game’ act rationally in pursuit of their goals, i.e. they aim for best the possible results for themselves. Whether the players can communicate or not is irrelevant, even when they talk – as Soviets and Americans did – one player can trick the other. Thus, mutual trust trumps talking. Furthermore, the games players rely on the principle that no other actor can influence decision-making, so they are free to act according to their own preferences. In Cold War terms, this means that the Soviets and the Americans both competed for dominance, with no global policeman able to enforce binding rules on them. Two strategic situations during the Cold War illustrate how game theoretical reasoning brought us close to the brink, but never pushed us to a nuclear doomsday.

Stuck in a matrix

The nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviets is an example of what game theorists call a prisoner’s dilemma game. Two wholly independent players can either choose to cooperate, or defect in a strategic situation with each other. In a prisoner’s dilemma, two rational players would opt to defect, with negative consequences for both players. When applied to Cold War politics, the dynamics of the prisoner’s dilemma would be much more disastrous.

In the classic scenario, two bank robbers are arrested and separately interrogated. The police have insufficient information for a conviction. Therefore, the two criminals are offered the same deal: if suspect A testifies against his partner suspect B (defects), and B stays mum (cooperates), the betrayer (suspect A) walks free and the co-operator receives a full one-year sentence. If both decide to remain silent, A and B both get a one-month jail term for a minor charge. If A and B both ‘betray’ the other, each receives a three-month sentence. The prisoners individually decide whether to betray the other or to stay silent, there is no communication between them.

Suspect A and B understand they have to solve this dilemma: trust the other suspect to work with the other to reduce both jail sentences, or distrust the other so there is a chance to walk-out free.

When making up their minds, players use a numerical value to rate each outcome in a pay-off matrix. On the basis of these numbers they choose a rational strategy. In this dilemma, each rational player prefers freedom over one month in prison and three months jail time over one year imprisonment. So both suspects will end up defecting, landing both in jail for three months – a suboptimal outcome.

In nuclear politics, Moscow and Washington faced the same dilemma: do we trust the other not to attack us? With a lack of mutual confidence, an instant attack would be the rational strategy for both sides. The Soviets would win (5 imaginary points) if it decided to attack, while the US loses 5 points. However when both parties choose to attack, as this model suggests, both end up with minus 3 points. In this outcome, the USSR and USA will be reduced to rubble with no clear victor and two losers.

Paradoxically enough, this never happened. Why?

To paraphrase singer-songwriter Sting: because Soviets and Americans loved their children. With both powers capable of avenging an attack with doomsday weapons through a second-strike, the adversaries had to think of the day after nuclear doomsday. If Moscow decided to launch nuclear weapons at the United States on a Monday, America would strike back on Tuesday.

The realisation by both sides that they would be entirely obliterated in nuclear war became a deterrent against nuclear attack. American and Soviet political leaders understood: one side’s aggression will cause both parties to go under, thus we are better off not attacking first. Though the number-crunchers sent chills down decision-maker’s spines, politicians realised they had to look into the future before launching the forces of Armageddon.

Cuban chicken

Another application of game theoretical models in the Cold War came in a sudden rise in tension during the Kennedy-administration. During the 1962 Cuba crisis, the United States discovered Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, easily within striking distance of US territory. A dramatic distortion of the balance of power, necessitating a tough American response. Kennedy and Krushchev kept the world on edge for days, both sides’ nuclear forces were on high alert.

In essence, the Cuba Crisis resembled a game of chicken. In a classic chicken game, two boys drive their cars towards each other at full speed. They can either choose to be a chicken and swerve, or to drive full-speed ahead. The player who doesn’t swerve, but drives straight on wins. If both players are keen to win, their cars will crash into each other at high speed – both die. Thus, the best individual outcome is not to swerve but hope the other will avoid a crash and chicken out. The chicken will obviously lose face to those watching; an outcome no player can afford.
Who would chicken out in Cuba? Should the US attack, or just accept Soviet aggression? If Moscow decided to withdraw its missiles from Cuba, it would chicken out and lose face. But if it kept them in position, the US might attack Soviet installations causing a full-scale nuclear war. An outcome both parties wanted to avoid at all costs. Thus, Kennedy and Krushchev essentially had two options: be a chicken and return to the status quo to reduce tensions, or continue full-speed ahead risking nuclear war.

Kennedy could not merely accept this Soviet escalation. Therefore, America imposed a naval blockade on Cuba, avoiding a reckless armed response and preserving world peace. Moscow understood the severity of the situation and withdrew its nukes from Cuba, after convincing the US to do the same in Turkey. Both sides eventually lost some face, but most importantly nuclear war was avoided. Barely.

After the Cuba crisis, Soviet and US leaders understood the world couldn’t afford to allow this level of tension to continue. Communication and trust were essential. Confidence between Moscow and Washington would remain an illusion for decades, but an open communication line was easily set-up. The infamous ‘hotline’ connected the White House directly to the Kremlin to prevent future tensions from spiralling out of control.

Moving away from the brink

The rational game played by the Soviets and Americans during the armed peace of the Cold War kept the world relatively safe for half a century. Though phone lines established after the Cuba crisis proved vital in preventing mishaps, the risk of nuclear war only receded when trust between the US and Russia increased. The 1989 the fall of the Berlin Wall heralded a new era – competition made way for cooperation. The dynamics of the Prisoner’s Dilemma and Chicken Game had been overthrown.

Game theory provided decision-makers with a tool to understand strategic decisions they struggled with. Models like the Prisoner’s Dilemma and the Chicken Game were essential to simulate and understand actors’ behaviour. Politicians and generals alike experienced the constraints contained in the matrices when making tough decisions. Escaping from the dynamics of a rational game seemed almost impossible.

Though the rational models were an important tool for policy analysis, they had limited predictive value. The strength of game theoretical models –the reduction of complex situations to easily understandable numbers and matrices– also proved its weakness. Overly rigid rational models denied human factors like the ability to come to a painful comprise to save the planet for another day.

Eventually it wasn’t the power of a nuclear explosion, nor the dead-cold numbers of game theory that paved the way for a reduction of nuclear arms. Basic psychology – an increase in trust, a feeling of mutual confidence that can hardly be found in numbers – had the real power to move the world away from a nuclear doomsday.


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