The Vital Thomas Schelling: Thinking Through the Thinkable on Iran


Thomas-Schelling.jpgIf you are in or near Washington, DC at 12:15 pm on Friday, you should come to the New America Foundation and spend some time absorbing the way Nobel Laureate in Economics Thomas Schelling thinks about states with nuclear weapons — and potentially a nuclear-armed Iran.
Here is the event info.
If you are NOT in Washington, you should watch the live streaming here on The Washington Note or at the New America Foundation site (or YouTube after the fact). It’s must watch stuff.
Thomas Schelling is one of the world’s great thinkers, someone whose explications of game theoretic framing of nuclear competition and possibly war may have helped save the world from a Cold War era thermonuclear nightmare.
I first heard Schelling in 1982 at a forum organized by nuclear arms control giant Herbert York at UC San Diego and have been addicted to his work and thinking since. He was a thesis adviser to my colleague, the well known ArmsControlWonk blogger Jeffrey Lewis who will also make comments at Friday’s noon time session.
The Nobel Prize Committee had this to say about Schelling’s selection in 2005:

Thomas Schelling
Against the backdrop of the nuclear arms race in the late 1950s, Thomas Schelling’s book The Strategy of Conflict set forth his vision of game theory as a unifying framework for the social sciences. Schelling showed that a party can strengthen its position by overtly worsening its own options, that the capability to retaliate can be more useful than the ability to resist an attack, and that uncertain retaliation is more credible and more efficient than certain retaliation. These insights have proven to be of great relevance for conflict resolution and efforts to avoid war.
Schelling’s work prompted new developments in game theory and accelerated its use and application throughout the social sciences. Notably, his analysis of strategic commitments has explained a wide range of phenomena, from the competitive strategies of firms to the delegation of political decision power.

Jeffrey Lewis and I have asked Schelling to talk to us about the portals through which he looks at nuclear powers, nuclear arms competition and escalation, nuclear caution, nuclear war and what the world looks like if Iran acquires nuclear weapons.
Would a nuclear-armed Iran automatically create a nuclear arms race in the region? What would be the likely impact of a nuclear weapon on Iran’s international behavior? Does it matter that Israel has the bomb? What do game theory and the lessons of the Cold War tell us if we end up with a breakout of nuclear weapons proliferation in and around the Middle East?
— Steve Clemons


13 comments on “The Vital Thomas Schelling: Thinking Through the Thinkable on Iran

  1. questions says:

    Brian B,
    The problem with your 12:35 post is that even if the US and USSR didn’t come to direct blows, we fought endless proxy wars. So all the nukes did was to displace the wars, not make them go away. They are protective, then, of immediate territory as you note, but not of more general preferences in the region. (Or out of the region, I guess.)
    Misjudgment still happens because we still don’t have transparent psyches. So the US arms one side, the Soviets (or Russians or Iranians or whoever) arms the other side and off go people’s heads.
    I should look at Arms and Influence (along with thousands of other books)… but just from what you have posted and from my own thinking, it seems to me that nukes are going to be built just from the logic of escalation dominance, but they’re not going to deter conventional war, merely displace it. And they clearly help create bizarre social formations and bubbly/frothy overvaluations amongst the nations of the world. (I think I read in some style manual somewhere that one ought to avoid using more than one word ending in ‘tion’ in a sentence. I can see why.)
    Indeed, it looks like the real issue with Iran might be Soviet-style proxy wars. They arm, we arm…. We know how ugly that gets. A new cold war with hot spots all over the energy capital of the known universe.
    Walt’s comfort with a nuclear Iran has to include some consideration of a new cold war, it occurs to me.


  2. Brian B says:

    One other thing while I’m at it. After reading these posts no one mentioned the intended effect that nuclear weapons have with regard to conventional warfare. Nuclear weapons help ameliorate the security dilemma. The potential to misjudge one’s military intentions is reduced because it is hard to argue that an offensive build-up is taking place against a nation that has nuclear weapons. Schelling talks about this in his book Arms and Influence. It is a very interesting theory.


  3. Brian B says:

    The Strategy of Confllict is an excellent book and has an abundance of insightful analysis on nuclear deterrence. However, if one is not into game theory, Schellings follow-up book, Arms and Influence, is another book that illustrates the methods by which the US used deterrent methods to counter the nuclear threat. It also give an insightful analysis of what went wrong and right in the implementation of this policy and how it played out on the world scene.


  4. Greg R. Lawson says:

    Below is a combination of quotes from a recent Schelling piece in Daedalus:
    “‘a world without nuclear weapons’ would be a world in which the United States, Russia, Israel, China, and half a dozen or a dozen other countries would have hair-trigger mobilization plans to rebuild nuclear weapons and mobilize or commandeer delivery systems…The urge to preempt would dominate; whoever gets the first few weapons will coerce or preempt. It would be a nervous world.”
    We cannot escape that nuclear weapons are here to stay and that we will always need to find new means of employing their existence to maximize deterrence against both state and non-state actors. The dream of “Global Zero” is just that a dream, a particularly dangerous dream as well.


  5. questions says:

    Things I’m tossing around in the back of my brain regarding nukes, knives and gunfights, strategy, the fact that we now seem to have more contractors in Afgh. than actual soldiers, Syria, Hezbollah, I/P and so on. Feel free to ignore or attack as makes you feel better about the universe.
    We operate both interpersonally and internationally under great uncertainty and great fear of imminent death because of the uncertainty.
    All the people who are petrified that their neighbors or encounters with strangers need to be overseen by open carry guns fail to see that they are actually courting a local version of the arms race. No one knows if the guy in the next seat is going to attack, so everyone needs a gun. Now, what if someone’s gun is an automatic, well then you need a bigger gun. What if someone thinks you have that bigger gun…. Escalation dominance takes over, and suddenly we need pocket nukes (which I believe violate laws of physics regarding critical mass….)
    The point, though, is that because we don’t trust and we don’t have certainty, and we do fear death, we are rationally pushed towards weaponizing our bodies, limbs, bags, and the like. Not even bodyguards will do, since we can’t really trust them, either.
    Welcome to Hobbes’s war of every man against every man. We can’t trust, we arm ourselves, we are basically equal in size or prudence. We kill each other.
    We are rational enough to realize this doesn’t work and so we create a state power that ZOMG takes our weapons from us and does its best to keep us from slaughtering each other. Not a bad solution. Take the worst outcome and improve it to a tolerable level and you have a strong state that stops the arms race. BUT, we have to trust the state to do this and, likely, we have to redesign much of our notion of power and sexuality so that not being armed is sexually acceptable. We’re not super good at this, and the Supreme Court is all with the gun carriers. So the arms race is beginning.
    Take this construct and apply it to IR and you get basically the same scenarios. We can’t trust the intentions of others. Inspection is insufficient as there can be secrets. Declared intentions are insufficient as there can be lies. Current government assurance is insufficient as the government can change. And there are all the same power/sexuality issues (think how dominant that image is around here in terms of nations), there are all the domestic re-election issues…. Lots of structures point towards arming to the teeth and beyond.
    So if we’re to have the arming structure as the only rational one, then we’re going to be, sadly, killing each other pretty regularly.
    The gaming of this really is to maximize the worst outcome so that when we get into all our wars, we come out ok. The military really has a hold on the rest of us because the logic here is inescapable. All of that arming we do simply makes us arm even more. There are never enough arms, never enough wars, never enough pre-emptions, preventions, preparations.
    And that’s the world we live in.
    The attempts to induce stability in this mess include treaties and alliances, trade relations and promise making, cultural exchanges and international aid, good will gestures of all sorts. Kind of like carrying the gun, but keeping the bullets in a separate pouch so that you signal that your are “armed” rather than armed. But every time someone new enters the scene or someone alters a dynamic somewhere, we all go back to staying loaded and not necessarily locked.
    Assuming this is the basic strategic backdrop against which we operate, we really have to ask if there’s an escape. If WigWag is right that Obama is turning into Bush (and this is really possibly a good reading), then it would seem that Obama is starting to see the logic of the maximin IR game.
    The notion of iterated games and the changing strategies because of iterations rests on the formation of actual trust and real repetition. Hence, no alliance disturbances, no changes of the status quo. Obama’s shifts in emphasis on this reading are indeed pretty dumb.
    On the other hand, the status quo ante wasn’t really entirely stable either because of the logic of escalation dominance. The weapons and threats, of their own logic, will get nastier because you don’t bring a knife to a gunfight, you bring a nuke instead.
    If the status quo isn’t able to keep a particular nation in a maximin position, then that nation simply must keep up with the times, continue to invade and attack and ally and shift to keep its edge. And so, yes, there’s a strategic logic to US invasions.
    So the real strategy issue is simply, is there some non maximin logic, some escape from escalation dominance, some way out? Some way to bring a rose to a nuke fight?
    My guess is that Obama has hoped for roses at nuke fights, but that the military logic of escalation dominance is really sadly, tragically, horribly compelling.
    In the face of radical distrust, radical uncertainty, the utter opacity of the other, one brings a nuke to the backyard barbecue — just in case.
    I sincerely hope that Schelling’s notion of foreclosing some alternatives might actually help with de-escalation. But since the small and medium sized hot wars haven’t ceased, I kind of doubt it.


  6. PissedOffAmerican says:



  7. Paul Norheim says:

    The most complicated scenario, Questions, is perhaps if leader X
    and Y both role-play insanity, unaware of the regrettable fact that
    they themselves also happen to be slightly insane. I can think of a
    handful of leaders capable of that combination.


  8. nadine says:

    “My sense from general reading is that Iran is interested in being a player and so is less likely to be trustworthy, is unstable in its current governing structure, and feels that the US will keep Israel in check so that it has a little more space to operate.” (questions)
    Given that sense, wouldn’t it make more strategic sense for the US to back up Israel, maybe hint that Israel is a fierce dog you don’t want to provoke, instead of sending the message that there is lots of daylight between the US and Israel and the US is working hard to slip on the flex cuffs? from tomorrow’s NYT:
    “When Mr. Obama declared that resolving the long-running Middle East dispute was a


  9. questions says:

    Thanks Paul! What a wonderful world….
    Game theory is designed to cut of the infinite regress of “If he’s thinking that I’m thinking that he’s thinking that I’m thinking…” and you’re just supposed to maximize your own position regardless of what you’re opponent is doing. Then you end up with the best possible scenario given the inherent lack of communication with the opponent. (Perhaps this only applies to the prisoners dilemma?)
    Once you get into wondering if your opponent is sane, or role-playing insanity in order to affect your opponent’s choice of action, you’re probably not really under the game theory umbrella anymore. But I could be wrong about this as I am fairly new to the field. (Haven’t even gotten to the Schelling book, as I noted above.)
    The assumption has to be rationality, or the system doesn’t really work. This is where I wonder if it’s the best descriptor or not.
    Remember, Saddam Hussein lied to his own people about the WMD issue. How can you get any crazier than that? He didn’t think Bush would actually invade. Was Bush crazy? Sane? Multiply overdetermined and so not unitary? The analysis that realism and rationality need falls short of actual description.
    Iran is under justifiable suspicion, but not with great certainty. What’s the rational response under great uncertainty? I think we’re supposed to use some altered version of maximin — make the worst outcome as good as it can be made. We have no idea what we’re getting ourselves into, so I suppose that’s the “plan” to the extent that there is one. The worst has to be bearable. Crazy rulers with super big guns may not be considered bearable. So then the question is, is out and out war bearable? Is limited war bearable? Is a bombing raid bearable? Is some weird alliance bearable? What are the worst outcomes for all the ocntingencies our crazed system can come up with…. I most certainly don’t want to spend my life thinking up contingencies!


  10. Paul Norheim says:

    Rational actors or crazy actors? As you probably know,
    Questions, it can be much more complicated and sophisticated
    than that:
    “Frustrated, Nixon decided to try something new: threaten the
    Soviet Union with a massive nuclear strike and make its leaders
    think he was crazy enough to go through with it. His hope was
    that the Soviets would be so frightened of events spinning out
    of control that they would strong-arm Hanoi, telling the North
    Vietnamese to start making concessions at the negotiating table
    or risk losing Soviet military support.
    Codenamed Giant Lance, Nixon’s plan was the culmination of a
    strategy of premeditated madness he had developed with
    national security adviser Henry Kissinger. The details of this
    episode remained secret for 35 years and have never been fully
    told. Now, thanks to documents released through the Freedom
    of Information Act, it’s clear that Giant Lance was the leading
    example of what historians came to call the “madman theory”:
    Nixon’s notion that faked, finger-on-the-button rage could
    bring the Soviets to heel.”
    Read More


  11. questions says:

    Proliferation perhaps only matters if states aren’t bound by the unfortunately rational MAD scheme. But since states are unified rational actors, why would proliferation matter (read with sarcasm)?
    The real issue with proliferation is whether or not other countries trust the keepers of the potential flame never to use it to set fire. My sense from general reading is that Iran is interested in being a player and so is less likely to be trustworthy, is unstable in its current governing structure, and feels that the US will keep Israel in check so that it has a little more space to operate.
    Should Israel appear to be crazy, might that make Iran hesitate, or would it egg Iran on to developing a nuclear option to counter the threat of a crazy nation?
    Game theory does a nice job with rational actors, but if both sides are working on insanity, I wonder if this is the best descriptive language or not. After all, hearing voices in your head, or voters in your district, can make you do things you might not otherwise do.
    MAD is a neat system except that somehow we seem just to bracket the nukes as if they didn’t exist and go about our daily business of waging hot wars all over the place. It’s almost as if the nukes simply don’t exist even when they do. I wonder if that’s a kind of madness as well. No rational nation is ever really going to use first strike capacity, and retaliation is pretty damned crazy, too. So, in a way, there’s this fictional overlay of nukes, or underlayment I guess. And against that background, we still manage to invade and bomb and sanction and find proxies when direct hits are too threatening.
    I’m not actually sure that rationality is the right descriptive mode for anything having to do with nukes. Denial, schizophrenia, depression, grandiosity, bi-polarism — these I can see. Rationality? Not convinced.
    (Have I noted that I really hate the kind of thinking that engages with MAD instead of exiting from the entire structure?)
    At any rate, I guess I can finally get to Strategy of Conflict after all these years, so thanks for making me get yet another book off the shelf….


  12. PissedOffAmerican says:

    “Would a nuclear-armed Iran automatically create a nuclear arms race in the region?”
    The more appropriate question would be;
    “Has Israel’s nuclear arsenal, and their threats to use it, automatically created a nuclear arms race in the region?”
    “Does it matter that Israel has the bomb?”
    You gotta be shittin’ me. It takes a Nobel Laureate to answer that question?
    Gads, Steve. Perhaps Rachel’s veiwers are idiots, but most people that read your blog aren’t.


  13. Richard Granberry says:

    Mr. Clemons,
    I just saw and heard your comments on Obermann’s show about Senator McCain’s talk of “pulling the trigger” on Iran. You were spot on and I do appreciate you saying the things you did. We have all got to nip this thing, it is quite literally crazy talk. Whether McCain is desperate in his re-election efforts or has gone off the edge, his comments are extremely dangerous. The last thing we need is another war in the Middle East.


Add your comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *