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The New Game in Town

April 7, 2010

Game theory has long informed U.S. nuclear strategy and the strategies of many of our nuclear-armed adversaries. Armed deterrence and the theory of mutual assured destruction relies upon a fundamental assumption that any adversary amoral enough to use such fearsome weapons nevertheless remains sufficiently rational not to wish the suffering of retaliation upon itself and its people by launching a pre-emptive strike.

The Nuclear Posture Review released this week and the agreement to enter into a new nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia reflect the realization that the rules of the nuclear arms game have changed, not just for the U.S. but for all nuclear-armed nations. The real potential of nuclear weapons to influence strategy and policy today rests not upon the awesome power they pose for adversaries to annihilate one another, but the more practical moral and political consequences of possessing them in the first place. These consequences include both the rewards of deterrence and the risks associated with the possibility nuclear weapons technology will fall into the wrong hands.

The more terrifying threat facing nuclear armed nations today is not the menace their weapons pose to one another, but the risk their nuclear programs pose if the technology or know-how they possess comes under the control of unscrupulous or unchecked states or worse, non-state actors. Unlike the Cold War anxieties that led to the arms race and proxy fights that nearly bankrupted both sides, the new game revolves around a different and much more complex set of assumptions.

Game theory relies upon the possibility of predictability not just plausibility. Imagining a threat is not enough. How do we predict the appropriate posture for an adversary that behaves in ways that do not respond to conventional incentives or conform to our expectations of rationality? How should the assumption that this adversary subscribes to an inflexible moral code that dismisses recognized notions of right and wrong influence our decisions and actions?

By the time the destructive potential of the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals exceeded the level each side needed to achieve mutually assured destruction, the symbolic power of these weapon systems began to rival the real power of their substance.  Today, the substantive threat posed by nuclear proliferation rests upon the symbolic value of acquiring the same toys the big boys play with not achieving the same results.

Nuclear strategy and deterrence are no longer questions of who can deliver the most firepower more accurately or with the shortest time to target. Today, we must consider the consequences of a small strike against unsecured targets that inflicts limited rather than catastrophic casualties against innocent civilians or noncombatants. The costs of this new arms race are neither defined by the scale nor scope of the consequences or the comparative costs of developing the capabilities to counter an attack, but rather by the investments expected or demanded to prevent it from happening in the first place. This thinking represents the ultimate in asymmetric warfare because it reflects a different calculus driven by the value and purpose we see in human life.

The danger posed by the new generation of nuclear wannabes does not represent the sort of existential threat that served as the basis for our previous policies. Today we face an ontological threat that redefines our relationships not only with the technology and those who possess it, but also with the way we organize and think about the capabilities and threats these weapons present.

We may no longer fear the prospect that we will destroy one another or end all life on earth through a nuclear exchange. But we just might achieve the same end more slowly by making decisions and taking actions that produce misguided or misplaced investments in security as opposed to more productive and farsighted investments in human development.

The Nuclear Posture Review is a step in the direction of a more enlightened and responsible strategy, albeit a very small one. It recognizes that the only surefire way to keep nuclear technology and know how from falling into the wrong hands is to eventually get rid of them altogether.

At the same time, it recognizes that we cannot un-ring the nuclear bell or put the atomic genie back inside the bottle. Only by choosing a new game can we change the rules that really matter, the ones that lead us to make positive rather than negative investments in human security.

This new game involves new rules. If we want to ensure this does not become the zero sum game we have come to expect from our nuclear policy, we have to re-imagine and redefine the relationship between development and security. We can only claim a victory when the number of nuclear weapons in the world and those prepared to use them equals zero.

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