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Winning the Nuclear Game Against North Korea

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It's like chess, with nuclear weapons.

Photographer: Nicky J. Sims/Getty Images for Kaspersky Lab

Photographer: Nicky J. Sims/Getty Images for Kaspersky Lab

As an undergraduate, I didn’t spend a lot of time in the library. In part, as you probably guessed, because I was a fairly indifferent student. But there was also the problem of the loopy barking man in the corner. None of us had any idea who he was or what he was doing making such a racket in the reading room – possibly someone off the street who had cadged a student ID?

Well, everybody knows now, and not just because he won a Nobel Prize in economics or (far more significantly) was played in a movie by Russell Crowe. Between those canine outbursts, John Nash’s beautiful mind was pushing forward on game theory, as were other economists including John Harsanyi, who shared the Nobel with Nash, and Thomas Schelling, who won it a decade later. Nash’s work is largely theoretical – although vital if you’re willing to spend your idle hours contemplating the prisoner’s dilemma (sorry, it’s no help with Fortnite). Schelling’s ouevre is more practical, especially if you spend your idle hours contemplating nuclear Armageddon like yours truly.

So, what’s the connection, exactly? I had no clue, until I talked to Vipin Narang, a political science professor at MIT. While not a game theorist himself, Narang’s beautiful mind is pushing forward on how traditional nuclear deterrence strategy can be modernized for the new era of great-power conflict. Here’s a lightly edited version of the first half of our conversation (the second part will be published next week):

Tobin Harshaw: Before we look at the challenges facing the U.S., can you briefly describe game theory and how it relates to nuclear deterrence?

Vipin Narang: Most of the original work on deterrence was done by the Nobel-winning economist Tom Shelling in his very influential book "Arms and Influence," which came out in the mid-’60s. Back then it was rudimentary game. But it's really about a strategic logic -- how your adversary behaves based on your moves and how you react to their reaction to your moves. So it can get formalized in game theory. But I would say that most deterrence theorists now use a loose form of a kind of strategic game in the back of their minds when it comes to deploying particular capabilities or signaling about when we might threaten to use nuclear weapons.

TH: How does that play out on the ground?

VN: It's not just what we do and deploy; it's what the adversary fears we can do. Its perception of what we are doing may not map to what we're actually doing. And that can drive outcomes in ways that we don't necessarily expect from formal game theory. Take the case of North Korea. Kim Jong Un has a very small, rudimentary arsenal. We may not want to overtly threaten the survivability of that arsenal when we run these drills up around North Korea, but Kim may fear that. We have to internalize that the fear of a disarming attack leads Kim Jong Un to do certain things, such as potentially devolving command of his nuclear weapons very early in a crisis, out of fear of a use-them-or-lose them situation. And so things that we may think are innocuous may not be innocuous to Kim. That has real implications for stability. Those are the kinds of dilemmas and twists on classic deterrence theory that game theory doesn't necessarily count for particularly well, but are very real when it comes to the practice of deterrence.

TH: What's meant by Kim "devolving"........

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