Don't Oversell Missile Defense: The Old Theory of Nuclear Deterrence Still Makes Sense. Just Ask the Man Who Invented It

Newsweek, May 14, 2001 | Go to article overview

Don't Oversell Missile Defense: The Old Theory of Nuclear Deterrence Still Makes Sense. Just Ask the Man Who Invented It


In one of the most memorable scenes in the movie "Annie Hall," Woody Allen and Diane Keaton are standing in line at an artsy Manhattan movie house while a pompous academic pontificates about Marshall McLuhan (who, incredibly, was considered a serious thinker in the 1970s). Exasperated, Woody finally goes to the theater lobby and wheels out McLuhan himself, who turns to the professor and announces: "I heard what you were saying. You know nothing of my work... How you ever got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing."

Listening to the debate over national missile defense, I wondered what Thomas Schelling would think of it. Schelling is the economist who first seriously applied game theory to politics and international relations, work that should have won him the Nobel Prize (if economists weren't such snobs about political science). A recent Rand Corporation document describes him as having "established the basic conceptual structure of deterrence theory." In fact, one could go further. Schelling's ideas are at the heart of the complex, counterintuitive logic of mutual assured destruction, which has underpinned American nuclear and arms-control strategy for four decades. In other words, he's the Marshall McLuhan of this story, only smarter.

Thomas Schelling is now a genial 80-year-old, with all his wits about him. Having taught for most of his life at Harvard, he moved 10 years ago to the University of Maryland at College Park, where he still teaches game theory and international affairs. I asked him whether he thought President George W. Bush's proposals undermined strategic stability.

"No, but that's because missile defense is not likely to be as revolutionary as either its proponents or opponents believe. Both sides are vastly exaggerating the scope of this program. The defenses that the United States and the Soviet Union were trying to develop in the 1960s and early 1970s were not really defensive in orientation. They were complements to an offensive force." They could have made us each feel our forces were protected and thus we could have become trigger-happy. That's why the antiballistic-missile treaty (ABM) banned them. Schelling explained that "the current proposals, to the extent we have any details, are really oriented toward defending the United States against small attacks from rogue states. That's why I don't like the way the president is selling his program as a shield to protect the whole nation. It isn't, and I think we have incurred diplomatic costs around the world because of this rhetorical posturing."

Will Bush's plan trigger a new arms race with Russia? "I don't see how," said Schelling. "Stability between the United States and the Russians depends on the fact that both sides can inflict unacceptable harm on the other, even if one were hit by nukes first. …

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