NUCLEAR DETERRENCE AND DISCERNING RATIONAL ACTORS FROM IRRATIONAL ONES
My philosophically-inclined comrade and unwilling constituent of
Representative Tom Tancredo(R-Col) jb
at riting on the wall
offered an in-depth analysis of my brief commentary on the mechanics of the credibility of nuclear deterrence
. I will make remarks in regular text in response:
" the core critique (and there is a secondary critique below as well) here is that deterrence is, at root, a byproduct of rational actor theory. which is to say that all actors within a system will under all circumstances make rational decisions to maximize identified self-interests. these interests can be existential (which is the essential logic of mutually assured destruction) or they can fall to other categories: symbolic, tactical, strategic, etc. under normal circumstances, making a clear and credible existential threat to a defined action would deter such an action (in this case a nuclear strike on us soil) from taking place. all this is well and good under traditional understandings of rational actor theory, but i have to throw several wrenches in the works at this point."
In real-world nuclear deterrence logic as it played out in the era of brinksmanship through MAD, rational actor theory was not actually subscribed to by either superpower.
The Russians basically had one plan for all nuclear scenarios which was to launch everything they had in a strike that would be, they hoped, massive enough to wipe out much of the American capacity for a devastating retaliatory strike. MAD was the accepted doctrine of the Arms Control priesthood in the State Department and in academia but not of the Red Army general staff. The Reagan administration unofficially abandoned MAD as well when the
" decapitation" strategy was implemented circa 1982-83 to ensure that our first priority in a nuclear war would be the destruction of the Soviet political, security and military leadership and their command and control systems rather than the Soviet population." to start, there is an assumption under rational actor theory that actors have some degree of parity (if not equality) on the world stage. traditionally, this would imply that all defined actors are states, and that states on some level maximize expected outcomes. the problem with this situation, of course, is that non-state actors do not necessarily view maximal outcomes in the same way that state actors do. for instance, it is entirely unclear whether a non-state, transnational fundamentalist islamic organization with a millennial world view would view the elimination of mecca - per tancredo - as a deal-breaking outcome. while the vast majority of muslims may see things this way, millennial cults hold a certain expectation of apocalyptic circumstance and see this outcome as, if not inevitable, far from inconceivable. which is to say that such groups would make a perfectly rational calculation that such a threat is, in their world view, mitigated by other outcomes, notably the symbolic destruction of the perceived hegemon."
It is not that maximization of interests are categorically prevented so much that potential minimum costs of insisting on maximum gains are raised to politically unacceptable levels for the stronger party.Asymmetry and not symmetry is the historical rule in nuclear deterrence. Soviet parity was not achieved until the early 1970's and all other nuclear powers chose to remain in wildly asymmetrical positions vis-avis the superpowers. The anxiety felt over North Korean, Iranian or non-state actor possession of crude and unwieldy fission bombs itself makes the point of the potent psychological value of asymmetric deterrence. A status of equality or rough parity in nuclear capability is not required for deterrence purposes - a point aptly captured by Charles DeGaulle, who when asked how many nuclear weapons France would need to deter the Russians, candidly answered " Six". The British and French never built more than a modest number of warheads compared to the U.S.-Soviet combined total of almost 50,000 but the Soviet disarmament negotiators were always anxious that these small stockpiles be considered despite the Soviet arsenal hovering in the global overkill zone.
As for Bin Laden specifically, he seems to understand the concept of nuclear deterrence very well
"but perhaps one can argue that the threat is not being made to such groups but rather, implicitly, to the wider muslim world. in this case, the threat reads something more like this to cynical ears: “if you do not stop islamist terror from delivering a nuclear weapons to united states soil, you will pay a commensurate price.” or at least that’s the idea behind it. the problem here is that, wisdom of crowds be damned, the message if perceived accurately is: “succumb to draconian security measures to prevent terrorism or you face an existential threat.” this message, received by fully rational actors, is not likely to win friends or support amongst the global ‘umma. in fact, i would guess that it wins just as many die-hard enemies who by their die-hard nature are not rational actors in the first place as it does allies. i’d be open to a counterargument here, but that’s my take."
Point taken and it is a good one. There are political costs to this stance. No argument.
Survival in a nuclear scenario is not a time for winning popularity contests, it is a time for concentrating minds like a hangman's noose. The Arab-Muslim world bears some responsibility for the cultural and financial cultivation of loose cannons that stand next to their state actors and the continued survival of their networks. Complicit parties range from wealthy members of Gulf royal families, leading business enterprises, certain Arab intelligence services as well as elements of ISI and the Pasdaran, leading figures in the Sunni religious establishment in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to the " Arab street".
If an al Qaida nuclear weapon detonates in Kansas city or Manhattan, the supporters of terrorism bear the same responsibility that a lookout or getaway driver has when a bank robbery results in a murder. They bring what comes afterward on their own heads and can be allowed absolutely no illusions that a chance exists of executing a " free" or a " no return address" nuclear shot at an American city without suffering tenfold retaliation.
Again the whole point here is to set up a dynamic where everyone chooses to walk away from the brink of a nuclear holocaust.