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December 12, 2005

Schelling's Nobel speech

Our colleague Tom Schelling received the Nobel Prize on Saturday, so many of us in the Maryland School of Public Policy gathered in our common space this morning to watch the ceremony.

Schelling's speech was a forcefully ex temporized expansion of this essay. He begins, "The most spectacular event of the past half century is one that did not occur. We have enjoyed fifty-eight years without any use of nuclear weapons." That streak would have seemed unimaginably lucky to people in 1945 or 1950. In 1960, C.P. Snow declared it a "mathematical certainty" that thermonuclear war would erupt within a decade unless the superpowers disarmed completely and immediately.

And yet the nuclear powers have passed up opportunities to use nuclear weapons. The U.S. famously avoided using the A-bomb in Korea, although Schelling believes that we would have used nuclear artillery had the Chinese invaded the little island of Matsu. Israel refrained from using nuclear weapons against two advancing Egyptian armies that were massed in the desert (away from civilian populations) in 1973. The Soviet Union avoided using nuclear arms in Afghanistan, even though the alternative--bombing from low altitudes for accuracy--cost them so many aircraft that they lost the war. The Soviets also (in a sense) refrained from using nuclear weapons in WWIII. That is, even though their official military doctrine held that war in Europe would automatically turn nuclear, they nevertheless built up a huge conventional military that would have been a complete waste if the doctrine were true. This is evidence that they expected both sides to fight with conventional weapons and to sit on their nuclear stockpiles.

The reason for all this restraint is a nuclear "taboo." John Foster Dulles saw the taboo forming in the 1950s and considered it an obstacle. He decried the "false distinction" between chemical and fissile weapons. Soon thereafter, Eisenhower declared that the United States would treat nuclear weapons as available and "conventional" in times of war.

But no one actually used nuclear weapons after Nagasaki. The taboo became strongly established. In 1964, President Johnson said, "Make no mistake, there is no such thing as a conventional nuclear weapon. For 19 peril-filled years no nation has loosed the atom against another. To do so now is a political decision of the highest order." The 19 peril-filled years have now lenghtened to 60.

Schelling believes that Hiroshima and Nagasaki have acquired a "biblical" significance, an almost religious horror (even though, while he didn't say this in his lecture, more people died in other nights of bombing during WWII). The aura of Hiroshima was felt even by the Soviet generals who ran the Afghan war. Schelling is convinced that the Pakistanis and Indians feel it, too; their motives for building nuclear arsenals are deterrence, status, and influence, but they do not expect ever to use their bombs.

Whether the Iranians and North Koreans feel the force of the nuclear taboo is another question. Schelling argues that any nation that uses nuclear weapons should know that it will be reviled by the world and perhaps even denied sovereignty by the rest of the world. Presumably, if this is a true taboo, then the revulsion should arise even if the use of nuclear weapons isn't very deadly--for example, if they are used against an isolated bunker or a ship at sea. We need the taboo because we have an unimaginable amount to lose if an enemy decides that fissile explosions are just as acceptable as chemical ones.

Schelling laments the Senate's failure to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1999 as a missed opportunity to strengthen the taboo--to say that nuclear weapons "are under a curse; we don't even want them tested." The United States should also play down its interest in developing new forms of nuclear weapons. "Our strongest hope to avoid having nuclear weapons used against any of us, Swedes or Americans, is to have countries like Iran and North Korea know that ... any use of nuclear weapons will be severely castigated." We want the Iranians to view nuclear weapons as a tool for deterrence that they can never actually use. We will be the ones deterred if the mullahs have nukes, but we can live with that.

Posted by peterlevine at December 12, 2005 11:29 AM

Comments

For those of us who haven't heard, in what category did Schelling get the Nobel Prize? Is it for Peace?

Posted by: airth10 [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 12, 2005 03:58 PM

Economics--for his contributions to game theory.

Posted by: Peter Levine [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 12, 2005 08:34 PM

Next problem: loose nukes. We have a lot to be thankful for and the threat of wiping out civilization is gone, but there's still much to be feared and actions to be taken.

Posted by: Michael Weiksner [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 16, 2005 11:40 PM

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