Friday, September 16, 2011

Schelling on nuclear terrorism

Thanks to Zack Beauchamp, I've just come across this blog post by nobel laureate and renowned scholar of strategic behavior Thomas Schelling. In it, Schelling tries to understand why his decades-old prediction that a non-state group would soon possess a nuclear weapon seems not to have come true, and then speculates about to what end such a group might apply their weapon if ever they did achieve that feat. It's thought-provoking if not staggeringly original, and it's worth reading if only to consider whether the very concept of "nuclear terrorism" might not be a sort of paradox. After all, wouldn't the coercive power of nuclear weapons possession be far more useful to a political group of any kind than its terroristic value? Well, that's not exactly correct either, is it? The seemingly "irrational" and expressive use of a weapon of mass destruction would in fact be incredibly effective in producing terror, but if we understand terror as a means to convey a broader message or achieve a political end, then couldn't those things be accomplished more readily and effectively by refraining from terror and bargaining more traditionally? c.f.:
If a team is assembled that, in isolation, spends months making a workable bomb, or a few bombs, what will they spend their evening hours talking about? They are all concentrated on a nuclear weapon. Won’t they continually converse about what the thing is good for, what should properly be done with it, how it might be used to advance some important objective, and whether they might have any influence on its use? They will almost certainly have spent more hundreds of hours trying to think strategically about the possible uses of a few nuclear weapons than any head of government, or even senior government adviser has devoted to the question. It’s possible—I think likely—that they may be listened to. And what “strategy” might they propose?
I propose that they will conclude that exploding a weapon over Los Angeles or Vladivostok or Bremen will “waste” the weapon. They will think, “we are a nuclear power. There are the USA, Russia, France, Britain, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea, Maybe Iran, and now US. We have status, power, influence. Let’s use it!”
Schelling is the expert on game-theoretic approaches to strategy and he seems not to have the answers himself, so I'm not going to offer anything conclusive here. Just the same, it's an interesting thought experiment.


  1. Had Qaddafi kept on with his nuke ambitions and produced some good stuff. He would still be in power receiving billions in aid.

  2. Schelling is thinking like a Westerner not a heaven fanatic. Think like the enemy. This has already been covered in "Counterstrike" with another cold war strategist, no?

  3. Er...if you were to think like the enemy/a terrorist, you would probably realize that it's way too complex to make a nuclear bomb (despite what the pundits tell you on TV), and that you're better off spending your terrorist dollars on easier projects, like taking over unstable areas, cyber warfare, drones... You would continue to procure, or pursue the procurement of, enriched uranium, though, because it will freak westerners out and they will treat you with awe and respect and fear.

    For more on how idiotic the idea of terrorists being able to procure nuclear weapons is, check out John Mueller's Atomic obsession.

    It would be great to have a panel discussion with Schelling and Mueller and others.