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Nuclear Game Theory

Game Theory can be used to show the incentive for economic agents to cooperate so that they may all benefit. For example, two or more firms may agree to charge higher prices for their similar goods and not to undercut each other so that each firm may make more profit than if they were competing on price. Game Theory can also be used to show the incentive to 'cheat' on the agreement leading to a breakdown of cooperation and an increase in hostile competitiveness. A firm may be tempted to break the agreement by undercutting the other firms that are selling at the agreed upon higher price, for example. But how does Game Theory apply when the implications are more serious than pricing strategies? How does it apply when all-out nuclear war is at stake?


Modern atomic warfare would be catastrophic. A single nuclear bomb dropped over Hiroshima in Japan at the end of the Second World War killed between 90,000 and 146,000 people. A single bomb. Some of today's nuclear bombs are over 3,000 times as powerful as the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. Imagine the destruction that could be caused by 9,500 of today's weapons, the estimated number of nuclear bombs in military service. Millions would perish, vast areas of densely populated cities would be rendered uninhabitable for decades. The world could be plunged into a nuclear winter, causing mass starvation and riots in at least one hemisphere and the total collapse of global order. Excluding perhaps a handful of sociopathic maniacs and terrorists, nobody wants nuclear war. So why are scarce resources being pumped into developing and maintaining nuclear stockpiles by the world’s most developed countries in preparation for a war that nobody wants? The answer is distrust. No side trusts the others not to take advantage of them if they were to disarm themselves of weapons of mass destruction. That distrust, of course, engenders a need for deterrent.


Currently, nine countries are thought to have nuclear weapons programs (with some ambiguity over Israel). 90% of warheads are possessed by the US and Russia. It is argued that both sides maintain the stockpiles to deter the other from declaring war because they know the result would be so horrific. The notion of mutually assured destruction begs the question: if both sides are developing ever more destructive weapons in an attempt to reduce the liklihood of them ever being used, could not some arrangement be made whereby both sides dismantle all nuclear weapons? Surely that is the only way to truly reduce the risk of nuclear war to 0%. Doing so would also eliminate the risk of ‘accidental’ war caused by rapidly escalating tensions over what may be a misunderstanding.


It seems highly unlikely that the powers that be would allow the world to become embroiled in a nuclear apocalypse over a misunderstanding. However, consider that it very nearly happened during the Cuban Missile Crisis when U.S Navy destroyers attacked the Soviet submarine B-59 with explosive charges in international waters. The Americans meant only to force the submarine to surface and leave. They did not know that the submarine crew had lost contact with Moscow days before, and had no idea whether World War III had started or not. More alarmingly, the Americans also did not know that the submarine was carrying a nuclear torpedo which it was authorised to fire without confirmation from higherups in Moscow. In fact, the submarine’s captain gave the order to fire. With a damaged sub and a crew on the brink of carbon dioxide poisoning, the torpedo officer is reported to have madly screamed the chilling words, “Maybe the war has already started up there. We’re going to blast them now! We’ll die, but we’ll sink them all! We will not disgrace our navy! Fortunately for humanity, three senior officers were required to unanimously decide to launch the torpedo, one of whom refused. Had Vasili Arkhipov not refused to approve the attack from that Soviet submarine that day, humanity would not be the same today. Humanity may not even exist today. Arkhipov saved the world, and yet, you have probably never heard of him.


Having established that for as long as nuclear weapons are kept, there is a risk of catastrophe, consider the matrix in figure 1.


Figure 1

The matrix represents a simplified situation whereby two nations, Country X and Country Y, have the option of being nuclear or non-nuclear. The optimal outcome for humanity is the bottom right quadrant where neither country has nuclear weapons and there is 0% chance of nuclear war. However, in that event, both nations would have an incentive to develop nuclear arsenals in order to have a massive military advantage over the other who does not have such weapons, following the blue arrows to the events where either Country X or Country Y is dominant. Once the agreement has been broken, the other nation will also develop nuclear arsenals for defence reaching the inevitable event where both nations are nuclearised and there is a risk of nuclear war.


Does Game Theory apply when the future of the survival of the human race is potentially at stake? It appears so. Is it possible that the world could denuclearise entirely and remain in the bottom-right quadrant at some point in the future? Of course, but that would require the trust and cooperation of all nations, a feat which has rarely, if ever, occurred in history. It can be argued that a denuclearised world is not necessarily more peaceful than a nuclearised one since reduced disincentives of war could increase the likelihood of conflict which can be devastating enough without weapons of mass destruction, as evidenced by the First World War. It should be remembered, however, that although a world with nuclear powers may seem more peaceful, it only needs to go badly wrong once to result in Earth’s 6th mass extinction.

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