TCS Daily

The Game Theory of Nuclear Proliferation

By Tyler Cowen - September 25, 2003 12:00 AM

Today's newspapers are filled with tales of nuclear proliferation. North Korea claims to have at least one nuclear weapon and Iran appears to be not far behind. More generally, the spread of science soon will put nuclear weapons within the reach of many more political units.


Terrorists are one big problem, but let us focus on countries, which are ahead in the race. How worried should we be about proliferation? After all, the only time that nuclear weapons were used was when only a single country, the United States, had the bomb. What would the world be like with many more nuclear powers?


The optimistic scenario runs as follows: once a country has nuclear weapons, its behavior will change. Nuclear weapons will give it more regional influence and a greater ability to extract concessions, favors, and tribute from its neighbors. The leaders will then have more to lose and will behave conservatively rather than recklessly. Think of the former Soviet Union. An evil government if there ever was one, but the country carried around an empire of influence, which gave them a vested interest in the status quo of the time. An Iran with nuclear weapons might pursue an analogous path.


An extreme optimist could give the argument a further twist. An Iran with nuclear weapons would be a supreme Islamic power in the Middle East (Pakistan tends to obsess about India, not Israel). It could extend its reach and push around the Arab countries. It might hold power jealously and distance itself from radical terrorists. We also can imagine that a new and "arrogant" nuclear power, whether Islamic or not, would itself become a new regional target, thereby distracting terrorist attention from the United States.


Can we be optimistic about North Korea as well? Here is the positive spin. We simply need to start paying them tribute, whether directly or indirectly. Why then would they sell nukes to terrorists, thereby endangering their cash cow?


Keep in mind that the North Koreans fear U.S. retaliation, not to mention the Chinese, who might worry less about civilian casualties in South Korea. Could the North Koreans really expect to sell a nuclear weapon to terrorists and keep it a secret? Just think how easily the terrorists could then blackmail them, after the fact, with this information.


OK, so why am I not so optimistic? Quite simply, political leaders are often delusional rather than rational.


Standard game theory assumes that people have the same common understanding of the structure of the game, more technically it assumes "common knowledge." But political leaders often perceive the world in very different terms. Does George W. Bush have any clear idea of how the North Korean leadership thinks? Did we fathom Saddam Hussein's motives very clearly?


Go back to the Iraq war and the controversies over the weapons of mass destruction. Put aside your partisan views about what we should have done, and what kinds of weapons we still might or might not find. The bottom line is this: months after the end of the invasion, we still don't know what was going on in Saddam's mind, and why he refused to disarm transparently. Did he prefer to hide the weapons very very well? Did he half-pretend to have the weapons to deter us? Did he half-pretend to have the weapons out of pride? To scare the Kurds? Did he view Bush's threats as mere posturing? Did his subordinates exaggerate the progress of weapons programs, to avoid punishment, thereby feeding us false intelligence?


The blogosphere has analyzed this to death, and you may have your favorite explanation, but we still do not know. Critics charge alternately that Bush is lying, delusional, stupid, or misinformed by incompetent subordinates. Some of his defenders say he is brilliant. They can't all be right about the same man at the same point in time on the same decision. And that is when American and European citizens try to figure out the American President, a relatively simple task. How well could a foreign leader, armed with nuclear weapons, read the behavior of our President in a highly emotional situation?


Recall also that many commentators thought that the French would back down and support the Iraq war. How well did we read Chirac?


When we confront an opponent with nuclear weapons, we will misread cues, signals, threats, and responses, most of all when the opponent stands outside of Western culture. They will misread us in turn. We run the risk of unintended escalation from deluded sets of leaders, noting that you need only one side to make a fatal mistake. The more countries have nuclear weapons, the more likely is such a mistake to happen, and we haven't even considered the problem of non-deterrable terrorists. That is why I view the nuclear future with trepidation.


Tyler Cowen is Professor of Economics at George Mason University, he writes for and on a regular basis.

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