The Tribune published “You and the Atomic Bomb” in October 1945. It was an article by George Orwell.
Journalists who were technically savvy knew about the bomb long before the public. Some also understood its political significance. One major theory in history states that weapons technology is the foundation of politics and culture. For example, in an era when cheap guns and rifles were readily available, rebel groups could overthrow governments while smaller countries could resist bigger ones, democracy and nationalism thrived. Orwell predicted that the atomic bomb would have the contraintuitive effect of preventing major conflicts. The atomic bomb is “a rare and expensive object as difficult to make as a battleship,” so it is more likely that a few great powers will possess it. However, this could prolong indefinitely a “peace that is not peace”.
Orwell’s prediction that the atomic bomb would stop major war was correct. However, the “rare and expensive” task of building an atomic bomb was no longer possible. Building an atomic bomb was easy with enough nuclear materials. This led to the collapse of American and Soviet Union hegemony. Instead of just two superstates, there was a complex network of countries that served as satellite states for the “West,” which is led by the United States. The “non-West,” which is led by the Soviet Union, and later post-Soviet Russia, became a complex network. The war planners from the United States and Russia created proxy conflicts with countries within their network, rather than threatening smaller powers with nuclear weapons. They fought each other to increase their respective web sizes, but avoided each other. This “implicit agreement”, even after Russia invaded Ukraine, has so far held strong. Why?
The science of game theory was first developed in 1944 by Oskar Morgenstern and John von Neumann, but is now formally known as Babylon. Morgenstern and von Neumann wrote a book about game theory based on von Neumann’s “minimax” theorem. This meant that each player could have a strategy that minimizes his maximum loss, or minimizes the loss he would suffer in the worst-case scenario.
Their book expanded the original theorem beyond its simplified assumptions. This was crucial given the evolving nature of war. War was closer to an information game like chess before the advent of total war. Two armies would meet in the backcountry to fight according to pre-arranged rules. Both sides of conflict used imperfect information in the age of total war. This was the American Civil War. In the nuclear age imperfect information was the norm. With cyber warfare, advanced weapons, missile defense systems and other strategic weapons of mass destruction, you are almost impossible to identify the strategic assets or parameters of your enemy. From a game theory perspective, minimising maximum losses is still the right objective.
What is the best strategy to avoid nuclear war when countries have imperfect information? In an age of imperfect information the key factor is to keep each superpower’s red line as far as possible. Two popular strategies can be used to accomplish this goal. The first is the well-known strategy of the hawk. He claims that “appeasement”, while it may work, doesn’t work and insists that his country should keep pushing as the opposing side will always back down. The argument of the dove is to “stay away from war.”
Both are wrong. It is best to be a hawk within your own backyard and a dove among your enemies’. Biologists call this the Bourgeoisie strategy. To make it work, they need to combine this strategy with knowledge about how real humans make decisions in real life. They must also be able to use their complex and flawed systems of cognition to adapt to different environments. They need to play more like a poker player rather than an academic statistician. Both sides of the Cold War had national security establishments that could understand probability theory and human cognition. Both sides of the Cold War relied upon the Bourgeoisie strategy during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
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International peace is better if Bourgeoisie or Hawk vs. Hawk are preferred to Hawk vs. Hawk. Only one of these three ends in nuclear holocaust. Dove vs. Dove, however appealing in the abstract is not a realistic scenario in a world of self-interested countries. Indulging in fantasies about man’s moral development was not a way to avoid nuclear armageddon during the Cold War.
All knowledge about this strategic paradigm that both sides had during the Cold War is now lost. The situation today is orders of magnitude worse than that of the Cuban Missile Crisis. This is because the nuclear redlines overlap. It’s Hawk-Hawk in Ukraine. While it is not considered a traditional border, the Western elites consider Ukraine an integral part their international political community. They feel more connected to the international community and its boundaries than they do to their nominal borders. The international community’s size has not decreased. The international community has not suffered the same setback as a loss in Ukraine, and they are well aware of the possibility that it could fall apart.
During that time, Kiev was the capital of Russia, just as New York used be. Russia must have it at the very least in its sphere. A fully-western Kiev signals to the ambitious Russians that the Russia Putin and his supporters see is heading for the ashes heap of history and that it’s time for them to join “the West.” This is a fatal diagnosis for any regime. Neither Russia nor the West will back down. In these circumstances, can nuclear war be avoided? While there are obvious ways to end war, it is difficult to do so while keeping each side’s red line on top of the other. This makes nuclear war only a matter time. Russia sees itself as weaker than the Kaiser and believes that now is the right time to fight. Realistic diplomatic solutions must be found to create space between Russia’s red lines and those of the West. Although the Cuban Missile Crisis is a promising example, it’s only possible to find hope if leaders are able to understand the nature and purpose of the game.