Thursday, February 09, 2006

Is Schelling still relevant?

After reading Schelling and thinking about our discussion last week I cannot help but wonder how truly relevant "Arms and Influence" is today. The idea that nuclear war might break out seems even more unlikely than when Schelling wrote his work as we've now added nearly 40 years to non-nuclear combat. My main reasoning for thinking that Schelling may not be applicable is that looming threats which are nuclear in nature to the United States and its allies are no longer from the Soviet Union with a formidable nuclear arsenal. Rather we are most concerned, and I would argue rightly so, with rogue states acquiring nukes and passing them onto terrorist organizations or perhaps a dirty bomb attack in a crowded American city.

It seems that deterrence as discussed in Schelling would certainly make it extremely unlikely that any considerably nuclear armed state, Russia if you'd like to keep some post-Cold War animosity, would consider attacking the US due to the certainty that we would respond in kind. Does deterrence of any kind truly work against the failed states, repressive regimes, and terrorist organizations from whom we feel most threatened. Technological and military superiority have done little to deter the Iraqi insurgency from continuing to fight. I question if we are perhaps putting too much stock in the rational actor theory, that all states and leaders of states will make rational decisions in the best interest of their people. Can President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran truly be considered rational. It is not clear that Iran or any other despotic regime would not be willing to chance nuclear retaliation on its own territory for the opportunity to reach a desired goal, perhaps the destruction of Israel. A lack of rationality becomes even more likely when dealing with terrorists who operate as stateless actors, thus making it difficult for retaliatory strikes to be paid in kind should the US be attacked in some form. Ultimately, the question becomes for all of our nuclear might, is deterrence really protecting us from our most immediate threats?

3 comments:

Meow said...

Perhaps I missed the point(and it wouldn't be the first time), but I thought one of the main ideas behind Schelling was that violence was in part about communication and not merely about deterrence.

Schelling's logic is that a party can use violence to communicate displeasure with a given course of action, even act upon another party to produce a response. We remember the basic dissuasion vs. coercion discussion from the course.

I'd say terrorism fits into that model, albeit one-sidedly.

Let's take 9/11. That was a demonstration by Al-Quaeda that they possessed the ability to harm the United States. The target was selected rather carefully: the World Trade Center in New York, a symbol of the Western Capitalist system, and the group attacked it. The pentagon represented the American military establishment, and I don't think I need to explain the White House. These are carefully planned out uses of violence perpetuated on carefully chosen targets that send a message to the United States. The message is pretty clear: 'We don't like you and your intervention in our region', but note that they're still leaving us cities and infrastructures to lose. That sounds like Shelling-logic to me.

Now, with non-state actors, Schelling starts to break down because his formula for deterrence depends on the existence of a franchised state with something to lose. With Al-Quaeda, these are men and women with nothing to lose, which they demonstrate via suicide bombings. They have already decided there is nothing to lose, which is what makes them so dangerous.

However, they have to be supplied by networks of individuals that function as part of a state and therefore do have something to lose, and that's where Schelling-logic comes into play, at least to a certain extent. We can, if we so choose, use violence to indicate our resolve to find these people to the supporting nation. (assuming state sponsored terrorism) Now, whether that's an intelligent move, is an entirely different question.

Faust said...

Meow what I am discussing in my post is the concept of nuclear deterrence as discussed by Schelling. And I believe that an act of terrorism would fall into compellence, not deterrence. A large part of deterrence is that the other guy has to know that you can and will take a certain course of action if necessary.

Meow said...

That's the fun part, isn't it--determining compellence v. deterrence. I agree with the discussion that that's where Schelling breaks down. They may believe they're deterring us whereas we may see it as compellence or vice versa.

As for your last statement...I'm not entirely certain that it doesn't fit. Intellectually, we do know the course of action terrorist groups will take. We know that they will strike and that they will do so in a manner difficult to anticipate.

Hmmm...it is an intellectual exercise...