Nuclear Weapons and Rationality

Nuclear Weapons and Rationality

James R. Holmes
October 17, 2012

Rationality is one of the central themes of Strategy in the Second Nuclear Age. People gravitate toward an either/or view of this trait, to wit: you’re either rational or you’re irrational. It’s not that simple.

We apply linear logic derived from economics and other fields to our daily lives. When considering some course of action, we estimate the costs, benefits, and pitfalls. We render a decision after judging whether the payoff we expect is worth the effort and risk.

That works reasonably well in everyday life, although it exaggerates how straightforward it is to assign numbers to the variables. What are the units of measurement for “benefits” when we debate whether to purchase a BMW instead of a Kia, or a mansion instead of a cottage? There’s no objective answer, only subjective ones. So much for unadulterated rationality.

Injecting a competitive element into rational decision-making compounds these ambiguities. Nations (and competitors in other fields of endeavor) interact constantly, vying to outdo one another in their quest for power, interest, and prestige. Indeed, interaction is the second core theme of Strategy in the Second Nuclear Age.

Strategist Edward Luttwak contends that linear logic gives way to a “paradoxical logic” of strategy once nations step into the arena of international competition. “Ironic reversals” of momentum are commonplace as thinking antagonists react to—and oftentimes outwit—each other’s designs.

And as economist Thomas Schelling points out, groups of people—societies, big institutions—depart from rationality in a variety of ways, such as inefficient communication, “faulty calculation,” “random or haphazard influences” on the decision-making process, or the sheer complexity of making decisions within groups where the members advocate for perspectives and courses of action sharply at variance with one another.

In short, the motives that drive human beings, the pitfalls of collective decision-making, and the nature of competition conspire to impair rational choice.

All of which is a long-winded way of getting around to today’s topic: apartheid South Africa. We begin a book about Asia with a non-Asian case precisely because it dramatizes how nuclear newcomers can do things that outsiders find wacky. Helen Purkitt and Steve Burgess show that paranoia gripped the apartheid regime in its waning days. Its bunker mentality distorted the rational calculus of foreign policy and strategy.

Pretoria built a small arsenal of tactical nukes, then retrofitted a strategy to the weapons. Apartheid rulers rightly saw their regime as being on “death ground,” to borrow Sun Tzu’s evocative term. Survival concentrates minds—impelling cost/benefit calculations toward expending every resource available for as long as it takes. Strategy can take some bizarre turns when a belligerent considers itself cornered.

For instance, Pretoria ran a variant of the good-cop/bad-cop routine vis-à-vis a hoped-for ally, the United States. The difference: there was no good cop to restrain the bad cop from his worst predilections, and the bad cop was not only bad but slightly unhinged. Should a conflict with the Soviet bloc loom, South African officials planned to gradually disclose that they had a working mass-destruction arsenal at their disposal.

The prospect of nuclear-armed government’s running amok, believed regime officials, would compel Washington to take Pretoria’s side against Moscow and its African surrogates. Why U.S. leaders would back them under such circumstances, apartheid leaders never explained. Staring political death in the face, Pretoria fashioned a strategy of desperation.

Thomas Schelling observes that in hard bargaining, being seen as less-than-fully rational confers significant advantages. In other words, your interlocutors may appease you for fear of what you may do if pushed. Schelling could have been writing about apartheid South Africa—or about recent nuclear newcomers such as North Korea, Iran, or Pakistan.