Sunday, December 31, 2006

60 years of silence: Schelling's Nobel lecture

Now for Thomas Schelling turn: the 2005 Nobel lecture (REALPLAYER format). If you'd like to watch it on a window, click here. And here is the text.

In the aftermath of 9-11, I was invited to a conference on global terrorism in Japan; in which one of the unforgettable moments was an ominous talk held in Hiroshima, from a survivor of the atomic bomb. That was, of course, after a visit to the peace memorial, and the museum carrying, among other things, the sight of dozens of watches, all broken at the same time by the blast; or concrete structures holding an "human atomic shadow".

Why haven't countries dropped atomic bombs against each other in the last 60 years? There were plenty of bitter, grotesque, wars opportunities for such decision to be made. Yet, it hasn't materialized. As one of the prominent game-theoreticians involved in the arms race, Schelling offers a particularly rich perspective over this question.

What I find particularly interesting about his talk is that his analysis highly supports our view that decisions are embedded into perception. Perception molds one's options; throwing some options to the foreground, others to the background. How a power perceives atomic bombs embeds the power's actual propensity to use it. If your analogy is "the a-bomb is like a bullet", you just might have more propensity to pull that trigger than you'd have if your analogy were to "chemical or biological weapons".

Here are some excerpts: 1953, the US National Security Council brings out a statement mentioning that they should resist "the moral problem in the inhibitions to use the a-bomb";
...shortly followed by "the US will consider nuclear weapons to be as available for use as other munitions";
..."Nuclear weapons must now be treated as in fact having become conventional"

President Johnson, on the other hand, would later proclaim that "there is no such thing as a conventional nuclear weapon"; "to deploy it is a political decision of the highest order".

Perception of nuclear weapons has changed a lot since Hiroshima; a lot of the credit should go to scientists which fought to enhance consciousness and to provide unwelcome news for the generals, such as the thought of nuclear winter. Take, for instance, slides 69 to 75 of this class for some sobering views of the arsenal circa 1981. We have had a good 60 years of restraint from that button. Let's hope for work on more.

Notes: (i) You need REALPLAYER to watch this stream; (ii) your browser might have a cached copy of another video; so if a different video starts, click on this Post's title to watch it.