Bryan Caplan  

Did MAD Work - Or Did We Just Get Lucky?

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I think it's obvious that the Soviet Union was a vastly greater threat to the U.S. than Islamic terrorism will ever be. But some readers don't agree; in their view, the practice of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) meant that, in practice, the Cold War was never going to turn hot.

I don't deny that the threat of mutual annihilation reduced the probability of an all-out war between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. But I am far from convinced that it reduced the risk to anything like 0%. After all, there were a number of near misses and false alarms; and in any case, revolutionary Communists are notorious risk-takers.

Imagine this thought experiment: Suppose we "re-ran" world history from 1945 to 1991 a hundred times. Put hindsight bias aside. How often would we approximately get the peaceful resolution that actually happened? How often would get get something much worse? And how often would we get a full-blown nuclear war?


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COMMENTS (23 to date)
Randy writes:

Very good question. Being a retired cold war vet, and knowing that the Soviets were constantly probing for any sign of weakness, I'd say we would get something much worse at least 50 times out of 100, and full blown nuclear war somewhere around 10. It was a very high risk game - and it isn't over.

David J. Balan writes:

This is a great point, and very relevant for people who are blithely confident that the existence of MAD somehow means we don't need to worry too much about regimes like Iran getting WMDs. (People can reasonably differ about what ought to be done about the problem of WMDs, which is a genuinely complicated one both practically and morally, but the ones who think there is no serious problem are just crazy).

Troy Camplin writes:

I think so long as we continued using such game theoretic approaches as MAD, the risk would remain low in each pass. WIth the Soviets, to win did not mean annihilation -- to win meant world communism. With suicide bombers, to win means death, and the killing of as many people as possible as you die. I'm not sure what game theoretic approach would overcome that approach.

I think too that with the Soviets vs. terrorists, we are making the mistake of thinking that only big causes have big effects, and small causes have small effects. As economists, I know you know that that is not the case, that in fact butterfly effects are more often the norm, and that bottom-up effects are more prevalent than top-down ones.

In any case, both are cancerous memes that need to be stamped out. Cancer is the opposite of health, as I observe on my blog here on my blog.

8 writes:

MAD isn't a good idea, it's just better than all the rest. It isn't designed to prevent war, only full-blown nuclear war.

Also, consider that the Cold War ended after Reagan put nuclear missiles in Germany and devised Star Wars, potentially giving the U.S. first strike capability. Destabilization did not provoke a war, it ended the war.

If we re-ran history, my guess is that tactical nukes may have been used several times (most likely against China in the Korean War), but strategic nukes were never used intentionally, maybe there are one or two accidental launches, but not a doomsday salvo.

Have you read Red Storm Rising? Clancy envisioned a plausible scenario whereby the US and USSR fight a full scale war without using nukes.

TGGP writes:

We got lucky: MAD worked. I think MAD is good, but not perfect.

Eric Crampton writes:

Ok, Bryan, fess up. Have you just re-watched War Games?

Les writes:

You have not addressed the issues raised by those of us who disagree with your contention that Islamic terrorists are less of a threat than the USSR.

Try this thought experiment: a nuclear warhead is fired from a submarine about 10 miles off the east coast of Long Island. The nuke wipes out every living soul in Manhattan. The submarine disappears and cannot be tracked. No-one knows if the submarine is crewed by Iran, Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezballah, North Korea, or whoever.

What, if anything, should the U.S, do?

Troy Camplin writes:

The U.S. would do exactly what it did this last time. We would take out all the regimes that could potentially have been involved -- precisely to protect ourselves from something like that happening again, from either the actual source, or a copycat.

Dr. T writes:

I think we would have avoided nuclear war 100 times out of 100. I think we would have avoided non-nuclear war at least 95 times out of 100.

I believe that MAD worked, but only because the side that was least likely to launch a first strike also was the side with technological superiority. If the USSR had ICBMs as reliable and accurate as ours, then MAD might have failed.

ed writes:

I don't understand the question. What is the source of randomness in your model? If the world is more or less deterministic at the macro level, then we'd get about the same outcomes every time (even though they were hard to foresee in advance.) Do you think that quantum randomness would change things, like a butterfly flapping its wings changes the weather?

TGGP writes:

Try this thought experiment: a nuclear warhead is fired from a submarine about 10 miles off the east coast of Long Island. The nuke wipes out every living soul in Manhattan. The submarine disappears and cannot be tracked. No-one knows if the submarine is crewed by Iran, Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezballah, North Korea, or whoever.
Do you even know the naval capabilities of other countries? Greg Cochran seems to. The U.S dominates the rest of the world militarily. The only terrorist group with a navy (or an air-force) are the Tamil Tigers.

Barkley Rosser writes:

Anyone who has seen the movie "Thirteen Days" will understand that we came a whole lot closer to a nuclear war with the Soviets during the Cuban missile crisis than is commonly understood. It really did get down to a point where at certain critical moments a minor goof by an individual here or there would have set the whole thing off. Indeed, my understanding is (not from the movie but another source) that at the most dangerous moment it was a Soviet sub commander who on his own initiative ignored certain rules and directives, who saved us all at that time from a full blown nuclear war.

Steve Sailer writes:

"Did MAD Work - Or Did We Just Get Lucky?"

Both.

Punditus Maximus writes:

Keep in mind that US history is massively influenced by a few key assassinations; without those, Vietnam would have been the name of one of those little countries that ended up Communist until it didn't matter anymore, then converted back.

Video writes:

75+ we make it through.
Don't know if this is apocraphal or exageraged http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2004/05/21/world/main618901.shtml
But that sounds like a much closer call than Cuba to me, with all the time pressure and unknown information the dude had to deal with.

[Link made visible. Video: It actually was working, but there was nothing visible for a reader to click. You just have to put something--a word or the url again--between the <a href=...> and the </a> portions of the code.--Econlib Ed.]

Video writes:

Here (I hope) is the link that didn't work:
http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2004/05/21/world/main618901.shtml

spencer writes:

Imagine the Cuban missile crises with Bush as president.

Cliff Styles writes:

Reminds me of Nassim Taleb's 'Fooled By Randomness' and his comments on history.

Perhaps the thought experiment should be expanded - do the 100 past scenarios on the cold war (expanded to include the other nuclear powers), and then do another 100 scenarios for the future of the conflict with the jihadis...and compare the numbers.

One relevant factor: during the cold war, the manufacture and delivery of nuclear weapons took the resources of a significant government. The future of weaponry suggests that such resources will no longer be required.

Another relevant factor, quite unlike the MAD of the cold war: many independently operating groups of fanatics, each with their own independent 'entrepreneurial' spirit. They are profoundly motivated and unafraid of death. Not much chance of a strategy of MAD ever taking hold there.

I find it difficult to share Dr. Caplan's comfort level with the jihadi threat. How different do the numbers from the two scenarios have to be to reach Dr. Caplan's level of confidence? Didn't Taleb have some point about underestimating the probability of catastrophic events?

Barkley Rosser writes:

video,

My memory may have been off. When I described a Soviet sub commander disobeying directives, I may have been remembering the Petrov account erroneously. As it was, the Cuban missile crisis was close enough, but by 1983, both sides had a whole lot more missiles and bombs. A full scale nuclear war in 1962 probably would not have wiped out humanity. One in 1983 would very likely have done so.

jaim klein writes:

When did MAD end? It is still running.

Taimyoboi writes:

"I find it difficult to share Dr. Caplan's comfort level with the jihadi threat. How different do the numbers from the two scenarios have to be to reach Dr. Caplan's level of confidence?"

I also share a disagreement with Dr. Caplan's viewpoint. I don't think that communism was such a psycologically motivating factor for the populace as Islamism is.

You may have had two goverments that despised each other but the people on the ground (at least on their side) didn't share in that fundamental disagreement about life. Islamism, however, strikes me as a ground up swelling, not a top-down one as communism was.

Bob Hawkins writes:

Just to throw in a complicating factor, this book claims that the KGB tried to provoke a nuclear exchange between China and the US. The presence of a third country with a significant nuclear arsenal complicates MAD pretty badly.

jaim klein writes:

Yes. MAD with China thrown it gets complicated and with n=4 participants, unsolvable. There are always the mineshafts.

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