Belmont Club

Mutually Assured Stupidity

The State Department has published an unofficial report on a proposed new doctrine that will guide the US relationship, primarily with Russia, but also with the world. It is described as “mutually assured stability” in which “increasingly interdependent states having incentives to cooperate on political, military, and economic issues, [act and thereby] reducing the need for adversarial approaches to managing security challenges.”

The report’s authors explain what steps must be undertaken to achieve this desirable “end state” but decline to say whether that pathway is feasible or not. “This report does not assess the feasibility of the desired end state, nor the feasibility of achieving the proposed essential components.” The basic roadmap consists of a staged build-down of nuclear weapons stockpiles with Russia, getting the stockpiles of rogue nuclear powers under control and lastly confidence building measures and economic cooperation.

At the end of the process Russia/USSR should no longer be the notional enemy. In the new scheme of things either everyone is the enemy or nobody is. According to Recommendation #4:

Recommendation 4. Change U.S. doctrine and posture away from defining our nuclear posture based on perception of Russia as the primary threat, toward a doctrine of general deterrence, a posture in which attacks from any direction are discouraged without singling out a particular adversary or enemy (reciprocal action required).

To that end, the reports proposes create a kind of super nuclear weapons crime lab so that groups which might aggress may be sure they will be found out and brought to justice. This concept is called Mutual Assured Attribution. “Mutual Assured Attribution: Related to achieving Effective Clarity and building on national nuclear forensics capabilities developed during the Cold War, but advanced by new technologies, cooperating nations work to assure detection and attribution of fissile materials or nuclear weapons found loose anywhere in the world, prior to or after a nuclear detonation. Potential rogue states or terrorist groups must be deterred from believing they could conduct attacks under a cloak of anonymity.”

Then presumably some mechanism of justice will swing into action. In one tantalizing paragraph the report hints at some kind of mechanism for sanctions, but there is nothing definite about it, except to hint that the punishment or warning will fit the crime.

When prevention through means such as effective clarity fails and surprise occurs, nations must have means of action, possibly through allies and partners and including defense, dissuasion, and counter-actions.

It is then the reader realizes why the study’s authors refused to guaranty the feasibility of the roadmap. The two paragraphs above show why the new concept of Mutual Assured Stability is a completely different game from the classic deterrence model of mutually assured destruction. There are two key differences between the two models.

First. During the Cold War there were two known actors in the game. The US and the USSR. Us versus them. In the new model proposed by the State Department, nobody even knows who the players are. That is in fact to be determined by the sleuthing of a nuclear crime so the international community will point a finger in unison. You will know the enemy only after you have been struck — and the lab results come in. Whether this is feasible is nothing to the point. The key fact is that while the enemy was a constant in the Cold War, in the new game the enemy is a variable in X, instantiated only on assignment.

Second. During the Cold War the consequences of an attack were clearly known to all players. There was nothing ambiguous about it. It was crystal clear. There were multiple means on both sides for assuring the outcome so that the chain of events could never be in doubt. If one player attacked the other then both died. The paradigm was descrbed as “two scorpions in a bottle”. And since both scorpions wanted to live neither died. The new paradigm is a scorpion looking under rocks for the other scorpion — but only after he has been stung.

Will this work? Who knows. But the game theoretic is not promising.

Perhaps the most bizarre recommendation in the new scheme of things and indicator of the study group’s almost desperate attempts to make this new concept work is this proposal.

Public Health and Other Quality of Life Cooperation: Cooperating nations join together on a full range of public health and quality of life issues of mutual interest. The goal is the creation of benefit to countries that may counter perceived value from armed conflict.

The idea that offering other countries some kind of Obamacare in order to persuade them lay down their nuclear weapons is commendable for its optimism. But it’s feasibility is open to doubt. Perhaps the most mordant commentary on the idea of mutually assured stability as a doctrine were provided by events themselves. The New York Times heads its story “Progress Is Cited on New Reactor in North Korea” by which is meant North Korea is building nuclear weapons.

SEOUL, South Korea — While the region’s attention has remained focused on whether the new North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, can consolidate his power, his country has been making significant progress in the construction of a new reactor widely seen as a cover for making more fuel for nuclear weapons, analysts say, citing satellite imagery of the building site. …

The experimental light-water reactor under construction — and North Korea’s efforts to enrich uranium — could eventually provide the country with a means to increase its nuclear stockpile significantly, experts have warned.

On the other side of the world Reuters reports that “the U.N. nuclear watchdog will try to persuade Iran to address questions about its suspected nuclear weapons research at a meeting on Friday, more than two months after previous talks ended in failure.”

This is relevant because the best predictor of the effectiveness of “mutual assured stability” is the corresponding effectiveness of the very similar efforts being undertaken today. Hillary’s “reset button” with Russia; the IAEA’s efforts to stop nuclear proliferation; the State Department’s offerings of aid to countries like North Korea to stop building bombs. All have been tried. But which of these have worked? And what does this tell us about the prospects of a much larger program working based on the success encountered so far?

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