Expert Speak Atlantic Files
Published on Dec 19, 2016
Schelling's work on nuclear strategy in the 1950s and 1960s remains the pinnacle of his intellectual work in the post war era
Thomas Schelling and the golden age of American strategy

Thomas Schelling, a 2005 economics Nobel Laureate, passed away on December 13 after a long career as a keen student of human behaviour. Schelling’s work ned the entire gamut of challenges faced by the world following the Second World War, from the implementation of the Marshall Plan in post-war Europe, to the problem of racial segregation in American cities, to climate change.

It was, however, his work on nuclear strategy in the 1950s and 1960s that remains the pinnacle of his intellectual work. Schelling’s 1960 book The Strategy of Conflict is credited to be the foundational text on coercive statecraft – the use of threats to deter or compel an adversary. (The word ‘compellence’ itself – suddenly so much in vogue here in Delhi after the September 29 cross-LoC strikes – is due to Schelling.) By assuming that a logical theory of strategic interdependence – where A’s actions depend on her calculations of B’s reactions and vice-versa – provides the right intellectual framework to understand intra-state behaviour at the cusp of war, Schelling revolutionized how theorists and practitioners since have thought about inter-state bargaining and “the diplomacy of violence” (to use a memorable phrase from Schelling’s 1966 book Arms and Influence).

An appreciation of Schelling’s contributions can only be made when viewed in terms of two intellectual divides. The first is between the fields of strategic and security studies. The second is between, what economist Martin Shubik once called, “conversational,” “low-Church,” and “high-Church” game theory – as, respectively, an account of rational behaviour, as a set of illuminating yet simple examples, and as a full-blown rigorous mathematical modelling tool. As with all intellectual contestation, these divides are not as deep as they are often portrayed to be, but also not as shallow as to be traversed very easily.

Schelling’s career also illuminates the interesting – and complicated – relationship between academia and government policy-making, and the back-and-forth between the two that characterized the lives of many American policy intellectuals who specialized in foreign and strategic affairs in the 1950s and 1960s.

Rational choice and the Bomb

The divide between strategic and security studies is shaped by two competing points of view. Scholars who view themselves as students of strategy would place a premium on a careful examination of historical record. The past, they would hold, contains the keys to the future. This was, emphatically, the weltanschauung of two of the great Cold War scholar-practitioners of American foreign policy: George Kennan and Henry Kissinger. Kissinger went as far as to suggest that a study of history and philosophy provides the right training for anyone aspiring to serve as a nation’s strategist. His study of Metternich and Castlereagh is said to have deeply informed his famous realism.

With the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it soon dawned on to American strategists that the singularly-exceptional power of nuclear weapons poses a unique challenge in terms of their use as weapons of war within the Clausewitzian paradigm – of war as a continuation of policy by other means. If the “absolute weapon” – to use the title of Bernard Brodie’s 1946 book – is not a weapon of war, given that there is no conceivable gain to be made in terms of advancing political goals through its use, then it must be used to prevent war itself. This was the foundational assumption of theories of deterrence.

But there was absolutely no historical precedence of using the threat of war to prevent war and to advance policy objectives. This issue became further accentuated with the Soviets acquiring nuclear capability in 1949. What started out as an issue of questionable political value of the use of nuclear weapons ended by up being a policy dilemma where an American first-use would inevitably invite a Soviet nuclear retaliation. Yields in megatons and ICBMs as delivery systems further pressed for the need to rethink the foundations of strategy itself in the nuclear age.

Enter the economists and the mathematicians. In Princeton, the Hungarian mathematical genius and ardent Cold Warrior John von Neumann – who had already contributed significantly to the development of the hydrogen bomb – wondered (as a scientific advisor to the Joint Chiefs of Staff) whether a branch of mathematics he had invented in the late 1920s could be applied to used to study war as a game of strategy between two nuclear-armed adversaries.

In Santa Monica, California, the air-force-supported RAND Corporation (where von Neumann served as a consultant) directed its team of mathematicians, economists and other technical specialists to the study of the new weapons – and their deployment. At the same time, the United States was quickly becoming the centre of the emerging science of neoclassical microeconomics – the use of fairly sophisticated mathematics to axiomatically treat how individuals make choices in a world where resources are constrained.

Thomas Schelling’s career was shaped by all of these currents. Schelling, a Harvard PhD, had worked on the implementation of the Marshall Plan in Europe which, in turn, shaped his early work in international economics. In what must surely be an unusual career trajectory, Schelling became a professor (first at Yale, then at Harvard, and later in his life, at Maryland) after a few years as a policy economist, and not the other way around.

Schelling was a consultant at the RAND Corporation, like many of his contemporaries. And the publication of Strategy of Conflict in 1960 coincided with the election of John F. Kennedy. Kennedy appointed economist and management specialist Robert McNamara as Secretary of Defence whose Pentagon became a playground for RAND experts and other quantitative-minded specialists. The economists had arrived, and were ready to tackle seemingly-intractable problems of warfare in a nuclear era.

The economists heralded a new era in strategic studies which was not to be grounded in history but in, what they assumed to be universal, human behaviour based on rational choice. (Rationality itself acquired a very specific mathematical meaning in the hands of the economists.) Interdependent behaviour – assuming rationality – was modelled as games of strategy. And the unique nature of warfare and coercive diplomacy in the nuclear era meant that the ideas of “McNamara’s whiz-kids” found as much traction in government as anybody else’s. This is not to say that they went unchallenged. George Kennan, for one – Kennedy’s ambassador to Yugoslavia and a distinguished diplomatic historian – found this sudden attempt to convert grand strategy into a mathematical science unsettling and railed about it.

Had Schelling’s contributions only been to technical aspects of game theory and/or military planning, it would have been appreciated – but not made Schelling as well known or appreciated as he was. What he was to do would be to bring game theory down to earth while adding new theoretical content to that body of knowledge. Schelling viewed game theory not as a branch of mathematics, but as a way of thinking. Indeed, for a professional game theorist, his papers contained almost no mathematics in them.

Consider Schelling’s notion of “focal points” – ‘extra-game’ structures like history, culture, or cartographical features which help players coordinate their expectations without explicit communication. His discussion of focal points was informal in tone, yet precise – and revolutionary – in content.

The notion of focal points also to contributed to a recognition that no matter however mathematically-formal game theory is described on paper, internal logical consistency is not always enough for solutions to games in real life. Thomas Schelling, in effect, claimed that rationality is moulded and shaped by many extra-rational considerations.

Bridging academia and policy-making

The golden age of American strategy, between the mid-1950s and mid-1960s, was also to be characterized by an unusually close relationship between academia and governmental policy-making. Beyond the induction of RAND experts to McNamara’s Pentagon in 1961, the flow of experts through the “BosWash” belt – which linked the great universities of Cambridge, Massachusetts, to the power-corridors of Washington, DC – mutually enriched the theory and practice of strategy. Of these experts, Kissinger is the most well-known example.

But Schelling’s career on the BosWash circuit is unique in two different ways. One, there is hardly any intellectual gap between Schelling’s academic work – Strategy of Conflict was written when he was a Harvard professor – and his role as a governmental advisor. His books informed policy directly; they were also to win him a Nobel prize in economics. Indeed, looking at Schelling’s oeuvre one is hard pressed to find an example of a paper or book that he wrote (beyond his very early work) which was not motivated by policy considerations.

Two, Schelling’s career also exemplified the latent tension between academia and government consultancy which was brought to fore by the Vietnam War. By 1968, it was becoming clear that McNamara’s prescriptions for Vietnam, heavily dependent on precise but spurious quantitative metrics like “kill-ratios,” were not changing the situation on the ground. This was the war Kissinger inherited with Richard Nixon being elected President in 1969. With increasing pressure to end the war, Nixon ordered the bombing of Cambodia in early 1970 to destroy Viet Cong elements that were using parts of that country as a base and safe haven.

The decision to bomb Cambodia was to prove very expensive for Nixon as well as Kissinger in terms of costing them public – and expert – support. And the first to turn against Kissinger was a group of Harvard professors led by Schelling. In a White House meeting on May 8, 1970, this group categorically informed Kissinger that he could no longer count on their counsel. With this decision, Schelling formally severed his ties to the government and would, in time, turn his attention to other – non-military – issues.

Was this due to an aversion to tactics of questionable military value – not to mention, of uncertain standing in the eyes of international law? Was this a reflection of the growing anti-war mood in American campuses? Or was this the result of selfish calculations on the part of Schelling and others to dissociate themselves from what appeared to be a quagmire?

Perhaps all three. Whatever be the reason, Schelling – by bridging academia and policy-making, and rational-choice methods with more historical methods of analysis – transcended what Sigmund Freud termed “the narcissism of small differences.” This, at the end of the day, is Thomas Schelling’s greatest legacy.

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