Schelling and the Nuclear Taboo

Thomas Schelling’s Nobel Lecture is pretty similar to the point made by Eliezer the other day.  Here’s the first couple of paragraphs.

The most spectacular event of the past half century is one that did not occur.  We have enjoyed sixty years without nuclear weapons exploded in anger.

What a stunning achievement – or, if not achievement, what stunning good fortune.  In 1960 the British novelist C. P. Snow said on the front page of the New York Times that unless the nuclear powers drastically reduced their nuclear armaments thermonuclear warfare within the decade was a “mathematical certainty.”  Nobody appeared to think Snow’s statement extravagant.

We now have that mathematical certainty compounded more than four times, and no nuclear war.  Can we make it through another half dozen decades?

There has never been any doubt about the military effectiveness of nuclear weapons or their potential for terror.  A large part of the credit for their not having been used must be due to the “taboo” that Secretary of State Dulles perceived to have attached itself to these weapons as early as 1953, a taboo that the Secretary deplored.

Later on in the lecture, Schelling acknowledges that it’s not absolutely impossible to imagine a scenario where the world would be better off without a categorical (and in some very narrow sense "irrational") taboo on the use of nuclear weapons.  But he dismisses this possibility and refers to the taboo as "an asset to be treasured."

I would add that there is something particularly creepy about the kind of people who love pointing out things like the fact that the smallest nuclear weapon is no more destructive than the biggest conventional weapon, so there’s no special reason not to use them.  Those people don’t make that argument because they care so darn much about whatever specific tactical mission a small nuclear weapon would be especially useful for.  You can see by the glee with which the argument is typically advanced that they’re making it precisely because they like the idea of violating the taboo, which strikes me as further evidence that the taboo is really valuable.

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