Monday, August 6, 2012

I Can't Believe I'm Defending Waltz

. Monday, August 6, 2012

Over at the Duck of Minerva, Patrick Porter takes issue with Kenneth Waltz's argument that it would be no horrible thing if Iran got the Bomb. Read those before you read this...

... So Porter's right about the trembling hand. But I don't think he's being fair to Waltz (and I'm not generally inclined to give Waltz the charitable reading, but the old man has a few points that Porter hasn't dealt with).

1. We're in probabilistic territory here. The question is not "would a nuclear exchange be horrible" or even "would the pursuit of more advanced weapons exacerbate some already-existing tensions". The question is "is the likelihood of bad outcomes higher or lower if Iran gets the bomb, relative to other feasible counterfactuals". In other words, we need to specify values for two variables: the probabilities for nuclear conflict and conventional conflict, and the likely cost of those conflicts. This is hard, but it's really the whole exercise. Suppose, over the next two decades, that there was a 1% chance of 10 million deaths from a nuclear exchange involving Iran, and a 30% chance of 1 million deaths from a conventional war involving Iran. If we had to choose between the two, we'd have to accept the possibility of a nuclear exchange as being objectively better. We don't get to choose "none of the above"... that's Waltz's point. Maybe you'd assign different probabilities and/or different costs to those outcomes, but the point is that Waltz is forcing us to be precise. It's not enough to just say "nuclear war would be horrible".

That's the whole reason why Waltz keeps citing India/Pakistan. Porter writes: "In the wake of 9/11, a Pakistani army general warned India that his country could launch a rapid nuclear attack, telling Alastair Campbell to remind the Indians: ‘It takes us eight seconds to get the missiles over.’ If this volatile frontier is a signpost of things to come in the Gulf, then the future is dark."

How so? It's been a decade since then, with no significant casualties. Tensions now are lower than they were before both states went nuclear, and the trend is in a positive direction. How is that a "dark future" relevant to feasible alternative scenarios?

2. Regarding missing Armageddon through luck... yes. And I agree that the trembling hand is not to be taken lightly. But it is not only present in nuclear exchange. Nuclear conflicts may be more likely to escalate more quickly than conventional wars -- although we don't really know, since it hasn't ever happened -- but other conflicts still escalate. Waltz's argument, which must be taken seriously, is that the very severity of a nuclear exchange mitigates the effect of the trembling hand. To use Porter's examples of close calls, the Soviet officers worked hard to dissuade their commander from firing nukes just in case it was a false alarm. The Kennedy administration held back in 1962 just in case there might be nuclear retaliation. They did these things precisely because nuclear war would be so horrible that they didn't want to chance it. At every knife-edge point we've had someone has made the decision that a nuclear holocaust would not be initiated by him. At every chance, the trembling hand has pulled back from the button. That observation does not mean that we'll always be so lucky, but it does imply that luck isn't the only factor in operation.

3. Suppose you disagree with my #1, and think that the probability of a nuclear exchange and/or the costs of one are higher than I've put down. If that is the case, then aren't you required to advocate for a pre-emptive strike against Iran? One can't have things both ways... either the risk of a nuclear Iran is acceptable or it is not. Porter doesn't make it clear where he stands on this question. But to criticize Waltz -- who does make it clear where he stands -- he must. Porter leaves the impression that Waltz is being flippant, but I don't think that he is. Waltz is making calculations. They may be "ahistorical" -- in fact they must be, since there is no history of mutual nuclear exchange -- and they may be based on Waltz's gut, but they are calculations nonetheless.

Waltz is right about one thing: there is a correlation between nuclear capability and peace. Perhaps the correlation is spurious. Perhaps not. But it is correlation, and it can't just be dismissed.


Dani said...

Spot on.

Phil Arena said...

Good post.

I find it sad that debates about nuclear deterrence in 2012 are not appreciably different from those in 1992. The real key is, as you rightly note, whether that correlation is spurious. And we still don't know. It may well be. Gartzke and Jo make a pretty compelling case that possession of nuclear weapons has no impact on the probability of conventional conflict (2007 JCR). But we don't really know for sure, and simply ignoring the issue while focusing on how bad it would be if a nuclear holocaust were to occur doesn't do justice to Waltz's (admittedly flawed) argument.

Phil Arena said...

(Sorry, meant the 2009 JCR, not the 2007 one.)

Chris Cyr said...

Great post. I agree with your first two points. The India/Pakistan case reminds me of some of the critiques of democratic peace that look at cases of democracies coming close to (but not) fighting, and argue that they somehow represent evidence against the theory. The important part is that India and Pakistan did not go to war with each other.

I am not sure about your third point, however. As Porter's original post says, we are not currently sure that Iran will go forward with building a bomb. If the probability that they do is low enough, then it is possible to oppose a nuclear-armed Iran and also oppose a preemptive strike. It just requires believing that the utility of the status quo is greater than the utility of a war with a non-nuclear Iran.

Kindred Winecoff said...

Phil -

1. I like that Gartzke/Jo article, but it's just hard to know. Here's a key bit from that article (p 214): "First, while optimists and pessimists each make valid points, their claims tend to work in opposite directions; if both views are (partially) correct, then the net effect is to diminish observable results of either perspective. Second, to the degree that nuclear weapons matter politically, they should tend to yield different self-enforcing settlements, regardless of whether nations fight or not. The effect of proliferation on influence and on conflict
is then substitutes."

I would note, as I must, that the Gartzke/Jo empirical analysis is dyadic; I believe that this makes even less sense than it usually does, what with nuclear umbrellas and security guarantees from the US and all. Not sure I buy their instrument, either, but I almost never do.

Chris -

Your criticism of my third point is certainly valid, and as I was writing the post I considered including a discussion of that as well. I decided not to partly to keep things short and simple. The only thing that really changes is that you fold some probability of Iran actually getting the bomb back into my #1. I.e., suppose that my imagined 1% probability of a nuclear exchange already contains embedded within it the probability that Iran actually gets the bomb.

Ralph Hitchens said...

I suspect Iran is playing the same game Saddam played, only with more subtlety. Saddam was in fact largely in compliance with the sanctions, only it was to his perceived advantage to be seen as defying the US. Of course in the end the Bush Administration bought into his Potemkin Village and it put a rope around his neck, but this is hardly likely to happen in the case of Iran. Furthermore, Iran's behavior in the international arena has been relatively conservative, I would argue, and that would not change if they overtly developed a usable nuclear weapon.

Phil Arena said...

You're right, it's very hard to know. I'm sympathetic to their argument, but their analysis is definitely not sufficient to put the matter to rest. I think you're absolutely right that the dyadic design is particularly problematic here, and there are always questions about the quality of instruments.

I Can't Believe I'm Defending Waltz
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