The Game Theory of MAD

Mutually assured destruction, ironically, has become the keystone factor of world peace. Jon Von Neumann, a US Hungarian mathematician coined the term mutually assured destruction, or MAD, as a way to describe the arms race that is nuclear warfare. Simply put, neither of two parties will be the first to strike with nuclear weapons knowing full well that their opponent has a second strike capability. In this sense, neither party will become an aggressor when the costs are more than the gains (the costs being nuclear warfare and fallout domestically.) Peace this way is achieved not through diplomacy but instead the desire to minimize losses. And ironically enough, choosing NOT to take part in war is most beneficial to every party in a nuclear game.
In the article, author Clem Sunter discusses the state of the nuclear game now in the 21st century. He compares this game to chess, in which each players nuclear policies are dictated by other players decisions. Funny enough, MAD dictates that no country will use a nuclear weapon while other countries own them as well, but even so the best response to the threat of nuclear warfare is to be prepared with nuclear weapons (to ensure the threat of MAD). The notorious alleged decommissioning (but not destruction) of 17,000 nuclear warheads can also be seen as a game move to be underestimated by opponents; “Secrecy means outsiders have no idea of the latest technical advances in attack or defence systems.”  By recalling the 1996 Russian “Tsar Bomber”, the worlds most powerful use of a nuclear weapon before or since, Sunter recognizes whether or not MAD is still applicable today. When considering how the damage capacity of nuclear bombs have increased 1000x over, is it possible that someone can overpower the checks and balances of MAD? Do terrorists fear MAD or encourage it? The nuclear game is definitely changing globally and the only combatant to the rise of violence is the spread of knowledge.


1 thought on “The Game Theory of MAD”

  1. That is a very interesting piece on the nuclear game in the 21st century, and should be revisited with the change in the global sociopolitical landscape since the conception of the theory. The interconnectedness that countries increasingly have must make the nuclear game change in outcomes. I do wonder, however, would terrorists even fall into the MAD game? Since terrorist cells are located throughout various countries, many of whom do not condone their actions, would a terrorist cell launching a nuclear missile result in MAD? I wonder what the response of a country would be, considering their retaliation would include sending a missile into a country which did not attack. I wonder, if terrorists could subvert the nuclear game by keeping to the shadows throughout various countries, could they be able to change the way we view the nuclear game?

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