Thomas Schelling, master of game theory, saved world from nuclear apocalypse
Among his many accomplishments, Nobel economics laureate showed how an atomic war would result in all sides being losers
If you are a driver playing a game of chicken, how do you improve your chances of winning? Thomas Schelling, an American game theory pioneer and Nobel economics laureate who died last week aged 95, had a counter-intuitive suggestion. Rip out the steering wheel and brandish it to make sure your opponent knows you no longer have control of the car. This is an example of his proof using the mathematical theory that your negotiating position may strengthen if you limit your options rather than seek more.
Game theory, which studies rational expectations and decision-making, has influenced most social sciences, especially economics; Schelling pioneered some of its key concepts. Many mainland scholars have turned to it to analyse the increasing complexities China faces in international politics. With its territorial claims in the South China Sea, for example, Beijing’s taking small steps over a long period rather than a single, swift, action aims to avoid provoking an outright confrontation and catch rivals off-guard. Schelling playfully called such tactics “salami slicing”. He also made influential studies of other branches of economics such as urban and population planning. But he would become famous for his game-theoretic study of thermonuclear warfare. Schelling was among an elite group of strategists in 1950s and 1960s America who tried to think the unthinkable. Mutually assured destruction (MAD), which ruled out victory as a possible goal in a nuclear confrontation, was something this group came up with. Another influential insight of Schelling was that nuclear deterrents only worked if both sides knew each other’s real capabilities.
For their study and its influence on the US nuclear posture, they were fiercely denounced by liberal critics. But British filmmaker Stanley Kubrick read Schelling and was intrigued; he made him a consultant on his classic Dr Strangelove, a dark but comical portrayal of a MAD scenario gone wrong. In the end, thinkers like Schelling might have done more to avert a nuclear catastrophe than their disarmament critics. And in his other studies, he continues to illuminate contemporary affairs.