Cheerfully at the brink

October 11, 2005

When people or organizations or countries are facing conflict, it's a whole lot easier for one side to deter the other with threats than it is to compel the other to do something it doesn't want to. That's the idea that led to the peaceful nuclear standoff for a half-century between the United States and the Soviet Union, and, incidentally, it's an idea that the Bush administration junked when it decided to go to war against Iraq. In the Cold War days, the antagonists pursued "mutual assured destruction" as a way of keeping the peace -- with a big dollop of brinkmanship occasionally thrown in -- and one of the thinkers who helped develop U.S. nuclear policy was awarded the Nobel Prize for economics yesterday.

It's a big honor for Thomas C. Schelling, and no small honor for the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy, which he joined in 1990 and where he is now an emeritus professor. A lifetime devoted to putting game theory to use in explaining behavior has led Mr. Schelling, now 84, to consider subjects as disparate as housing segregation (some of it may be unintended, he has suggested) and global warming (the Kyoto treaty is wrong-headed, emphasizing goals over actions).

But he made his mark by thinking about nuclear annihilation. However dark that may seem, it helped to keep the two great powers from going to war -- though, as Mr. Schelling himself points out, luck may have had something to do with it, too.

He said yesterday he's going to keep talking about the "greenhouse business" and about nuclear weapons. The Iranians want the bomb -- probably, he said, for deterrence. If they get one, he pointed out cheerfully, "maybe we can show them how to do it." After all, it worked here.

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