Man Without Qualities

Tuesday, January 07, 2003

You Must Remember This

Paul Krugman's silly excursion into game theory speak has been subjected to a good deal of good criticism.

Mindles states in one sentence what Professor Krugman attempts to say about North Korea: Krugman's point appears to be that the Bush administration is all empty threats and no reward. Or, in Professor Krugman's game-theory-speak: Deterrence requires a credible commitment to punish bad behavior and reward good behavior.

It is not my point here to address the substance of Professor Krugman's argument.

However, it is surprising that he says he is so concerned about credible threats and rewards. If North Korea were to lob a single bomb into the United States or, say, Japan, how credible is an American commitment to retaliate by slaughtering, say, 10 million non-voting North Koreans? North Korea is highly unlikely to be capable of creating a nuclear force that can actually threaten the existence of the United States. Further, the government of North Korea does not represent or govern with the will or the meaningful consent of the Korean people. So what's the credible justification for killing millions of North Koreans?

And what if the country involved were China instead of North Korea? Is there a "credible threat" that the United States would vaporize, say, 100 million non-voting Chinese who were entirely uninvolved in the decision to attack the United States or its ally?

That doesn't seem likely. At least with a modern conventional war an invader can try – or claim to try – to avoid civilian casualties. The United States was very careful in that regard during the recent Afghanistan war. But most of the point of a nuclear attack is destruction of civilians and civilian facilities. Is that credible or moral or even sane where the existence of the United States - or much of it - is not at stake?

But will such considerations loom large for Professor Krugman when the question is whether the United States needs a missile shield - or can continue to rely on "Mutually Assured Destruction" principles?

Or by that time will Professor Krugman's game theory already be back in the box?

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