Mutually Assured Destruction
The Basic Idea
If mutually assured destruction sounds like a daunting concept, that’s because it is. It is a military strategy used in wars or combat where if either side makes an attack, the destruction of both sides is ensured. As a result, in this situation, a stalemate arises. Peace is ensured through a guarantee that each side has the ability to destroy the other and will do so if necessary.
Although mainly a term used in military strategy and jargon, the foundations of mutually assured destruction, competition, and trust are also relevant to aspects of our relationships with others today.1
We often find ourselves in competitive environments, especially when it comes to the workplace. While our desire to ‘win’, or succeed, is often at the forefront of our justification for making particular decisions, the mutually assured destruction phenomenon asks us to what end and at what cost we are willing to participate in those behaviors. If we behave in a particular way to advance our own careers – such as exposing a coworker for dropping the ball on a project, for example – we are likely to meet retaliation – that coworker might respond by informing the boss, for instance. A level of trust must therefore be maintained between us and our competitors, to avoid a snowball of everyone’s suffering.
Knowing that we are in a relationship in which mutual destruction is at risk therefore begs the question: Is it worth it to make a move?
Theory, meet practice
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Nuclear Deterrence: A military strategy that uses the threat of retaliation to dissuade a nation from a particular kind of attack. When it comes to nuclear bombs, deterrence is achieved by the promise of a nation responding to a nuclear bomb attack with their own nuclear bomb attack.3
Bomber Gap: During the race to make the best hydrogen bomb, President Dwight D. Eisenhower believed that the Soviet Union had more bomber planes – the preferred vehicle for dropping bombs at this time – causing him to believe there was a ‘bomber gap’ and order more planes to be made.4 This kind of behavior shows that due to mutually assured destruction, nations feel the need to constantly keep up with other nations’ technological developments so that everyone has an ‘equal’ opportunity to retaliate.
Equilibrium Strategy: A theory developed by John von Neumann, which suggests that if all players in a situation maintain the same strategy, it is best for you to maintain this same strategy as well.5 It plays into mutually assured destruction as it suggests that the best course of action for nations is to do nothing, as long as other nations stick to doing nothing as well.
On August 6th, 1945, an American pilot dropped the first ever deployed atomic bomb over Hiroshima, Japan, immediately killing 80,000 people. Three days later, another atomic bomb was released over the Japanese city of Nagasaki, killing another 40,000 people.6 Essentially, these events ended World War II – but at what cost?
After the deployment of the first atomic bomb came a race between other nations to develop this same cruel weaponry. The Soviet Union did not want to find themselves in the same position as Japan in the event that they engaged in a war with the U.S. They began to work towards creating hydrogen bombs that would have an even more devastating impact than atomic bombs. The U.S. responded by equally dedicating time, effort and resources into developing their own hydrogen bomb. Not before long, other nations got in on the action.4
Somewhere within the nuclear arms race, nations seemed to forget one fundamental truth: we are all human and we are all in this together. If one country dropped a nuclear bomb, others would retaliate, and before long, all of humanity would perish.1 This is where nuclear deterrence was developed – since both the Soviet Union and the U.S. had nuclear bombs, they dissuaded one another from using them with the threat of retaliation. One nuclear bomb would become a catalyst for dozens more and no nation would emerge victorious – in other words, a lose-lose situation.4
This is where mutually assured destruction comes in. Since multiple nations have nuclear bombs they could deploy, any one country deploying them would result in the destruction of nations and a majority of humanity. Knowing that worldwide, humanity would suffer from the deployment of a nuclear bomb forces each nation with nuclear bombs into a stalemate. The fear of retaliation inhibits action. Reverting to the childlike tendency of ‘I won’t if you won’t’, the development of mutually assured destruction as a result of nuclear bombs is actually a method of peacekeeping.1 It is a rational response to the knowledge that acting would lead to one’s own destruction.
The term mutually assured destruction, often referred to by its acronym ‘MAD’, was coined by physicist and game theorist John von Neumann, who was an important figure in the development of U.S. nuclear devices.7 Based on his equilibrium strategy, nations realized that the best attack to avoid mutually assured destruction was no attack at all.
Although mutually assured destruction is likely only a term familiar to military strategists, the phenomenon has important implications for regular people’s lives. Most simply, it helps keep us alive. Unfortunately, nations don’t seem to trust one another enough to live peacefully without the threat of weapons, which makes mutually assured destruction necessary. It is a unique brand of trust based on knowing the other nation will not do anything because they too will suffer in the end. When disagreements occur between political leaders, nuclear deterrence means that hopefully, no nation will choose to unleash the devastation weapon.
Outside of military strategy, the fundamental principles behind mutually assured destruction might play into other areas of our lives. The idea is based on a sense of competition between two parties and the knowledge that the opposition has the ability to retaliate. Mutually assured destruction therefore promotes good behavior between both parties in any situation – friendship, professionalism, or politics – because rationally, no one wants to suffer themselves. It essentially draws on the lesson, “treat others how you want to be treated,” as it seems common sense to understand that you will get back the same behavior you dole out. The idea might therefore incentivize coworkers to have each other’s backs or inspire friends to keep each other’s secrets, expecting the same courtesies in return.
However, mutually assured destruction might also enable bad behavior. Two businesses might engage in tax fraud together, which provides assurance that neither business will tell the authorities because both are implicated in the fraud.1 Law enforcement sometimes draws on its understanding of this practice by offering lighter punishments to those who rat out their accomplices.
Mutually assured destruction is based on the principle that if a particular weapon is used in an attack, the nation being attacked will be able to retaliate with equal force and destruction. What this means is that countries pour millions of dollars into the development of new-and-improved technology only to keep up with one another, similarly to Eisenhower’s response to the perceived bomber gap in the 1950s. Perhaps the ‘MAD’ acronym of the phenomenon is a good fit when we consider that all of this money is being wasted on weapons that are hopefully never to be used. Would it not make more sense to not have these weapons at all?
However, there is some evidence that mutually assured destruction doesn’t actually work. Although no nuclear war has killed off humanity to this day, there have been a lot of close calls. The Cuban missile crisis brought us close to a nuclear holocaust. After the U.S. found out that the Soviet Union installed nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba, close to U.S. soil, the U.S. claimed it was ready to use military force to neutralize this threat if necessary.9 If the U.S. had acted, we might not be here today.
Lastly, even if it does work, a deterrence strategy might not be a long-term sustainable solution, since it is actually based on a lack of trust. Instead of trusting that peace will be kept between nations, countries feel the need to develop weaponry they can leverage should the need arise. This makes the strategy prone to escalating tensions, accidents, or extremist governments that lack concern for the overall good of humanity.9 If one nation develops an even more powerful weapon, will the rest of the world insist on keeping up? Where will we draw the line?
The Prisoner’s Dilemma
The prisoner’s dilemma is a classic philosophical thought experiment that shows why acting in one’s own self-interest often results in worse consequences than working together with others. It provides evidence that mutually assured destruction should be considered when making decisions, as it can benefit both competing parties.
The classic prisoner’s dilemma narrative is about two individuals who have been arrested and are being interrogated about a bank robbery. The authorities have only these two individuals as witnesses and will only be able to prove a case if one of them betrays the other and testifies as an accomplice. If both remain silent, the authorities will only be able to convict each of them on a charge of loitering (one year in jail each). If only one testifies, and the other stays silent, the one who testifies will go free while the other one will receive a three-year jail sentence. If both testify, each will receive a two-year sentence.10
In this scenario, it may seem like the rational choice is to testify because assuming your accomplice does not testify, this choice leaves you with the least amount of jail time (one year). Plus, if you do not testify, you risk unfairly going to jail for much longer than your accomplice. If each individual does testify, however, they will end up with two years’ jail time each (more than the minimum). However, in an ideal scenario, if both criminals here realize that there is mutually assured destruction, they will both do nothing, resulting in only one year of jail time each. The dilemma provides evidence for the equilibrium strategy, as the best move is no move – but it is dependent on a high degree of trust between both parties that the other side will cooperate.
When MAD Doesn’t Work: Mutually Assured Distrust
Mutually assured destruction only achieves peace when the bearers of the arms have an equal amount of power. A nation will only stop themselves from attacking another nation if they believe the attack will result in their own destruction as well. If there is a power imbalance, such deterrence is not likely.
One modern-day example of the power imbalance disabling the peace of mutually assured destruction is the historical relationship between Black people and police officers. Unfortunately, implicit biases often make police subconsciously fearful of people of color, due to stereotypes that people of color are dangerous. This implicit bias leads police to act in particularly hostile ways towards people of color, particularly Black men. Yet, this biased fear does not prevent police officers from acting – they do not believe that there will be ‘mutually assured destruction’, despite their belief that black people are dangerous – because they have the law (and guns) on their side. The uneven potential for destruction all too often leads to unwarranted killings of black people, with police afterward claiming they ‘feared for their life.’
The mutually assured distrust can cause minority communities to retaliate, which then causes law enforcement to (often violently) crack down on riots and retaliations.11 The cycle appears similar to one where mutually assured destruction would prevent further attack, however, because police officers hold more power, they are not afraid of making the first attack. In order for mutually assured destruction to work, police officers must learn not to abuse their authority. Alternatively, a different tactic that aims at improving the trust and relationship between police officers and racialized individuals needs to be employed.
Related TDL Content
Evolution of Decision Making: The Rational Revolution
In this article, our writer Justin Fox outlines the evolution of decision-making. He discusses mutually assured destruction as a response to the revolution of rational decision-making that emerged during the World War II era. There was belief, during this time, that the rational thinking employed by statisticians and mathematicians could be applied to other fields, like warfare.
Overconfidence: From Pacman to ‘Ghost’ Torpedoes
One of the criticisms against mutually assured destruction as a peacekeeping strategy is that power imbalances – real or perceived – threaten the phenomenon. In this article, our writer Namrata Raju explores how overconfidence and an inflated sense of power can lead people to launch unprovoked attacks on competitors without fear of retaliation. If a particular nation’s leader is overconfident about their military’s abilities, they might choose to attack because they don’t buy into mutually assured destruction.
- Farnam Street. (2020, November 28). Mutually Assured Destruction: When Not to Play. https://fs.blog/2017/06/mutually-assured-destruction/
- Goodreads. (n.d.). Mutually Assured Destruction Quotes. Retrieved February 27, 2021, from https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/mutually-assured-destruction
- Encyclopedia Britannica. (2017, June 12). Deterrence. https://www.britannica.com/topic/deterrence-political-and-military-strategy
- Encyclopedia Britannica. (2020, July 17). Mutual assured destruction. https://www.britannica.com/topic/mutual-assured-destruction
- Chen, J. (2020, February 3). Nash Equilibrium. Investopedia. https://www.investopedia.com/terms/n/nash-equilibrium.asp
- History. (2009, November 18). Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/bombing-of-hiroshima-and-nagasaki
- Wilde, R. (2020, June 20). What Is Mutually Assured Destruction? ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/mutually-assured-destruction-1221190
- History. (2010, January 4). Cuban Missile Crisis. https://www.history.com/topics/cold-war/cuban-missile-crisis
- Shermer, M. (2014, June 1). Will Mutual Assured Destruction Continue to Deter Nuclear War? Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/will-mutual-assured-destruction-continue-to-deter-nuclear-war/
- Investopedia. (2021, January 1). Prisoner’s Dilemma. https://www.investopedia.com/terms/p/prisoners-dilemma.asp
- Observer. (2016, June 12). Mutually Assured Distrust. https://observer.com/2016/07/mutually-assured-distrust/