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.8 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.