I was going to make this a minutiae item, but it got less minute.
On 1995 January 25, a radar station in Murmansk detected what appeared to
be a Trident missile heading into Russian airspace. It was actually a rocket
carrying scientific equipment. Russian authorities had been notified of the
impending launch, but none of them had passed word along to the radar
technicians — or to Boris Yeltsin, who was given ten minutes to
decide whether to launch a counterstrike. Yeltsin decided against it. Why
would Bill Clinton have decided to nuke us? It must be a mistake. This
is the kind of leeway you get when your leader isn't a saber-rattling
prick. Imagine if this incident had happened in 1985 rather than 1995. Do
Konstantin Chernenko's handlers give the same benefit of the doubt to the man
who a few months earlier had jokingly announced
that he'd just launched a first-strike against the USSR?
Speaking of 1985, the map above is from a computer game that came out that
year. It's called
Balance of Power. In this game, you play one of the Cold War
superpowers, and attempt to topple unfriendly governments and preserve
friendly ones without sparking a crisis that results in a nuclear war.
In a crisis, you have the option to either back down, resulting in a loss
of prestige, or escalate, raising the stakes. A diplomatic crisis can
escalate into a military crisis. DEFCON 1 launches the ICBMs, ending the
game. But DEFCON 2 and DEFCON 3 carry the risk that the next screen you
see will be this:
I was enough of a BOP addict that I bought the companion book in which
programmer Chris Crawford lays out the algorithms he used in the game. Three
variables that come up in the equations are Adventurousness, the
superpower's demonstrated willingness to exercise its military might around
the world; Pugnacity, its proclivity to escalate crises rather than
attempt to defuse them; and Nastiness, the background level of
hostility that influences every geopolitical interaction. Basically, the
more you act like a saber-rattling prick, the more likely it is that your
opposite number will do the same — and the more likely that moments
such as that ten-minute window in 1995 result in a global holocaust.
This weekend I've read posts by a number of people complaining that Barack
Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize when he "hasn't done anything." My response
is that Bill Clinton saved the world in 1995 without "doing anything."
Yeltsin had to ask himself, is the United States the sort of adventurous
country that would launch a reckless war of choice? Is it the sort of
pugnacious country more interested in winning showdowns than in forging
agreements with the rest of the world? Is the world a nasty enough place
that things might really have come to this? Clinton had convinced Yeltsin
that the answer to all these questions was no. And that is why there are
still lifeforms on this planet more advanced than a cockroach.
My more literal-minded readers should note that I am not arguing that Obama
received the Nobel Peace Prize solely for lowering the likelihood of
accidental nuclear war. The rocket incident of 1995 is intended to serve as
an emblematic example of how lowering those background variables contributes
more to a peaceful world than does brokering a single showy treaty, much as
a cure for Creuztfeldt-Jakob disease would be awesome but would contribute
much less to world health than smoking bans. George W. Bush and his
administration spent eight years shouting at the top of their collective lungs
that they intended to launch invasions wherever they saw fit, that they'd
best all comers, and that they didn't really give a shit what the rest of the
world thought. Peace is not just the absence of war; it includes the absence
of this sort of adventurousness, pugnacity and nastiness. So to the extent
that Obama has convinced the world that he genuinely intends to bring this era
of American foreign policy to a close, he has significantly contributed to
Though I have heard it argued that the prize should really go not to Obama
himself but to the voters who selected him over the adventurous, pugnacious,
nasty John McCain. So divide $1.4 million by 70 million Obama voters, and...
well, you get a whole new twist on "and that's my two cents."
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