Is Vladimir Putin mad? Russia’s president has launched a costly and unprovoked war, shocked his own citizens, galvanised Nato, triggered damaging but predictable economic reprisals and threatened a nuclear war that could end civilisation. One has to doubt his grasp on reason. Doubt is part of the point.
In The Strategy of Conflict, written in 1960, the economist Thomas Schelling noted: “It is not a universal advantage in situations of conflict to be inalienably and manifestly rational in decisions and motivation.”
A madman — or a toddler — can get away with certain actions because he cannot be deterred by threats or because his own threats seem more plausible. But Schelling’s point is more subtle than that: you don’t need to be mad to secure these advantages. You just need to persuade your adversaries that you might be.
The idea is vividly illustrated in The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 novel and John Huston’s 1941 film. Our hero, Sam Spade, knows the whereabouts of the falcon, a priceless artefact. When the villainous Kasper Gutman tries to intimidate him into revealing the secret, Spade is not intimidated. If Gutman kills him then the precious falcon will be lost forever.
“If I know you can’t afford to kill me, how are you gonna scare me into giving it to you?” Spade challenges Gutman.
“That’s an attitude, sir, that calls for the most delicate judgement on both sides,” Gutman says. “Because, as you know, sir, in the heat of action men are likely to forget where their best interests lie and let their emotions carry them away.”
Spade doesn’t seem too worried by this, perhaps because Gutman appears calm. Gutman might have had more success if he seemed unhinged. Then again, Gutman’s henchmen are pointing pistols at Spade and twitching with rage, so even if Gutman keeps his cool, the threat that someone might get carried away seems plausible.
Schelling was a wonderful writer and thinker, but it gives me little pleasure to be dusting off his books. When I first encountered his ideas on nuclear deterrence, it was the mid-1990s. The cold war was over, the threat of a nuclear exchange seemed largely past and Schelling’s ideas could be enjoyed in much the same way as Hammett’s: as witty, surprising and reassuringly unreal.
When Schelling shared the Nobel memorial prize in economics in 2005, it was with a sense that his clear-eyed ideas about nuclear deterrence had helped human civilisation dodge a bullet. That nuclear bullet is now back in the gun and Putin is waving it around unnervingly. He wouldn’t . . . would he? I don’t know, which is just the way Putin likes it.
There was always something surreal about maintaining nuclear weapons as a deterrent. Surely such weapons could never be used, because the consequences were too horrible? And if the weapons could never be used, what sort of deterrent did they provide? Yet the deterrent is real enough because even a small risk of escalation is a risk worth taking seriously.
That risk can come from a number of sources. There’s malfunctioning equipment: in September 1983, Soviet officer Stanislav Petrov’s early warning radar told him that the US had just launched ballistic missiles at the Soviet Union. He realised that was unlikely and ignored the warning. Petrov’s heroic inaction was made all the more remarkable because it came at a time of escalated tensions between the superpowers.
Another risk is that a senior decision maker is insane, rather than merely feigning insanity.
Then there is the risk of things getting out of control somewhere down the chain of command. During the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, the US decided to stop and search ships sailing to Cuba — a potential flashpoint if the result was the sinking of a Soviet ship. President Kennedy and defence secretary Robert McNamara asked the US Navy to soften this “quarantine” in a couple of ways.
In fact, as the classic book Thinking Strategically explains, the US Navy told McNamara to mind his own business, and the blockade was riskier than Kennedy had intended. Unthinkable threats become thinkable in such circumstances.
Putin holds a weak hand, except for the one card that no rational person would ever choose to play. But the essence of brinkmanship is to introduce a risk that nobody can entirely control. If the risk becomes intolerable, you may win concessions. I am 99 per cent sure that Putin is bluffing, but a 1 per cent chance of the end of the world is and should be more than enough to worry about.
Faced with Gutman’s warning that someone may get carried away, Spade coolly responds, “then the trick from my angle is to make my play strong enough to tie you up, but not make you mad enough to bump me off against your better judgement”. That is the trick the western world is now attempting to perform. By Putin’s design, it is not going to be easy.
Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 4 March 2022.