Nuclear Chicken

  • by Pete O'Brien
  • 10-08-2022
Jim Geraghty at National Review framed it correctly: if the US President believes we are on the precipice, that we face nuclear "Armageddon,” then that deserves an address to the American people, from the Oval Office, with all the seriousness that can possibly be mustered. 

Geraghty also raises the proper follow-on issue: Ukraine is not a member of NATO, Ukraine is not a treaty ally. 

In fact, even if a country were a treaty ally, and it was attacked by another country with a nuclear weapon, no treaty requires an automatic and equivalent response. Article V of NATO, which is often thrown onto the table, but is rarely read, does not insist on any such thing. Here is the full text of the relevant paragraph (the 2nd paragraph calls for going to the UN Security Council):
The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.

Such actions as it - that is, each member nation acting individually, in accordance with its own laws and interests - deems necessary.

So, wouldn’t it be prudent at this point for the President to go on air and talk to his boss - the American People? Wouldn’t it be of value to call Congress together and talk to them about the possibility of “Armageddon?”

We’re in a dangerous situation. Russia, which is losing on the battlefield, feels that it’s fighting the entirety of Europe as well as the US. It’s difficult to deny that. It’s true that Ukrainians are doing the fighting. But the country is being kept afloat with tens of billions of dollars in aid, and tens of billions of dollars in weaponry, weaponry that has been hailed for its effectiveness in striking key Russian targets. The European Union and the US have levied a host of sanctions against Russia and her economy is suffering. The New York Times tells us that the US intelligence flow to Ukraine has been extensive, and has contributed significantly to Ukrainian success on the battlefield.

Russia has pounded the nuclear drum several times since the war began. The Swedish Air Force intercepted Russian aircraft in March, over the Baltic Sea, that were carrying what were later assessed to be nuclear weapons. Several key Russian leaders have spoken of nuclear weapons, to include former President, Dmitry Medvedev. President Putin has deliberately referenced their newest ICBM. And last week Russia’s (and the world’s) 2nd largest submarine put to sea carrying the bizarre tsunami-creating  long-range Poseidon torpedo.

Russia is quite clearly rattling its nuclear saber; What should we do about it?

Several retired generals have come out over the past few days and recommended that we make it clear the US is prepared to sweep Russian forces from Ukraine, from the skies over Ukraine, and from the Black Sea. We’ll punish Russia militarily with conventional ordnance if they use a nuclear weapon. This is what is known as “Horizontal Escalation.”

The problem with horizontal escalation - spreading the war as it were - is that it invites escalation by the other side. Particularly if the other side has already escalated vertically - stepping up the destructiveness of the war by employing nuclear weapons. By escalating horizontally, the response almost to a certainty will be further escalation. Whether they choose to escalate vertically or horizontally - or both - the answer is going to be to move up the so called “escalation ladder.” And it’s worth reminding one and all that at the top of the escalation ladder is global nuclear war, the Armageddon the President mentioned.

The specific problem with horizontal escalation in response to vertical escalation is that horizontal escalation has a physical and time limit. We can, for instance, mass a huge air armada and start flying sorties, but then we need to get into the industrial process of moving airplanes, moving ordnance, amassing force… it takes time and effort. And because it points at the very weakness that pushed the other guy to vertically escalate, it welcomes another escalated, vertical response,

And if we choose a vertical response to vertical escalation we will, in all likelihood, get drawn into even more vertical escalation.

As Herman Kahn observed back in the early 60s, the strategy has to be to walk people back down the “escalation ladder.” He had a great metaphor - he borrowed it from Thomas Schelling - who likened all this to “playing chicken.” As Schelling said, “chicken is a game it takes two not to play.” Schelling also noted that you want to make sure you play chicken with a good player. It’s much better to face a good player than a bad one. 

The bad one will, of course, wait too long to blink, and that will kill both payers. In the end, chicken may require that the two players signal each other, and just each other, that they will settle for something like a tie. Let me repeat that: when you are playing chicken, the trick is that you want to always play chicken with someone who really understands how to play chicken. Said differently, If you are playing with an amateur, the odds are the two cars will crash. Which is, in fact, what no one wants.

As I write this the world seems to be splitting into two camps: one side says that we should just walk away, Ukraine is none of our business. The other side says that we must stop Russia now or we will have to face them later. There is no middle ground.

President Kennedy, in the post-script to the Cuban Missile Crisis, commented that there were a host of forces that were pushing the Executive Office into an either-or situation, what he referred to as “Holocaust or Surrender.” That is rapidly becoming an accurate description of our current situation. The way to avoid that is to begin to talk soon, to be willing to compromise, to be willing to strike less than optimum deals. This is what the US did in Korea. It was not an ideal situation. But having made poor decisions up to that point, it was a good result for the US, and 69 years later the freedoms, and the standard of living, enjoyed by the people of the ROK show it to have been a good idea.

In the case of Ukraine and the invasion by Russia, we have refused to engage, and we have refused to discuss half measures. We are letting Ukraine set our goals. And now we find ourselves with 4-star generals suggesting that we be ready to dramatically escalate the level of destruction as a way to prevent further destruction. Such commentary needs to be taken out of the public dialogue. We need talk between Washington and Moscow. We need to be ready to pressure not just Moscow but Ukraine and Europe into moving to some middle ground.

We need a ceasefire, start with that. All sorts of things will follow. But what we must do is keep the nuclear genie in the bottle and we can begin that with a ceasefire. Korea is a working model of an unpleasant situation that yielded an unpleasant answer, but one we learned to live with, without nuclear weapons going down range. Let’s just go with that for right now.

Credit: picture from