Why bother with defence shields?

Stephen Walt highlights NATO’s outrageous self-congratulatory tone at the Chicago summit last weekend:

The success of our forces in Libya, Afghanistan, the Balkans and in fighting piracy is a vivid illustration that NATO remains unmatched in its ability to deploy and sustain military power to safeguard the security of our populations and to contribute to international peace and security.

He also notes their reaffirmed commitment to investing in missile defence technology:

Never mind that the Defense Science Board recently concluded that existing defense technologies are still easily spooked by inexpensive countermeasures. Please overlook the tens of billions of dollars we’ve spent chasing the Holy Grail of missile defense since the 1980s, without ever getting there. Ignore the poisonous effect this program has on relations with Russia, which has to assume the worst and take our efforts seriously. And pay no attention to the fact that if missile defense ever did work really, really well, it would just encourage potential adversaries to work on alternative delivery mechanisms (like smuggling) that would make it more difficult to trace an attack back to its source.

Walt is a staunch realist, and these comments are interesting because they demonstrate in miniature form a key tenet of his approach: the anarchy inherent to international relations ensures there is no trust and, despite it being the case that it’s in everyone’s interest to stay calm and avoid war, the system compels all states, even the well-intended ones, to build up their military and be prepared to fight. The weak that refuse shall otherwise perish.

Applied here, what this means is that all states are compelled to seek missiles as deterrents and then try to develop defence shields to give themselves an advantage over their opponents which in turn leads to new innovations in missile technology to avoid the defence shields, ad infinitum. Kenneth Waltz in his Theory of International Politics quotes Churchill, talking about the German naval race. Winston said something along the lines of ‘it will end in catastrophe, but we’ll run it anyway’.

Another example would be the run on Northern Rock from a few years back: each individual has an interest in the bank surviving, and if they all left the money in then it would. But because they had no guarantee that others would stay calm as they did, each took the individually rational decision of playing safe and withdrawing their funds, thereby leading in sum to the collectively inferior outcome of the bank collapsing. Intrinsic to international relations are similar coordination problems. Or so realists claim.

And one more analogy can be drawn with the Prisoner’s Dilemma in economics that realists love to so often invoke:

If both partners in crime keep schtum, they both get out of jail in one year. But if Prisoner A remains silent, Prisoner B has an incentive to talk so he faces no prison time. And if Prisoner A talks, Prisoner B should also most certainly talk to avoid his twenty year sentence. And Prisoner A faces an identical situation: whatever B does, logic advises him to talk. So both talk and they both spend longer in jail than they need to.

Similarly, NATO will spend money on missile defense technology which, even if it is in the short-term successful, will turn out to be a waste once that technology is overcome. And the spiral of unnecessary spending and doom continues.


2 thoughts on “Why bother with defence shields?

  1. It is interesting to note that Robert Jervis points out that the Prisoner’s Dilemma is quite similar to the Stag Hunt of Rousseau, he argues that if the Prisoner’s Dilemma is constantly reiterated (which it is) then the idea of defecting is nullified.

    • Indeed, which is of course the main liberal response to the realist’s paranoia: we can transcend coordination problems by, for the large part, punishing cheating.

      It’s interesting that realists claim Rousseau as one of their own. He would almost certainly be a constructivist – I might post on this soon.

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