University of California, Riverside
unsuccessfully, to the New York Times,
The Washington Post, and Newsweek
The Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest
once had a curious method of settling their tribal disputes.
Each side would gather its prize possessions into a huge pile,
and set it afire. The faction that destroyed the most, so shamed
its rivals that they could only retreat in abject humiliation.
This ceremony was known as a "Potlatch." Presumably, after the
contest, the adversaries would return to their own villages and
prepare for the next potlatch, by producing still more blankets,
canoes, bows and arrows, and so forth.
Surely we know better, don't we? But
On September 8, George Bush, along with
observers from the Soviet Union, witnessed the destruction of
two Pershing missiles at a U.S. Army ammunition depot in East
Texas. These were the first of 800 such missiles (worth about
2.5 billion dollars) to be destroyed under the provisions of the
INF treaty. Reciprocally, the Soviets have agreed to destroy
The destruction of these missiles, we are
told, are vindication of the Reagan-Bush policy of "peace
through strength." Surely, they argue, the Soviets would never
have agreed to the INF treaty, had we not built these missiles
in the first place.
The next step in the disarmament process
might be a 50% reduction in ICBMs, under a Strategic Arms
Reduction Treaty. However, to achieve this "bargain" with the
Soviets, we must first acquire the "chips" -- we must, that is,
commit ourselves to building the MX and Midgetman missiles. Once
we have invested tens of billions of dollars in these weapons,
we will then be in a position to negotiate their destruction.
Then, once again, Soviet observers at American bases, and
conversely, American observers at Soviet bases, will gather to
witness and celebrate this further triumph of "peace through
With the reduction of ICBMs by half, we might
next turn to the bomber and submarine fleets. However, before we
can seriously negotiate their reduction, we must again build to
a "position of strength." If the bombers and submarines that we
add to our strategic forces successfully serve as "bargaining
chips" we will then agree to destroy them. And once again, the
Americans and the Russians will break out the Vodka and
This, apparently, is how we "win" the arms
race -- and how we demonstrate our intellectual and cultural
superiority to the Native Americans, and their "wasteful"
But isn't a resolute commitment to strong
strategic forces the only way we can get the Soviets to submit
to serious arms-control negotiations? After all, haven't they
persisted in building their aggressive capabilities, regardless
of our attempts to moderate or stop the arms race? Doesn't this
suggest that we must bargain from strength -- that we must
"build up" in order to "build down"?
The record of the past forty years testifies
otherwise. Most of the significant escalations of the arms race
were initiated by the United States, then reciprocated by the
Soviets: the intercontinental bomber (1948), the deployable
hydrogen bomb (1954), the ICBM (1959), submarine-launched
ballistic missiles (1960), MIRVed missiles (1970). What next?
Weapons in space? Each time we have expected that with just one
more technological breakthrough, the Soviets would, at last, cry
Like the addicted gambler, with an empty bank
account and a pitiful string of losses, we plead with our
creditors: "just stake me one more time -- I promise you, this
time we can't miss." The policy, like the addiction, displays a
triumph of hope over experience. As a result, we are bartering
away our "national security," as our foreign creditors
(generally our "allies") buy our land and our industries, and
the bill falls upon our posterity.
Isn't there is a better way to escape from
under the nuclear cloud, and from the exorbitant costs of the
arms race? Ideally, that "better way" would be simple,
inexpensive, efficient, effective, stable, and verifiable.
There is such a better way: it is called "the
tit for tat strategy," and consists of simple reciprocity. Here is how it works. We begin either by
initiating a cooperative (mutually beneficial) act, or by
responding cooperatively to such an accommodating act by our
rival, the Soviet Union. If they "defect" with an act that
benefits their interests at our expense, we respond directly
with a self-serving act. Sensing our alertness and resolution,
they may resume their cooperation, whereupon we are back on
track. And so it goes.
In a remarkable study of the "game theory" of
conflict resolution, Robert Axelrod has concluded that "tit for
tat" strategy is the simplest and most reliable means by which
antagonistic and self-serving individuals or states might evolve
stable and mutually beneficial modes of cooperation.
Applied to the arms race, tit for tat
reverses the spiral of escalation with reciprocating acts of
de-escalation. For example, one side withdraws troops from the
front lines. Does the other side do the same? Fine! Then on to
the next step. Or does "the enemy" stand pat on the other side?
Too bad -- and so the troops are sent back to the front, as we
await an act of accommodation.
Eventually, Axelrod argues, the advantages of
cooperation become more apparent, as do the costs of defection.
And yet, throughout the sequence, verification and response to
provocation are sure and swift. Minutely negotiated treaties
becomes less important, and "trust" in the other's good will is
superfluous, as actions come to speak louder than (negotiated)
All that is required is the courage to
initiate, and respond to, mutually advantageous "moves."
We can well anticipate the cold warrior's
response: "But that's unilateralism!". Along with
"liberalism," "unilateralism" has become one of the most
discredited words in our political vocabulary.
As long as it remains so, this promising
avenue toward mutual survival may be closed to us, regardless of
the spectacular reforms and concessions that Mr. Gorbachev might
What is the alternative? Do we simply
continue to expend our national treasure on weapons which, if
they "deter" as intended, are destined to be consumed on the
bonfires of obsolescence or treaty-compliance? Or which, if they
somehow fail to deter, or are set off through accident or
derangement, will consume us all in the fire of nuclear
conflagration followed by the ice of nuclear winter?
Not if we are wise enough to end the
Dr. Partridge, a Philosopher, teaches Environmental Ethics at
the University of California, Riverside. (December, 1988)