Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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Classical Guitar:
"The Other Profession





Ernest Partridge
University of California, Riverside

Submitted, 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 consider:

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 1,752 missiles.

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 strength."

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 celebrate.

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" Potlatch ceremony.

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 "uncle!"

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) words.

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 further initiate.

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 "Potlatch"!


Dr. Partridge, a Philosopher, teaches Environmental Ethics at the University of California, Riverside. (December, 1988)



Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .