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Game Theory and Nuclear Weapons

Game Theory and Nuclear Weapons

The Treaty of the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons is the applicable International

Law when dealing with the development and possession of nuclear weapons. It has been signed

by 190 countries, to include all the states that have publicly accepted the possession of such

technology.1 The Treaty states in part that “each nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty

undertakes not to transfer to any recipient whatsoever nuclear weapons or other nuclear

explosive devices or control over such weapons or explosive devices directly, or indirectly . . .

Each non-nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes not to receive the transfer from

any transferor whatsoever of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or of control

over such weapons or explosive devices directly, or indirectly.”2 It can be violated by two

different types of countries: countries that already possess nuclear weapons capabilities and

countries that don’t. The countries that possess the nuclear weapon technology and have signed

or acceded to the Treaty, would violate International Law if they provided the non possessors of

nuclear technology with either materials or intellectual aid to produce nuclear weapons. The

state that receives such aid or materials would also be in violation, if they have signed or acceded

to the Treaty, and subject to sanctions by the International community.

The first issue that arises by the examination of the states’ actions in regards to this treaty

would be to define International Law. Of course, a simple definition could be given, such as the

one provided by the Encyclopedia Britannica: “body of legal rules, norms, and standards that

apply between sovereign states and other entities that are legally recognized as international

Treaty of the Non- Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons
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Game Theory and Nuclear Weapons

actors.”3 But, the practical issue with International law is in regards to the enforcement of a body

of laws and treaties, without a global judicial system that rules over all countries.

There is not an entity or organization that has total binding jurisdiction over all the

nations of the world. “International relations are often thought uniquely different from those of

individuals and firms within a nation because of the lack of a strong supranational authority to

enforce international laws and norms.”4 Some countries may incorporate treaties in their

domestic laws, like for example the United States, providing it with legal standing in their

courts.5 This would render the treaty binding for a country that has signed the treaty and its

government has incorporated the terms of it to its laws. Treaties could be said to be analogous to

the most rudimentary forms of contracts, promises that are not enforceable but for the

willingness of the parties to abide by them.

Professors Goldsmith and Eric A.Posner discard the idea of a set of International laws

and customs that countries abide to because of a sense of moral or legal duty. The same can be

said of treaties, they concluded, where even though there is a written agreement among the

parties involved, this agreement just represents what the interests of each state are, and

sometimes it could just be the imposition of a more powerful state’s interests on others. 6

“Treaties, like customary norms, do not have any binding force in themselves.”7 Even a

International law. (2010). In Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved March 10, 2010, from
Encyclopedia Britannica Online:
Posner, Richard A., Economic Analysis of Law 7th ed., Aspen Publishers: New York
International Norms and Standards Relating to Disability, United Nations, Department of
Economic and Social Affairs Division for Social Policy and Development, 2003-04
Goldsmith, Jack L. & Posner, Eric A., A theory of Customary International Law, 66 U. Chi. L.
Rev. 1113 (1999)
Chinen, Mark A., Game Theory and Customary International Law: A Response to Professors
Goldsmith and Posner, 23 Mich. J. Int’l L. 143 (2001)
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Game Theory and Nuclear Weapons

signatory country can decide that the benefits, or utility, of reneging a treaty are worth more

than whatever repercussions the other parties might try to impose. Richard A. Posner defines the

blocks that form the body of International Law, treaties, as “contracts, and the economics of

contracts can be applied fruitfully to them.”8 And as such, sometimes the most efficient and

reasonable action of a party to a contract is the strategic breach of it. With this in mind, the

engagement in an informed discussion of how to contain the proliferation of nuclear weapons

will have to be accompanied with pragmatic and realistic options. Is international law, at this

moment, a successful deterrence of the development and utilization of nuclear weapons? If not,

what are the steps and actions that the American government has to institute in order to achieve

this goal? The United States can either take the necessary measures prescribed by the existing

international law, or modify it in order to accomplish the effective deterrence of the use of

nuclear weapons.

The International community has been trying to deal with rogue states such as North

Korea and Iran, and their nuclear technology development programs. The discussion of nuclear

weapons is a sensitive subject in the International Relations and Law area. The idea that a

weapon of such destructive magnitude is out there, coupled with the reality that only some

countries possess them while others are prohibited from even attempting to develop it, is a

contentious subject. Many are calling for the disappearance of nuclear weapons, and advocating

for a world without nuclear weapons has become the rallying cry of governments and non-

government actors.

Posner, Richard A., Economic Analysis of Law 7th ed., Aspen Publishers: New York
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Game Theory and Nuclear Weapons

There is a presumption of rationality and unity of the state, where the position of the

United States is only one in relation to the world. “The realist views the state as both unitary and

rational.” 9 The leaders of other states would react in a rational way to the actions of the United

States in the event of an armed conflict. The interactions between the states are calculated, they

are logical, and respond to the interest of each individual state. A state, for which one of its

concerns is national security, has to implement what is necessary to strengthen itself in the arena

of international relations. It is under this assumption, of states as rational actors, that deterrence

is framed. The theory of deterrence is based on the idea that “states are unitary actors, and

logical according to Western concepts of rationality . . . that we can adequately understand the

calculations of an opponent.”10 It is expected that nations behave in the rational way that is

expected of individuals in the economical spectrum. “Economics is the science of rational

choice in a world . . . Behavior is rational when it conforms to the model of rational choice,

whatever the state of mind of the chooser.”11 So, the deterrence theory applied to the states is

based on this rationality approach, part of the realist theory in international relations, and it

allows for the examination and application of the economics theoretical model to the

international law realm.

Applying Game Theory to this issue would be a useful tool in developing the direction

that the International community, and mainly the United Sates, should take in the effective

deterrence of nuclear weapons’ development and use. “Game theory is the study of the ways in

which strategic interactions among rational players produce outcomes with respect to the

Kauppi, Mark V. & Viotti, Paul R. 1999. International Relations Theory- Realism, Pluralism,
Globalism, and Beyond 3rd ed. Allyn & Bacon: Massachusetts.
Post Cold War Conflict Deterrence. 1997. Naval Studies Board, National Research Council,
National Academy of Sciences.
Posner, Richard A., Economic Analysis of Law 7th ed., Aspen Publishers: New York
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Game Theory and Nuclear Weapons

preferences (or utilities) of those players.”12 The international relations arena encompasses a

constant strategic development from the different states. Even if the rationality of a state could

be placed in doubt, the deviation of behavior towards the irrational would render the existence of

that state ephemeral.

Imagine country A, a nuclear country, and state B, a non-nuclear country. Country B has

to decide if its best strategy is to develop nuclear weapons or not, while country A has the

options of either maintain its nuclear capabilities, or renounce and destroy its nuclear weapons


Fig. 1

Develop No nuclear

Maintain 2,2 4,1

Renounce 1,4 3,3

The prisoner’s dilemma model in Fig. 1 demonstrates that when applied to the

development of nuclear weapons, with logical reasoning behind the states’ actions, how it would

be almost impossible to achieve such an outcome. Most people would agree that the best
Ross, Don, "Game Theory", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2009 Edition),
Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <
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Game Theory and Nuclear Weapons

possible outcome for the whole world would be the abolishment of nuclear weapons, and that

this would provide most efficient outcome when measuring the payoffs for both countries. It

would promote peace and stability in the world, and it would foster better relations among the

states. But the risk that a country would incur if it decides, unilaterally, to not possess nuclear

weapons is too high. Current nuclear powers would not be willing to renounce to their weapons

and risk that the other countries would develop nuclear weapons’ technology, weakening their

global position and threatening their own security interests. And a non-nuclear country will

pursue the development of nuclear weapons, since this will also provide the biggest payoff. Both

countries will choose to possess nuclear weapons because that guarantees the best payoff without

regards of how the other country decides to act.

The only problem with this game model is that it would suggest that every country would

possess nuclear weapons, and that is not the case. There are other factors that affect the strategy

of the states, and they are not taken into account in this model. For example, not every country

or state may believe that it is necessary for them to possess nuclear weapons in order to ensure

their national security, thus diminishing the value that state will assign to possessing nuclear

weapons. Also, developing nuclear weapons “is very expensive. The opportunity cost is usually

regarded as prohibitive.”13 A poor country would be forgoing basic needs of its population if

they decide to spend their scarce resources in the development of nuclear weapons.

Goldsmith and Eric A. Posner identified four behavioral logics that apply to international

relations: coincidence of interest, coercion, cooperation, and coordination.14 From these four

Carpenter, Ted G. , U.S. Conduct Creates Perverse Incentives for Proliferation, The Cato
Institute’s Nuclear Proliferation Update, 2009
Goldsmith, Jack L. & Posner, Eric A., A theory of Customary International Law, 66 U. Chi. L.
Rev. 1113 (1999)
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Game Theory and Nuclear Weapons

strategies the most important and relevant to the nuclear deterrence question is coercion.

Coincidence of interest would result in the states acting to the most efficient outcome, because it

is in the best interest of each actor to behave in a certain manner without regards to what the

other actor does. Cooperation and coordination may arise when there is a need to obtain support

for the implementation of sanctions against a country or state that is violating the Treaty, but

would be impossible to achieve when dealing with a rogue or antagonistic state.

Coercion, as a tool of deterrence, is the only strategy that the United States can

implement in order to preclude a rogue state from developing nuclear weapons. Coercion occurs

when “one state, or a coalition of states with convergent interests, forces other states to engage in

actions that serve the interest of the first state or states.”15 Deterrence would be achieved when a

state understands with a high degree of certainty that there would be repercussions to their

actions. “Deterrence is commonly thought about in terms of convincing opponents that a

particular action would elicit a response resulting in unacceptable damage that would outweigh

any likely benefit.”16

Deterrence will then occur when the utility derived from developing or using nuclear

weapons would be less than the possible consequences or repercussions. Assuming that a

country possesses the resources to develop nuclear weapons, i.e. technology, materials, money,

deterrence effectiveness can be calculated by this equation:

If U≤ S(r) x P(r),

U= the utility that the country will obtain by the use or development of nuclear weapons

Post Cold War Conflict Deterrence. 1997. Naval Studies Board, National Research Council,
National Academy of Sciences.
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Game Theory and Nuclear Weapons

S(r)= Severity of the response or retaliation from the international community

P(r)= Probability, how certain it is, that the international community is going to retaliate.

If the utility that a non-nuclear country obtains from the development of nuclear weapons

is equal or less than the cost of the retaliation that another country, or countries, will take against

it then that country will not develop nuclear weapons. This would disrupt the equilibrium that is

present in the game model of Fig. 1. A costly retaliation, such as one that cripples or overthrows

the government of the state, will affect the payoffs that country B will obtain from developing

nuclear weapons– at that point the payoffs for developing nuclear weapons would be negative.

At the present moment the punishment that a country would be most likely subjected to,

for developing nuclear technology, is the establishment of economic sanctions. Economic

sanctions have been found to be an ineffective method of coercion against states. “Efforts to

impair a foreign adversary's military potential, or otherwise to change its policies in a major way,

[have] succeeded infrequently.”17 Once they acquire the technology, the rest of the world will

gradually reestablish its economic relationship with them. To utilize powerful nuclear weapons

and obliterate a country’s cities is not a real option, since it would not be a proportionate

response and it would fail in destroying the nuclear capabilities of that country.

In today’s world it can be observed that there are great incentives to develop nuclear

weapons. North Korea has acquired nuclear weapons, so did India and Pakistan years ago, and

the latter are now accepted in the global community as nuclear powers. Iran would have great

incentives to develop nuclear weapons. Since the benefits of developing nuclear weapons, like

Gary Clyde Hufbauer, Jeffrey J. Schott, and Kimberly Ann Elliott, Economic Sanctions
Reconsidered, second edition, revised, 2 vols. (Washington, Institute for International
Economics, December 1990).
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Game Theory and Nuclear Weapons

major bargaining power in the global arena and protection against nuclear states they consider

enemies such as the United States and Israel, then the payoffs that resulted from the model game

in Fig. 1 would be once again applicable. Once the utility of developing nuclear weapons

outweighs the possible cost of retaliation, then the reasonable and logical way to act would be to

develop them.

“Unless the world’s major disputes are resolved – for example, on the Korean Peninsula,

across the Taiwan Strait, and around the Persian Gulf – or the U.S. military pulls back from these

regions, the United states will sooner or later find itself embroiled in conventional wars with

nuclear armed-adversaries.”18 Current International Law is currently not the most effective tool

in the deterrence of nuclear weapons development, like the cases Pakistan and India demonstrate,

thus heightening the number of nuclear-armed adversaries that the U.S. might have to face in a

conflict. “If the United States hopes to deter nuclear attacks during conventional wars, it must

figure out how it might respond to such attacks, and it must retain nuclear forces to do so.”19

The United States not only has to safeguard its security by maintaining nuclear weapons

available in its arsenal, but must develop a comprehensive plan that is effectively used as

deterrence. During the Cold War, it was thought that the best deterrence for war was that both

superpowers possessed nuclear weapons. 20 But we have to take into account that deterrence was

possible because of the possibility of Mutual Assured Destruction, which “reflected the theory of

deterrence: that a potential aggressor will be discouraged from launching a ‘first strike’ nuclear

Lieber, Keir A. & Press, Daryl G. 2009. The Nukes We Need- Preserving the American
Deterrent. Foreign affairs (November/December 2009)
Post Cold War Conflict Deterrence. 1997. Naval Studies Board, National Research Council,
National Academy of Sciences.
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Game Theory and Nuclear Weapons

attack by the knowledge that the enemy is capable of inflicting ‘unacceptable damage’ in a

counterstrike.” 21

It is possible that the most important use of nuclear weapons exists in the deterrence of

their use by other states during an already ongoing conflict, and not in the deterrence of war

itself.22 There is no dispute that the military power of the United State to fight a conventional

war is far superior that any other country. If faced with the immediacy of a defeat by the hands

of the United States, a country that possesses nuclear weapons might be tempted to use their

nuclear weapons as the only option of survival. “In a conventional war, U.S. adversaries would

have powerful incentives to brandish or use nuclear weapons because their lives, their families,

and the survival of their regimes would be at stake . . . Such escalatory strategies are rational.”23

As a result, the adversary may attempt to utilize nuclear weapons to obtain a “cease-fire and

remain in power.”24 The United States cannot threaten a country that may possess a limited

number of nuclear warheads with complete obliteration, if that country just targeted military

targets when utilizing nuclear weapons. “First, this threat lacks credibility. Destroying cities

would be a vastly disproportionate response if an enemy used nuclear weapons against a purely

military target . . . Moreover, a retaliatory strike on an enemy city would not even achieve

critical military objectives, so the horrendous consequences would be inflicted for little


Lieber, Keir A. & Press, Daryl G. 2009. The Nukes We Need- Preserving the American
Deterrent. Foreign affairs (November/December 2009)
Lieber, Keir A. & Press, Daryl G. 2009. The Nukes We Need- Preserving the American
Deterrent. Foreign affairs (November/December 2009)
Lieber, Keir A. & Press, Daryl G. 2009. The Nukes We Need- Preserving the American
Deterrent. Foreign affairs (November/December 2009)
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Game Theory and Nuclear Weapons

The United States has committed itself to the protection of its allies, and with military

bases sprawled all over the world, the U.S. needs an effective response to any attempt to utilize a

nuclear weapon by any adversary or rogue state. Nuclear weapons are part of the reality of

International Relations, and to even contemplate the total abrogation of these weapons is a

fallacy. If the United States is unable to utilize International Law to deter the development of

nuclear weapons, then it must assure itself of having the necessary capabilities of deterring a

nuclear attack. Both objectives could be achieved if it guarantees that the cost of such action

would be much higher than whatever benefit that country may obtain, and that can only be

achieved if it is not an empty threat. The states will behave guided by their self-interest and in a

rational manner– game theory thus would provide a more accurate picture of their actions and

interactions than any International Law cited.

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Game Theory and Nuclear Weapons


This discussion has centered on how to deal with states or countries as rational

actors in the issue of nuclear weapons deterrence. Even though not discussed in this paper, it is

of general knowledge how central terrorist groups are to the discussion of the threat of a nuclear

attack in today’s world. President Obama emphasized that point at the past “nuclear security

summit, warning that the atomic aspirations of groups like Al-Qaeda are the most serious

security threat to the United States.”26 Some scholars might argue that there is a lack of

rationality to terrorists groups and that their actions deviate from behavior that would advance

their self-interest; while others believe that there is certain rationality to their strategy.

“Terrorism in general, and suicidal terrorism in particular, is popularly seen as irrational, but

RFI English, Terrorists are biggest nuclear threat, Obama warns ahead of summit, 2010.
Retrieved from
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Game Theory and Nuclear Weapons

many economists and political scientists argue otherwise.”27 The discussion of how game theory

may apply to terrorist organizations and their nuclear weapons aspirations would be better left

for another day, and it would depend on the conclusion of the rationality of such actors.

Caplan, Bryan, Terrorism: The Relevance of the Rational Choice Model, Department of
Economic sand Center for Study of Public Choice George Mason University (2005)