This is a followup of my recent post here, econospeak.blogspot.com/2016//08/the-man-who-saved-world-from-nuclear.html . That discussed Thomas Schelling's role in developing the "no first use of nuclear weapons" policy over several decades in the late 20th century related to his Nobel-Prize winning idea of focal points. Now I shall be more precise about who and what and how this norm he played such an important role in establishing is breaking down.
Staying within the game theory framework that Schelling operated within, the problem we face now is "cheap talk." This term entered formal game theory discussions in a paper in 1982 in Econometrica by Vince Crawford and P. Sobel, "Strategic Information Transmission." They characterized this as involving 1) being costless,2) non-binding, and 3) unverifiable. The large literature on this since their paper has made it clear that details matter, and that there are many special cases and variations regarding cheap talk and how it can affect real outcomes, which, it is certainly clear it can. Cheap talk can undermine an established game theoretic equilibrium in a world where there are multiple such equilibria, and an agreement such as Schelling's old "meet under the clock at Grand Central Station" focal point can be undermined by cheap talk about, "well, maybe we should meet under the clock at Penn Station instead." Yeah, maybe instead of the norm of no first use of nuclear weapons, we should entertain the possibility of doing so almost randomly if other nations annoy the heck out of us.
So indeed, as I noted in the earlier post, the origin of cheap talk undermining Schelling's hard to establish norm of no first use of nuclear weapons came from Russians surrounding Vladimir Putin in March 2014 at the time of the imposition of economic sanctions by the US and EU over his annexation of Krim in violation of Russia's signing on to the 1994 Budapest Accords that guaranteed the territorial integrity of Ukraine in response to Urkaine giving Russia its pretty numerous nuclear weapons, with the US and UK signing on also, neither of which did anything military when Russia under Putin violated this accord by its annexation of Krim (Crimea).
The first to engage in such cheap talk was Dmitry Kiselev, appointed by Putin to run Russia Today (now RT) and some other media. In March 2014 during the annexation fuss, he reminded the world that Russia could turn the US into "radioactive ash." Not too long after a young military leader, Aleksey Gudovshnikov on Govorit Moskva made fun or worrying about nuclear war, "Why are we so afraid of nuclear war?" noting that both Hiroshima and Nagasaki involved fewer deaths than the fire bombing of Dresden, which is true, but all this was before the invention of the to-this-day-never- deployed and far more destructive H-bomb. This sort of talk has become quite common on various Russian media outlets in the last two years, very cheap talk indeed. ("Russian media learn to love the bomb" 2/23/15, www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-31557254 ). Putin has never uttered a single word suggesting that these individuals, all of them his appointees, have overdone their public remarks.
So here we are now, with many on both the right and left in the US saying that Putin is a good guy who must be taken very very seriously, not to mention his pal in the US adding to the cheap talk in various ways, both questioning repeatedly why we cannot just use those nukes we have whenever we feel like it, as well as approving nuclear proliferation to such nations as Japan and South Korea (Um would either China or Russia be too keen on either of those proliferations? But, oh, this was probaby just "sarcasm," not recognized as such by the evil MSM).
I note another point some have raised in this debate:which nations have actually publicly supported the Schelling focal point of no first use of nuclear weapons. The list is short, including India and North Korea, whose leader was recently talking about nuking New York City.
What is clear is that on the official list the big nuclear powers: US, Russia, China; list themselves as possibly using nukes for defensive purposes, no public adherence to the Schelling no-first-use norm. But this has been for decades a discrete matter, with the signal given that nobody talks about it, no talk cheap or expensive to enforce the norm. It has been a good 40 years since anybody serious in the US (Air Force General Curtis E.LeMay the last) has spoken in such terms. But if one returns to the 1950s one finds very serious people using the Prisoner's Dilemma model of game theory to argue for a first strike, most famously the late John von Neumann, who declared "If it is wise to strike tomorrow [the former Soviet Union], then why not today at 5 o'clock, and if not at 5, then why not at 1 PM?" As it was, von Neumann's great rival in those debates, Tom Schelling, won the day then.