Nuclear Strategists Know How Dangerous the Debt Fight Is

When both sides think catastrophe will always be averted, each behaves more rashly.

A collage of chicken with an image of Benjamin Franklin from the $100 bill
Ricardo Tomás

About the author: Edward Geist, a policy researcher at the Rand Corporation, is the author of Armageddon Insurance: Civil Defense in the United States and Soviet Union, 1945–1991.

Republicans and Democrats alike have characterized the debt-ceiling fight as a game of chicken, in which two drivers barrel toward each other and each hopes that the other swerves away first. Political pundits have described some strategies for resolving the conflict, such as changing the Senate’s filibuster rules to allow a simple majority to raise the debt limit, as “nuclear options.” Language like this might seem to melodramatize the legislative process, but the comparisons are apt. Nuclear-war strategists have long understood how recklessness, or the appearance of recklessness, may help one side get the other to relent during a single game of chicken. But these strategists’ work also offers a warning for Congress: The more times the game is played, the more treacherous it becomes, because when both sides become convinced that catastrophe will always be averted in the end, each behaves more rashly.

Tensions between Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill have cooled after a temporary extension of the debt limit last month, but they could quickly escalate as a new deadline looms in mid-December. If the possibility of default is anything other than zero, it will happen if debt-ceiling chicken is played enough times. Will this latest round be the time our luck finally runs out?

From a nuclear strategist’s point of view, the way the United States has repeatedly flirted with a potentially catastrophic default on the national debt bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the crises of the early Cold War. During the period from the first Berlin Crisis, in 1948, to the Cuban Missile Crisis, in 1962, a superpower standoff with the potential to escalate into all-out nuclear war occurred every few years. Under the Eisenhower administration’s policy of “massive retaliation,” Washington sought to contain communism by leaving open the possibility that a conventional conflict could lead to the use of nuclear weapons. But the mercurial Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev appeared all too willing to test Western resolve. This apocalyptic environment encouraged strategic theorists to seek ways to make brinkmanship more effective and “win” at it.

The most influential theorist contemplating brinkmanship strategies was the future Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling. He sought a solution to the problem of making deterrence credible: If thermonuclear war could not be won, then why would the Communists take seriously American threats to use nuclear weapons, especially to retaliate against a nonnuclear attack on U.S. allies? If risking full-scale nuclear war, in which most Americans might perish, struck Soviet leaders as too irrational, it wouldn’t serve as a credible deterrent threat.

Schelling proposed that irrational threats could still work as a deterrent by incorporating an element of chance. He argued that states could exploit “the danger that somebody may inadvertently go over the brink, dragging the other with him.” In his 1966 book, Arms and Influence, Schelling used this analogy: “If two climbers are tied together, and one wants to intimidate the other by seeming about to fall over the edge, there has to be some uncertainty or anticipated irrationality or it won’t work.” If the climbers are competent and the mountain isn’t treacherous, then approaching the brink carries no danger. Either climber could jump off on purpose, but could not make a plausible, rational threat to do so. Yet so long as the climbers could slip or stumble, they can still intimidate or deter each other. In the presence of “loose ground, gusty winds, and a propensity toward dizziness,” Schelling explained, “one can threaten to fall off accidentally by standing near the brink.”

The United States could harness this idea, Schelling argued, to convince the U.S.S.R. to back down in a superpower crisis. Instead of trying to prevail militarily in nuclear war, the U.S. could signal its resolve by taking steps that increased the risk of inadvertent escalation, akin to one of the imagined climbers trying to intimidate the other by moving closer to the crumbling edge. Schelling’s approach provided a possible way to credibly deter the Soviets—and also avoided the need to match them in nuclear weapons, because the winner in a contest of resolve is not the player with the most bombs, but the one that blinks last. Even if one side had a larger nuclear arsenal, its leaders might still make concessions if they believed that the other side had the resolve to spark an uncontrollable war.

Despite its elegance, Schelling’s argument did not win over all nuclear strategists. His contemporary Herman Kahn argued that the “rationality of irrationality” strategies Schelling promoted were like the games of chicken played by delinquent teenagers on public highways. While Kahn admitted that Schelling’s framework had appealing features, he fretted about its dangers. Competing at risk taking is gambling, and not losing depends on a certain amount of luck. Kahn pointed out that even if the risk of each game of chicken was small, “the probability of war actually occurring as a result of ‘chicken’ being played too often may be very high.”

Disturbingly, the game can become more dangerous with each repetition. “In any long period of peace there may be a tendency for governments to become more intransigent as the thought of war becomes unreal,” Kahn wrote. He warned ominously that “this may be the case especially if there is a background of experiences in which those who stood firm did well, while those who were ‘reasonable’ seemed to do poorly.”

Imagine that Schelling’s hostile mountaineers have played their game of alpine chicken many times. Perhaps they have attracted an audience that cheers the climber who takes risks and mocks the one whose resolve falters. After enough repeated games, neither the spectators nor the climbers take the possibility of falling seriously. Some observers even begin to doubt that a fall can occur, making arguments that the climbers are too “rational” to allow it, or that a fall would not actually be catastrophic. Chastened by the boos of the crowd, the climbers grow inured to the danger and take larger risks. Inevitably, at some point one of them slips, dragging both of them into the abyss.

The regular brinkmanship in Congress over the debt ceiling appears to have degenerated into the kind of repeated game of chicken that Kahn warned us about. The more times the crisis is repeated, the less each occurrence seems like a crisis, because none has yet resulted in a catastrophe. Politicians are encouraged by experience to grow more and more inflexible and take harder positions the next time.

In the debt-ceiling dispute, the U.S. could end up defaulting precisely because each side keeps waiting for the other to blink.

Such an outcome is entirely avoidable. Unlike nuclear weapons, the debt ceiling could be un-invented. If it chose to, Congress could amend the rules to reduce or ideally eliminate the opportunity for this kind of brinkmanship. But as long as the debt ceiling exists in its current form, the incentives to play chicken over and over again remain in place. And each new confrontation brings the country closer and closer to calamity.