Thomas Schelling on Nuclear Terrorism, 2011

Re-upping this 2011 post from a while back, with a few edits.

I heard Thomas Schelling discuss nuclear terrorism at a New America Foundation event in October 2011, but haven’t been able to find a transcript of the event. I was happy to discover a 2011 piece by Dr. Schelling titled  “Whatever Happened to Nuclear Terrorism?” However, the link I had is dead and I can’t find a copy.

Anyway, he wrote:

In 1982 I published an article that began, “Sometime in the 1980’s an organization that is not a national government may acquire a few nuclear weapons. If not in the 1980’s, then in the 1990’s.”

I hedged about the 80’s but sounded pretty firm about the 90’s. It’s now the 2010’s, twenty-nine years later, and there has been no nuclear terrorism nor any acquisition of such weapons by any terrorist organization that we know of; and I think we’d know by now. I don’t know of anyone—and I knew many colleagues knowledgeable on the subject—who thought my expectations outlandish. Something needs to be explained!

His explanation is an interesting one; a PhD student to whom I described it replied, “So he’s saying it’s a market failure.” That, for me, is the most striking part of the argument. Schelling writes: 

Imagine that you have succeeded in stealing a Picasso insured for many millions of dollars, and you know that there are people willing to pay several millions for it: how do you find your customer? You cannot put a want ad in the New York Times.

Read the whole thing…I especially like this paragraph:

a “supplier” and a “customer” representing the terrorist organization may meet in a public place, each with a few unrecognizable body guards, to consummate the deal. At that point I fantasize that the seller and the buyer recognize each other, one is from the CIA and the other from the Israeli Mossad. Each is engaged in a “sting” operation, and they shake hands and go back to work.

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