Saving the World

Once upon a time, I saved the world from a nuclear holocaust.

It wasn't our world, of course. It wasn't a place you could travel to by rail, or plane, or boat. This world was a made-up land. It existed only in the minds of a group of people. And even though it only existed for an hour or two, it was important, and worth saving.

In the early 1990s I worked for the government of the state of New York. It was good work, but we didn't get much of a chance to attend professional conferences. However, we did occasionally get fliers for seminars along the lines of "Seven Ways to Improve Your Work Habits". It was during one of these day-long seminars that I helped to save the world.

The seminar was held at a local college. The morning program wasn't memorable, but in the afternoon the group was divided in two for an exercise. The speaker laid out the following scenario.

  • Each group represents a country.

  • Both countries are antagonistic. Neither has ever trusted the other.

  • The economic backbone of each country is its arms industry. It cannot be halted. Every day it produces five single-warhead nuclear missiles.

  • Each day, a country can choose to do nothing, destroy any or all of its missiles, or launch any or all of its missiles. Five new missiles will be produced no matter what the choice of action is.

  • There is no communication between the countries. However, each has spies that report the current other country's number of missiles daily.

  • On the first day of the exercise, each country has a stockpile of ten missiles.

  • A country that has been attacked can launch any or all of its missiles in a counter-strike.

The scenario would be played out for seven days, with the groups in separate rooms. The only communication would be through the moderator. The goal was to win, that is, for your country to survive.

Somehow I was elected the leader of the group I was in. The strategy was simple: either launch a strike immediately and suffer a devastating retaliatory attack, or find some way to work toward mutual disarmament without being attacked, and without direct communication.

Since I'd been reading about coöperation theory and the Prisoner's Dilemma, I pushed for the latter strategy. It took some convincing, but the other members accepted the idea. The problem was how to communicate our intentions to the other country. I made a suggestion, and the group haggled around and accepted it. On the first day, we destroyed the one missile. This was our attempt to signal that we were willing to consider peace, and not rush into escalation.

We learned that the other country has neither destroyed nor launched any missiles. We took this as a cautious good sign.

The next day, we destroyed two missiles. Our stockpile was still growing, but we were trying to show that we'd be willing to make deeper cuts, eventually bringing escalation to a halt.

The other country destroyed one missile. We took this as a sign that they were willing to coöperate.

Another day followed, with each side destroying progressively more missiles each day.

Then came some bad news, or rather the lack of it. The moderator informed us that our spies had been unreliable, and we didn't know what happened in the other country that day. Should we continue with our progressive decrease? It was getting to the point where one side could have a decisive margin of missiles over the other. Should we seize the opportunity?

We didn't. Both sides continued on our mutual course, despite the day's information blackout.

Another day passed, with even deeper cuts being made. We were now destroying all the missiles produced each day, and had started to erode the stockpiled weapons.

On the fifth day there another unforeseen problem. In an occurrence reminiscent of Dr. Strangelove, we were informed by the moderator that a small number of our missiles had accidentally been fired at the other country, wiping out a number of their missiles. We as a country were now in a stronger position than they were. And there was no way to convince the other country that it had been an accident.

What should we do, we wondered? If we attacked with our entire stockpile, we could possibly survive the retaliatory attack. But was there a way to convince the other country that we weren't going to do so? Once again, I argued that we should continue with our present course of build-down. The other country would certainly be scrutinizing what we did closely; why make them guess what our motives were, when we could demonstrate our good faith? We decided to stick to the schedule (although we might have destroyed a few more missiles; at this point, I can't remember clearly).

That day, the other country destroyed one missile.

To us, it was a clear signal that they intended to continue disarming. We continued making cuts until the week was over, as did the other country, which returned to its previous pattern of increasing cuts the day after suffering the unintended attack. At the end neither side was secure, but we'd (A) reduced the size of each side's stockpile to less than that of the first day, (B) overcome two situations where distrust could have led to destruction, and (C) managed to find a strategy that, if allowed to continue, could have led to complete disarmament.

After the exercise was over, the moderator congratulated us. In his experience, peace had not been not the exercise's usual outcome.

I'm still proud of this. Even though I never visited either land except in my mind, it's satisfying to know that I helped two opposing groups find a way to overcome their distrust and work toward peace.

The exercise was a wonderful demonstration of the evolution of coöperation. As Robert Axelrod has written, it's critical to be nice, provocable, forgiving, and clear. With those principles as my guide, I was able to help save a world.

Last updated 20 December 2000
All contents ©2000-2002 Mark L. Irons