Russia’s announcement this week that it was shelving plans to deploy missiles in Kaliningrad could signify a welcome change in global nuclear politics. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev had threatened to install them within spitting distance of Bush’s proposed missile defence system in Poland and Czechoslovakia, the day after Barack Obama won the election. A former professor of mine referred to it as a “peace race”; Obama said the defence system was up for review and Medvedev responded in kind.
The psychology behind the tit-for-tat strategy that has historically informed nuclear policies is toxic. Jesse Bering over at Scientific American has some pretty interesting things to say about the psychology of vengeance:
“You may think you’ve restored justice by inflicting the punishment. But from the other person’s perspective, you’ve gone overboard and now it’s their turn to punish you. So, guess what? Now you’ve made a real enemy and have to be vigilant about them returning the retaliatory favour.”
Referring to several studies, his blog concludes that although thinking about revenge brings about satisfaction, actually carrying it out can leave a person worse off.
For decades the Mutual-Assured-Destruction stalemate has allowed Russians and Americans to sleep at night, knowing that the opponent wouldn’t dare risk vengeance. Insecurity and the satisfying thought of vengeance have such appeal that the MAD doctrine has spread to other countries. If you’re going to build 10 new warheads, well then we’ll just have to build 20. This satisfaction has cost untold billions, tragic enough for American taxpayers but absolutely criminal when you consider the impoverished masses in North Korea, India and Pakistan.
Bush’s defenders claim that the Polish missile defence system was never about threatening Russia, or even enacting violence against any country. It was purely for defence. Even if that was true, it still fed the revenge psychology that has plagued US-Russian relations.
This week’s development between the two countries illustrates that if you can up the ante, you can bring it down too. If this truly is going to be Obama’s style when it comes to international relations, perhaps the other armed countries will learn from his example and consider giving their revenge fantasies a rest.