Paul Pillar

Making a Market in Nuclear Terrorism

Nuclear terrorism has long been well established as the number one, scariest, most cited threat in any litany of national security dangers. Its place at the top of the list of such dangers was one of the few things on which George W. Bush and John Kerry could agree in the presidential candidates' debates in 2004. It has become de rigueur for other commentary on national security policy to do the same. The absolutist manner in which this specter has been treated, with lots of attention to how awful such an event would be if it occurred but very little about its probability of occurring, has distorted deliberations about national security, including deliberations about which particular aspects of terrorism ought to be receiving the most attention.

There have been sober and careful treatments of nuclear terrorism, but they have been vastly outnumbered by the hyperventilated treatments of the subject. It was therefore a pleasure to hear a renowned intellectual heavyweight apply his characteristically precise analysis to the topic on Wednesday at a conference at the New American Foundation. Thomas Schelling, who shared the Nobel Prize in economics in 2005 for his application of game theory to the study of conflict and cooperation, described how there is much more to the prospects of terrorists ever getting their hands on fissile material, and to what might impede illicit transfers of such material, than the physical safeguards that get most of the attention. Schelling took as his departure point the subject studied by this year's winners of the Nobel economics prize. That subject is “market search”--what it takes for buyers to find sellers and vice versa, and why they so often (as in labor markets, the specific field in which the prize-winners did most of their work) fail to make contact with each other. In his talk, Schelling explained why it is likely to be very hard for any would-be seller of fissile material to make the necessary contact with a prospective terrorist buyer. The problem is somewhat similar to that facing a thief who has stolen a well-known work of art, which cannot be marketed openly and for which there would be very few potential buyers. In the case of possible deals struck with terrorists, there are the added complications of physical danger to the seller.

Governments can capitalize on the search difficulties in this particular market to make an already very unlikely transaction even less likely. Such action would be among the many different things governments can do, but which most commentary about nuclear terrorism overlooks, to keep this feared event from ever happening. It was reassuring to hear Schelling's presentation, both as grounds for dampening fears about nuclear terrorism and as an example of how even a hyperventilated topic can still be the subject of careful, cogent analysis.