Episode 11: Thomas Schelling: Nobel Economist Turned Nuclear Strategist
Thomas Schelling brought a cross-disciplinary approach to nuclear strategy and the understanding of conflict. Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman, Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King’s College London, joins us to discuss Schelling’s pioneering work and reluctance to be seen as a game theorist.
Thomas Schelling (1921–2016), was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for ‘having enhanced our understanding of conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis’. Despite a reluctance to be seen as a game theorist and a distrust of pure mathematical modelling, he brought to the analysis of strategy concepts borrowed from economics, a discipline that had not previously played a role in military strategy-making.
In the 1950s and 1960s, a revolution took place in the US strategic community: in the wake of the Second World War, systems analysis and operational research on the strategic bombing effort, civilians gained influence on defence policymaking. This was particularly true for nuclear strategy and international crisis management, on which Schelling focused his attention in the 1960s. Earlier, he had worked on the US Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of Europe, while later he would take a great interest in arms control.
An advisor to successive UK governments, Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman was only in his early 30s when he published his Evolution of Strategy in 1981, and he was subsequently appointed Head of the then small Department of War Studies at King’s College London. Under Sir Lawrence’s leadership, the Department of War Studies grew to become a centre of excellence of worldwide renown that would educate future military leaders, civil servants, journalists and interested generalists from all parts of the globe.
Thomas C. Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict, Harvard, 1960.
Thomas C. Schelling, Arms and Influence, Yale, 1966.
Lawrence Freedman and Jeffrey Michaels, The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy, 4th rev. edn. Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.
Senior Associate Fellow
Director, Military Sciences