Nuclear strategy game highlights need for trust

Left: UBC Professors Allen Sens and Matthew Yedlin teach an interdisciplinary course that gives students a holistic view of nuclear weapons and arms control. Photo: UBC Flexible Learning.

On Jan. 27 in Vienna, delegates at the Science and Diplomacy for Peace and Security Symposium, sponsored by the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), will be asked to play an unusual game. They’ll be asked to form groups representing different countries and to decide whether or not they’ll build and test nuclear weapons over several rounds of the game.

On the surface, the exercise serves to highlight the importance of nuclear security, according to Matthew Yedlin, a professor of electrical engineering at UBC who created the game as a hands-on learning tool for a course he teaches jointly with UBC Political Science Professor Allen Sens.

But on a deeper level, Yedlin says, it’s all about how important mutual trust is in the global arena and how quickly trust can be broken.

Watch Prof. Yedlin explain how the game works and a class play at the 2015 UBC Engineering Open House:

How is the game played?

You need a minimum of two teams, each team representing a country and deciding how each country votes. Each country can decide to “cooperate” (refrain from testing nukes) or “not cooperate” (build and test nukes).

The scoring is done in pairs. Each country obtains three points if they both decide to cooperate, or one point each if they both decide to test. If one decides to test and the other doesn’t, the cooperating country gets zero points and the non-cooperating country gets five. This goes on for several rounds, with each country doing its best to end up with the highest score.

When we first tested this game, we found that in round one, the countries usually vote to cooperate. But that principled front starts to show cracks almost immediately. Country A starts to question country B’s trustworthiness and wonders if perhaps country B will eventually build nukes. So country A decides to stay a step ahead, and votes to test nukes in round two. Country B keeps its word and votes to cooperate, but then decides to “protect” itself by voting to test nukes in round three.

Guess what happens in the end.

Everybody’s testing nukes and global nuclear security is in shambles?

Correct. The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) was proposed as a way to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and ensure global security. Enforcement of the CTBT depends on extensive verification built-in measures. However, these measures are meant to complement the basic underlying premise of any treaty – trust. Everything is built on trust. When trust is broken, any treaty is in serious jeopardy. This game emphasizes the importance of creating mutual trust between people and between countries.

So what is the way forward?

The CTBT was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in September 1996, but many countries still haven’t ratified it, including China, Egypt, Iran, Israel and the United States. As the treaty marks its 20th anniversary this year, it’s really important to add urgency to the ratification. Building trust among individuals and countries is, I think, the first step in that process.

Yet trust can survive only if it’s built on good, reliable information, gained through science and accurate reporting. I think ultimately that’s what this game drives home: that diplomats and decision-makers must know science, must have good working knowledge of how it all works, to do their job well.

Listen to four Nuclear Arms Negotiation game participants share their thoughts with Prof. Yedlin at last year’s UBC Engineering Open House: