Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Chess or Checkers in Diplomacy?

Scientific American has a beautiful post on the policy genius of J. Robert Oppenheimer. We normally associate Oppenheimer with mathematical brilliance and nuclear physics. However, Oppenheimer was also a man of Chess in an international game of Checkers. A tactical wizard who understood the complexity and depth of international politics.

From the article:

During the run-up to the 2004 presidential election between John Kerry and George W. Bush, I appeared as a guest on comedian and social commentator Dennis Miller's television talk show on CNBC, during which he made the following comparison: John Kerry is like a wickedly smart chess player, capable of looking ahead many moves, anticipating what his opponent might do and carefully weighing all his options before arriving at a rational decision. By contrast, George W. Bush is more like a checkers player, moving by instinct and glancing around the board for an easy way to king his men. In this world of good and evil, Miller explained, simple black-and-white thinking based on unwavering principles of absolute right and wrong trumps the drawn-out consideration of the nuanced thinker. In other words, with evil empires and malevolent terrorists on the loose, Miller would prefer a checkers player over a chess master.


Oppenheimer was a chess grand master in a game of checkers. He was looking to checkmate the other guy's king by trapping his queen, maneuvering around his bishops and sidestepping his knights, whereas his opponent was merely planning to jump his pieces and have himself kinged. For most of his political and military (and to a lesser extent scientific) colleagues, building the atomic bomb and dropping it on the enemy was a moral no-brainer. Oppenheimer was tormented by the bomb's moral complexities, particularly its postwar expansion into an arms race. It's not that the other leaders of the Manhattan Project had not carefully thought through their decisions; it is that once they made their decisions they moved forward without compunction. What ultimately brought down Oppenheimer was that the government prosecutors in the 1954 hearings trapped him in what they considered to be blatant lies that were, for Oppenheimer, difficult moral choices that caused him to change his positions on people (whom he associated with before or during the Manhattan Project—namely, an ex-lover and a communist sympathizer) and decisions (to share or not to share atomic secrets after the war).
Read the whole article for more, but if ever there was a Prometheus of the atomic-age, it was J. Robert Oppenheimer.

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