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Mutually Assured Destruction
By Juan Carlos
It is a circumstance where two parties are in a stalemate, and neither can take action without spelling their destruction.
It was devised in military strategy to describe a nuclear arms deadlock and comes from deterrence theory. The threat of using a weapon against another party stops them from using the same weapon.
When both parties are at a standstill, neither has an incentive to start a conflict or disarm.
Why Use It
Although the concept stems from national security policy, it has applications elsewhere. Namely, it arises in competition and when trust comes into question. The first step is to identify where mutually assured destruction can or does exist.
It can take the form of challenging competitors and utilizing destructive tactics to undercut one another.
Trust ebbs when a party feels threatened. In turn, it causes them to be suspicious and ultimately provoke ill will.
Avoiding, confronting, and eliminating situations where mutually assured destruction exists removes risk.
When to Use It
In a competitive industry, this can take the form of a price war between two businesses and a race to the bottom. Each party requires profits to support their company, and at one point, neither can shave any more off the list price. With diminishing returns, both parties find themselves in a challenging situation with everything to lose.
When it comes to trust, two parties might have incriminating secrets about each other, but releasing it would come at the expense of having their confidential information publicized. Each party recognizes the negative consequences are not worth exposing the other party, and that causes a stalemate.
In another scenario, a potential whistleblower might want to expose an organization but faces the repercussions of taking an action that could permanently damage their career and life. The company, which wields more power, recognizes the vulnerability and impedes folks with sensitive information from taking action.
How to Use It
For mutually assured destruction to occur, several factors must be present:
- Both parties must be able to destroy the other. Power inequality can tip the balance.
- Neither party can have a safety mechanism by which they might be able to survive.
- The aggressor cannot cause the retaliator so much damage they would be unable to counter.
The Cold War, which pitted the USSR and the US against one another, is the canonical example of mutually assured destruction:
- They both discovered nuclear arms.
- Both parties stockpiled nuclear weapons against one another to ensure power equality.
- Any attack could pose a disastrous blow to the other.
- They can accurately detect strikes and pinpoint their origin.
- Neither has shelters that would reduce the risk enough to be acceptable.
- Each party believes the other is capable and willing to destroy them.
Both parties act rationally and value human life.
If any attack between these two countries were to occur, then an escalation of hostilities would invariably annihilate both parties.
Alternatively, ideological systems have created a new battleground. Parties engaged in this type of warfare use content as a delivery mechanism for shaping perception. The pursuit of propaganda as a vehicle for dominance is everpresent in this war, and each must continue to pursue their agenda relentlessly. Stopping or pausing could spell their side’s demise.
How to Misuse It
Mutually assured destruction is fragile and demands both parties maintain a precarious balance. Long-term, a deterrence strategy is challenging as its foundational component is mistrust. Most importantly, the concept might be unable to deter unconventional actions.
The military strategy has practical applications in life. Knowing where and when a situation like this occurs can help you avoid this losing position altogether.
Where it Came From
The term was coined ironically in 1962 by Donald Brennan, a strategist at Herman Kahn’s Hudson Institute, who claimed possessing weapons of this nature was irrational.
Unlock Clear Thinking
Fueled by a passion for storytelling and excitement for life design, I find joy in reframing narratives to illuminate paths toward fulfillment. My experience spans high-growth startups, filmmaking, and social impact, culminating in my authorship of “Mind Guide: 49 Mental Models for Effective Decision Making.” Through mentoring and coaching, I guide teams and individuals to discover purpose and cultivate a meaningful life.
I started in film, directing award-winning features such as ‘Know How’ and ‘Second Skin.’ These cinematic endeavors earned me recognition and allowed me to serve as a spokesperson for Adobe. I founded the White Roof Project, a grassroots climate activism campaign that mitigated the urban heat island effect and spurred community-led social change.
I carried my storytelling skills and passion for societal transformation as I transitioned into the startup ecosystem. Initially, I contributed to social impact apps, converting complex issues into accessible solutions. This early experience laid a foundation for my later work, where I led the development of groundbreaking products within high-growth startups. My work has underscored the potential of technology to innovate industries and amplify the quality of human life.