Join Us | Print Page | Sign In
Emerging Fellows
Group HomeGroup Home Blog Home Group Blogs

Should we learn to stop worrying and love the bomb?

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, May 2, 2018
Updated: Monday, February 25, 2019

Craig Perry has written his fifth installment in our Emerging Fellows program. His entire series explores the potential for another Great-power War. This piece looks at the Cold War and issues surrounding the atomic bomb. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

“There’s no such thing as a winnable war, it’s a lie we don’t believe anymore.” – Sting, “Russians”

The Cold War was a scary time for citizens on both sides of the Iron Curtain. The United States and the Soviet Union each wielded massive nuclear arsenals with the capacity to destroy the world many times over—and they came perilously close to unleashing these awful weapons on more than one occasion. Yet for all the anxiety this decades-long standoff entailed, it fostered an uneasy peace between the superpowers.

Once the United States demonstrated the terrible potential of the atom bomb at the end of World War II, it was only a matter of time before the Soviet Union and other would-be great powers sought to acquire their own nukes. By the 1960s, the two superpowers had so many warheads—deliverable by a triad of airborne, land-based, and submarine platforms managed by robust command-and-control systems—that neither side could launch first without precipitating a devastating counterattack. The era of mutually assured destruction had begun.

While such strategic deterrence has produced a degree of stability in international affairs, it also creates perverse disincentives for arms control. Any developments that might undermine this suicide pact—for example, by defeating incoming weapons (anti-ballistic missile systems), overwhelming missile defenses (multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles), or making limited regional nuclear exchanges more plausible (intermediate-range nuclear forces)—are seen by the other side as dangerously provocative. Even the dramatic cutbacks of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and the follow-on New START left Moscow and Washington with more than enough firepower to obliterate each other. In the nuclear arms race, at least, Russia remains every bit as powerful as its American rival.

Yet while mutually assured destruction makes large-scale wars between nuclear powers less likely, it paradoxically permits them to engage in smaller conflicts without fear of escalation. During the Cold War, U.S. nuclear strategy quickly evolved to deemphasize massive retaliation in favor of more flexible responses as the superpowers found themselves embroiled in numerous proxy conflicts. This stability-instability paradox also encourages nuclear proliferation among lesser powers seeking to guarantee their own regime survival. Although small nuclear stockpiles with limited delivery means may deter regional rivals (e.g. India/Pakistan), they offer no guarantee against a determined great power—and a rogue regime’s pursuit of the bomb can just as easily provoke crippling sanctions and preemptive war.

While the end of the Cold War reduced the risk of global thermonuclear war, it hasn’t done much to curb the enthusiasm of great powers to maintain and enhance their strategic forces. Shortly after the Pentagon released its 2018 nuclear posture review calling for new low-yield warheads and sea-launched cruise missiles, the Russian president publicly revealed several other weapons under development. Meanwhile, China continues to modernize its much smaller but quite capable triad as a hedge against first-use by its great-power rivals—and has likely reconsidered its previous, destabilizing support for Pakistani and North Korean nuclear ambitions.

Not surprisingly, efforts to ban the bomb—including the 2017 UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons—enjoy almost no support among nuclear powers and America’s NATO allies. Still, with the majority of the world’s states, the ocean floor, and even outer space now legally designated nuclear-weapons-free zones, there is a growing international consensus that nuclear warfare is beyond the pale. Despite some backsliding in recent years, the great powers are generally committed to arms control and nonproliferation as a means of preserving strategic stability—and even junior members of the nuclear club have existential incentives to behave responsibly. But whether or not you love the bomb, there’s not much point worrying about what’s become a necessary evil in our anarchic international system, which will continue deterring great-power conflict for the foreseeable future.


© Craig Perry 2018

Tags:  politics  strategy  war 

Share |
PermalinkComments (0)
 

Is Another Great-Power War Inevitable?

Posted By Administration, Thursday, December 14, 2017
Updated: Sunday, February 24, 2019

Craig Perry is one of our Emerging Fellows. He and our other Emerging Fellows will be posting throughout the year. This first article about war asks an important question for the present and the future.

“Anarchy places a premium on foresight.” – Kenneth Waltz

A century ago, with the world embroiled in what was then naively dubbed the “war to end all wars,” few people imagined a second global conflagration igniting just a generation later. Since the end of World War II, however, humanity has experienced over seven decades of relative peace, with the frequency of war deaths trending sharply downward throughout this period. This is largely attributable to the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, a standoff that spawned numerous proxy conflicts but never turned truly hot. It remains to be seen whether the ongoing reemergence of a multipolar world, with potentially several states capable of exerting influence on a global scale, will lead to yet more wars among these so-called great powers.

There are good reasons to fear a return to great-power conflict. Warfare has been endemic to the human condition since the dawn of civilization, and remains the ultimate way of resolving conflicts among states even in the modern era. World affairs are inherently anarchic, with states pursuing their own advantages in a Hobbesian struggle of each against all. While the weak may occasionally band together to balance would-be hegemons, the prevailing self-help system of international relations features no permanent friends or enemies, just interests. “Countries have always competed for wealth and security, and the competition has often led to conflict,” the late neo-realist scholar Kenneth Waltz noted. “Why should the future be different from the past?”

Indeed, war has accompanied the rise and fall of great powers throughout recorded history. In his classic account of the Peloponnesian War, Greek historian Thucydides concluded that the growth of Athenian power and the fear this inspired in then-dominant Sparta made war between these city-states inevitable. This dynamic, which political scientist Graham Allison calls the “Thucydides Trap,” has ensnared rising and established powers in more than a dozen wars over the last 500 years—and it threatens to do so again as other states challenge the United States for global influence.

Such systemic, structural factors are not the only aspects of international relations that can drive states towards armed conflict. Marxists argue that capitalism compels the core, industrialized powers to compete for dominance as they exploit peripheral countries for labor and raw materials. Political scientist Samuel Huntington suggested it is culture—rather than ideology, politics, or economics—that is shaping patterns of conflict, with the Western belief in the universality of its values leading to clashes with rival civilizations. Constructivists similarly believe ideas shape international relations, as each state perceives world events in its own peculiar way.

So why should the future be different from the past? With nearly 200 sovereign states around the globe, it seems inevitable that at least some of them will come into conflict in the coming decades—and great powers will occasionally intervene if only to enforce international law or for some other ostensibly noble purpose. Yet it is far from certain that these great powers will again come to blows with each other, for several reasons. While anarchy will continue to characterize international relations for the foreseeable future, a number of developments—including nuclear deterrence, globalization of trade and investment, relevant international institutions, shifting social norms, and widespread competition below the threshold of war—are incrementally reducing the likelihood of another great-power conflict. Will these trends be enough to prevent the eventual outbreak of World War III?


© Craig Perry 2017

Tags:  power  strategy  war 

Share |
PermalinkComments (0)