Sunday, October 4, 2009

Pax Atomica: The Nuclear Peace.

Pax Atomica Prologue:

I'm posting the following material here so I can link to it when the topic arises in discussion and debate elsewhere. This post is an essay I wrote some time ago concerning the influence of nuclear weapons on the nature of international relations since the end of World War II. Shortly thereafter, pro-nuclear commenter DV8 2XL provided an analysis on the same subject which went into more specific detail concerning the strategic and tactical considerations of nuclear weapons. Whereas I look at the subject in the light of the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction, DV8 2XL asserts that the true value of nuclear weapons is their conferral of invulnerability to invasion to any country which possesses them. With nuclear weapons, a small state can repel invasion by huge conventional forces and also ward off the threat of nuclear attack by possessing a retaliatory capability. This shielding effect would be lost the instant it chose to use nuclear weapons in a first strike attack, so there would be strong incentive on both sides to maintain the peace.

Either way you look at it though, nuclear weapons have been an inadvertent force for peace in the world.

Pax Atomica

I have in my possession a most interesting tome. No doubt many here have heard of it. It's titled "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic change and military conflict from 1500 to 2000", written by Paul Kennedy a professor of History at Yale University. There you will find an excellent description of the ongoing pattern of Great Power conflicts over that period. It's a very impressive read. If you haven't read it yet, I highly recommend that you obtain a copy and do so. You will almost certainly complete it with much greater knowledge and appreciation of the subject than you had when you started.

The book is partly a forecast, as it was written in 1986. Professor Kennedy's insight into the situation at the time was uncanny. He stated that the Soviet Union was in deep trouble a few years before its collapse, and wrote of the rise of China well before that topic became a mainstream day-to-day issue. Nothing in what he said about the remainder of the twentieth century needs much revision now that it's over, except perhaps that some of the projections overestimated the time frame for major changes, but you probably wouldn't have found too many people in 1986 asserting that Soviet communism was likely to collapse within five years. A 'Great Power' is defined as a nation capable of presenting a credible challenge to any other nation in the world. The nations in the first rank change over time, as various contenders get pushed out of the leader pack, while demographic and economic evolution thrusts others into it.

What really strikes me about the historical account is the dreary regularity with which the Great Powers take up arms against each other. Throughout most of modern European history, the Great Powers have engaged in ongoing struggles for dominance, with intervals of peace merely serving as prep time for the next bout. Every twenty years or so (or perhaps less, I haven't worked out the average), Europe would go through some huge convulsion to reach a new equilibrium in its internal tribal tensions.

Since the Renaissance there have been two periods of relative calm, during which direct Great Power wars have been rare or non-existent. The first of these ran from 1815 to 1914, from the victory of Britain and its allies over Napoleon's empire to the outbreak of World War One. That extended period of international peace appears chiefly to be the result of the dominance of one Great Power above all others. Britain found itself in a uniquely advantageous position after the Napoleonic Wars. In a bid to secure their thrones against any future revolutions, the freshly restored monarchies of the Continent established something called the Concert of Europe. Devised by the Austrian nobleman and diplomat Metternich, the 'Concert' was basically an agreement among the European absolutist monarchies to come to each other's aid to put down any popular revolution against any established regime which might threaten the status quo.

The reactionary nature of post-Napoleonic Continental governments slowed the introduction of industrial technology and modern representational management and government, and entrenched Britain's position as hegamon. This situation lasted until the late nineteenth century when the spread of industrialisation across Europe and the U.S. enabled Britain's rivals to close the gap. There were wars during this period, including a couple of direct clashes between Great Powers, but not on the scale of the previous century. The greatest military struggle by far in that historical period was the American Civil War, an internal matter for the United States rather than a Great Power conflict, and one which mirrored to some extent the tensions which also existed in Europe at the time between the old agrarian economic system and the new industrial system. The other notable struggles of this period occurred during the latter part of it, and mainly concerned the altering balance of power in Central Europe with the rise of Prussia/Germany.

As time went by, Britain slipped from overwhelming hegamon to first among equals in the Great Power game, and finally to eclipse at the rise of Germany, the US, Russia and others. Once it could no longer overawe its neighbours, Europe drifted into another Great Power war, this time dragging the rest of the world in with it. In the aftermath of the destruction wrought by WW1, many people from all levels of society across Europe and the rest of the world sought political solutions to the problem of war, such as the League of Nations, and invested great effort in devising them. In spite of their earnest efforts to avoid another disaster, the world was plunged into another, much worse, Great Power war two decades later. In spite of the best efforts of the forces of reason, the basic historical pattern had reasserted itself when the exceptional conditions which facilitated the long peace of the 19th Century vanished. Restoration of the normal distribution of power among the people of the globe meant restoration of business as usual, no matter what the angels of our better nature thought of it.

Then something peculiar happened. For some reason, direct armed clashes between the Great Powers have ceased. By now we should be up to about World War Five, or be desperately arming ourselves in preparation for it. The international situation at the end of World War Two certainly didn't encourage much optimism about the chances of avoiding future Great Power clashes, at least not if you used past history as any guide. Something happened to derail business as usual.

That something was, of course, nuclear weapons. The Balance of Terror, Mutually Assured Destruction, was bagged out in its time, but in retrospect, it seems to have served humanity rather well. Of course, it's still in effect. The fall of the USSR hasn't really changed the fundamental strategic situation that much. Russia could still destroy the US and China. The US could still destroy Russia and China. China could cause enough damage to the US or Russia to dissuade either of those Powers from attacking it. There are still client states and proxy wars, but there are no true Great Power wars. Such a conflict is still far too dangerous for any of the main players to countenance.

Since the thermonuclear bomb cannot be uninvented, I'm inclined to think that it must be acknowledged as a permanent feature of human politics from hereon in. Nukes or something even more powerful will be primary strategic considerations in human affairs for the rest of history. Even if some kind of defensive technology such as advanced ABM lasers, or interceptors, or something becomes possible, no one could ever be sure that an advanced delivery system couldn't get past the defence. The risk would be just too high to ever assume invulnerability to attack.

In short, the only way that nuclear aggression can ever possibly make sense in terms of a Great Power war is if the aggressor has good reason to think that its victim cannot retaliate. I don't know what it would take to convince a would-be nuclear conqueror that it was safe to launch a first strike, but it is certainly more likely to happen if the intended victim publicly declares itself to be disarmed, than if it has a habit of occasionally conducting an underground weapon test to prove to everyone that its nuke capability is current and effective.

The Pax Britannia lasted 99 years. The Pax Atomica is now nearly 63 years old. I wonder if it will outlive its predecessor, and if it does, by how long.

10 comments:

DV8 2XL said...

It has been argued that rogue states are not amenable to traditional notions of deterrence based upon mutually assured destruction. It is claimed that deterrence based only upon the threat of retaliation is less likely to work against leaders of rogue states more willing to take risks. This argument encapsulated years of proselytizing on the inadequacies of deterrence.

In reality no form of state can be considered to be more prone to use nuclear weapons than any other. The propensity to use nuclear weapons does not depend upon a state’s internal political structure or its internal cultural makeup. India and China both maintain a minimum deterrent yet in their internal political structure and cultural makeup they differ greatly.

There exists nothing about the internal structure of a “rogue state” that invalidates the rationality criteria of traditional deterrence theory. That being so there can be no case for a posture that considers “rogue states” to be somehow irrational and beyond traditional notions of strategic choice. This applies even in the case of North Korea, the current poster state for irrationality.

This is because of an enduring feature of any state system: in practice there is no correlation between the internal structure of a state and its external behavior. For example; Athens and Sparta differed in their internal makeup, yet both behaved similarly.

Thus from the standpoint of deterrence there is no need for massive force levels, warhead and infrastructure characteristics, and supporting strategies that have been maintained by the U.S. and Russia. It only takes a small arsenal of nuclear weapons, say 200, to maintain a credible posture as a nuclear power.

In fact the 1980s the US had tens of thousands of nuclear weapons. China at that time had about 20. From the perspective of Beijing that was enough for deterrence. The same would apply if the numbers were reversed.

Yet advocates of nuclear abolition argue that the risk posed by nuclear weapons have not decreased despite the end of the Cold War. What they forget is that to abolish nuclear weapons, as matters currently stand, would lead us to eliminate one risk at the cost of severely magnifying the risk externalities associated with nuclear proliferation. As you pointed out the thermonuclear bomb cannot be uninvented. Without an adequate method of stopping any nation from developing a device, nuclear security will less not more stronger.

It would be far more practical to focus on mitigating the risk of nuclear war by seeking to significantly lower force levels than attempting to eliminate this weapon.

Stewart Peterson said...

Well, the Taiping Rebellion was far bigger than the American Civil War, and the American Civil War had a serious chance of dragging Europe into the war on the side of the Confederacy, but the point that conflicts only happened between parties that were outside the system still stands.

Also, and this might miss the point, but the way the US Constitution was structured, there was going to be a civil war of some sort eventually. Economics had little to do with it; the Constitution didn't say one way or the other whether a state would be allowed to leave the federation, so everybody knew that a state would one day test the federal government's resolve to keep the federation together. The specific matter of dispute could have been anything; indeed, several northern states threatened to secede at various points.
Basically, the dispute arose for reasons that were uniquely American. Neither side was taking any cues from Europe. I don't think many Americans would agree with or recognize an economic analysis of the American Civil War, so if that's a significant part of your audience, you might want to take that into account.

Just saying. Feel free to delete this comment if you want.

Finrod said...

I'll freely admit this is the first I've heard of the Taiping Rebellion. 20-30 million dead. That's a lot. Did they all die in combat, or were there other artificial disasters, natural disasters, famines and so forth involved?

I note that in the end, the rebellion was crushed by the Imperial Chinese army with the assistance of some western forces. While devestating to China, the struggle seemed to mean little outside its borders.

Professor Kennedy's analysis of the dynamics of war and statecraft over the past five centuries does not state that economics is a necessary driver of war, but he does assert that economics gives a good indication of which side will achieve victory once a war is underway, especially if it is protracted. This is why Britain was able to impose peace so effectively at that time.

George Carty said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
George Carty said...

It has been argued that rogue states are not amenable to traditional notions of deterrence based upon mutually assured destruction. It is claimed that deterrence based only upon the threat of retaliation is less likely to work against leaders of rogue states more willing to take risks. This argument encapsulated years of proselytizing on the inadequacies of deterrence.

I thought that (at least as far as fears of an Islamic Bomb are concerned) the issue was not the willingness of the leadership to take risks, but their belief in life after death.

(If we start a nuclear war, we'll go to Heaven, and the filthy infidels will go to Hell...)

DV8 2XL said...

"I thought that (at least as far as fears of an Islamic Bomb are concerned) the issue was not the willingness of the leadership to take risks, but their belief in life after death."

In almost all cases history has shown that the leadership of movements such as these are generally not prepared to sacrifice themselves with anywhere near the same degree of enthusiasm they demand from their followers.

The leadership of these Islamic movements seem to to all have lived to a ripe age - not an indicator of sacrificial tendencies.

neil craig said...

I think the role of nuclear is much more equivocal than that & that the real reason we have not had wars is because the sucesful method of growing to great power status now is not annexing bits of other people's countries, they aren't worth the bother, but growing your own economy.

The downside of nuclear weapons (if the phrase makes sense) is that every dangerous country becomes a dangerous neighbour. After 1945 there was no other real reason for conflict between the USA & USSR. The cold war was never about getting Alaska back & without nukes neither would have been able to threaten the other. With the Bomb paranoia became justified, indeed almost inevitable. The same, on a smaller scale applies today to Iran V Israel which can barely touch each other in conventional ways.

drbuzz0 said...

There's a big difference between nuclear weapons and other weapons of war.

Leaders seem to have no problem with causing a great deal of death and destruction as long as it's not too close by. Invading someplace "over there" is easy. There's often a kind comes when there is confidence that their own cities won't be the subject of the destruction.

Japan was shocked by the Doolittle raid and of course more came later. Germany never believed her cities would burn nor did France or Britain forsee the extent of the Blitz.

Nuclear weapons on ICBM's are very personal. You start flinging those around and the leaders get the message: **YOU** are likely to die. Not "you" collectively, but you, personally, Mister Khrushchev or Mr. Nixon or Mr. Johnson. You and your family will probably die and the place where you live will be blown to kingdom come.

Oh you may manage to get away for a bit, dodging the explosions in a secure command post plane or in hallowed out mountain, if you're lucky, but it'll still be the end of your world.

That is very very different then knowing that this will happen to Private Nameless and Corporal DoesNotMatterSoMuch.

Isa; said...

Hello. I'm a high school student and I'm thinking of writing my final paper on the subject of Atomic peace. I was trying to do some research, and came upon this post. It seems to me like you must have used some of the same information to write your post as I will need to write my essay. I was wondering if you could please help me by pointing me toward some useful information? I would really appreciate it. Please contact me at isaorange@live.com

Thank you very much.

Isa; said...

Hello. I'm a high school student and I'm thinking of writing my final paper on the subject of Atomic peace. I was trying to do some research, and came upon this post. It seems to me like you must have used some of the same information to write your post as I will need to write my essay. I was wondering if you could please help me by pointing me toward some useful information? I would really appreciate it. Please contact me at isaorange@live.com

Thank you very much.