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.