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1913 Debate Continues

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009


Cheryl raises the question of “Evolutionary psychology” in considering nuclear deterrence.

An intriguing angle. Going to think about this and respond a little later.

1913 Redux

Wednesday, June 24th, 2009


My friend Cheryl Rofer of Whirledview, who has a professional background in nuclear weapons issues, is an advocate of strong diplomatic efforts for nuclear disarmament and, someday, of a world free of nuclear arms ( note to readers: Cheryl is NOT advocating immediate or unilateral nuclear disarmament). While I see room for responsble reductions in nuclear weapons systems, I disagree that this objective – very low or no “legal” nuclear weapons- is a good idea; in fact, I expect that doing so will make great power war possible again, a nightmare we have not seen since 1945.

Cheryl had a very interesting post recently, where she makes an argument that the old world, the one that launched the 20th century’s descent into epic carnage and ideological fury in August 1914, is long gone and that the subsequent changes in political order mitigate the dangers of a revival of great power rivalry and warfare. I am using a sizable excerpt here in order to show the core of Rofer’s argument:

Not 1913

My customary response to this (after batting away their ideas that we are talking about unilateral disarmament or that we might have zero nuclear weapons in the next month or so) has been that the negotiations and concessions necessary to move toward zero nuclear weapons will restructure the world in such a way that it will resemble no world we know or have known.

But Nicholas and Alexandra has given me a new argument: Europe is no longer ruled by a single dysfunctional family.

That’s an exaggeration of the Europe of 1913, which was the problem back then. But no such important grouping of countries is any longer ruled by a single family. And there’s more to it than that: the form of rule is important, and the world has pretty much given up on absolute monarchies. There are still autocracies of various kinds around the world, but they are few.

Many of the rulers of Europe before World War I were related to Queen Victoria. She provided the fateful hemophilia gene that the Tsarevich suffered from. Both Nicholas and Alexandra were related to the British royal family, Alexandra a granddaughter of Victoria. Kaiser Wilhelm was a cousin. King Alfonso of Spain was a cousin by marriage, and there were ties to Greece, Prussia, and Denmark. The members of the family were fabulously wealthy, and, as we have recently seen, the values and interests of the fabulously wealthy are not the same as those of the rest of us.

Nicholas regretted having to go to war against Cousin Willy, but his other duties required it. Russia’s national interest was part of it, but a big part of how he thought of national interest was a pride-duty-upholding-our-sacred-values kind of thing that is more like a family’s sense of who they are than today’s national interests of economic growth or security for citizens.

….Monarchy exacerbated the problems
Most of the countries of Europe were monarchies; now most are democracies. In a monarchy, the monarch is in charge of everything. There may be ministers, but they are advisors who have only as much power as the monarch grants. Britain had been moving away from this model for some time, but Nicholas and Alexandra were hardly alone in believing that only one person can rule. When World War I broke out, Nicholas commanded the troops directly. This left a bit of a vacuum in other spheres, which Alexandra tried to fill, with Rasputin’s help.

Power is that centralized in very few countries today. Heads of government have access to advice from experts in many fields: military, scientific, economic, societal, political. The ballot box and the media remind those heads that accepting advice can be a good idea. None of this implies that decisions will be perfect, but it does mean that big decisions, like going to war, will be thought out and justified in ways that a monarch does not need to.

As I said in the comment section at Whirledview, there are two distinct questions here with Cheryl’s argument:

a) The influence of monarchy in historical period of 1913 in precipitating the civilizational calamity of WWI ( or, if you like a broader view, the 1914-1991 “Long War” between liberal democracy and authoritarian-totalitarian regimes).

b) Emerging strategic parallels with 1913 that could be exacerbated by a nuclear free world.

I will deal with each question in turn.

Europe of 1913 was, I would agree, certainly a much more hierarchical and authoritarian place than it is today. Cheryl is implicitly invoking “Democratic Peace theory” here to explain the warlike tendencies of late imperial Europe that contrast so sharply with the conflict averse, liberal democratic, welfare states that make up the EU. However the historical picture I think is more complicated in that none of the monarchs, not even the nominal autocrat Tsar Nicolas II of Russia, were absolute monarchs in practice.

Nicholas II, on paper, was the most powerful ruler but even so, he was forced to accept the Duma and limits on his previously (theoretically) infinite powers in the Revolution of 1905. Kaiser Wilhelm II was technically the “German Emperor”, sort of a commander-in-chief and presiding officer of a federation of Lander that made up Imperial Germany, and not “Emperor of Germany”. The Kaiser had to deal with an unruly Reichstag filled with socialists, other German monarchs like the King of Bavaria, a Prussian and imperial civil service, a junkers class and a Grossgeneralstab, all of which had various institutional prerogatives that checked the authority of “the All-Highest”. The King of Great Britain retained enough real power to force a pre-war reform of the House of Lords against the will of a majority of parliament, but this was regarded as an extraordinary political event ( George III had regularly exercised powers not far removed from those of President Barack Obama). The government of Austria-Hungary is beyond my expertise, except to say that it’s government was riven by byzantine rules and duplicative bodies. The Young Turks had seized power from Abdul-Hamid II and the new Sultan was a figurehead. France was a republic.

While the monarchs exercised varying degrees of executive power before the Great War, they were a declining legacy component of a modern, evolving, state system, one increasingly animated by an aggressive spirit of brutal nationalism and militarism. The state, not the monarch, is what ran Europe in 1913 and in 1918 nearly all of these crowned rulers were swept away without a trace, like a predatory insect discarding an old shell as it grew larger and stronger. Those monarchs that remained became living flags and tourist attractions. Nationalism is far from dead in 2009 and while the state as a global institution has taken an impressive beating since the end of the Cold War, it retains in most countries impressive powers of coercion and an ability to inflict great harm, even where it cannot make itself be obeyed. Zimbabwe, Iran, Sudan, Burma, to name just a few, have governments that continue to rule barbarically and thumb their noses as the civilized world, despite being loathed by substantial parts of their population or even the vast majority of citizens

The strategic calculus regarding the value of nuclear weapons to a state does not remain unchanged with reductions in nuclear arsenals, the value actually increases in the sense that each nuclear weapon becomes more significant as there are fewer of them. Nuclear weapons become more prestigious and, once the US and Russia move to very low numbers of warheads, have greater military significance to the ayatollahs, military dictators, presidents for life, nationalist demagogues and terrorists who might like to have some. Nuclear weapons are useful as status symbols or as shields to deter intervention while pursuing regional ambitions against non-nuclear neighbors, or even nuclear ones in the case of India and Pakistan.  This strategic value does not disappear with paper agreements to the contrary, and even miserably poor nations like North Korea and Pakistan can build nuclear weapons, if they have the political will to endure the modest inconvenience of becoming a diplomatic outcast.

A world that formally abolishes nuclear weapons, or reduces them to the point where major war appears to be a “survivable” risk even if they are used, creates incentives for states to wage war where previously  the fear of nuclear escalation made statesmen pull back from the brink. Moreover, I do not think we will return to exactly the world of 1913 or 1944. History never repeats itself quite so neatly. No, I think we will see the dystopian worst of both worlds – increasing “bottom-up” chaos of 4GW insurgency ( which is driven by more factors than just the nuclear age) coexisting with a renewed interest of states in pursuing interstate warfare at the top.

Human nature does not change. I agree that democracies are far less inclined, on average to fight one another than are authoritarian states but this average could easily be a product of modern democracy being a rarefied commodity until the last twenty years. We still have many brutal tyrannies on planet Earth and democracies are not incapable of aggression, error or hubris. Athens embarked upon the expedition to Syracuse, Republican Rome was more ferociously expansionistic than its later Emperors and the U.S. went through a Manifest Destiny phase.

These things should give us pause before we become too eager to take nuclear weapons off of the table.

Barnett, the Bomb and Obama

Friday, May 15th, 2009

In line with the vigorous discussion in the comment section of the previous post, Tom Barnett weighs in on Obama’s nuclear utopianism in Esquire Magazine:

3. An America with fewer nukes breeds a new class of military powers.

By reducing “barriers to entry” to the marketplace called great-power war, I believe we would actually encourage the proliferation of nuclear weaponry. If Obama and his successors were to withdraw America’s virtually global nuclear umbrella, numerous middle powers would become highly incentivized to fill that security gap.

Of course, the dream would be to include all such states in a global rejection of nuclear weaponry, but that’s not likely if the system’s clear Leviathan (the United States) demotes itself to the status of a de-nuclearized great power. That scenario (Obama’s scenario) instantly elevates a slew of suddenly “near-peer” military powers in a manner that smaller states will likely find strategically unpalatable. As in, they could be blown into oblivion — strategic or literal — at any moment.

4. A new class of military powers breeds a new round of local wars.

The fallout from the collapse of our nuclear umbrella would be as frightening as it would be immediate: the resumption of great-power rivalries and proxy wars in regions once again subject to profound spheres of influence. That would further complicate the strategic landscape and undo so much of the Obama administration’s diplomatic success between now and then.

Read the rest here.

I think that Tom belted it out of the park here. Good policy seldom emerges from bad premises.

The Wrath of Kahn

Wednesday, May 13th, 2009


The post title is tongue in cheek. Herman Kahn was anything but wrathful and came across in his day as a remarkably cheerful strategist of the apocalypse and deep futurist. Long time readers have noted my admiration for Kahn’s metacognitive strategies but for those unfamiliar with Herman Kahn, he was one of those polymathic, individuals of the WWII generation who, like Freeman Dyson and Richard Feynman, could jump into high level nuclear physics research without bothering to first acquire a PhD in the field (Feynman later received a doctorate, Dyson and Kahn never did). Kahn was noted for his forthright willingness to consider humanity’s long term prospects despite the worst calamities imaginable – unlike most optimists, he assumed the events most terrible could happen – but life nevertheless would go on. A position that caused many of his critics to go ape, including the editors of Scientific American.

I bring this up because his daughter, Deborah Kahn Cunningham, emailed to say that Kahn’s classic On Thermonuclear War  had been reissued by Transaction Publishing and there would soon be a new edition of On Escalation the latter of which will have a new foreword by the eminent nuclear strategist Thomas Schelling.

This could not come at a better time. The Obama administration is making grandiose gestures with America’s nuclear deterrent based less on a hardheaded and comprehensive strategic analysis than self-serving political showmanship, tailored to mollify a Left-wing base deeply resentful of the COIN strategy the administration is starting to take in Afghanistan. Nuclear weapons affect the strategic calculus across the entire spectrum of potential decisions, they’re not just shiny, anachronistic, bargaining chips but the overwhelming reason that great power war came to an end in 1945. Period.

Human nature has not made much moral progress since the end of the Third Reich but its very worst instinct for total destruction has, so far, been held at bay by the certainty of self-destruction.

We need someone to remind us again of how to think about the unthinkable.

Nuclear Blogtank: Small Arsenals, Grand Strategies

Friday, July 18th, 2008

As previously mentioned, blogfriend and nuclear materials expert Cheryl Rofer challenged national security, foreign policy and defense bloggers to game out scenarios for powers with small or limited nuclear arsenals:

 What strategies are available to a country with fissionable material sufficient for 1-5 nuclear weapons, some of which may be assembled? Take into account probable responses, and assume some sort of rationality on the holders of these weapons and material. You may specifically refer to Iran and North Korea, or any other nation, or make the scenario(s) more general. Flesh out the scenario with some support

 Responses thus far have been creative yet highly plausible. Several have tied their scenarios to specific states such as Iran or peoples with aspirations to statehood such as the Kurds. Well and good. As that ground has been properly covered, I will look at the problem from a somewhat different perspective.

The first consideration in this discussion is that despite the worrisome specter of nuclear weapons proliferation, most states have since 1945 opted to refrain from developing arsenals of nuclear weapons. A remarkable state of affairs given that such nuclear weapons are within the technological reach of virtually all first tier, most second tier and even third tier states like North Korea and Pakistan.

The reason most states do not is that nuclear weapons programs are expensive investments ( in terms of money, talent and geopolitical friction) that do not offer a reasonable return for most states, partly because they would be militarily insignificant in light of existing American and Russian nuclear arsenals. Thus some countries like Brazil and Taiwan have abandoned nuclear weapons programs and others like South Africa, Ukraine and Kazakhstan have actually disarmed by surrendering or dismantling what weapons they had constructed or inherited. Iraq is a unique case of having it’s nuclear program forcibly “de-proliferated” against the will of it’s rulers by a combination of American military power and international diplomatic and economic pressure after the first Gulf War.

But for a certain class of nation-states, possession  of nuclear weapons, even a crude handful, remains a worthwhile expenditure even at the cost of great national sacrifice ( the ” We will have them even if we have to eat grass!” scenario).  North Korea has starved upwards of a million of it’s citizens to death;  Pakistan is desperately poor, economically backward and has a regime that can only govern only a portion of the territory it claims to rule but both Islamabad and Pyonggyang are nuclear armed today. These states value nuclear weapons because, simply, they desire to be independent powers at the least and dominating hegemons of their neighborhoods if possible. Nuclear weapons are a critical means in formulating strategies to realize these ends, not ends in themselves. If they were then New Zealand and Uruguay would have MIRV’ed ICBMs.

Nuclear weapons programs are intrinsically married to the ambitions of statesmen and the anxieties of generals because they are multipliers of options as well as force-multipliers of lesser, conventional, means by virtue of possession. “Hard cases” of nuclear weapons proliferation like Pakistan, North Korea and Iran can only be properly contemplated with the strategic end goals of these states in mind. Not doing so, whether through an obstinate refusal to negotiate with “evil” governments or childish confidence in diplomatic processes in and of themselves are a waste of time

Assume by a mixture of subterfuge, gray and black markets and fungibility of nuclear knowledge gained through long term participation in the NPT/IAEA regime, we run a state that has acquired a small number of nuclear weapons, perhaps more than a half dozen, perhaps less (after all, we’re probably not 100 % confident that all of them will work). We have the indigenous capacity to make more, at least for a time until we need to replace critical, foreign engineered, equipment but mass producing nukes is entirely out of the question. The world is now aware of or strongly suspects our nuclear weapons capability. How can we maximize the utility of the arsenal we have ?

Our short term objective is to deter intervention by a U.S. led coalition, deter or subvert any international economic or diplomatic coercion aimed at securing our disarmament and gain grudging acceptance in the international community as a member of the “nuclear club”. If successful, then in the longer term we will use our nuclear status as a shield to more firmly press our diplomatic, economic and security interests at the expense of our neighbors or the great powers.

First, our diplomats and our economics ministries must try their hardest to connect to as many other centers of power as possible. The more great powers that benefit from economic connectivity with our country, the more IGO and NGO’s active and engaged in a process with our government, the greater the media attention the more restricted the options of those who seek to isolate us.

Secondly, no small nuclear power, not even China with it’s massively large armed forces, can win a head to head war against a United States determined to use the full weight of it’s military might (this is purportedly  why Musharraf decided to cooperate with the USG in the wake of 9/11). A direct confrontation with the United States is not desired here. To deter intervention, the nuclear weapons should be of a range of magnitudes and be part of a broad spectrum of tactical options that would make military intervention appear as costly and politically unpalatable as possible to the American elite – especially politicians, media, senior national security bureaucrats, business leaders and other influencers. Bio-Chem-Rad WMDs should be in the mix, not because they have great efficacy on the battlefield but because preparing against them raises logistical and operational difficulties and creates widespread political anxieties in the U.S. So too will our intelligence services be speading RUMINT about sleeper cells of terrorists and saboteurs  being prepositioned in the U.S. in case of war.

Thirdly, while engaging in strategic public diplomacy ( including hiring Washington lobbyists and PR firms) to de-escalate conflict with America ( or the UN or IAEA inspectors) in the eyes of world opinion, it should quietly be made clear to U.S. military planners that U.S. carrier groups or pre-positioned military build-ups of land and air forces in third countries might be subject to a nuclear attack if the United States initiates hostilities – leaving the President the prospect of being able to retaliate with nuclear weapons disproportionately, only by killing millions of our civilians.  More to the point, that any kind of massive ground invasion of our country would face the prospect of a certain nuclear response – a “Samson Option” policy that would mirror the Cold War strategy of NATO attempting to stop a full-scale Warsaw Pact invasion force before it reached the Rhine. Finally, that in event of a Kosovo War/ EBO style air attack to “break the state”, our deeply decentralized, heavily decoyed and widely dispersed nuclear weapons, materials, documents and scientists would be exfiltrated to the greatest extent possible to powers and non-state actors unfriendly to American interests.

Then, at a time when American leaders are preoccupied  with one or more other crisis situations and Washington has been lulled into relative complacency by steady negotiations over relevant minutia and a general lack of antagonistic behavior on other issues of great importance to America, a dramatic nuclear test will present the world with a fait accompli. One coupled with offers to negotiate regarding nuclear controls, responding positively to accomodating diplomatic trial balloons launched by Russia, China and the EU.

At this point, we are in the club.

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