The Space Age turns 60!

4 October 2017

Wednesday


Sixty years ago today, on 04 October 1957, Sputnik 1 (Спутник-1) became the first object of human manufacture to orbit the Earth. Thus began the Space Race, driven by Cold War competition, but transcending that Cold War competition and being transformed into a triumph of the human spirit (not to mention being a triumph of human engineering, but here engineering expresses the human spirit).

A few years ago, on 12 April 2011, I wrote A Half Century of Human Spaceflight to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s first human spaceflight in orbit around the Earth; in just a few years, 2021, we will be able to celebrate sixty years of human spaceflight. The anniversaries of all the important dates for the technologies that have shaped the world today remind us how rapidly the world was transformed from thousands of years of settled agriculturalism, preceded by tens of thousands of years of hunter-gatherer nomadism, into the technological civilization of today. Progress has been dizzying, and the very institutions of civilization that brought us to this point have not yet caught up with the changes wrought by them; even now they labor under the strain of this forced social change.

We are still in the very early stages of the Space Age; the inflection point of this developmental sequence has not yet arrived, so we are today still in the same shallow end of the exponential growth curve that was initiated sixty years ago. In the earliest years of the Space Age (and the Space Race, since the two coincided at least until 1969, when the Space Race as “won”) it became commonplace to speak of the “conquest of space,” as though our first tentative, exploratory foray beyond the atmosphere of our homeworld were a triumphant affirmation of human power. Carl Sagan was nearer to the truth when he wrote in Cosmos that our first few decades of space exploration have been only an incremental step in an endless journey:

“The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. From it we have learned most of what we know. Recently, we have waded a little out to sea, enough to dampen our toes or, at most, wet our ankles. The water seems inviting. The ocean calls. Some part of our being knows this is from where we came. We long to return. These aspirations are not, I think, irreverent, although they may trouble whatever gods may be.”

It is likely that we will continue on in the shallow end of the space exploration curve for some time yet. Perched as we are on the edge of the cosmos, able to see far more than we can explore, like Stout Cortez, silent upon a peak in Darien, it is something akin to madness for those of us who wish to explore, but whose lives will remain Earthbound. We must learn patience, even if that is the least of our virtues. I may not live to see the inflection point, but I know that it is out there, and that the task for us is to keep civilization moving in that direction so that the inflection point will be reached, and that we do not fail before we have reached it. To take heart during this sometimes demoralizing struggle, we have the vision before us of what civilization can become when it is liberated from planetary endemism. “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?”

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The Space Age began with Sputnik.

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Fifteen Years Since 9/11

11 September 2016

Sunday


september-9-11-attacks-anniversary-ground-zero-world-trade-center-pentagon-flight-93-empty-street_40004_600x450

It is now fifteen years since the coordinated terror attacks of 11 September 2001 on the US — specifically, on New York City and Washington, DC — and while the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that were the immediate consequence of these attacks are now receding into history like 9/11 itself, we continue to live with the legacy of the altered geopolitical conditions of that day.

The ongoing turmoil in Syria, which began as an uprising against Assad and developed into a civil war, is one of the geopolitical consequences of 9/11. It is unlikely that the uprising against Assad would have occurred without the Arab Spring, and it is unlikely the Arab Spring would have occurred if the US had not toppled Saddam Hussein from power. I am not suggesting a direct chain of causality here — many other events were implicated as well — but only that one set of events is the background to another set of events, and 9/11 was the pivotal geopolitical event of the beginning of the 21st century. As such, the post-Cold War order grows out of the series of events set in motion by 9/11 (counting the last decade of the 20th century as a “buffer” between the Cold War and the War on Terror).

The sluggish recovery of growth following the subprime mortgage crisis and the Great Recession is probably a function of the ongoing geopolitical turmoil, and in this way we can also see that the populist reaction against globalization is also an indirect consequence of 9/11. When the “wealth effect” is contributing to a perception of a rising tide that raises all boats, there is little resentment against those at the top of the income pyramid, but when times are tough the wealth effect dissipates into thin air, and in the clarity of this thin air those who have not done well for themselves cast envious eyes on those who are living well despite tough times.

It would not be difficult to construct a counterfactual world in which 9/11 never happened, “irrational exuberance” continued apace (Keynes called this “animal spirits”), and the world was several percentage points per year wealthier than we are now from steadily growing global trade. We might compare ourselves to this world — not unlike the world of the late 19th and early 20th century, before the spell was broken by the First World War — as a kind of ongoing measure of what might have been.

Bertrand Russell wrote that no one could understand the assumptions of progress of the late Victorian, and then the Edwardian period, and how World War I ended all this, who was not there to experience it. But we have our own analogy, imperfect as it is. We remember the talk of what the post-Cold War world would be like, and how this dream evaporated with the attacks of 9/11. In one day, a world bright with promise for the 21st century simply vanished.

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Thursday


Accidental leak, or timed disclosure? From a strategic standpoint, it doesn't really matter, because the weapons system itself is what counts here.

Accidental leak, or timed disclosure? From a strategic standpoint, it doesn’t really matter, because the weapons system itself is what counts here.

It caused quite a stir today when it was announced that the Russians had accidentally released some details of a proposed submersible weapons system (the Status-6, or Статус-6 in Russian) when television coverage of a conference among defense chiefs broadcast a document being held by one of the participants. This was first brought to my attention by a BBC story, Russia reveals giant nuclear torpedo in state TV ‘leak’. The BBC story led me to Russia may be planning to develop a nuclear submarine drone aimed at ‘inflicting unacceptable damage’ by Jeremy Bender, which in turn led me to Is Russia working on a massive dirty bomb? on the Russian strategic nuclear forces blog, which latter includes inks to a television news segment on Youtube, where you can see (at 1:48) the document in question. A comment on the article includes a link to a Russian language media story, Кремль признал случайным показ секретного оружия по Первому каналу и НТВ, that discusses the leak.

This news story is only in its earliest stages, and there are already many conflicting accounts as to exactly what was leaked and what it means. There is also the possibility that the “leak” was intentional, and meant for public consumption, both domestic and international. There is nothing yet on Janes or Stratfor about this, both of which sources I would consider more reliable on defense than the BBC or any mainstream media outlet. There is a story on DefenseOne, Russia: We Didn’t Mean to Show Everyone Our Massive New Nuclear Torpedo, but this seems to be at least partly derivative of the BBC story.

The BBC story suggested the the new Russian torpedo could carry a “dirty bomb,” or possibly a Colbalt bomb, as well as suggesting that it could carry a 100-megaton warhead. These possible warhead configurations constitute the extreme ends of the spectrum of nuclear devices. A “dirty bomb” that is merely a dirty bomb and not a nuclear warhead is a conventional explosive that scatters radioactive material. Such a device has long been a concern for anti-terrorism policy, because the worry is that it would be easier for terrorists to gain access to nuclear materials than to a nuclear weapon. Scattering radioactive elements in a large urban area would not be a weapon of mass destruction, but it has been called a “weapon of mass disruption,” as it would doubtless be attended by panic as as the 24/7 news cycle escalated the situation to apocalyptic proportions.

At the other end of the scale of nuclear devices, either a cobalt bomb or a 100-megaton warhead would be considered doomsday weapons, and there are no nation-states in the world today constructing such devices. The USSR made some 50-100 MT devices, most famously the Tsar Bomba, the most powerful nuclear device ever detonated, but no longer produces these weapons and is unlikely to retain any in its stockpile. It was widely thought that these enormous weapons were intended as “counterforce” assets, as, given the technology of the time (i.e., the low level of accuracy of missiles at this time), it would have required a warhead of this size to take out a missile silo on the other side of the planet. The US never made such large weapons, but its technology was superior, so if the US was also building counterforce missiles at this time, they could have gotten by with smaller yields. The US arsenal formerly included significant numbers of the B53, with a yield of about 9 MT, and before that the B41, with a yield of about 25 MT, but the US dismantled the last B53 in 2011 (cf. The End of a Nuclear Era).

Nuclear weapons today are being miniaturized, and their delivery systems are being given precision computerized guidance systems, so the reasons for building massively destructive warheads the only purpose of which is to participate in a MAD (mutually assured destruction) scenario have disappeared (mostly). A cobalt bomb (as distinct from a dirty bomb, with which it is sometimes confused, as both a dirty bomb and a cobalt bomb can be considered radiological weapons) would be a nuclear warhead purposefully configured to maximize radioactive fallout. In the case of the element cobalt, its dispersal by a nuclear weapon would result in the radioactive isotope cobalt-60, a high intensity gamma ray emitter with a half-life of 5.26 years — remaining highly radioactive for a sufficient period of time that it would likely poison any life that survived the initial blast of the warhead. The cobalt bomb was first proposed by physicist Leó Szilárd in the spirit of a warning as to the direction that nuclear technology could take, ultimately converging upon human extinction, which became a Cold War touchstone (cf. Existential Lessons of the Cold War).

The discussion of the new Russian weapon Status-6 (Статус-6) in terms of dirty bombs, cobalt bombs, and 100 MT warheads is an anachronism. If a major power were to build a new nuclear device today, they would want to develop what have been called fourth generation nuclear weapons, which is an umbrella term to cover a number of innovative nuclear technologies not systematically researched due to both the end of the Cold War and the nuclear test ban treaty. (On the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty cf. The Atomic Age Turns 70) Thus this part of the story so far is probably very misleading, but the basic idea of a nuclear device on a drone submersible is what we need to pay attention to here. This is important.

I am not surprised by this development, because I predicted it. In WMD: The Submersible Vector of January 2011 I suggested the possibility of placing nuclear weapons in drone submersibles, which could then be quietly infiltrated into the harbors of major port cities (or military facilities, although these would be much more difficult to infiltrate stealthily and to keep hidden), there to wait for a signal to detonate. By this method it would be possible to deprive an adversary of major cities, port, and military facilities in one fell swoop. The damage that could be inflicted by such a first strike would be just as devastating as the first strikes contemplated during the Cold War, when first strikes were conceived as a massive strike by ICBMs coming over the pole. Only now, with US air superiority so far in advance of other nation-states, it makes sense to transfer the nuclear strategic strike option to below the world’s oceans. Strategically, this is a brilliant paradigm shift, and one can see a great many possibilities for its execution and the possible counters to such a strategy.

During the Cold War, the US adopted a strategic defense “triad” consisting of nuclear weapons deliverable by ground-based missiles (ICBMs), jet bombers (initially the subsonic B-52, and later supersonic bombers such as the B-1 and B-2), and submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). Later this triad was supplemented by nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, which represent the beginning of a disruptive change in nuclear strategy, away from massive bombardment to precision strikes.

The Russians depended on ground-based ICBMs, of which they possessed more, but, in the earlier stages of the Cold War Russian ICBMs were rather primitive, subject to failure, and able to carry only a single warhead. As Soviet technology caught up with US technology, and the Russians were able to build reliable missile boats and MIRVs for their ICBMs, the Russians too began to converge upon a triad of strategic defense, adding supersonic bombers (the Tu-22M “Backfire” and then the Tu-160 “Blackjack”) and missile boats to their ground-based missiles. For a brief period of the late Cold War, there was a certain limited nuclear parity that roughly corresponded with détente.

This rough nuclear parity was upset by political events and continuing technological changes, the latter almost always led by the US. An early US lead in computing technology once again led to a generational divide between US and Soviet technology, with the Soviet infrastructure increasingly unable to keep up with technological advances. The introduction of SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative) threatened to further destabilize nuclear parity, and which in particular was perceived to as a threat to the stability of MAD. Long after the Cold War is over, the US continues to pursue missile defense, which has been a remarkably powerful political tool, but despite several decades of greatly improved technology, cannot deliver on its promises. So SDI upset the applecart of MAD, but still cannot redeem its promissory note. This is an important detail, because the weapons system that the Russians are contemplating with Status-6 (Статус-6) can be built with contemporary technologies. Thus even if the US could extend its air superiority to space, in addition to fielding an effective missile defense system, none of this would be an adequate counter to a Russian submersible strategic weapon, except in a second strike capacity.

As I noted above, there would be many ways in which to build out this submersible drone strategic capability, and many ways to counter it, which suggests the possibility of a new arms race, although this time without Russia being ideologically crippled by communism (which during the Cold War prevented the Soviet Union from achieving parity with western scientific and economic strength). A “slow” strategic capability could be constructed based something like what I described in WMD: The Submersible Vector, involving infiltration and sequestered assets, or a “fast” strategic capability closer to what was revealed in the Russian document that sparked the story about Status-6, in which the submersibles could fan out and position themselves in hours or days. Each of these strategic assets would suggest different counter measures.

What we are now seeing is the familiar Cold War specter of a massive nuclear exchange displaced from our skies into the oceans. If the Russians thought of it, and I thought of it, you can be certain that all the defense think tanks of the world’s major nation-states have thought of it also, and have probably gamed some of the obvious scenarios that could result.

It is time to revive the dying discipline of nuclear strategy, to dust off our old copies of Kahn’s On Thermonuclear War and On Escalation, and to once again think the unthinkable.

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Addendum Added Sunday 15 November 2015: In what way is a nuclear-tipped drone submersible different from a conventional nuclear torpedo? Contemporary miniaturization technology makes it possible to have a precision guided submersible that is very small — small enough that such a weapon might conceivably bury itself in the mud on the bottom of a waterway and so be impossible to detect, even to be visually by divers alerted to search for suspicious objects on the bottom (as presumably happens in military harbors). Also, the Status-6 was given a range of some 6,000 nautical miles, which means that these weapons could be released by a mothership almost anywhere in the world’s oceans, and travel from that point to their respective targets. Such weapons could be dropped from the bottom of a ship, and would not necessarily have to be delivered by submarine. Once the drones were on their way, they would be almost impossible to find because of their small size. The key vulnerability would be the need for some telecommunications signaling to the weapon. If the decision had already been made to strike, and those making the decision were sufficiently confident that they would not change their minds, such drones could be launched programmed to detonate and therefore with no need to a telecommunications link. Alternatively, drones could be launched programmed to detonate, but the detonation could be suppressed by remote command, which would be a one-time signal and not an ongoing telecommunications link to the drone. This presents obvious vulnerabilities as well — what if the detonation suppression signal were blocked? — but any weapons systems will have vulnerabilities. It would be a relatively simple matter to have the device configurable as either fail-safe or fail-deadly, with the appropriate choice made at the time of launch.

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Note Added Saturday 14 November 2015: Since writing the above, an article has appeared on Janes, Russian state TV footage reveals ‘oceanic multi-purpose’ torpedo-based nuclear system, by Bruce Jones, London, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, though it doesn’t add much in addition to what is already known.

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Tuesday


nuclear explosion

The Cold War forced us to think in global terms. In other words, it forced us to think in planetary terms. The planet was divided into two armed camps, with one camp led by the US presiding over NATO and the other camp led by the USSR presiding over the Warsaw Pact. Every action taken, or every action forborne, was weighed and judged against its planetary consequences, and this became most evident when faced with the ultimate Cold War nightmare, a massive nuclear exchange between the superpowers that came to known as MAD for mutually assured destruction. It is at least arguable that the idea of anthropogenic existential risk emerged from the Cold War MAD scenarios.

The visionary thinking of the Cold War period has been tainted by its association with what was then openly called “the unthinkable” — a massive thermonuclear exchange — but the true visionaries are not the ones who narrated a utopian fantasy that we would all have liked to believe, but rather the visionaries are the ones who unflinchingly explored the implications of what Karl Jaspers called “the new fact.” Anthropogenic extinction became technologically possible with the advent of the nuclear era, and because it was made possible, it became a pressing need to discuss it honestly. In this sense, the great visionaries of the recent past have been men like Guilio Douhet and Herman Kahn

Douhet’s work predates the nuclear age, but Douhet was a great visionary of air power, and the extent to which Douhet understood that air power would change warfare is remarkable:

“No longer can areas exist in which life can be lived in safety and tranquility, nor can the battlefield any longer be limited to actual combatants. On the contrary, the battlefield will be limited only by the boundaries of the nations at war, and all of their citizens will become combatants, since all of them will be exposed to the aerial offensives of the enemy. There will be no distinction any longer between soldiers and civilians. The defenses on land and sea will no longer serve to protect the country behind them; nor can victory on land or sea protect the people from enemy aerial attacks unless that victory insures the destruction, by actual occupation of the enemy’s territory, of all that gives life to his aerial forces.”

Giulio Douhet, The Command of the Air, translated by Dino Ferrari, Washington D.C.: Air Force History and Museums Program, 1998, pp. 9-10

There have been many predictions for future warfare that have not been borne out in practice, but with hindsight we can see that Douhet was right about almost everything he predicted, and, more importantly, he was right for the right reasons. He saw, he understood, he drew the correct implications, and he laid out his vision in admirable clarity.

The Cold War standoff between the US and the USSR was a consequence of the implications of air power already glimpsed by Douhet (in 1921), and raised to a higher order of magnitude by advanced technology weapons systems. When Douhet wrote this work, there were as yet no jet engines, no ballistic missiles, and no nuclear weapons, but Douhet’s vision was so comprehensive and accurate that these major technological innovations did not alter the basic framework that he predicted. Citizens did become combatants, and the citizens of each side were held hostage by the other. This is the essence of the MAD scenario.

The increasing efficacy of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems did not substantially change Douhet’s framework, but by raising the stakes of destructiveness, nuclear weapons, jet bombers, and missiles did change the scope of warfare from mere localized destruction to a potential planetary catastrophe. Many scientists began to discuss the potential consequences for life and civilization of the use of nuclear weapons, and many of the physicists who worked on the Manhattan Project later felt misgivings for their role in releasing the nuclear genie from the bottle.

These concerns were not confined to western scientists. In an internal report to USSR leadership, Soviet nuclear physicist Igor Kurchatov wrote bluntly about the possibility of human extinction in the event of nuclear war:

“Calculations show that if, in the case of war, weapons that already exist are used, levels of radioactive emissions and concentration of radioactive substances, which are biologically harmful to human life and vegetation, will be created on a significant portion of the earth’s surface. The rate of growth of atomic explosives is such that in just a few years the stockpile will be large enough to create conditions under which the existence of life on the whole globe will be impossible. The explosion of around one hundred hydrogen bombs could lead to this result.”

“There is no hope that organisms, and the human organism in particular, will adjust themselves to higher levels of radioactivity on earth. This adjustment can take place only through a prolonged process of evolution. So we cannot but admit that mankind faces the enormous threat of an end to all life on earth.”

Igor Kurchatov “The Danger of Atomic War” 1954

Kurchtov’s formulations are striking in their unaffected naturalism and the bluntness of the message that he sought to communicate. Even as Kurchatov wrote of the end of the world he avoided histrionics. His account of human extinction is what Colin McGinn might call “flatly natural.” The result of a dispassionately scientific account of the end of the world is perhaps the more powerful for avoiding emotional and rhetorical excess.

The space age began three years after Kurchatov’s memo on the dangers of nuclear war, when Sputnik was launched on 04 October 1957. Thereafter a “space race” paralleled the arms race and became a new venue for superpower competition. Bertrand Russell, for example, was scathing in his righteous ridicule of the space program as being merely a symptom of the Cold War. (Chad Trainer has discussed this in Earth to Russell.)

It has become a commonplace of commentary on the Apollo missions that this was the occasion of an intellectual turning point in our collective self-understanding. The photograph of Earth taken from space on the way to the moon was a way to communicate some hint of the “overview effect” to the public. Again, we were forced to think in planetary terms by this new image of Earth hanging isolated against the blackness of space. Earth was achingly beautiful, we all saw, but also terribly vulnerable.

The Cold War arms race and space race came together during the latter part of the twentieth century in a kind of cosmic pessimism over the very possibility of the longevity of any civilization whatever, here extrapolated far beyond the Earth to the possibility of any other inhabited planet.

When Carl Sagan wrote his Cosmos: A Personal Journey during the height of the Cold War, the concern over nuclear war was such that the term L in the Drake equation (the length of time a SETI-capable civilization is transmitting or receiving) was frequently judged to be quite short, only a few hundred years at most. This is given a poignant depiction in Carl Sagan’s Dream described in the last episode of Cosmos.

It could be said that nuclear weapons and space exploration driven by political competition opened our eyes to our place in the cosmos in a way that might not have made a similar impression if the stakes had not been so high. Samuel Johnson is often quoted for his line, “Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Similarly it could be said that the Cold War and the nuclear arms race brought the whole of humanity face-to-face with extinction, and we pulled back from the brink. The danger is not over, but the human species has been changed by the experience of imminent destruction.

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Tuesday


ukraine map

Even as the eyes of the world were fixed on Sochi for the Winter Olympics, events in Ukraine eclipsed the closing ceremony and the world turned its attention instead to the tumult in Kiev as protesters battled with police and (now former) President Viktor Yanukovich fled the capital, leaving behind a palatial home with a private zoo (shades of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who, like other autocrats, also had a private zoo). I met a friend of mine in Starbucks on Sunday, and as we talked about the situation in Ukraine and some of its likely outcomes, I had occasion to explain the term “Finlandization.”

Ukraine Ethnolingusitic_map

As it turns out, I was not the only one to have Finlandization on my mind. Writing in the Financial Times (Monday 24 February 2014), Zbigniew Brzezinski explicitly endorsed the Finlandization of Ukraine, in his opinion piece, “Russia needs a ‘Finland option’ for Ukraine,” as a prerequisite for Ukraine making a peaceful (or relatively peaceful) transition to the European fold:

“The US could and should convey clearly to Mr Putin that it is prepared to use its influence to make certain a truly independent and territorially undivided Ukraine will pursue policies towards Russia similar to those so effectively practised by Finland: mutually respectful neighbours with wide-ranging economic relations with Russia and the EU; no participation in any military alliance viewed by Moscow as directed at itself but expanding its European connectivity.”

This Finlandization of Ukraine would be necessary because…

“…Russia can still plunge Ukraine into a destructive and internationally dangerous civil war. It can prompt and then support the secession of Crimea and some of the industrial eastern portions of the country.”

Brzezinski is correct that Russia could still cause great problems for Ukraine, and evidently a Finlandized Ukraine seems to Brzezinski a reasonable price to pay to avoid potential chaos. Ukraine is a deeply divided country, with ethnic and cultural loyalties pulling toward Russia in the East and the Crimea, and toward Europe in the western part of the country. Given these social conditions as the background, it would be a relatively easy matter for Russia to stir the pot in Ukraine for decades to come.

ukraine 2004 election

During the Cold War, “Finlandization” came to mean subordinating a nation’s priorities to a foreign policy designed to appease the Soviet Union, without actually surrendering sovereignty, and certainly without becoming merely another absorbed “republic” among the Soviet Social Republics. Here is one definition of Finlandization:

“Behaviour of a country whose foreign policy and domestic policies are strongly conditioned by a conscious desire to mollify and maintain friendly relations with Moscow, at the expense if need be of close ties with formal allies and traditional friends or of its own sovereignty.”

George Ginsburgs and Alvin Rubinstein, eds. Soviet Foreign Policy toward Western Europe, New York: Praeger, 1978, p. 5.

It sounds a lot less menacing to call this a “good neighbor policy,” which is what Finland’s policies vis-à-vis the Soviet Union were sometimes called, and truly enough the Finns successfully negotiated a very tricky tightrope between Europe and Russia. It must be said that the Finns were also successful in retaining their sovereignty and independence. Finland is among the wealthiest countries in Europe, and it does not resemble in the least those former Soviet republics (like Ukraine) still struggling today to free themselves from the influence of the Kremlin. Thus if Finland made any existential compromises during its Cold War Finlandization, it does not seem to be suffering from them today.

Can Ukraine pursue the “Finland Option” and can they do so successfully? The example of Cold War Finland seems to suggest that, yes, Ukraine can move toward Europe while placating Russia. The question then becomes, “Is Ukraine different from Finland?” Obviously, yes, Ukraine differs from Finland in thousands of ways. Really, then, the question is, “Does Ukraine differ from Finland in any essential respect that would prevent it from being able to pursue a policy of Finlandization?”

George Friedman of Stratfor has argued repeated that Ukraine is, indeed, different, though I don’t recall if he has explicitly compared Ukraine to Finland. In Ukraine: On the Edge of Empires (from November 2010) Friedman presented Russia’s strategic dependence upon Ukraine in the strongest terms:

“Ukraine is as important to Russian national security as Scotland is to England or Texas is to the United States. In the hands of an enemy, these places would pose an existential threat to all three countries. Therefore, rumors to the contrary, neither Scotland nor Texas is going anywhere. Nor is Ukraine, if Russia has anything to do with it. And this reality shapes the core of Ukrainian life. In a fundamental sense, geography has imposed limits on Ukrainian national sovereignty and therefore on the lives of Ukrainians.”

“From a purely strategic standpoint, Ukraine is Russia’s soft underbelly. Dominated by Russia, Ukraine anchors Russian power in the Carpathians. These mountains are not impossible to penetrate, but they can’t be penetrated easily. If Ukraine is under the influence or control of a Western power, Russia’s (and Belarus’) southern flank is wide open along an arc running from the Polish border east almost to Volgograd then south to the Sea of Azov, a distance of more than 1,000 miles, more than 700 of which lie along Russia proper. There are few natural barriers.”

While I haven’t been reading Friedman lately, so I don’t know his take on the recent Ukrainian crisis, he has repeated this reasoning in several pieces, and I don’t think that Friedman would assert that Finland is crucial to Russian national security, or that it anchors Russian power in Fenno-Scandia.

One fly in the ointment of this analysis, and one that points toward larger and more interesting questions, is that, at the time of this writing, one of Friedman’s examples — Scotland — is considering succeeding from the UK. And this, as I said, points further afield.

One of the constants we find in the discussion of the present crisis in Ukraine is the dire warnings that Ukraine might split apart, notwithstanding the fact that the geographical region we now call Ukraine has been split up in many different ways in the past. One of the most obvious solutions to the present crisis would be to partition the country, allow those who wish to be part of the idea and destiny of Europe to join Europe as West Ukraine, and allow those who desire to have closer relations with Moscow to do so and become East Ukraine.

Zbigniew Brzezinski makes a point of emphasizing, “national unification and political moderation.” Many others have gingerly touched the question of the possibility of a rupture of Ukraine’s national “unity” only to recoil in horror. (Cf. Ukraine crisis: Turchynov warns of ‘separatism’ risk and Ukraine revolution: Where on Earth is Viktor Yanukovych? stated that, “Mr Putin has not yet spoken publicly about Mr Yanukovych’s ousting, but in a phone conversation with German chancellor Angela Merkel he agreed that the ‘territorial integrity’ of Ukraine must be maintained, suggesting Russia may not intervene.”) Truly enough, if it came to a fight, a civil war would be disastrous and bloody. But it need not be fought over. We know from the example of Czechoslovakia that a “Velvet Divorce” is possible if both parties want the same thing. West Ukraine would not want to give up the industries in the east of the country or the ports and coastline, and East Ukraine would not want to give up the capital, Kiev, but there is much to be said for partition in the case of Ukraine.

Why is Finlandization considered a more palatable alternative than partition? If Ukraine were partitioned, West Ukraine would join Europe, and its people would enjoy greater freedom and economic opportunity. The economy would grow after an initial shrinkage due to the split, but from there, under the umbrella of the European Union, West Ukraine would experience a better future than anything in its past should give it a right to expect. East Ukraine, on the contrary, would slip into an economic twilight, and under Russian influence the country would stagnate (except for a few economic centers) and the quality of life of the people would likely decline.

In time — perhaps in several decades — East Ukraine might also be ready to join Europe when they see their former compatriots doing rather better than they are doing. Is there any reason to hold back West Ukraine when its people are ready to forge ahead on a path different from that chosen for them by Russia? Foreign policy “realists” like Brzezinski and Friedman will say that it shouldn’t be done or it can’t be done, but history shows us otherwise. No matter how ossified the international system of nation-states, some do splinter, and it is rarely a pretty sight. But a peaceful partition is yet possible, and better than many other options. If mutually policed by Russian, EU, and UN forces, it could work better than the other alternatives.

The borders of a partitioned Ukraine have already been drawn by the unambiguous results of the 2004 election (see the map of the poll results above). While it is true that the example of Finland shows us that Finlandization can work, so too the example of Czechoslovakia shows us that a Velvet Divorce can work. Czechoslovakia is also Exhibit A for failed appeasement, and it could be argued that Ukraine has tried Russian appeasement unsuccessfully since the Orange Revolution. Finlandization, as we have seen it to date in Ukraine, has not served the people of Ukraine well, and perhaps it has failed due to the essential differences between Finland and Ukraine mentioned above. Another solution is needed.

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Sunday


Lenins tomb with missiles

Often when I write about emerging strategic trends I consider the long term future and make a particular effort to stress that little of the trend will be glimpsed in our lifetime, but at present I will consider the development of a strategic trend that is likely to be realized in the near- to mid-term future, i.e., a strategically significant technology that may develop into maturity or near-maturity within the lifetime of those now living. The technology is precision munitions and weaponry, and the strategic capability that mature precision weaponry will make possible is what I will call qualitative strikes. Before I come to qualitative strikes proper, I want to review the military and strategic context out of which the possibility of qualitative strikes has emerged.

Soviet Yangel R-16 two stage ICBM in its silo.

Soviet Yangel R-16 two stage ICBM in its silo.

In the early stages of the Cold War when nuclear weapons were primarily ballistic missiles and ballistic missiles were the most accurate of nuclear delivery vehicles, the nightmare scenario (featured in many films of the era) was a NORAD alert that hundreds of thousands of Soviet Missiles were already launched and were on their way over the pole to targets in North America. The US would then have less than thirty minutes to decide whether or not to launch a massive retaliatory strike of its own, and it could not wait until the missiles actually landed and nuclear strikes were confirmed because that would be too late. This was the Atomic Age parallel to the First World War dilemma of putting troops on trains that could not be recalled because the scheduling of transportation was so precise. Once the missiles flew, there was no calling them back. If you launched, MAD was initiated, so you needed to be sure you were responding to the real thing.

norad war room

The essence of Cold War MAD doctrine was this massive nuclear exchange. Cold War targeting lists were almost indiscriminate in their presumption of mass annihilation; many major cities had a dozen or more warheads targeted for them, as though the intention were simply to “make the rubble jump,” as Churchill said of the Nazi bombardment of London. A massive nuclear exchange involved mutually assured destruction for the powers involved in the exchange, and since MAD was understood to be a guarantor of Cold War peace — since it would literally be madness to allow a massive nuclear exchange to take place — the very idea of either anti-ICBM “counter-force” targeting or of developing a “second strike” capability was interpreted as a hostile act of one power against the other.

Strategic bombing during the Second World War demonstrated the possibility of leveling cities; nuclear strategy was simply an extension of this.

Strategic bombing during the Second World War demonstrated the possibility of leveling cities; nuclear strategy was simply an extension of this.

We think of the end of these developments in nuclear warfighting strategy as a consequence of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, but this phase of nuclear strategy would be ended anyway, regardless of the fate of the Cold War. If the Soviet Union were still in existence today, we would no longer be talking about MAD — or, if we were, it would only be because traditionalists were clinging to a doctrine that no longer had strategic relevance. While many nation-states have land-based ICBMs, these weapons systems are already relics. They belong to a age of indiscriminate and massive attacks that emerged from the strategic bombing of the Second World War. If the bombers of the Second World War had had the capability to execute precision strikes, they would have done so. But this technology was not yet available. As the next best strategy, the only possible strategy, “area bombing” for the purpose of “de-housing” enemy populations became the norm. Once planners, strategists, air crews, and populations became inured to the routine of leveling entire cities, the atomic bomb was simply a cheaper, quicker, more efficient way to do the same thing.

General Curtis LeMay of the Strategic Air Command.

General Curtis LeMay of the Strategic Air Command.

The only subtlety at the stage of nuclear strategy brought to maturity during the Cold War — if it could even be called a subtlety — was whether any nuclear capacity would remain on either side to deliver a second strike after the initial massive exchange (a “second strike” capability). Cold War strike capacity did not lie exclusively in ICBMs. In addition to ICBMs, there was the Strategic Air Command (SAC) under Curtis LeMay, who learned his trade during the Second World War. While LeMay was perhaps the most renown American advocate of strategic air power, it was Arthur “Bomber” Harris of the RAF who presided over the strategic bombing of Germany, with the mantra that, “The bomber will always get through.” Again, the Second World War was the template for what followed.

Air Marshal Arthur (Bomber) Harris.

Air Marshal Arthur (Bomber) Harris.

The ultimate guarantor of second strike capability was the ballistic missile submarine. With dozens of submarines submerged deep in the world’s oceans, each submarine with a dozen missiles or more, and each missile with a MIRV with a dozen or so warheads, a single surviving submarine had the capacity to deliver a devastating second strike. Moreover, a submarine could sneak up close to the coast of an enemy’s territory and let loose its ballistic missiles from short range, leaving the enemy with only minutes to respond — and no real assets that could respond to a strike less than 15 minutes away. The traditional “triad” of Cold War deterrence consisted of land-based ICBMs, strategic bombers, and missile boats, but all of this took time to develop; it was not until the early 1960s that both the US and the USSR had a fleet of operational missile boats. When both sides in the Cold War possessed the nuclear triad, and therefore a second strike capability, the MAD equation continued to hold good.

USS_Sam_Rayburn_(SSBN-635)_missile_hatches

In the strategic context of MAD, nuclear strikes were quantitative strikes, and each side in the Cold War was motivated by the competition to assemble the quantitatively largest arsenal in order to deter the other side. The Cold War was a numbers game — cf. Kennedy’s “Missile Gap” — and this numbers game escalated with predictable results: tens of thousands of nuclear warheads perpetually maintained in readiness. The agreements to limit nuclear weapons only institutionalized the overkill of MAD doctrines.

Carter_Brezhnev_sign_SALT_II

From this point, it would have been difficult to escalate any further, except for technologies that were viewed as inherently destabilizing because they might shift the balance and make one side or the other believe that they were no longer subject to the MAD calculation. It is of the essence to understand that global Cold War stability depended centrally on the inescapability of MAD. The Reagan-era “Star Wars” missile defense initiative was just such a destabilizing factor, but by this time the Soviet Union was already in terminal decline. Anti-missile defense systems had been designed and built prior to this, but clearly the initiative still law with the offense; the technology simply did not yet exist to bring down an ICBM.

Soviet decline coupled with the emergence of technologies that would make missile defense a viable possibility led to the end of the Soviet Union and MAD and the Cold War. Not only are these Cold War ideas dated by subsequent political developments, they are also dated by subsequent technological developments. Even if the Soviet Union had survived intact to the present day, the nightmare MAD scenario of Cold War planners would no longer be relevant because weapons systems have moved on.

One of the greatest of the revolutions in military affairs (RMA) has been the introduction of precision-guided munitions, and the eventual issue of converting to a “smart” arsenal means a transition from quantitative strikes to qualitative strikes. The shift in emphasis from nuclear to conventional armaments with the end of the Cold War facilitated the speed of this transition. Nuclear strategy suddenly went from being a top priority to barely making the list of priorities, and defense dollars began to flow into conventional weapons, and here there were opportunities for improvement that were not understood to be politically destabilizing.

The idea of qualitative strikes is not at all new. One could say that qualitative strikes have always been the telos of military operations. The air forces of the Second World War aspired to precision bombing, but this was not yet possible. During the Cold War, some missiles were targeted according to a “counter-force” strategy, i.e., they were targeted at enemy ballistic missile silos, but this only played into the MAD calculation, because it meant that to wait meant to lose one’s primary strike capability. If you could completely wipe out your enemy’s ballistic missile silos in a age when ICBMs were the primary nuclear deterrent, you would leave your enemy with the uncomfortable choice of retaliating massively on civilian population centers or accepting defeat. A successful counter-force attack would constitute a qualitative strike, and qualitative strikes pose political dilemmas such as that outlined. This is why such ideas were considered inherently destabilizing. But this level of technology was not practicable during the time when ICBMs were the primary nuclear deterrent.

Although the press today reports civilian casualties as if they were disproportionately high, in historic terms both civilian and military casualties are at the lowest levels ever. With the industrialization of war the technologies of warfighting experience an initial exponential growth in lethality, but as precision begins to outpace sheer quantitative destructive power, the warfare of industrial-technological civilization passes The Lethality Peak and casualties fall as strikes converge upon qualitative precision. In other words, the rapid emergence of precision guided munitions in the battlespace has been effective. They work. And they’re getting better all the time. The efficacy of precision guided munitions suggests the possibility of a complete shift away from quantitative destruction to qualitative strikes, i.e., strikes that selectively pick out a certain kind of target, or a certain class of targets. This is already a reality to a limited extent, but it will take time before it is fully translated into policy and doctrine.

In A Glimpse at the Near Future of Combat I mentioned a Norwegian satellite that will track all ships (over 300 gross tons) in Norwegian coastal waters. Most ships have transponders, indicating basic identification information for the vessel. In the near future of autonomous vehicles, it is likely that most vehicles will have transponders on them. Most individuals carry cell phones, which are essentially transponders, and we know the the Snowden leaks about the NSA surveillance program how thoroughly “big data” applications can track the world’s cellular phone calls. Fixed assets like cities and industrial facilities are even easier to map and track than mobile assets like ships, planes, vehicles, and people.

What we are looking at here is the possibility of computer systems sufficiently sophisticated that almost everything on the surface of the earth can the identified and tracked. To have a total system of identification and tracking is to have a targeting computer. Couple a targeting computer with precision guided munitions that can pick out small targets in a crowd and be assured of destroying these targets with a near-total absence of collateral damage, and you have the possibility of a military strike that does not depend in the least upon quantitative destruction, but rather upon picking out just the right selection of targets to have just the right effect (political or military, keeping in mind Clausewitz’s dictum that war is the pursuit of politics by other means). This is a qualitative strike.

None of these developments will go unchallenged. The dependency of qualitative warfare upon computer systems points to the centrality of cyberwarfare in the integrated battlespace. If you can confuse the targeting computer of the weapons’ guidance systems, you can defeat the system, but systems can in turn be hardened and made redundant. Other measures and counter-measures will be developed, and escalation will be an escalation in precision and the possibility of qualitative warfare (since those who attack precision warfighting infrastructure will need to be equally precision in their attempt to defeat a precision weapons system) in contradistinction to the escalation of quantitative warfare that defined the twentieth century.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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NAM and NATO

27 August 2012

Monday


Iranian Foreign Minister Ali-Akbar Salehi addresses the XVI Summit of NAM (the Non-Aligned Movement)

Here is a little geopolitical riddle: in what way is NAM (the Non-Aligned Movement) like NATO?

ANSWER: NAM and NATO were both products of the Cold War, and both are now relics of the Cold War that continue in existence out of institutional inertia.

I‘ve written several posts about NATO’s institutional drift since the end of the Cold War and the attempt to find a viable role for an entity constituted for the purpose of containing and confronting Soviet expansionism and adventurism during the Cold War (cf. NATO’s Gambit, inter alia). More particularly, NATO was to be the entity to direct the joint US and European response to the Warsaw Pact and the nightmare scenario of a massive conventional thrust into Western Europe. Fortunately, this scenario never occurred. I say “fortunately” because it would not have been the cakewalk for NATO forces that many assume in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Warsaw Pact had numerical superiority in tanks and armored divisions, and as I wrote about in Revisiting Exercise Anatolian Eagle, Soviet MIGs demonstrated their efficacy against US fighters in dogfights over Viet Nam.

The Soviet Union no longer exists, the Warsaw Pact no longer exists, many former Warsaw Pact nation-states are now members of NATO, and even the Bulletin for Atomic Scientists moved back the hands on its iconic doomsday clock to symbolically recognize the greatly decreased likelihood of a global nuclear war as a result of the end of the Cold War.

The Cold War divided the world into two hostile spheres of influence, one Soviet dominated, the other American dominated. In Europe, almost every nation-state was forced to take sides. Stalin set up pro-Soviet regimes throughout those regions occupied by Soviet troops at the end of the Second World War. Seeing what appeared to be the handwriting on the wall, Western European nation-states banded together under US leadership to prevent their own countries from falling under Soviet influence.

Outside Europe there was a little more latitude for policy vis-à-vis the Cold War dyad, but from a practical point of view almost every nation-state either took sides or leaned to one side or the other — often opportunistically. A sure way to get the attention of the superpowers was the declare yourself in the Cold War. Institutionally weak nation-states who received aid and support from one side were toppled by forces that were aided and supported by the other side.

The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) was founded in Belgrade in 1961, partly in response to the sea-sawing of influence between the two superpowers. Particularly instrumental in the founding of NAM were Yugoslavia, India, Egypt, Ghana, and Indonesia, all of them headed by powerful, charismatic, and ambitious leaders — Tito, Nehru, Nasser, Nkrumah, and Sukarno — who wanted to stake out an independent course.

When it was founded during the Cold War, NAM meant something: it meant not being allied to either the US or the Soviet Union, and therefore not falling within either sphere of influence. This was a powerful idea at the time, as it represented not only a kind of power politics for ambitious third world leaders, but also a kind of ideal that implicitly (and often also explicitly) rejected the Cold War and MAD and the nuclear arms race.

With the end of the Cold War, what does NAM mean? It means as little as NATO. It is an institution without an agenda or a direction. NAM, like NATO, has entered a period of institutional drift.

Of course, the enthusiasts of NAM don’t see it like this at all, and they are no more willing to close up shop than the NATO generals who have dedicated their careers to that institution.

So how do you sell non-alignment after the Cold War? Iranian Foreign Minister Ali-Akbar Salehi was quoted as saying, “Meddling of aliens in regional developments is not acceptable and run counter with democracy.” (Cf. Salehi: Regional nations never tolerate meddling of aliens) As Salehi frames this (and his remarks were variously quoted by several news organizations, e.g., NAM Summit Opens With Call To Resist ‘Egotistic Interference’), it is clearly an expression of what I have recently been calling the Principle of Autocracy: “…the inviolability of the autocratically ruled geographical territory.”

The Iranian Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported Ali Reza Mosaferi, apparently the Iranian Foreign Ministry’s representative on Kish Island (though I was unable to confirm this independently, but since he was quoted as an authority by IRNA they obviously know more about it than I do), saying NAM was about “non-alignment to the global imperialism” and “fighting monopolistic world and bullying powers’ unilateralism.” This is a slightly different spin than that of Ali-Akbar Salehi. The latter was concerned that non-aligned nation-states would not be the object of outside interference; Mosaferi seems concerned that non-aligned nation-states not be forced into a de facto global monopoly on power. Both of these criticisms of the contemporary international order have legs, and we can expect to see them time and again in the coming decades, but the fact that two officials gave very different theoretical justifications for the existence of NAM is a clear indication of post-Cold War institutional drift.

During the Cold War, no one would have hesitated to say that the mission of NATO was to oppose the Warsaw Pact, that the mission of the Warsaw Pact was to oppose NATO, and that the mission of NAM was to opt out of the Cold War to the extent possible. Now the idea of a NATO or a NAM mission is as clouded as the diverse motives of protesters carrying signs and chanting slogans in the streets of any major city.

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The Coup in Mali

23 March 2012

Friday


The coup in Mali, which I wrote about yesterday in Trouble on the Periphery Comes to the Center, was discussed in The Old-Style Coup Makes a Comeback in Mali by Jennifer G. Cooke of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and Coups making a comeback? by Joshua Keating of Foreign Policy magazine.

I find it interesting in both of these analyses that the writers have treated the coup as a kind of Cold War throwback, Ms. Cooke by calling it an “Old-Style Coup” and Mr. Keating by asking if coups are making a “comeback.” And this geopolitical nostalgia does not yet even take ingto account the rumors of a coup in China discussed in The Lesson Behind China’s Coup Rumors on Stratfor and Chinese coup watching on Foreign Policy and Damaging coup rumours ricochet across China on the BBC.

I‘m not sure how helpful it is to trot out Cold War analogies in a very different world in which the perennial verities of the Cold War no longer hold. A Cold War-era coup in Africa would mean a change in sponsorship of the leadership of the nation-state in question from American to Russian or from Russian to American alignment. Either the nation-state in question would stop receiving M-16s and receive AK-47s instead, or they would stop receiving AK-47s and receive M-16s instead. Of course, the writers of the above-cited pieces were careful to point out the differences from the “old-style coup” and the present coup in Mali

I have several times written about the lack of imagination displayed in socio-political thought (most recently in Gödel’s Lesson for Geopolitics, in which I argued that the moral evolution of human beings cannot yet have stalled, as against the idea that everything has been tried). Everything about the coup in Mali points to the dangers sticking to the “tried and true” (or, if you prefer, always doing the “same old, same old”). The government of Mali, despite receiving high marks for its democratic operations, was focused on the capital and allowed the situation in the north of the country to get out of control; the coup plotters did what coup plotters always do, and the commentariat responded by contextualizing the events in Mali in terms that emphasize the non-uniqueness and non-originality of the events in Mali. In a sense the commentators are right, because both the government and the coup plotters were engaging in politics as usual, but this is not exactly the sense in which the commentators cast the coup in terms of its unoriginality.

Is is any wonder that one of the most predictable facts about history is that people will be surprised by events? Of course, history is intrinsically unpredictable, except for certain parameters, so we will always be surprised by what happens next. But there is a big difference between being surprised by the unexpected (but being prepared for the unexpected) and being surprised because one thought that one knew what was happening. Relying on familiar narratives simply because they are familiar and not because they accurately capture events is a sure way to be overtaken by events.

I predict that the Sahel will hold surprises, and that events will develop in unanticipated ways. Perhaps these developments will not constitute strategic shocks on the order of the Arab Spring, but the unpredictable developments in the Sahel will be sufficient to make world powers scramble to catch up and not be overtaken by events. Malian President Amadou Toumani Touré has yet to make a statement since the coup, though he is believed to be under the protection of loyal elements of the military (the “Red Berets”). When and where and how he reveals himself will have a significant impact on the development of the coup.

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Thursday


Ecclesiates' explicit denial of novelty in the world: “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.”

Recently Strategic Forecasting has been using the loaded phrase, “new cold war.” Here is one example, from Russia and the United States: Pushing Tensions to the Limit?:

In the past few years, Russia has been relatively successful in regaining influence in many of its former Soviet states. This brought Russian power back to its broader frontiers, especially in Central Europe, where the United States has staked a dominant position. Russia is not looking to control Central Europe, but it does not want the region to be a base of U.S. power in Eurasia. Washington sees Central Europe as the new Cold War line — a position previously held by Germany — that halts Russia’s influence.

And here’s another example, from a situation report, U.K.: Iran Could Start New Cold War — Hague:

Iran’s nuclear ambitions could prompt nuclear development in the Middle East and cause a “new Cold War” that lacks safety mechanisms, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in an interview with the Daily Telegraph, BBC reported Feb. 18. It would cause the most serious round of nuclear proliferation with the Middle East’s destabilizing effects, Hague said, adding that Israel is urged not to strike Iran.

The latter is of special interest as it quotes British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who used the phrase in an interview with the Daily Telegraph:

“It is a crisis coming down the tracks,” he said. “Because they are clearly continuing their nuclear weapons programme… If they obtain nuclear weapons capability, then I think other nations across the Middle East will want to develop nuclear weapons.

“And so, the most serious round of nuclear proliferation since nuclear weapons were invented would have begun with all the destabilising effects in the Middle East. And the threat of a new cold war in the Middle East without necessarily all the safety mechanisms… That would be a disaster in world affairs.”

When an official at this level of government service makes this kind of public pronouncement, it is intentional. Such statements have consequences. They also have implications. One of the implications of this statement is that a new cold war would come with a new arms race, and this idea was given an independent exposition in The drift towards war with Iran by Gideon Rachman. This article in the Financial Times includes the following:

“…Saudi Arabia has made it clear that if Iran does successfully acquire a bomb, it will swiftly do the same. The Saudis are believed to have a deal with Pakistan, which is already a nuclear weapons state. The threat of a nuclear arms race loomed large in recent comments by William Hague, the British foreign secretary.”

I was very interested in this, so I wrote to Mr. Rachman to ask him what public intelligence was available for this. He was kind enough to respond, and said that he had heard as much from spooks and politicians in a couple of countries. I have no reason to do doubt this, and subsequent research revealed to me that quite a bit has been written about the relationship of Saudi Arabia and the Pakistani nuclear program. (Cf., e.g., Saudi Arabia’s nuclear arsenal-on-demand. A reader who commented on this story wrote, “The Saudis are playing a master game.”)

Thus I learned it has been widely reported that Saudi Arabia largely financed the Pakistani nuclear program with the understanding that, if they wanted a bomb of their own, this would be made available to them from the ongoing nuclear program in Pakistan, either in the form of technology transfers or even providing Saudi Arabia with a ready-made arsenal or a half dozen or so nuclear weapons “off the shelf,” as it were. The presumptive trigger for Saudi acquisition of nuclear weapons would be the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran.

The obvious scenario for a nuclear arms race centered on the Arabian Peninsula would follow from Iran publicly proclaiming its possession of nuclear weapons, followed by Saudi Arabia calling in its nuclear promissory note, and then there are the wealthy Gulf Sheikdoms who could afford a nuclear weapon if such were made available to them (even if their own technical and industrial infrastructure would not be adequate to the production of nuclear weapons). Perhaps Egypt, too, in some future democratic iteration, would want The Bomb. Egypt is often cited as the spiritual and intellectual capital of the Arab world, and it might want a geostrategic posture equal to its spiritual stature. And then there would be question of whether Iran’s militant proxies in Syria, Lebanon, or wherever sympathetic Shia populations are to be found, would be given tactical nukes.

The very idea of nuclear proliferation on this scale would certainly give a few statesmen nightmares. But would this come to pass, and, if it did come to pass, is there any reason to suppose that the nation-states of the region would be less capable to understanding or abiding by the logic of mutually assured destruction than were the US and the USSR?

It was thought at one time that a nuclear armed North Korea might be the trigger for a nuclear arms race in East Asia. This stands to reason. Both Japan and South Korea are technologically advanced nation-states with an extensive industrial plant that would be capable of producing nuclear weapons with little difficulty. Both are also wealthy, and could afford both the production of nuclear weapons and any sanctions that might result from their acquisition. With Japan and South Korea, it is not a question of capability at all, it is only a question of intent. A political change in the region could change that intent.

So far, we have not seen a nuclear arms race in East Asia, which means that there is no inevitability that, when a belligerent nation-state acquires nuclear weapons that neighboring nation-states will acquire then regardless of cost. Furthermore, the occasional engagements between North Korea and South Korea (like the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong island) have been kept well below the nuclear threshold, as has been the case conflict around the world when a nuclear-armed power is involved.

It is apparently the case with India and Pakistan that, if the one had The Bomb, the other had to have The Bomb also. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto famously said, “If India builds the bomb, we will eat grass or leaves, even go hungry, but we will get one of our own.” So far, again, in the India subcontinent, we have not seen wider proliferation, as though there were a nuclear domino effect, though certainly Abdul Qadeer Khan ran quite a personal proliferation shop for a time. Moreover, the cold war between India and Pakistan has been a well-behaved cold war like that between the US and the USSR. Conflicts have been kept well below the nuclear threshold, and everyone seems to be quite well aware of the consequences of mutually assured destruction. And in this connection we ought to observe that neither Pakistan nor India has the kind robust deterrent possessed by the US or the USSR during the cold war, with three dependable legs of a nuclear triad and for that reason an equally robust and dependable second strike capability.

It is a little disingenuous to speak of “new cold wars” and “new arms races,” since, if there is nothing new under the sun of geopolitics, there is nothing new about these most recent iterations of cold wars and arms races. Human history, if only we look at it in such a way as to appreciate it rightly, has cold wars of far greater extent than anything that happened during the twentieth century, and arms races too frequently to count.

The really interesting geostrategic questions are not whether Iran will acquire the Bomb or if there will be a nuclear arms race in the Arabian Peninsula, but whether arms races cause cold wars or cold wars cause arms races. Similarly, the questions we should be asking now should include whether the arms race/cold war dialectic issues in a stable albeit tense peace more often than it issues it all-out war between the competing parties.

We know that the First World War was preceded by an arms race focused on Dreadnaught class battleships, but more generally there was a competition among all the European powers to acquire vast military resources and a social infrastructure capable of mobilizing the military machine acquired through industrialization. In this case, the arms race/cold war dialectic did in fact issue in a catastrophic conflict that released the pent-up energies of conflict and in fact far surpassed the expectation of planners.

In the case of the arms race/cold war dialectic between the US and the USSR, this dialectic did not in fact culminate in a catastrophic conflict. Sometimes a cold war ends with a bang, and sometimes with a whimper. Are these two historical examples so diverse in terms of the historical accidents that gave rise to the particular circumstances of each that no general lessons can be drawn, or, rather, can a careful study of the essential issues involved be sufficiently isolated and abstracted that we can formulate a coherent theory that will shed light on the present and provide a rational basis for prediction of the future?

These are the true questions of geopolitics, and not the “horse race” questions of who gets what first, and the like. We learn nothing from reading headlines, even headlines of “secret deals,” and we learn little more from the reports of spies, if we are privy to such. It is the detailed record of the past that demands our attention. Here is a wealth of detail waiting to be discovered that can teach us about ourselves.

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What is strategic trust?

16 February 2012

Thursday


We have all heard the slogans of contemporary diplomacy — “peaceful rise,” “responsible stakeholder,” and the rest — and now it seems that we have a new diplomatic euphemism: strategic trust. Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping gave a speech shortly after his arrival in the US for an official visit in which he prominently employed the phrase. I have not been able to find a reliable full text of the speech online, but here are some excerpts:

“For us, strategic trust is the foundation for mutually beneficial cooperation, and greater trust will lead to broader cooperation.”

And,

“We in China hope to work with the U.S. side to maintain close high-level exchanges. We hope to increase dialogue and exchange of views with the United States by making full use of our channels of communication, including the Strategic and Economic Dialogues, cultural and people-to-people exchanges, and military-to-military exchanges…”

And,

“By doing so, we can better appreciate each other’s strategic intentions and development goals, avoid misinterpretation and misjudgment, build up mutual understanding and strategic trust, and on that basis, fully tap our cooperation potential.”

And this from Chinese VP calls for deeper strategic mutual trust with U.S.:

“The development of cooperative partnership could be guaranteed only when the two sides view each other’s strategic intention and development path in a correct and objective way, respect each other’s core interests and accommodate each other’s major concerns, avoid making troubles for each other and do not cross over each other’s bottom lines…”

It might be unwise to read too much into these statements, since this was, after all, a highly publicized political speech. There was an interesting sketch of Xi Linping at Foreign Policy, Empty Suit: Xi Jinping is just another Communist Party hack by Yu Jie, that gives some context, and some weeks earlier, also on Foreign Policy, there was this highly entertaining piece, Hu Jintao on China losing the culture wars by Isaac Stone Fish, in which the author quotes this from Hu Jintao:

“Only if we resolutely follow the guidance of Marxism, and let the advanced culture of socialism guide the way, will we be able to lay the foundation for the cultural development of socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

And then notes:

“Every year Chinese press wonders why their country can’t seem to win a Nobel Prize in literature or peace; ironically, in most cases banned from mentioning dissident writer Gao Xingjian, who won in 2000, or Liu Xiaobo, who won last year.”

We have, of course, seen this before. During the Cold War, the Soviet Bloc countries placed a great deal of emphasis upon winning medals at the Olympics, since this is politically non-controversial, even while the greatest writers and artists were harrassed, jailed, and sent to gulags. Every authoritarian state that seeks to control expression runs into this same difficulty.

Nevertheless, the idea of strategic trust is interesting on its own merits, whatever Xi Linping may have meant by it. Vice President Linping gave a fairly detailed sketch of how he would go about cultivating strategic trust, and I will certainly agree that maintaining both broad and deep communication over the long term will likely achieve something like this — although one may well wonder how broad and deep communication can be maintained with the Great Firewall of China intervening between the two countries, and with a vigorous Chinese censorship regime empowered to unilaterally delete content (sort of like Twitter has now empowered itself to act).

Some time ago, in On a Definition of Grand Strategy, I examined a conception of grand strategy has a certain amount of currency, and then went on to suggest that one of the functions of grand strategy is to make certain policies and practices thinkable or unthinkable:

Grand strategy, like ethics, not only both forbids and enjoins certain actions and classes of actions, but it also shapes our thinking, making certain options unthinkable while making other options possible. Alternative grand strategies may pick out different courses of action as unthinkable or possible. We recall that throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, all-out nuclear war was often simply referred to as “the unthinkable,” but there were people who did not see things that way at all. Castro is supposed to have urged Khrushchev to launch a nuclear strike, even if it meant the annihilation of Cuba, rather than back down in the Cuban missile crisis. For Castro, at this point in his life, nuclear war as in no sense unthinkable (I have read somewhere recently that he has since changed his mind).

With this sense of grand strategy in mind, we could characterize two distinct nation-states (or, more generally, political entities, whether state or non-state) as sharing a grand strategic vision if they share common conceptions of what is thinkable and that is unthinkable. Another way to put this would be to say that political entities share a grand strategic vision if they share political presuppositions.

Now, it is true that Xi Linping spoke in terms of strategy rather than grand strategy, so we need to take a step own in generality toward greater specificity to do justice to his remarks. I don’t think very many people would suppose that China and the US, representing profoundly different traditions of civilization, would ever substantially share a grand strategic vision on the level of common political presuppositions. Indeed, this is precisely what divides China and the US, and makes communication difficult — not impossible, but difficult, which means that an effort must be made, and even when an effort is made, misunderstanding will persist and can only be address by further communicative efforts.

It is, however, entirely possible (and, moreover, possible by the concrete means that Linping suggests) that China and the US could share substantial presuppositions on a strategic level short of grand strategy: mutual economic growth, rule of law, global political stability, avoidance of catastrophic military conflicts, the restriction of conflict to localized proxy wars conducted below the nuclear threshold, and so forth. All of these same elements were present during detente with the Soviet Union.

Such an arrangement is not only possible, but mutually beneficial. Strategic trust, then, would be a trust of each nation-state in the other that the other recognizes the mutually beneficial condition of shared strategic presuppositions, and will seek to perpetuate this arrangement.

What are the challenges to maintaining such strategic trust? Under the above-named conditions, there will always be a tension between strategy and grand strategy. Part of strategic trust would be trust in your strategic partner to remain focused on strategy and to allow grand strategy to take a distant second place. This is all about maintaining a mutually agreeable status quo, and maintaining a mutually agreeable status quo would be all about de-emphasizing, and perhaps even suppressing, revolutionary movements and macro-scopic social change that could upset the strategic apple cart.

Under these conditions, the US would continue to talk about Tibet and Taiwan, but would take no action beyond its existing commitments to Taiwan, while China would be careful not to use its growing economic influence to push the US out of its established positions of power. Like detente with the Soviet Union, all of this is doable, and perhaps it even represents the most likely short- and medium-term future, but it leaves open certain difficult questions like, for example, the Pacific theater

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Grand Strategy Annex

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