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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Grand Strategy Annex

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