While the threat of mutually assured destruction has enabled a superficial peace, a nuclear world is not as peaceful as hoped. But is there an alternative?
The shadow of the nuclear mushroom cloud has hung over the world for 72 years and shows no sign of lifting anytime soon. The advent of the bomb forever changed the international system and how foreign policy was conducted. It must be remembered, however, that nuclear weapons are a paradox – they have simultaneously made our world both more and less peaceful, and not necessarily in the ways you might expect.
72 Years of MAD Peace?
Contrary to popular belief, MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) works, at least when it comes to superpowers. If you doubt that MAD works, then look at the past 72 years and ask: why wasn’t there a World War III?
For much of history, it was common for the leading powers of each era to frequently test one another’s military strength to achieve dominance. One would naturally emerge victorious and thus a bipolar or multipolar world (a world with two or more superpowers) would become a unipolar world (a world with one superpower) and we would have peace until a new power arose to challenge the old. This has been the normal cycle for centuries.
The Cold War is an unprecedented anomaly in history. For 46 years, the world was divided between two superpowers ideologically and geopolitically opposed to one another and each heavily militarised, yet there was no direct military confrontation between them. The United States won the Cold War simply because it managed to out-live the unstable Soviet Union. Many expected World War III in the 1950s and yet nothing happened because of the complex effects of the MAD doctrine on geopolitical relations. Both sides understood as never before that there could be no victor from a direct military confrontation between them.
Even at the height of the Cold War, when tensions were at their worst, did either side ever seriously consider a deliberate nuclear war between them? The simple fact is that humans generally don’t want to die. There are exceptions to this, but world leaders – or rather politicians – bestowed with that honourable title, as we all know they have very well developed senses of self-preservation. In short, if you have a territory to defend, you have nothing to gain from a nuclear war except annihilation.
That isn’t to suggest that the post-WWII era has been an era of universal peace. With the superpowers unable to confront one another directly, they have fought out their rivalry through indirect means – economics, espionage and proxy wars. Having secured peace for their own citizens, superpowers have instead unleashed the horrors of war upon the citizens of non-nuclear states. That is, therefore the nuclear paradox. The nuclear weapon has ended war between superpowers, but not ended war itself.
Nuclear War in a MAD World
Although there have been no direct wars between the nuclear armed superpowers in the post-WWII era, what we have seen instead is a proliferation of civil wars and regional conflicts. Since 1945 there have been hundreds of such conflicts (the number varies depending on how you count them). Whilst some of these can be attributed to decolonisation which created many new unstable states, many of these conflicts were prolonged, worsened or even triggered by the superpowers waging proxy wars to exert their influence or to effectuate their posturing.
A proxy war is a civil war or regional conflict where rival powers have become involved supporting opposing sides of the conflict, using it as a proxy for their own rivalry. Said ‘powers’ can be superpowers or regional powers and not necessarily nuclear powers. Infamous examples of this include the Greek Civil War, Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and more recently the Syrian Civil War.
Typically the involvement of the superpowers in a war only serves to escalate and prolong it. If we look at major proxy wars like the Korean War or Vietnam War, we see that were it not for Soviet or American involvement said conflicts would have ended relatively quickly. Instead the Vietnam War dragged on for more than a decade until American withdrawal in 1973, with South Vietnam quickly being overwhelmed once the United States withdrew. Meanwhile, the Korean War was almost entirely the result of the Soviet Union and then the United States intervening in Korean affairs and effectively carving the peninsula up between them.
More recently, we have the Syrian civil war which has now lasted nearly six and a half years. What started as an internal conflict between the Syrian government and liberal opposition fighters has ballooned into an enormous international crisis with different sides fighting each other and the involvement of multiple regional and international powers including the United States (and NATO allies), Russia, Iran, Saudi-Arabia, Lebanon, Israel and Turkey.
The situation in Syria is a complex conflict – in that it is in many ways a proxy for the wider conflicts in the Middle East. On the one hand, it has become a proxy conflict between Russia and the United States who each have sought to control the war’s outcome in their own favour. On the other, it has also become a proxy for the regional rivalry between the Shia theocracy in Iran and the Sunni theocracy in Saudi-Arabia which is itself a manifestation of the sectarian strife between Sunni and Shia Muslims in the region triggered by the power vacuum in neighbouring Iraq. This does not even touch upon the mini-war between Turkey and the Kurdish fighters in the region, which has spilled over into Syria or the involvement of Israel and Lebanon in the crisis.
We can see that proxy wars have become a major characteristic of the nuclear world, and have brought misery and the horrors of war to countless parts of the world as superpowers seek to project their power without actually warring with each other.
Even when superpowers don’t resort to proxy wars, they still project their power into other countries either through economical means or through more covert manipulations. Sanctions, trade deals and covert actions are all weapons in the modern arsenal of the superpowers.
Unable to settle their rivalries through military confrontation, the superpowers have turned the whole world into a giant chess board for their confrontation to play out upon, each country a piece on the board. This was particularly true in the Cold War, but with the rise of China and the renewed conflict between the US and Russia, we face the prospect of such a complex and unproductive geopolitical scenario once again.
The Great Game
The only way for a state to escape this great game is either by allying yourself with one of the superpowers and using them as a guarantor against the others or developing your own independent nuclear capability.
Allying with a superpower, though it will generally protect you from military involvement by the other, can be disadvantageous. Firstly, it makes your security entirely dependent on the continued existence of said superpower which, as the communist regimes of Eastern Europe and Cuba discovered, leaves you vulnerable if and when said superpower collapses. Secondly, it forces you to align your foreign policy with theirs and can risk you turning into a puppet state or vassal.
The most obvious examples of this are the Warsaw Pact nations who were so dependent on the Soviet Union, and in such a weak position, that they were unable to disobey them, thus turning them into puppets. That is not to say, however, countries allied to the United States are completely free of this problem. Since 1945, the nations of Western Europe have been dependent on the United States, via NATO, for their security and have thus aligned their foreign policy accordingly. They need the United States to check the imperial power of Russia and until Russia is truly spent this will continue. This is why despite the current US President Donald Trump’s veiled insults and slights against Germany and other NATO members, the leaders of Europe will largely ignore them. Breaking with the US is simply not an option.
Not wishing to limit their options like this some states have taken the second option and have tried to become nuclear powers in their own right. If successful the country becomes unassailable from the outside as MAD comes into effect and thus they need only worry about decay from within. However, pursuing this path is dangerous. It is not in the interests of the superpowers for other countries to develop nuclear capabilities as it puts them out of their reach. As such, it has been the goal of the United States and other superpowers to prevent and contain the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Since the 1980s countries that have tried to develop their own nuclear weapons have been subject to international censure, harsh economic sanctions and sometimes even direct military intervention against them (e.g. Iraq). Iran and North Korea have discovered they can take advantage of this process, stopping and starting their nuclear programs in order to get diplomatic concessions out of the western powers.
North Korea is an interesting example of a state that has played both roles. The deeply isolationist and paranoid state has spent most of its history aligned with the Communist superpowers of the Soviet Union and China with their nuclear arsenals warding off the military might of the United States and her allies in South Korea. However megalomaniac and paranoid, dictators do not make good allies and North Korea’s leadership have become dissatisfied with dependency on China for protection, not least due to China’s changed priorities in the post-cold war era. As such, North Korea has sought to establish its own nuclear capability out of a paranoid fear of invasion from either the US or China.
This has largely broken down relations between North Korea and its traditional ally China – as China has no interest in a nuclear armed North Korea. Chinese foreign policy has always favoured the formation of satellite states that can act as buffers between it and the outside world. North Korea was intended to be one of those buffers – clearly, a buffer doesn’t work if it has ambitions of its own. North Korea was always meant to be a hermit kingdom, a subservient puppet state; not a power in its own right. Whilst China is by no means ready to intervene in North Korea, the fact that it has come to support UN sanctions against the Kim regime shows that its patience with the antics of the Kim dynasty is wearing thin.
The Korean War and the situation on the Korean peninsula since 1953 is an example, perhaps the first, of a frozen conflict. A frozen conflict is a war where although a ceasefire has come into effect no peace treaty that satisfies all parties has been signed. Thus both sides remain in a perpetual state of war without fighting but also without a peace.
This has been the situation in Korea since 1953. A ceasefire was signed between the North and South and their respective allies but both sides have remained so irreconcilable that no peace treaty has ever been signed. Both sides remain de facto at war and periodic standoffs between them, such as the current one, have been common occurrences over the past 64 years.
Since both sides have nuclear weapons in their arsenals, neither can move against the other without annihilation. Both sides are so ideologically incompatible that neither can ever have true peace with the other. Thus, the situation persists indefinitely.
The term frozen conflict has come to be popularised with the many such conflicts that litter the territories of the former Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, its various soviet republics became independent states. Unfortunately, however, in some cases these states’ borders did not match the ethnic composition of the regions they occupy. This was either due to the high ethnic diversity of regions like the Caucasus or due to the mass immigration of Russians into the non-Russian territories of the Soviet Union as part of the Soviet government’s attempts at ‘Russification’ of conquered territories.
Examples of such frozen conflicts include the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict in Azerbaijan, the Abkhazian and South Ossetian conflicts in Georgia, the Transnistria conflict in Moldova and more recently the conflicts in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. It would be beyond the scope of this article to go into each of these conflicts in detail. However, when looked at collectively, a common pattern emerges.
In most of these conflicts, an ethnic minority secessionist group has risen up against the central government either to seek independence (e.g. Abkhazia) or union with their ethnic motherland (e.g. Nagorno-Karabakh). Post-Cold War Russia has sought to intervene in these conflicts on the pretence of protecting ethnic minorities. In truth, its real goal is to divide and conquer its neighbours both to keep them weak but also to keep them out of the western sphere of influence. They have thus invaded all these countries and occupied the secessionist territories usually as ‘peacekeepers’. Western powers, not wishing to see these countries fall under Russian domination again, have thus pledged tacit support to the central governments in these countries and warned Russia against further threats to their sovereignty.
The threat of nuclear war thus leads to a stalemate and to a frozen conflict. Russia cannot act to fully retake or incorporate these territories and the West cannot act to push Russia out without each risking nuclear war. The conflicts remain frozen like Korea and like Korea, what could have been sorted out diplomatically or by brief internal wars has become a prolonged state of war and ethnic tension with no end in sight.
The Phantom Mushroom Cloud
The rhetoric of MAD has ensured that the reality of nuclear war is an improbable one whatever the consequences to non-nuclear powers. Despite this, the phantom of the mushroom cloud continues to haunt our popular culture and media. This is understandable given the terrifying destructive power they can unleash not only on their targets but the whole world. However, in truth the real risk of nuclear annihilation comes from two less publicised scenarios rather than nuclear war.
The first scenario has already almost occurred several times over the past 72 years – it is the threat of an accidental launch or the ‘nuclear close call’. This ‘accidental’ launch could be caused by one side misinterpreting the actions of the other as being a declaration of war either through direct misunderstanding or (more commonly) through computer error. This has already happened to both the Americans and the Soviets/Russians. The most popularised incident was in 1983 when a satellite error almost led the Soviet Union to launch its nuclear arsenal against the US and was halted only by a Soviet officer Lt. Colonel Stanislav Petrov refusing to follow his orders as he correctly believed it was a false alarm.
To avoid such incidents both Russia and the United States have tried to cultivate open lines of communication between them so that any false alarms can be identified and diffused before the decision to retaliate is made. Whilst this has worked quite well over the decades, some concern has been raised in recent years that the White House and the Kremlin have largely severed such lines of communication as relations between them have deteriorated. If this is not rectified, then such incidents are likely to occur again and we can only hope that there are brave officers like Petrov who are willing to risk themselves in defence of our world should this happen.
The second scenario, and the one security analysts worry about the most, is the fear of a nuclear armed state disintegrating into civil war leaving their nuclear weapons unsecured and vulnerable to theft by non-state actors. Today, this fear is mostly focused on Pakistan which remains a volatile region with many non-state actors such as terrorist groups who, should the opportunity arise, would be more than happy to get their hands on a nuclear device. As non-state actors, thus not having any land to defend, they are the only ones free to actually use nuclear weapons without consequence to themselves.
Currently Pakistan remains stable enough to keep its arsenal under control, however, out of all the countries with fully deployed nuclear capabilities, Pakistan is probably the only one to be so close to the edge. If the worst did happen, then it would be imperative for the world to act to secure Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal with or without Pakistani cooperation.
The Destroyer of Worlds
In an interview first televised in 1965, Professor J. Robert Oppenheimer, wartime scientific head of the Manhattan Project, said that upon witnessing the first successful tests of the atomic bomb he was reminded of a quote from the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita “Now I am become death; the destroyer of worlds”.
Whilst Oppenheimer, who became a notable advocate against further development of nuclear weapons technology, was referring in his quote to the enormous destructive power of the bomb, his quote has a perhaps unintended meaning. The bomb may be able to destroy our world, but it has already destroyed the world that came before it.
No longer could the great powers act against each other freely. No longer could they afford war between them. That old world has gone.
We can never go back to a pre-nuclear age – the genie cannot be put back into the bottle. Attempts to reduce the American and Russian nuclear stockpiles are folly when you consider that they need barely a hundred such devices to destroy us all (and both still have many times that number).
No state will ever agree to unilaterally eliminate its nuclear capability given that it would leave itself open to attack from other nuclear powers: it would have to be a unanimous decision on the part of all nuclear armed states. Given that the only thing stopping World War III between these powers is the threat of nuclear annihilation, do we really want them all to give up their nuclear weapons? By slaying the phantom of the mushroom cloud could we not be unleashing a monster even worse?
Nuclear weapons are here to stay. Fighting this is futile. What we must focus on is improving the condition of Humanity so that all war becomes unacceptable , not just nuclear war. It matters not what weapons we have, but the manner in how we choose to use them.