Global Versus Bilateral Nuclear War: The Good News (And Some Bad)

People persist in saying things like that the post September 11th security environment makes us pine for the simpler, more straight forward time of the Cold War or that the nuclear danger is worse now. The simple answer is that one madman trying to smuggle a poorly constructed, untested, low-yield weapon into the United States is a word of improvement over the second most powerful country in the world with 30,000 high-yield weapons on hair-trigger alert.

But prospects are better in another way, even in the face of more widespread nuclear proliferation. Consider what would happen if there actually was a nuclear war. The Cold War was global, with each country having drawn a security perimeter and established hundreds of red lines. The United States and the Soviet Union had scores of counties under their nuclear umbrella through what was called extended deterrence. “Credibility” was on the line. The crossing of any red line by the other would have initiated an escalatory path that could have lead quickly to the outbreak of full scale nuclear war. And were war to ensue, the targets would be global, preemptory and without provocation. The SIOP up through the late Nixon administration called for the destruction of targets throughout the communist block, including Eastern Europe and China, regardless of the cause of war. If the Soviet Union invaded Saudi Arabia, we were going to destroy Beijing, Warsaw and Pyongyang later that day, no matter what. Similarly, if the United States went to war with China over Taiwan, the Soviet Union could have ended up destroying Paris, Tel Aviv and Ottawa.

People talk today as if North Korea, Pakistan, India, Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Brazil or Argentina possessing or acquiring nuclear weapons is a cataclysmic problem. The fact is that these countries aren’t involved in global struggles with their strategic competitors. Were nuclear war to break out between any such pair, the target list would be limited not just by technological capability, but by political consideration. Were India and Pakistan to come to nuclear war over Kashmir or some other border dispute, they would concentrate their fire on one another. India may keep some weapons in reserve to prevent China from taking advantage of the situation, but they wouldn’t simultaneously launch attacks on 50 additional countries. Similarly, hypothetical hostilities between Israel and Iran would remain regional, provided a certain third power could keep a lid on its apocalyptic enthusiasms.

And this arrangement may be systematic. In the past, a war might have caused peripheral powers to come running to the conflagration, thinking that they too might have some interest served by tilting the outcome one way or the other. But nuclear war is so devastating that only powers with a direct mortal interest in the struggle would participate. Peripheral powers might be sent scrambling, doing everything in their power to cordon off and avoid involvement in such a struggle. They might be totally preoccupied with limiting the problems of fallout, refugees and other passive damage.

The bad news is that the nuclear danger has become much more chaotic and laden. The world is more shot-through with it. The good news is that should the danger be realized, the number of weapons and the portion of the world under threat in any particular conflict is significantly less. The potential for the escalation of any given nuclear war to global war has decreased. In other words, though the probability of war may have risen, the consequences have been greatly reduced.

The key to keeping these struggles and their potential wars limited and regional, is to avoid the trap of extended deterrence. External powers may feel tempted to try to manage these regional struggles by enhancing the deterrent power of one country over another. This should be avoided, for extended deterrence creates the network by which a regional problem spreads. It’s the geopolitical analogue to the problem of fourth generation warfare, where a weak adversary can use the tight systems integration of its stronger opponent as a force multiplier. An otherwise localized attack is spread far and wide by networks (e.g., power, communication, fuel distribution, etc.).

The Cold War was a worldwide ideological struggle between two powers whose reach spanned the globe. The strategy employed on both sides was the construction of a preponderant alliance and global encirclement. Extending deterrence to the pawns and over the battlefields of the world made sense. Kashmir is not such a situation. In trying to bring home the problem of extended deterrence, strategists used to ask, “Will the United States really trade New York for Paris?” The aim of the question was to underline the difficulty of asserting that the answer was “yes.” In the case of the question of whether the United States will trade Los Angeles for Riyadh, the answer should be easy: absolutely not. If Saudi Arabia and Iran destroy each other we will bare the burden of high energy prices before we risk the sting of losing a city.

What nuclear weapons do afford these regional powers is capability against their regional competitors, but also neutralization of an opponent’s network of allies; that is, deterrence against the involvement of external powers. And the primary external power that most nuclear aspirants have in mind is the United States.

That the United States will no longer be able to afford getting involved in every dispute, managing the strategic balance of every sector of the world, bending each to our advantage, is the real reason for the manic urgency of writers who see the likes of Iran and North Korea as such a problem. That it threatens U.S. global primacy is the cause for the hysteria. It is also the case for the urgency of a U.S. anti-missile system. ABM is the top-line U.S. primacy-preserving weapons system. Without it, U.S. hegemony withers and dies; with it, it can be extended a few more decades.

It is also the cause of the continuing enhancement of U.S. nuclear capabilities: global strike, the OPLANs, enhancements to yield, accuracy and fusing for hard-target kill, the reliable replacement warhead program. Whatever other factors idealists may identify, the hard calculation of interest and history — and the cynicism engendered of folly — suggests continued modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, even if carried out under the guise of numerical reduction. There is wide agreement that the current goal of the U.S. nuclear establishment is to achieve a high level of confidence in the conduct of a disarming first strike. And the political cause of this objective is to avoid being locked out of regional conflicts. These are not the tools of national security, but of continued meddling and foreign adventure.

The policy preferences of the United States are probably moot here, as the forces in play are larger than can be controlled by any country. We’re going to be run out of certain regions, whether gracefully or humiliatingly, like the British and the French after the Suez crisis of 1956. Most likely the latter. The notion of a unified global order is breaking down to one of regions, regional powers and internecine conflict. And nuclear weapons will be of a piece with this transformation.

(Sorry, the title promised good news with some bad as a caveat; it turned out to be mostly bad news. At least the whole world isn’t under threat all at once anymore!)