Martin van Creveld’s Simulacra and Simulation

Here is Martin van Creveld in The Transformation of War (1991) essentially agreeing with Jean Baudrillard, that not just the Gulf War, but nearly every conflict of the post-nuclear era, did not take place:

One factor affecting conventional war as waged by both the super-powers and, increasingly, by other countries, is that nuclear weapons make their dampening effect felt in such wars even when nobody threatens their use. As a result, the United States for one has only been able to employ its conventional armed forces in cases where its vital interests were not at stake. The war fought in Korea, a small appendix of Asia several thousands of miles away, provides an excellent case in point. The American Chiefs of Staff recognized this even at that time, emphasizing the fact that the really significant areas were Japan and the Philippines. The same also applied to Lebanon (1958), Vietnam (1964-72), the Dominican Republic (1965), Cambodia (1972-75), Lebanon (1983), and the Persian Gulf (1987-88). Looking back, so microscopic were the stakes for which GI’s were supposed to shed their blood that most of the cases could hardly even be explained to the American people. On occasions such as the Mayaguez Affair (1975) and Grenada (1983), so puny were the opponents against which American forces pitted themselves that hostilities took on a comic-opera character. (p. 14)

In the convoluted logic of the post-nuclear world, if a state goes to war, it is prima facie because it is an objective not a vital national interest. Any interest that is actually vital would involve levels of determination that are simply too dangerous to test. Vital national interests are those interests for which states were willing to pay prices in other ages that can no longer be afforded in an era of total annihilation.

Strategic Depth and Obama’s Rejuvenation of Global Arms Control

Steve Clemons in his summation of President Obama’s winning streak on nuclear issues invokes the notion of “strategic depth” (“Obama’s Nuclear Wizardry and the Iran Factor“, Politico, 13 April 2010). It’s not an uncommon term, but one rarely given much by way of explication. Fortunately Mr. Clemons isn’t just breaking it out to conceptually pad his article, in that he calls out an element of this week’s accomplishments that serves as an excellent illustration of the idea:

In a quick succession of deals focused on pre-empting a 21st-century nuclear nightmare, Obama has mended the foundation and infrastructure of a global nonproliferation regime that United Nations Ambassador John Bolton, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Vice President Dick Cheney and others of the pugnacious nationalist wing of the last administration worked hard to tear down.

And, by bringing together 47 key leaders, Obama is signaling to all stakeholders that a nuclear crisis with Iran and other potential breakout states would undermine the global commons.

Yet he is not vilifying Iran or its leaders. He is not making the same “axis of evil” mistake President George W. Bush did.

Instead, Obama is showing the benign and constructive side of U.S. power to other great states like India, China, Brazil and Russia. He is also inviting Iran to get in compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and get back into a club that matters — where Iran could be respected for adopting a sensible course.

The Obama administration is restoring the non-proliferation norm to “a club that matters.” For the previous administration, either a state wanted to adopt a certain policy, or they didn’t; there was no context in which they may have preferred to do one thing over another, so there was no need to apply the nation’s diplomatic energies to construction any particular sort of international régime.

That was a strategically thin diplomacy. If it appears that the future of the international system is the gradual breakdown of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, if the system is lowly regarded, treated with apathy and abandonment on the part of the great powers, if declining compliance and the emergence of a number of new nuclear powers seems the likely future, then there is little to recommend compliance or membership. What incentive is there to join a system one anticipates failing in the near future?

But if the NPT seems the way of the future, if great energies are devoted to shoring up and extending the non-proliferation framework, compliance is the norm among the respectable states, if the nuclear powers are making headway toward their Article VI obligations, if the possibility of new nuclear powers seems increasingly remote, then that’s a strategic context in which an entirely different set of decisions will seem the best means to a country’s objectives of security, prestige, diplomatic latitude and so on.

Further, broadening the circle of compliance and advocacy takes some of the lime light off of the United States. This makes it much more palatable to recalcitrant elements. In the case of Iran, if faced with knuckling under to the hated United States, the answer will certainly be no. If asked to cow to a group of flunkeys subordinate to the United States, the prospects won’t be much improved. But joining the global consensus among nations is something they might do. It allows them to save face among their citizens and their international constituents should they chose to back away from their nuclear program.

By imbuing the present architecture with a sense of a bright future, increasing compliance and broad support, the Obama administration is bringing the weight of a whole international system to bare on Iran. This seems like a program with more potential than just the usual carrots and sticks.

Strategic Principles of Arms Control

  1. Arms racing is the suboptimal outcome of a prisoner’s dilemma (all competitors feel compelled to over purchase security).

  2. The prisoner’s dilemma is created by absence of coordination among competitors with a shared interest (states are better off planning for national security according to real rather than systemic considerations [though I’m not sure that the real/systemic distinction is tenable — at some point the system is the real]).

  3. Arms control is the coordination among strategic competitors that allows an escape from the best-bad outcome reasoning of a prisoner’s dilemma.

When Realpolitik and Principle Converge

Apropos my two previous posts about keeping non-proliferation goals in the mix with democracy permotion, Matthew Yglesias spells out the logic for why this is probably not tenable (“Engagement With a Post-Crackdown Iran,” Think Progress, 23 June 2009):

The hope behind an engagement strategy was that the Supreme Leader might be inclined to side with the more pragmatic actors inside the system — guys like former president Rafsanjani and former prime minister Mousavi. With those people, and most of the Iranian elites of their ilk, now in open opposition to the regime, any crackdown would almost by definition entail the sidelining of the people who might be interested in a deal. Iran would essentially be in the hands of the most hardline figures, people who just don’t seem interested in improving relations with other countries. Under the circumstances, the whole subject of American engagement may well wind up being moot.

So maybe the realpolitik and the principled position have converged here. All-in with the dissidents may be the only option that can produce progress on the nuclear issue at this point.

The Approaching Moment of Decision

A terrible moment of decision is rapidly approaching where the outcome of the revolution in Iran will be determined. It has been said — and I largely agree — that the fate of Iran is for the Iranians and there is little that the United States can do. But little is not nothing and should the prospects of the dissidents begin to dim, that little will become much greater in stature. The Obama administration faces a dilemma here — a real dilemma that leaders in the real world face (discouragingly, one must add this last qualification because on the right there is no acknowledgement that our means are limited and our objectives trade-off here). The United States presently has two objectives with respect to Iran:

  1. We would like to do reach an agreement regarding their nuclear program. The best situation would be that they abandon enrichment altogether, but one where they pursued a nuclear energy program, but verifiably ruled out weaponizing their nuclear material would suffice.

  2. We would like to see a liberalized, less theocratic Iran. This is in part the traditional, principled position of United States, but it is also practical. A liberal democratic Iran will have a moderating effect on the rest of the Middle East, that epicenter of that global war on terrorism that we are fighting. And a liberal democratic Iran will presumably be less likely to provide support to militant elements in Palestine.

Presumably if two obtains, that will be progress toward one. A new, popular, modernizing régime looking to distinguish itself from its predecessor will be much more willing to deal with the United States and the Obama administration will have much less problem with its domestic constituents in dealing with such an Iran.

Alternately, no matter what the United States does, should President Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Khamenei succeeded in their bid to retain power, it will have become considerably more difficult for the President — any president for some time to come — to make progress on the nuclear issue. However, should the United States throw its weight behind the second objective and the Iranian dissidents fail, then the prospects for future progress on the nuclear issue will be even worse still than if we hadn’t — perhaps lost altogether. Not only will it be extremely difficult for any U.S. administration to deal with Iran, the Iranian government will return to the siege mentality of the 1980s and will perhaps — evidence that foreign powers will act to destroy the régime in hand — conclude that a nuclear deterrent is a necessity if the régime is to survive.

I have generally agreed with the position of restraint that the administration has taken. This is the Iranians’ struggle and strong words only make us feel puffed up — they do nothing for the Iranians. But that time may be coming to a close. Indications are that the Iranian government is moving with increasing forcefulness to suppress the dissidents. This is an effort that the government will win. Dissidents can route the police when it’s rocks versus batons. When the machine guns come out, it will be a different story. We cannot decide this conflict, but we can tilt the balance. The international community can make the government of Iranian aware that the consequences of suppressing its citizens extend beyond its own domestic politics. And perhaps — perhaps — this could bring them to the tipping point, or cause them to draw back from what they are about, or change the calculus of costs where a compromise solution becomes desirable.

But the United States and the Obama administration have to carefully weigh its principles and its objectives, its possibilities of success versus its consequences of failure. I’m not going to game it out here, but the range of options, consequences and rewards and probabilities attaching to each one should be fairly obvious. The nuclear issue is real and momentous and it would be terrible to sacrifice what possibility for progress exists chasing pie in the sky. But our principles are real too. It would be terrible for us to sacrifice them to cynical realpolitik over meager tactics when another world is possible. But not everything is possible and the future is uncertain. Judgment and luck are all that there is.

The Singularity is Near

June 2008, Top Department of Energy Supercomputing Performance in Teraflops, RoadRunner tops one petaflop

Via ArmsControlWonk, the Department of Energy supercomputer called RoadRunner has become the first to achieve sustained petaflop performance. In scientific notation that’s 1015 floating operations per second. In little kid numbers that’s a thousand trillion floating operations per second (Lewis, Jeffrey, “RoadRunner,” 10 June 2008; “U.S. Department of Energy’s New Supercomputer is Fastest in the World,” U.S. Department of Energy press release, 9 June 2008).

The machine was built in conjunction with IBM. It consists of somewhere in the neighborhood of 3,500 compute nodes with each node consisting of two AMD dual core Opterons, four PowerXCell 8i processors for extra floating point capability and 24 GB of RAM. Overall the machine consists of 6,912 AMD Opterons, 12,960 IBM PowerXCell 8is and 80 terabytes of RAM. It will have access to a file server with 2,000 terabytes of hard disk storage. Roadrunner occupies approximately 12,000 square feet and cost $133 million. The AMD Opterons are a common desktop PC processor and the PowerXCell 8i is the processor from a Sony PlayStation 3. It runs RedHat Linux as its operating system. As Robin Harris from ZDNet points out, because the better part of this machine is off-the-shelf components, this really represents the commodification of supercomputing (“PS3 Chip Powers World’s Fastest Computer,” Storage Bits, ZDNet, 10 June 2008; “Roadrunner’s Backing Store,” StorageMojo, 11 June 2008).

RoadRunner will be housed at the at Los Alamos National Laboratory and will be used by the National Nuclear Security Administration to perform calculations to certify the reliability of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile through highly detailed simulation rather than conducting nuclear tests. Mr. Lewis at ArmsControlWonk has more on the implications of this for the U.S. nuclear testing regime. He points out that questions about the ability of the NNSA to certify the U.S. nuclear stockpile using simulation were a central issue in the Senate rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. So maybe reconsideration of the CTBT will be on the agenda for the next President and Congress?

But this is all detail. The important point is the graph of peak computing performance of DOE supercomputers. It is clear that the singularity is near.

As Mr. Lewis points out, the fastest supercomputer used in nuclear weapons simulations has, not coincidentally, historically also been the fastest supercomputer in the world. This tight coupling between computing and nuclear weapons is striking. It’s worth noting that the first computer, ENIAC, though not yet tethered to the nuclear establishment, was constructed during the Second World War for the purpose of calculating ballistics trajectory tables for Army artillery units. As J. Robert Oppenheimer said,

In some sort of crude sense, which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin, and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.

It is not just the physicists that have known sin. The computer scientists have known sin as well. From this coupling hithertoo, it should be fairly obvious that the first androids and the first general artificial intelligence will be military in purpose. That is, the first androids and the first general artificial intelligence will be innately aggressive.

The singularity is near. It is more likely that it will be a cataclysm than a boon.

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!)