A balance of terror

The return of some kind of Cold War seems to be a recurring theme these days. Last week is, we tried to unpack a June 23 incident on the Black Sea between the British navy and Russian air force. Then, on June 30, the James Martin Center for Non-proliferation Studies in Monterey, California reported that it had determined that the Chinese were in the process of building 118 new silos for intercontinental ballistic missiles. China has a much smaller cache of nuclear weapons than the U.S. or Russia, but this discovery suggests the Communist regime is willing to up its nuclear ante. The move, our chief political scientist says, should not come as a surprise. As China carves out its place at the top of the global pecking order, nuclear weapons were bound to come into play. The question is, what will this mean for global stability? And should we be worried about a new nuclear arms race?

Adnan R. Khan: What would achieving nuclear parity with the U.S. mean for China?

Ilter Turan: Let us begin by examining the logic of mutually assured destruction: The argument is that if one side initiates a nuclear attack against the other and destroys part of its nuclear capabilities, the attacked will still have a sufficient number of nuclear weapons left to inflict unacceptable harm on the attacker. The way to do that is to have a large enough stockpile of warheads – as well as missiles to deliver them – so that even with a anti-missile system in place, enough warheads will reach their targets and cause overwhelming destruction. With its current stockpile, China probably lacks that kind of deterrence against the U.S.

But there is a more subtle kind of deterrence that I believe can tell us more about the strategic thinking of a rising power like China: The fear of a nuclear war means that conflicts of a lower order are always treated with caution and care. For instance, during the Cold War, there was constant fear that a small conflict might escalate to a higher order of conflict. This opened the way to what experts called salami tactics. Adversaries initiated small actions against each other which, in and of themselves, would not trigger a major escalatory response. But when these little steps up were added, the ultimate aim was to reach a higher goal. Nuclear parity would give China a freer hand to engage in salami tactics. We already know that the Chinese are conducting a number of activities in the South China Sea and the Pacific to expand their zone of influence and control, which the U.S. is trying to counter and which other regional countries have expressed concerns about. But if there is nuclear parity, China will be even bolder in initiating small actions which, when added together, would be aimed at altering the balance of power in the region.

Adnan R. Khan: People from our generations have lived through the Doomsday Clock ticking ever closer to global annihilation during the Cold War. We’ve also seen that clock turned back as a result of the end of the Cold War. How worried should we be about it ticking forward again?

Ilter Turan: There are two ways of looking at it. The development of more sophisticated weaponry and the increase in the amount of weaponry available obviously present a genuine threat to the existence of the world. But, because they would be so devastating, such developments are monitored closely and extra measures are put in place so those weapons are not used. Everyone becomes more sensitive about the possibility of an accident or an unintended escalation leading to nuclear Armageddon. So, while dangers increase, effective measures to reduce the dangers also increase.

Adnan R. Khan: And yet accidents do happen. At the moment, the U.S. appears to be of greater concern than China because its political climate is in such disarray. Can we trust the U.S. to act responsibly?

Ilter Turan: What you’re pointing to here is the fact that Donald Trump undermined the institutionalization of U.S. foreign policy making and implementation, and there is no guarantee that the next Trumpista , or Trump himself if he returns to power, will not further erode the safeguards that kept us out of nuclear war during the Cold War.

There is no doubt a real concern that a U.S. leader may initiate a conflict despite advice to the contrary from the broader policy community, but my concern is broader. Separate from the particular psychology of the individual who may happen to rule the U.S. and the deterioration of the institutional environment in which policy is made, I’m concerned about a historical reality: States in decline tend to engage in surprisingly irrational behaviors. What worries me is not Donald Trump or his ilk; it is the decline of American society to the point that a person like Trump can become president in the first place. This is the kind of irrationality sweeping through a country – and one that possesses nuclear weapons – that can really get the world in trouble.

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