Saturday, May 30, 2009

Nuclear Powered Disputes

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Like a slow train rumbling into a station to deliver passenger's and cargo, the arrival of new atom powered civilizations (although some are not civil) was not unexpected.

The Manhattan Project delivered our world into the era of WMD. Given the nature of humans it was simply a matter of time before our planet would be testing and targeting incredibly lethal fission and fusion warheads. What does the near future hold as unregenerate humanity continues to war against itself, internally and externally? Before you allow fear to dictate remember God is never surprised. The following excerpt from the fine folks at Stratfor is worthy of your perusal.

The North Korean Nuclear Test and Geopolitical Reality

By Nathan Hughes
courtesy of Stratfor

North Korea tested a nuclear device for the second time in two and a half years May 25. Although North Korea’s nuclear weapons program continues to be a work in progress, the event is inherently significant. North Korea has carried out the only two nuclear detonations the world has seen in the 21st century. (The most recent tests prior to that were the spate of tests by India and Pakistan in 1998.)

Details continue to emerge through the analysis of seismographic and other data, and speculation about the precise nature of the atomic device that Pyongyang may now posses carries on, making this a good moment to examine the underlying reality of nuclear weapons. Examining their history, and the lessons that can be drawn from that history, will help us understand what it will really mean if North Korea does indeed join the nuclear club.

Nuclear Weapons in the 20th Century

Even before an atomic bomb was first detonated on July 16, 1945, both the scientists and engineers of the Manhattan Project and the U.S. military struggled with the implications of the science that they pursued. But ultimately, they were driven by a profound sense of urgency to complete the program in time to affect the outcome of the war, meaning understanding the implications of the atomic bomb was largely a luxury that would have to wait. Even after World War II ended, the frantic pace of the Cold War kept pushing weapons development forward at a break-neck pace. This meant that in their early days, atomic weapons were probably more advanced than the understanding of their moral and practical utility.

But the promise of nuclear weapons was immense. If appropriate delivery systems could be designed and built, and armed with more powerful nuclear warheads, a nation could continually threaten another country’s very means of existence: its people, industry, military installations and governmental institutions. Battlefield or tactical nuclear weapons would make the massing of military formations suicidal — or so military planners once thought. What seemed clear early on was that nuclear weapons had fundamentally changed everything. War was thought to have been made obsolete, simply too dangerous and too destructive to contemplate. Some of the most brilliant minds of the Manhattan Project talked of how atomic weapons made world government necessary.

But perhaps the most surprising aspect of the advent of the nuclear age is how little actually changed. Great power competition continued apace (despite a new, bilateral dynamic). The Soviets blockaded Berlin for nearly a year starting in 1948, in defiance of what was then the world’s sole nuclear power: the United States. Likewise, the United States refused to use nuclear weapons in the Korean War (despite the pleas of Gen. Douglas MacArthur) even as Chinese divisions surged across the Yalu River, overwhelming U.S., South Korean and allied forces and driving them back south, reversing the rapid gains of late 1950.

Again and again, the situations nuclear weapons were supposed to deter occurred. The military realities they would supposedly shift simply persisted. Thus, the United States lost in Vietnam. The Syrians and the Egyptians invaded Israel in 1973 (despite knowing that the Israelis had acquired nuclear weapons by that point). The Soviet Union lost in Afghanistan. India and Pakistan went to war in 1999 — and nearly went to war twice after that. In none of these cases was it judged appropriate to risk employing nuclear weapons — nor was it clear what utility they might have.

Enduring Geopolitical Stability

Wars of immense risk are born of desperation. In World War II, both Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan took immense geostrategic gambles — and lost — but knowingly took the risk because of untenable geopolitical circumstances. By comparison, the postwar United States and Soviet Union were geopolitically secure. Washington had come into its own as a global power secured by the buffer of two oceans, while Moscow enjoyed the greatest strategic depth it had ever known.

The U.S.-Soviet competition was, of course, intense, from the nuclear arms race to the space race to countless proxy wars. Yet underlying it was a fear that the other side would engage in a war that was on its face irrational. Western Europe promised the Soviet Union immense material wealth but would likely have been impossible to subdue. (Why should a Soviet leader expect to succeed where Napoleon and Hitler had failed?) Even without nuclear weapons in the calculus, the cost to the Soviets was too great, and fears of the Soviet invasion of Europe along the North European Plain were overblown. The desperation that caused Germany to seek control over Europe twice in the first half of the 20th century simply did not characterize either the Soviet or U.S. geopolitical position even without nuclear weapons in play. It was within this context that the concept of mutually assured destruction emerged — the idea that each side would possess sufficient retaliatory capability to inflict a devastating “second strike” in the event of even a surprise nuclear attack.

Through it all, the metrics of nuclear warfare became more intricate. Throw weights and penetration rates were calculated and recalculated. Targets were assigned and reassigned. A single city would begin to have multiple target points, each with multiple strategic warheads allocated to its destruction. Theorists and strategists would talk of successful scenarios for first strikes. But only in the Cuban Missile Crisis did the two sides really threaten one another’s fundamental national interests. There were certainly other moments when the world inched toward the nuclear brink. But each time, the global system found its balance, and there was little cause or incentive for political leaders on either side of the Iron Curtain to so fundamentally alter the status quo as to risk direct military confrontation — much less nuclear war.

So through it all, the world carried on, its fundamental dynamics unchanged by the ever-present threat of nuclear war. Indeed, history has shown that once a country has acquired nuclear weapons, the weapons fail to have any real impact on the country’s regional standing or pursuit of power in the international system.

Thus, not only were nuclear weapons never used in even desperate combat situations, their acquisition failed to entail any meaningful shift in geopolitical position. Even as the United Kingdom acquired nuclear weapons in the 1950s, its colonial empire crumbled. The Soviet Union was behaving aggressively all along its periphery before it acquired nuclear weapons. And the Soviet Union had the largest nuclear arsenal in the world when it collapsed — not only despite its arsenal, but in part because the economic burden of creating and maintaining it was unsustainable. Today, nuclear-armed France and non-nuclear armed Germany vie for dominance on the Continent with no regard for France’s small nuclear arsenal.


The Middle East will likely deal with their atomic disputes soon!

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