Why We Won’t Be Able to “Sober Up the West” with a Nuclear Bomb

1 year ago 82

Sergei Karaganov’s article Difficult but Necessary Decision has elicited a stormy reaction, which was probably his intention. Public debates on the admissibility of nuclear weapons use have been tabooed, in fact, since the well-known aftermath of their only use by the United States against Japan.

Relations between the nuclear superpowers in the last century were built on the presumption that any such use would lead to an all-out nuclear war and the destruction of civilization. Confidence in the inevitability of such a scenario and the fear of its implementation made the nuclear bomb not a battlefield weapon, but a deterrent for both the adversary and the hotheads at home. And so when someone decides to raise the question of reinstating the status of nuclear weapons as conventional ones, albeit incredibly powerful, this causes shock and indignation.

Your humble servant is not a specialist in nuclear weapons or deterrence and does not claim to be one. But the issue raised by my senior colleague affects everyone, so I will take a risk of expatiating on this topic from the perspective of an informed layman.

Deterrence as a Product of Its Time

Everyone is free to assess Sergei Karaganov’s arguments as he sees fit, all the more so since they range from practical to religious ones. But one thing is undeniable―today the risk of nuclear war is higher than it has ever been since the early 1960s. There are several reasons for this: greater aggressiveness in world politics, strategic carelessness as a result of thirty years of peace under American hegemony, and disbelief that a full-scale nuclear war can really happen, that is, the loss of existential fear. The latter is a starting point: only the revival of the real fear of a nuclear apocalypse can sober up Western elites, who are ready to force their supremacy upon the rest of the world, no matter what. The goal stated in the article is to “break the will” of the collective West by forcing it to give up its pursuit of superiority. Delivering a nuclear strike on a “bunch of targets in a number of countries” would be a last resort.

Let’s leave aside the moral and ethical aspect, which is quite clear as the author himself admits that the proposed action is appalling. Instead we will focus on the conceptual aspect in order to try to find out whether it could be effective as a “sobering-up” tool.

Nuclear deterrence and the principle of mutual assured destruction (MAD) are products of political and technological development in the second half of the 20th century, the post-World War II era. This was a unique period of relatively orderly international relations based on a system of institutions―organizations and norms of varying degrees of formalization. This orderliness made it possible to regulate interaction between the main players, primarily the two superpowers.

The approximate military-political, economic, and ideological balance was cemented by the nuclear factor: at first by the creation of nuclear weapons in the Soviet Union, and then by the Soviet-American parity. But the degree of orderliness should not be exaggerated, even though there was more of it than ever before, and probably will be ever after.

Crisis of the Previous Order

The end of the Cold War signified the disappearance of the balance in most respects, but the institutional framework remained intact. It was assumed that there was no need to rearrange it because, in the absence of confrontation, institutions would finally start working as they should. The nuclear factor also remained unchanged and the MAD principle was still in effect even when Russia was at its weakest in the first several years after the collapse of the USSR.

In practice, the efficiency of the institutions created and working quite effectively in the last century began to decline rapidly as their mechanism was designed for a different alignment of forces and interests. Theoretically, countries should have discussed another infrastructure of international organizations and agreed on their setup. But the victorious West did not consider it necessary. After all, the very system of institutions, starting with the UN, initially embodied American ideas. The Soviet Union agreed to them after World War II as it had no doubt that it would play a leading role in any construct.

In other words, the stability of the world order in the second half of the last century was determined by the Western design and by the balance of power within it that was ensured by the USSR.

With the balance gone, the entire structure staggered and began to crumble, causing the dysfunction of institutions, from the United Nations to many sectoral and regional organizations, including those that were purely Western, such as the WTO, which emerged out of the GATT. They are unable to cope with the heterogeneity of the world. As a result, other types of associations are beginning to develop; they are less formalized, have fewer participants, and are designed for a more flexible approach. There will be no fixed world order in the foreseeable future―a multi-level international disarray cannot be regulated unless the picture is qualitatively simplified. But this is not going to happen, unless we consider catastrophic scenarios.

Deterrence as an Institution

Nuclear deterrence is one of the fundamental institutions of the second half of the last century. It did not take shape immediately, and America and the USSR tested possible limits by provoking aggravations in the first fifteen years after the creation of nuclear weapons. During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the leaders of the two nuclear superpowers looked into the face of that fear and agreed on the inadmissibility of direct conflict once and for all.

Nuclear weapons are indeed capable of destroying humanity, and the institution of deterrence was considered almost inviolable. One can play different games, but the existence of the planet must not be risked. No one will dare. Sergei Karaganov wrote several years ago: the depth and the scale of international contradictions are such that they would have led to world war in previous times; it is the nuclear weapons that prevent it. Now he comes to a different conclusion: the United States is not afraid of starting a full-scale war against a nuclear superpower, albeit by proxy. A world war is one step away; it will be global and thermonuclear, and probably the only way to avoid it is to preemptively start a nuclear but local war.

It would be reasonable to ask a question here: Why won’t a nuclear attack against another nuclear-armed state/bloc lead to a rapid escalation to a global and thermonuclear war, that is, to an exchange of strikes between Russia and the United States? As deterrence theorists have noted, the entire system of relations in the nuclear sphere is built not on strategy and technology, but primarily on psychology. And this psychological game should discourage the opponent from even thinking about launching a possible nuclear attack.

The use of nuclear weapons would mean the end of the game and, in fact, would negate their special role, simply turning them into a very powerful means of destruction. Competing in the means of destruction is a “normal” war, but of a Cyclopean scale in this case. There may not be mutual assured destruction, but the overall damage will be such that the participating countries and the world as a whole will radically change in a terrifying way.

Can We Go Back to the Origins?

Sergei Karaganov emphasizes that nuclear strikes are an extreme measure, and thinks that the movement up the “escalation ladder” will make the opposite side realize the threat and start discussing the essence, that is, how to start breaking the gridlock and resolve contradictions. In other words, he considers it possible to go back to the original institutional purpose of nuclear weapons, which is to generate absolute fear that restricts the behavior of participants.

But, as we have said above, it used to be part of a common system that ensured the balanced management of international processes. Yes, we can say that the existence of that system was largely determined by the presence of nuclear weapons, but this was not the only such factor. So when other structural elements began to fall off after the Cold War, it turned out that nuclear deterrence as such was not enough to ensure the previous behavioral restrictions.

It is assumed that the system of mutually acceptable rules can be recreated with the help of fear and the escalation of the ultimate threat. This logic was applied in December 2021 at a lower level, when Russia came up with an ultimatum demanding long-term security guarantees and threatening to take “military-technical measures” in case of refusal. The nature of those measures became obvious after the start of a special military operation in Ukraine and shocked the Western elites, who had earlier ignored the ultimatum. However, this did not make them start a discussion with Russia about its concerns, and the effect turned out to be the opposite.

One can argue that this comparison is incorrect because the special military operation does not pose a direct threat to the United States and its NATO allies, but nuclear escalation does. This is exactly where the Western elites, whose irresponsibility is deplored by Sergei Karaganov, come into play. No matter what one may think of them, but so far they have proved quite effective in managing public opinion and garnering support for their policies, even though they objectively harm the welfare and security of their own citizens.

So it turns out that the plan is to constantly raise the threat level in order to reinstate the status nuclear deterrence had in the second half of the 20th century; and recreate the kind of elites that were in power at that time. It sounds truly romantic and nostalgic. It is not clear where such people would come from today. Suffice it to look at the alternative forces in leading Western countries. Moreover, other considerations put aside, the legitimization of the use of nuclear weapons outside the exact situation described in the doctrinal documents (threat to the existence of the state) appears to be an impossible task.

Will We Strike All the Same?

Shortly after the Americans detonated an atomic bomb in 1945, George Orwell wrote a short essay called You and the Atomic Bomb. He had no doubt that other countries (at least Russia and China) would create the nuclear bomb too, and if it remained not only super-destructive, but also hard-to-get and very expensive, it could be useful: “It is likelier to put an end to large-scale wars at the cost of prolonging indefinitely a ‘peace that is no peace’.” In other words, Orwell understood from the very beginning that the importance of this invention is not in using it but in possessing it. According to Orwell, turning it into another “ordinary weapon” would plunge the world back into barbarism and put an end to the nation state as a form of organization.

Nuclear weapons are becoming more and more accessible both technologically and financially. Are Russian minds the only ones who are thinking about the likelihood of using them as a way out of a difficult military-strategic situation? Certainly not. Such musings are gradually filling the global public space. This only confirms the idea stated above: the institution of deterrence, just like other institutions of the last century, is in crisis. A sharp intensification of the discussion will not help strengthen this institution, but will bring it to its final collapse, and the use of nuclear weapons will not make one come to his senses, but will formally remove a common taboo, with barely predictable consequences. Further actions will not be dictated by considerations of one sort or another, but by the reaction to each next step of the other side. Playing a nuclear staring game is a gamble. But if things go wrong, net damage will by far exceed any hypothetical gains for everyone.

The taboo on the use of nuclear weapons is undoubtedly losing its grip. We must get prepared for every contingency. It would be rational not to scrap the taboo completely, preventively, but to try to preserve it as at least some kind of restraint. This does not mean that the topic itself cannot be touched, just the opposite. Sanctimoniously shying away from the very thought of nuclear weapons use would be tantamount to playing ostrich. In this sense, we must thank Sergei Karaganov for stating his positon so straightforwardly. Discussing it should be part of the efforts to work out a new understanding of strategic stability in place of the one that cannot be restored any more.

The article was originally published in Russian in Profile Journal
Read Entire Article