New weapons and our failure to understand our enemies are raising the chances of a horrific conflict says Allister Heath.
We have been remarkably lucky so far. Human beings invented nuclear weapons 77 years ago, but haven’t used them to slaughter each other since Nagasaki. We created long-range rockets, as Vladimir Putin reminded us again last week when he unveiled his Satan II Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missiles, but have avoided using them to annihilate our rivals’ cities. We are playing with genetic engineering, space travel, AI, and even enhancing the virulence of some pathogens, but have yet to deliberately use any of these technologies for mass warfare.
With good fortune comes hubris and complacency: the chances of another major global conflict – and, at worst, another world war – are much higher than we realise, and are continuing to increase. Nobody knows the exact probability, but even a 10 per cent chance of a global catastrophe this century would be terrifying, and ought to justify an urgent, renewed focus in every Western country on making sure Armageddon can be avoided through robust deterrence, new alliances, vast investments in defensive weaponry and urgent diplomatic engagement.
Why such pessimism? It is in part a numbers game. The spread of advanced technologies, including the idiotic blunder that was nuclear proliferation, implies that more countries have the ability to inflict immense harm; and geopolitics is becoming ever-more complex with the end of American hegemony, increasing the chance of a fatal misunderstanding or that a local conflict in Africa, Latin America or Asia spirals out of control. Why on earth can’t the Biden administration see that allowing Iran to go nuclear will almost guarantee at least a regional war?
The Cold War was a simple conflict, and yet we only survived it by luck. The Kennedys didn’t save the world during the Cuban missile crisis. The real hero was Vasili Arkhipov, second-in-command of a Russian submarine, who, in October 1962, defied the order from his captain, confused by an absence of contact with Moscow, to launch a nuclear torpedo on America. In 1983, Stanislav Petrov, another Russian officer, disregarded an early warning system that indicated the US had just launched a nuclear attack on the USSR.
There were other such near-misses, including when the Russians confused Able Archer, a Nato exercise, with a genuine plan, as dramatised in the Deutschland 83 TV series. In today’s far more complex world, and with paranoid tinpot dictatorships such as North Korea now able to inflict immense carnage, it will be even easier for countries to blunder into total war.
The fact that Russia has performed so poorly on the Ukrainian battlefield is good news, but should not lull us into a false sense of security. With the exception of Germany, the West has performed well, backing Ukraine in a forceful yet judicious manner, but other nations such as India, Pakistan and China have snubbed these efforts. Plenty of emerging powers would like to retain the option to invade one of their neighbours – Taiwan being the obvious flashpoint – and are no longer prepared to defer to the West. The post-1945 consensus has withered, as have most of the institutions that allowed rival states to semi-manage their disputes, not least the decrepit UN. Imperialism is back, as is the civilisation state. India and Pakistan are armed to the teeth and at odds on much.
The world is becoming more, rather than less, dangerous: there are plenty of other wannabe Putins, and they are better equipped to sow death and destruction. Bioterrorism is a growing worry: why are “gain of function” studies still tolerated? A major cyber-attack or assault on transatlantic cables could be so devastating to an internet-based economy as to be seen as a declaration of war.
During the Cold War, the US believed it had successfully deterred the Soviet use of nuclear weaponry thanks to its Mutually Assured Destruction doctrine, but historians who have read declassified Moscow documents realise that this was delusional. The USSR was planning to use nukes tactically early on in any conflict with Nato. Does such thinking persist in Moscow today, or in any other nuclear power? How would we respond to an “accidental” conventional bombardment of a target in Poland? Or the tactical use of nuclear weapons by Russia in Ukraine?
Our pseudo-rational West continues to misunderstand how despotic leaders calculate what is in their best interests, why high-stakes gambles might make sense to them and how the West itself is being misread by others. We are too influenced by low-grade game theory, and keep dismissing the possibility of another world war as “unthinkable”.
The classic example, as recounted by Keith Payne in his seminal The Fallacies of Cold War Deterrence and a New Direction, is when Dean Acheson told Roosevelt in August 1941, four months prior to Pearl Harbor, that “no rational Japanese could believe an attack on us could result in anything but disaster for his country”. Acheson was right that it would end terribly for Tokyo, but he miscalculated fatally by not realising that the Japanese establishment had convinced itself that it was actually “doomed” if it didn’t attack. It believed it had no choice – Putin, head of an evil, declining gangster state, may have had similar thoughts.
For all our modern communications, human beings still haven’t learnt to understand one another. We remain unable to get into the heads of our foes, to truly comprehend their thinking, their fears (however wrongheaded), their assumptions and their values (however disgusting). We are too abstract, insufficiently focused on personalities, and too morally arrogant, assuming Russia or China perfectly understand our politics, our knowledge, our values and our reaction functions.
We don’t grasp reasoning or impulses that are outside of our box, our ethical system. We thus keep failing to predict how rogue countries will behave. We don’t understand their perceived trade-offs. The problem, as Payne argues, is that we confuse rationality with reasonableness or with what we deem to be sensible.
A fundamental disconnect is staring us in the face: science and technology keep on improving, making war ever-more dangerous, destructive and easy, but the West’s statecraft has atrophied, together with our political institutions, our understanding of history, our diplomacy and our ability to think clearly about risk. Unless Britain, America and others dramatically up their game, the outlook for world peace is looking ever grimmer.
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