The world could use some serious thinking about the relationship between political ideology and nuclear escalation—specifically far-right pathways to nuclear war.
The nuclear strategy literature is full of smart claims from many angles: entanglement risks, discrimination problems, first-use incentives, credible commitments, retaliatory v. catalytic v. asymmetric postures, the staying power of the nuclear revolution, and the escalatory potential of different kinds of nuclear crises.
A military junta, for instance, might be more likely to have a “cult of the offensive” mindset. A cash-strapped developmental autocracy may have more lax control of nukes, or be more prone to miscommunication or misperception because of broken command-and-control arrangements.
Good insights, but it’s not enough.
It’s common sense that autocracy comes in wide-ranging hues and we should be capable of separating a Singapore from a Nazi Germany. But also the democratic/authoritarian binary elides cases in which a far-right “populist” takes power via a democratic electoral system.
A Reactionary Blind Spot?
During the Trump years, many of us saw and worried aloud about the increase in nuclear escalation risks, especially during 2017 and early 2018. But even as I recognized that period of time as bringing us closer to nuclear war than any moment since the Cuban Missile Crisis, in explaining it I had focused on the idiosyncrasies of Trump the irrational man blustering into crisis-prone structures. I hadn’t thought seriously about the imagination and prejudices that colored his irrationality in the first place, or the reactionary militarist politics that can get activated within the bureaucracy because of who sits atop it.
Fast forward to 2023.
Not only have we seen the Trump years. We see an India that has become a flagrantly revisionist actor fuelled by violent, exclusionary Hindu nationalism. We see an Israel that has, in a matter of weeks, gone from an oppressive settler colonial project in the West Bank to an even more ruthless siege of Gaza in violation of international law.
The nuclear trouble here, if it is not obvious, is that if you can de-humanize one you can de-humanize all. This was always the most terrifying thing about Trump, it’s built into his politics, and you cannot really separate it from a willingness to engage in mass-casualty violence.
This has been on my mind for a while, but I was more recently triggered, in a good way, by a new book called Nuclear Flashpoint: The War over Kashmir. The author, who is not a nuclear specialist, tries to draw attention to the intersection of power politics and nuclear risk by way of Kashmir’s plight:
This wider conflict between the US and China is being played out not just in Ukraine and in the Middle East, but also in Kashmir…India is supporting the US in this wider rivalry and claiming Chinese territory. There’s some really outrageous language being used about fighting China and Pakistan at the same time…talking recklessly about a war between three nuclear powers! This tripartite nuclear entanglement is so dangerous.
The research space that book has just barely entered is one that deserves more attention.
Rather than thinking about nuclear risk in the context of democracy versus autocracy, what about regimes engaged in settler colonial projects or genocide? What about regimes that see some version of permanent war as necessary, or even good? What about regimes whose leaders engage in pogroms or embrace other modes of violent ethnonationalism?
Imagining New Hypotheses
When we see nuclear powers willing to engage in such humanity-erasing practices, should we judge nuclear risks only on the basis of the nuclear balance, ideal-type nuclear posture, or whether a state’s arsenal is survivable?
Maybe, for instance, our concern with Chinese nukes should transcend the relative or absolute lethality and consider the fact that China under Xi Jinping is fuelled by an ethnonationalism at home that spills over into jingoistic rhetoric and posturing abroad. Maybe.
What I’m getting at is this: The way we think about nuclear deterrence has an ideological blind spot when it comes to extremist politics like fascism (or whatever synonym you prefer) just as it does when it comes to patriarchy (which, not incidentally, forms part of the content of extreme reactionary movements of various types).
Ethnonationalism for sure colors risk propensity. But it would also seem that, in the modern world, white supremacists are not good geopoliticians. How could they be if they have a deranged mental map for how the world works? And the dehumanization of a population is at least a favorable condition (if not a prerequisite) for wielding nuclear death over them.
To take an illustrative example, prior to 1962, the US conducted 105 nuclear tests that poisoned water, destroyed territory, contaminated population centers, and spread cancer across large swathes of the Pacific. And it continued missile testing in these areas right up until the end of the Cold War. To this day, the US government has failed to remediate and repair the damage even as it tries to court Pacific governments in its struggle against China.
The violence done against the Pacific by US nuclear testing was predicated on either seeing the Pacific and its peoples as less than or not seeing them at all—it was just a space for colonial projection, which allowed it to serve dubious strategic purposes.
Following this reasoning, I can imagine reactionary regimes (including, under certain alt futures, the United States) as more likely than others to wantonly violate nuclear-free zone treaties. We’ve seen that North Korea—which is far closer to fascism than communism—routinely depicts its enemies in debasing terms, which is an enabling condition for its nuclear strategy. And the “reactionary international,” sometimes called the fascist international or nationalist international, is a conceivable pathway for horizontal proliferation.
I don’t propose to have all the answers. My point is just that the nuclear community—which is not and should not be monolithic—is mostly in the business of thinking about futures that haven’t happened. The community’s value is as an anticipatory industry.
So maybe we should anticipate how and why extreme right-wing violence and governance (I repeat myself) could spill over into strategic considerations in ways that we’ve never bothered to imagine.
This is cross-posted at the Un-Diplomatic newsletter.