Tag: nuclear war

Magic Lines and Escalate Ladders

A colleague asked me if there will be war between the US and North Korea.  I said maybe, which is pretty damned scary, given the likely consequences.  Why am I worried?  Basically for two reasons that intersect in bad ways, besides the Trumpiness and KJU-ness factors:

  1. the US seems awfully confident that they knew where the line is between what North Korea will perceive as an exercise and what NK will perceive as the start of an attack
  2. Escalation Ladders are finite.

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The Sino-Japanese Laser Cat War of 2012

Who will win in a world of …. LASER CATS and
hegemonic stability theory?

In an interesting thought experiment at Foreign Policy, James R. Holmes (an associate professor at the Naval War College) asks whether China could take Japan on the high seas.

In July, China’s East Sea Fleet conducted an exercise simulating an amphibious assault on the islands. China’s leaders are clearly thinking about the unthinkable. And with protesters taking to the streets to smash Japanese cars and attack sushi restaurants, their people may be behind them. So who would win the unlikely prospect of a clash of titans in the Pacific: China or Japan? 

His answer is a modified “China, maybe:” China has more hardware, but each of its ships are lower quality, while Japan has both a high-quality navy and a better training program. In part, he compares his analysis to Theodore Roosevelt’s book on the naval war of 1812, which is doubly fitting because (a) bicentennials are fun! and (b) T.R.’s involvement with U.S. naval policy explains part of why we are so engaged in East Asia even today.

It’s an interesting article, the sort of thing that I enjoy reading in Proceedings every couple of years, and it does make you remember (if you needed reminding) just how potentially kick-ass the Self-Defense Force is–and how much more powerful it could be if Japan spent, say, 2 percent of GDP per year on its non-military.

But it has all the relevance to real-world policy of the Saturday  Night Live sketch “Laser Cats.”

Why? Because somehow, in a piece ostensibly concerned with compellence, force, and the regional balance of power, Holmes forgets to mention nuclear weapons.

Based on his institutional affiliation, I’m going to guess that Holmes has as much patience for Nina Tannenwald’s nuclear taboo thesis as I do. But that makes it all the more urgent for Holmes to explain why China wouldn’t win this by merely threatening to add a third nuclear memorial to Japan’s existing sites. Frankly, if I were a Japanese version of myself, this sort of scenario would make me tear my hair out about the fact that Tokyo is still committed to not building a nuclear arsenal—a puzzle that should keep realists up at night every night—but it wouldn’t change my conclusion that there won’t be a shooting war between Japan and China over these islands. No Japanese leader is going to take the chance of seeing a single Japanese civilian die for some islands that only extreme right-wingers care about.

Holmes’s article reminds us of why it’s a good idea for IR scholars to remain engaged with policy. In his analysis, he neglects to account for how a war could break out–to take the classic Fearon model, is it that Beijing and Tokyo can’t work out a time-share over Senkaku?–or to account for how the actions of other regional players (the Koreas, Taiwan, or the United States) would affect each side’s calculation of the costs and benefits of engaging in the dumbest great-power war since Fashoda didn’t happen. Most important, although he’s probably limited by his initial pitch to the editors of FP, the question is not so much what the conflict over Senkaku means today, but what it implies for China’s rise. Will it be peaceful? Or will internal frictions drive China’s leaders to set aside their longstanding policy of settling border disputes by negotiation and instead do something rash? (As a thought experiment: Would it matter if Bo Xilai, and not Hu Jintao, were China’s president?)

The conflict over Asia’s barren rocks may be as consequential to the prospects for peace as the ongoing dispute over a handful of settlements in the deserts of Palestine. Given that Japan’s other territorial dispute, over Dokdo/Takeshima with South Korea, has helped to nearly scuttle attempts at a Korean-Japanese rapprochement, there’s something important to be said about them. But using them as a springboard to write a 2012 version of Red Storm Rising isn’t the most productive use of analytical energy.


Presidential Reading List: (After you probably get through the ones with ‘Bacevich’ on the cover)

Dan Drezner has issued a call to arms!… or to your library card:

“I therefore call upon the readers of this blog to proffer up their suggestions — if you had to pick three books for an ambitious U.S. politician to read in order to bone up on foreign affairs, what would they be?”

I have a gut feeling that all of the answers are going to be grand strategy, grand strategy and some war on terror/Afghanistan. (Although, maybe I’m not being generous enough… but looking at the comments on Drezner’s post, I don’t think so.) So I’m going to suggest three books that touch on issues presented by ethical and political leadership as well as the war on terror, with a little bit of history thrown in on the side. Oh yeah – they’re all very good reads – Senators are going to be reading these things on planes, right?

(And for comparison, with an American IPE guy, Kindred Winecoff’s take is here.)

1. Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea.

I think this book actually deserves its own post, let alone a mention here. It won (and very much deserved) the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize in 2010. Basically Demick interviews North Korean defectors who now live in South Korea about their experiences north of the 38th Parallel. But it’s not just a book about North Korea – most of the individuals in the book lived through the famine that struck the country in the 1990s. And gradually, as the story of the expats unfold, you learn what it is like to live through a famine – bonuses slowly disappear, soon the shelves aren’t stocked, and people begin to sell off their possessions to buy food on a dangerous black market. It gets worse – seeing increasing numbers of abandoned children at the train station, walking overtop of people literally starving to death – but in such a way that you’ve become numb to the suffering, so as to not be overwhelmed buy it. And eventually to see your family and friends die.

“From the outside, Chongjin looked unchanged. The same gray facades of the Stalinist office buildings stared out at empty strtches of asphalt… But Mrs. Song knew better. It was a topsy-turvy world in which she was living. Up was down, wrong was right. The women had the money instead of the men. The markets were bursting with food, more food than most North Koreans had seen in their lifetime [in the black markets], and yet people were still dying from hunger. Worker’s Party members had starved to death; those who never gave a damn about the fartherland were making money.” (p. 157)

It’s a powerful book and a brilliant insight into a country which we know little about. In short, learn about North Korea, but also what it is like to live through starvation and suffering and how people cope and survive. And I’m sure there’s a lesson in there for dealing with North Korea for the aspiring policy maker.

2. Peter Hennessy, The Secret State: Preparing for the Worst 1945-2010

This is a book by one of the UK’s foremost historians of the Cold War. Effectively, it is about how governments counter threats – whether it is through intelligence agencies or nuclear deterrence. It is on this later topic, nuclear weapons and nuclear politics where Hennessy’s book is really chilling. How would a society cope with the ultimate worst case scenario – nuclear war? How can governments plan for the unthinkable? One of the most unsettling chapters is about Exercise INVALUABLE – a simulation for UK government officials in 1968 of a weeklong countdown to WWIII. According to the exercise at 1200 hour ZULU:

“Today’s newspapers give particular prominence to Soviet advances into West Germany and of the fighting in Northern Norway and on the Jugoslav/Italian border. Radio programs were interrupted this morning to report the amphibious attack against the Danish Islands. In leading articles, the ‘Times’ and the ‘Guardian’ urge that the West should not initiate a tactical nuclear exchange.”

Beyond this, it is a useful look back at how government looked at ‘subversive’ organizations, managed intelligence and threats to the nation. It’s a useful reminder of where we’ve been with regards to national threats that provides good insight as to where we might be going.

3. Conor Folely, The Thin Blue Line: How Humanitarianism Went to War

An excellent book by a former (recovering?) humanitarian. In short. Folely looks at the real consequences of good humanitarian intentions. How, for example, the international community’s intervention in East Timor completely distorted their economy – raising prices in local communities; and how the Timorese saw little of the billions of dollars spent on the peacekeeping mission there.

“A sudden, large influx of resources will invariably distort the local economy and the arrival of an international mission will have a destabilizing effect. However well-intentioned, the intervening participants will almost always be inadequately informed regarding specific local politics and culture. Even the worst-paid international aid workers are likely to earn several times more than the average local salary. …” (p. 143) 

Or while the intervention in Kosovo helped to protect the Kosovar Albanians, it failed to preent a reverse population expulsion as the Serbs were forced to leave Kosovo. It’s a very good critique – and a useful reminder that every humanitarian action seems to have an equal and opposite reaction. Additionally, it’s a useful examination of what happens when bodies established to alleviate human suffering and put an end to war end up making a case for just that.

So there you are – three books that have done well in the UK which may have some lessons for US policy makers (and none with Bacevich on the cover!)

Cheeky honourable mention: I realize that I have no IPE on this list. Not my area – but I like the writings of Michael Lewis. I’ve just started The Big Short and I’m looking forward to Boomerang.


Con–Sonar: Crazy Ivan!

Yesterday I was running a short simulation exercise on the Cuban Missile Crisis for students in my summer program, and lo and behold, what appeared in the paper, but:

Russian bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons could be deployed to Cuba in response to U.S. plans to install a missile defense system in Eastern Europe, a Russian newspaper reported Monday, citing an unnamed senior Russian air force official.

The report in Izvestia, which could not be confirmed, prompted memories of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, when the United States and the Soviet Union came to the brink of nuclear war after Nikita Khrushchev put nuclear missiles on the Caribbean island. The weapons were eventually withdrawn in an apparent Soviet climb-down, but President John F. Kennedy also secretly agreed to remove U.S. missiles from Turkey.

Joke? One wishes:

Some Russian experts dismissed the possibility of a new Cuban crisis. “It’s very silly psychological warfare,” said Alexander Golts, an independent military analyst, in a telephone interview. “Putin and Medvedev are very militant in words but very cautious in practical issues. They have not taken any step that can be seen as a real threat to the West, and I cannot see any reason to raise this threat against the U.S.”

But “if it’s true, it looks like a repetition of the Caribbean crisis” he said, using the common Russian term for the Cuban missile crisis.

Interesting here, I think, is the return to the commonplace of the Crisis as a turning point in superpower relations. Russia, in invoking the crisis seems to be signaling that they are, shall we say, upset, with the Bush missile defense project.

Putin has in the past invoked the Cuban missile crisis to register opposition to the missile defense project, saying it could touch off brinksmanship as dangerous as in 1962.

Now, it would take a great deal to bring the world anywhere near as close as it was to nuclear Armageddon in 1962 (and, as the recent studies of the crisis show, we were a hell of a lot closer to nuclear war than most actually appreciate, and that should rightly be scary). But, I think one lesson of the crisis is worth remembering.

At the time of the crisis, the USSR had something on the order of 4 working ICBMs (the actual missile gap), and despite a substantial manpower advantage in the European theater it had a decided disadvantage strategically (in nuclear weapons) vs. the USA. The decided not to face the US from a position of weakness again, and sought strategic parity. Thus began the Soviet military build-up that would eventually bankrupt the country. However, it was successful. By the early 1970’s the US and USSR essentially reached nuclear parity (leading to ABM and SALT and the like).

Today, under the Wolfowitz defense guidance (now called the national security strategy of the USA), the US uses its position of global preeminence to achieve policy victories. However, in good realist fashion, such stark and humiliating demonstrations and assertions of power lead to balancing (no!– yes, it is true).

So, while it reeks of historical symbolism that is borderline laughable in its actual implementation given today’s Russian military, it is perhaps a signal that merits a bit more attention.

(or maybe the Russians are just bitter, who knows these days…)

PS: speaking of the Cold War— the Soviets is everywhere these days. I’m watching the Hunt for Red October on AMC as I type this. I love this movie… Also, that should explain the post title, if you’ve made it this far.)


Five Days in August

During World War II, teams of scientists raced to build the ultimate weapon: the atomic bomb. This weapon, everyone believed, was so powerful that it would force the Japanese to surrender immediately, eliminating the need for an extremely costly invasion of the Japanese main islands. They built two weapons using two different models: Little Boy, a uranium gun-style weapon, and, just in case the first one wasn’t enough, the Fat Man, a plutonium implosion weapon. When the weapons were ready, President Truman, who knew nothing about the Manhattan Project until Roosevelt’s death, struggled mightily with the moral implications of using these ultimate weapons. The atomic bomb, once dropped on Hiroshima, and then three days later, on Nagasaki, proved America’s overwhelming military superiority to the Japanese, and they promptly surrendered.

If you attended an American high school, this roughly outlines the story you learned about the end of World War II. Perhaps you had an in-class debate about the morality of dropping the bomb. You may have also learned that the decision to drop the bomb was influenced by a desire to impress Stalin, as the the wartime alliance was beginning to fray.

Michael Gordin’s Five Days in August challenges the central premise of this story: that the atomic bomb was perceived as a weapon qualitatively different from what we now call conventional weaponry. Instead, he argues, many (though not all) of the scientists and political and military decision makers understood the new nuclear weapons as simply a more powerful and efficient method of delivering destruction than conventional weaponry, and that this viewpoint was dominant. Although the atomic bomb was part of a larger plan to “shock and awe” the Japanese into surrender, it was only one component of that plan, along with the conventional firebombing of Japanese cities and the entry of the Soviet Union into the war in the Pacific. Most people involved expected the war to continue for some time longer–at the very least, into September, and they expected that they would need to continue to deliver additional atomic weapons throughout this period. The true impact of the atomic bomb, particularly its radiological effects, was unknown, even to the Manhattan Project scientists, who initially discounted reports of radiation sickness in Hiroshima and Nagasaki as Japanese propaganda. The US was surprised not only by the effects of the atomic bombs, but also by the speed of the Japanese surrender.

Gordin makes a convincing case that when World War II became the first (and hopefully last) nuclear war, the people in charge did not fully grasp that they had ushered in a new era. The idea that nuclear weapons are the “unusable weapon” was not immediately obvious, as war-planners not only used the weapons, but planned to use them repeatedly, as fast as they could produce them.

I do wish that he had spent more time on this transformation, though. The final chapter, which discusses the post-war world, doesn’t really explain how the atomic bomb changed from “really efficient deliverer of destruction” to “weapon of the apocalypse”; he notes briefly that the popular imagination was moved by the propaganda about the new weapon’s power and journalistic accounts of the destruction at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but we don’t get much insight into the transformation from either the popular perspective or the policy/military perspective. Perhaps that will be fodder for a future project.


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