Continuing our focus on the Russian-Ukrainian crisis, Selwyn Manning and I used this week’s “A View from Afar” podcast to examine the state of play on the battlefield and with regard to the sanctions regime being built against Russia. There is cause for both alarm and optimism.
In this week’s “A View from Afar” podcast Selwyn Manning and I continue our discussion about the Russian-Ukraine crisis even as Russian troops began their invasion into the latter country. Of necessity it had to be speculative about events on the ground, but it also widens out the the discussion to consider the short-term implications of the conflict. You can find the podcast here.
In this podcast Selwyn Manning and I look into the tensions surrounding the threatened Russian invasion of the Ukraine and the geopolitical backdrop, diplomatic standoff and practicalities involved should an invasion occur. In summary, Russia wants to “Findlandize” more than the just the Ukraine and, if it cannot do so by threatening war, then it can certainly do so by waging a limited war of territorial conquest in parts of the country where ethnic Russians dominate the local demographic (the Donbass region, especially around Donetsk and Luhansk). It does not have to try and seize, hold, then occupy the entire country in order to get its point across to NATO about geopolitical buffer zones on its Western borders. In fact, to do so would be counter-productive and costly for the Kremlin even if no military power overtly intervenes on Ukraine’s behalf.
You can find the podcast here.
Early this year I was asked by a media outlet to appear and offer predictions on what will happen in world affairs in 2022. That was a nice gesture but I wound up not doing the show. However, as readers may remember from previous commentary about the time and effort put into (most often unpaid) media preparation, I engaged in some focused reading on international relations and comparative foreign policy before I decided to pull the plug on the interview. Rather than let that research go to waste I figured that I would briefly outline my thoughts about that may happen this year. They are not so much predictions as they are informal futures forecasting over the near term horizon.
The year is going to see an intensification of the competition over the nature of the framework governing International relations. If not dead, the liberal institutional order that dominated global affairs for the better part of the post-Cold War period is under severe stress. New and resurgent great powers like the PRC and Russia are asserting their anti-liberal preferences and authoritarian middle powers such as Turkey, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Iran are defying long-held conventions and norms in order to assert their interests on the regional and world stages. The liberal democratic world, in whose image the liberal international order was ostensibly made, is in decline and disarray. In this the US leads by example, polarized and fractured at home and a weakened, retreating, shrinking presence on the world stage. It is not alone, as European democracies all have versions of this malaise, but it is a shining example of what happens when a superpower over-extends itself abroad while treating domestic politics as a centrifugal zero sum game.
While democracies have weakened from within, modern authoritarians have adapted to the advanced telecommunications and social media age and modified their style of rule (such as holding legitimating elections that are neither fair or free and re-writing constitutions that perpetuate their political control) while keeping the repressive essence of it. They challenge or manipulate the rule of law and muscle their way into consolidating power and influence at home and abroad. In a number of countries democratically elected leaders have turned increasingly authoritarian. Viktor Orban In Hungary, Recep Erdogan in Turkey, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, and Narendra Modi in India (whose Hindutva vision of India as an ethno-State poses serious risks for ethnic and religious minorities), all evidence the pathology of authoritarianism “from within.”
Abroad, authoritarians are on the move. China continues its aggressive maritime expansion in the East and South China Seas and into the Pacific while pushing its land borders outwards, including annexing territory in the Kingdom of Bhutan and clashing with Indian troops for territorial control on the Indian side of their Himalayan border. Along with military interventions in Syria, Libya and recently Kazakstan, Russia has annexed parts of Georgia and the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, taken control of Crimea, and is now massing troops on the Ukrainian border while it demands concessions from NATO with regard to what the Russians consider to be unacceptable military activity in the post-Soviet buffer zone on its Western flank. The short term objective of the latest move is to promote fractures within NATO over its collective response, including the separation of US security interests from those of its continental partners. The long term intention is to “Findlandize” countries like Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania so that they remain neutral, or at least neutralized, in the event of major conflict between Russia and Western Europe. As Churchill is quoted as saying, but now applied to Vladimir Putin, “he may not want war. He just wants the fruits of war.”
>>Aside about Russia’s threat to the Ukraine: The Russians are now in full threat mode but not in immediate invasion mode. To do that they need to position water and fuel tankers up front among the armoured columns that will be needed to overcome Ukrainian defences, and the 150,000 Russian troops massed on the eastern Ukrainian border are not sufficient to occupy the entire country for any length of time given Ukrainian resistance capabilities, including fighting a protracted guerrilla war on home soil (at least outside Russian ethnic dominant areas in eastern Ukraine). The Russians know that they are being watched, and satellite imagery shows no forward positioning of the logistical assets needs to seize and hold Ukrainian territory for any length of time. Paratroops and light infantry cannot do that, and while the Russians can rapidly deploy support for the heavier forces that can seize and hold hostile territory, this Russian threat appears to be directed, at best, at a limited incursion into Russian-friendly (read ethnic) parts of eastern Ukraine. That gives the Ukrainians and their international supporters room for negotiation and military response, both of which may be essential to deter Russian ambitions vis a vis the fundamental structure and logic of European security.<<
Rather than detail all the ways in which authoritarians are ascendent and democrats descendent in world affairs, let us look at the systemic dynamics at play. What is occurring is a shift in the global balance of power. That balance is more than the rise and decline of great powers and the constellations aggregated around them. It is more than about uni-, bi-, and multipolarity. It refers to the institutional frameworks, norms, practices and laws that govern the contest of States and other international actors. That arrangement—the liberal international order–is what is now under siege. The redrawing of lines now underway is not one of maps but of mores.
The liberal international order was essentially a post-colonial creation made by and for Western imperialist states after the war- and Depression-marked interregnum of the early 20th century. It did not take full hold until the collapse of the Soviet Union, as Cold War logics led to a tight bipolar international system in which the supposed advantages of free trade and liberal democracy were subordinated to the military deterrence imperatives of the times. This led to misadventures and aberrations like the domino theory and support for rightwing dictators on the part of Western Powers and the crushing of domestic political uprisings by the Soviets in Eastern Europe, none of which were remotely “liberal” in origin or intent.
After the Cold War liberal internationalists rose to positions of prominence in many national capitals and international organizations. Bound together by elite schooling and shared perspectives gained thereof, these foreign policy-makers saw in the combination of democracy and markets the best possible political-economic combine. They consequently framed much of their decision-making around promoting the twin pillars of liberal internationalism in the form of political democratization at the national level and trade opening on a global scale via the erection of a latticework of bi- and multilateral “free” trade agreements (complete with reductions in tariffs and taxes on goods and services but mostly focused on investor guarantee clauses) around the world.
The belief in liberal internationalism was such that it was widely assumed that inviting the PRC, Russia and other authoritarian regimes into the community of nations via trade linkages would lead to their eventual democratization once domestic polities began to experience the material advantages of free market capitalism on their soil. This was the same erroneous assumption made by Western modernization theorists in the 1950s, who saw the rising middle classes as “carriers” of democratic values even in countries with no historical or cultural experience with that political regime type or the egalitarian principles underbidding it. Apparently unwilling to read the literature on why modernization theory did not work in practice, in the 1990s neo-modernization theorists re-invented the wheel under the guise of the Washington Consensus and other such pro-market institutional arrangements regulating international commerce.
Like the military-bureaucratic authoritarians of the 1960s and 1970s who embraced and benefited from the application of modernization theory to their local circumstances (including sub-sets such as the Chicago School of macroeconomics that posited that finance capital should be the leader of national investment decisions in an economic environment being restructured via the privatization of public assets), in the 1990s the PRC and Russia welcomed Western investment and expansion of trade without engaging in the parallel path of liberalizing, then democratizing their internal politics. In fact, the opposite has occurred: as both countries became more capitalistic they became increasingly authoritarian even if they differ in their specifics (Russia is a oligopolistic kleptocracy whereas the PRC is a one party authoritarian, state capitalist system). Similarly, Turkey has enjoyed the fruits of capitalism while dismantling the post-Kemalist legacy of democratic secularism, and the Sunni Arab petroleum oligarchies have modernized out of pre-capitalist fossil fuel extraction enclaves into diversified service hubs without significantly liberalizing their forms of rule. A number of countries such as Brazil, South Africa and the Philippines have backslid at a political level when compared to the 1990s while deepening their ties to international capital. Likewise, after a period of optimism bracketed by events like the the move to majority rule in South Africa and the “Arab Spring,” both Saharan and Sub-Saharan Africa have in large measure reverted to the rule of strongmen and despots.
As it turns out, as the critics of modernisation theory noted long ago, capitalism has no elective affinity for democracy as a political form (based on historical experience one might argue to the contrary) and democracy is no guarantee that capitalism will moderate its profit orientation in the interest of the common good.
Countries like the PRC, Russia, Turkey and the Arab oligarchies engage in the suppression and even murder of dissidents at home and abroad, flouting international conventions when doing so. But that is a consequence, not a cause of the erosion of the liberal international order. The problem lies in that whatever the lip service paid to it, from a post-colonial perspective liberal internationalism was an elite concept with little trickle down practical effect. With global income inequalities increasing within and between States and the many flaws of the contemporary international trade regime exposed by the structural dislocations caused by Covid, the (neo-)Ricardian notions of comparative and competitive advantage have declined in popularity, replaced by more protectionist or self-sufficient economic doctrines.
Couple this with disenchantment with democracy as an equitable deliverer of social opportunity, justice and freedom in both advanced and newer democratic states, and what has emerged throughout the liberal democratic world is variants of national-populism that stress economic nationalism, ethnocentric homogeneity and traditional cultural values as the main organizing principles of society. The Trumpian slogan “America First” encapsulates the perspective well, but support for Brexit in the UK and the rising popularity of rightwing nationalist parties throughout Europe, some parts of Latin America and even Japan and South Korea indicates that all is not well in the liberal world (Australia and New Zealand remain as exceptions to the general rule).
That is where the redrawing comes in. Led by Russia and the PRC, an authoritarian coalition is slowly coalescing around the belief that the liberal international order is a post-colonial relic that was never intended to benefit the developing world but instead to lock in place an international institutional edifice that benefitted the former colonial/imperialist powers at the expense of the people that they directly subjugated up until 30-40 years ago. What the PRC and Russia propose is a redrawing of the framework in which international relations and foreign affairs is conducted, leading to one that is more bound by realist principles rooted in power and interest rather than hypocritically idealist notions about the perfectibility of humankind. It is the raw understanding of the anarchic nature of the international system that gives the alternative perspective credence in the eyes of the global South.
Phrased differently, there is truth to the claims that the liberal international order was a post-colonial invention that disproportionally benefitted Western powers. Because the PRC and USSR were major supporters of national liberation and revolutionary movements throughout the so-called “Third World” ranging from the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, Central and SE Asia to Central and South America, they have the anti-Western credentials to promote a plausible alternative cloaked not in the mantle of purported multilateral ideals but grounded in self-interested transactions mediated by power relationships. China’s Belt and Road initiative is one example in the economic sphere, and Russian military support for authoritarians in Syria, Iran, Cuba and Venezuela shows that even in times of change it remains steadfast in its pragmatic commitment to its international partners.
With this in mind I believe that 2022 will be a year where the transition from the liberal international order to something else will begin to pick up speed and as a result lead to various types of conflict between the old and new guards. What with hybrid or grey area conflict, disinformation campaigns, electoral meddling and cyberwarfare all now part of the psychological operations mix along with conventional air, land, sea and space-based kinetic military operations involving multi-domain command, control, communications, computing, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and robotics (C4ISR2) systems, the ways in which conflict can be engaged covertly or overtly have multiplied. That technological fact means that it is easier for international actors, or at least some of them, to act as disruptors of the global status quo by using conflict as a systemic re-alignment vehicle.
Absent a hegemonic power or Leviathan, a power vacuum has opened in which the world is open to the machinations of (dare I say it?) “charismatic men of destiny.” Putin, Xi Jingpin and other authoritarians see themselves as such men. Conflict will be the tool with which they attempt to impose their will on international society.
For them, the time is now. With the US divided, weakened and isolated after the Trump presidency and unable to recover quickly because of Covid, supply chain blockages, partisan gridlock and military exhaustion, with Europe also rendered by unprecedented divisions and most of the rest of the world adopting“wait and see” or hedging strategies, the strategic moment is opportune for Russia, China and lesser authoritarian powers to make decisive moves to alter the international status quo and present the liberal democratic world with a fait accompli that is more amenable to their geopolitical interests.
If what I propose is correct, the emerging world system dominated by authoritarian States led by the PRC and Russia will be less regulated (in the sense that power politics will replace norms, rules and laws as the basic framework governing inter-state relations), more fragmented (in that the thrust of foreign policies will be come more bilateral or unilateral rather than multilateral in nature), more coercive and dissuasive in its diplomatic exchanges and increasingly driven by basic calculations about power asymmetries (think “might makes right” and “possession is two thirds of the law”). International organisations and multilateral institutions will continue to exist as covers for State collusion on specific issues or as lip service purveyors of diplomatic platitudes, but in practice will be increasingly neutralised as deliberative, arbitrating-mediating and/or conflict-resolution bodies. Even if not a full descent into international anarchy, there will be a return to a Hobbesian state of nature.
2022 could well be the year that this begins to happen.
Update: For an audio short take on what 20022 may bring, please feel free to listen to the first episode of season three of “A View from Afar,” a podcast that offers a South Pacific perspective on geopolitical and strategic affairs co-hosted by Selwyn Manning and me.
Many years ago when I was in mid academic career, two theoretical strands emerged in the field of international relations and comparative foreign policy. One was the basis for a school of thought that came to be known as feminist international relations theory, which to crudely oversimplify one sub-strand, posited that women have different and less conflictual approaches to politics and therefore, among other things, a world that had more female leaders would likely be a more peaceful one. The second came out of the the democratization literature and, again crudely oversimplified, posited that democracies were less prone to engage in war and therefore a world with more democracies would be a more peaceful one. Although neither strand specifically addressed the possibility, one can infer that if these notions are true a world of women-led democracies would be a Garden of Eden when compared to its present state.
The two strands have existed in parallel since the early 1990s and continue to be much debated, refined, debunked, reformulated and extended. Arguments over the merits of each continue to this day even though I personally have not contributed to them like I once did (and to be honest I only contributed in an insignificant way to what is known as the democratic peace thesis debate and not the feminist IR debate, which is a minefield for male scholars).
Recently a good friend whose views I hold in high regard sent me an article titled ” The Gender Gap Is Taking Us to Unexpected Places” by Thomas B. Edsall of the New York Times (January 12, 2022). Mr. Edsall is an astute reader of politics and his column is well worth following. His article covers a lot of ground and is worth reading in its entirety but what struck me was this discussion of women’s impact on politics. I have quoted the relevant passage.
“Take the argument made in the 2018 paper “The Suffragist Peace” by Joslyn N. Barnhart of the University of California-Santa Barbara, Allan Dafoe at the Center for the Governance of AI, Elizabeth N. Saunders of Georgetown and Robert F. Trager of U.C.L.A.:
Preferences for conflict and cooperation are systematically different for men and women. At each stage of the escalatory ladder, women prefer more peaceful options. They are less apt to approve of the use of force and the striking of hard bargains internationally, and more apt to approve of substantial concessions to preserve peace. They impose higher audience costs because they are more approving of leaders who simply remain out of conflicts, but they are also more willing to see their leaders back down than engage in wars.
The increasing incorporation of women into “political decision-making over the last century,” Barnhart and her co-authors write, raises “the question of whether these changes have had effects on the conflict behavior of nations.”
Their answer: “We find that the evidence is consistent with the view that the increasing enfranchisement of women, not merely the rise of democracy itself, is the cause of the democratic peace.” Put another way, “the divergent preferences of the sexes translate into a pacifying effect when women’s influence on national politics grows” and “suffrage plays a direct and important role in generating more peaceful interstate relations by altering the political calculus of democratic leaders.”
That is a pretty strong claim with important implications for the recruitment of women into political management roles. My friend and I corresponded about the article and I thought that it would provide some food for thought for KP readers if I copied and reprinted some of my commentary to her. It is by no means a scholarly treatise or deeply grounded in the literatures pertinent to the subject, but it addresses the issue of whether women’s participation in politics leads to more peaceful/less conflictual political outcomes. Here is what I had to say (in quotes).
“Interesting thesis (that the enfranchisement of women, not democracy per se, contributes to the democratic peace thesis). Of course there has long been a view that if we only had more women in politics there would be less conflict. Tell that to Maggie Thatcher!
In the late 1980s I supervised student research that analyzed the impact of women in revolutionary movements on post-revolutionary social policy agendas. The cases studied were Cuba, Nicaragua, Colombia and El Salvador (two successful revolutions, two peace process-incorporated revolutionary movements so as to allow for proper comparative analysis using a most-similar/most different paired case study design). The results found that the more women participated in combat roles during the revolutionary wars, the more likely that they would be included in post-revolutionary policy decision-making, especially in traditionally female policy areas like family planning, health, education etc. Abortion rights were tied to that as well.
In places where women served as camp followers, concubines, cooks and in other non-combat roles tied to the revolutionary armies, they were excluded from post-revolutionary social policy making, even in traditionally female policy areas. The conclusion my student drew was that men respected women who fought alongside them and took the risks inherent in doing so. In my own experience and study, I have also found that under fire women were/are no more or less cowardly than men, by and large, especially when they received the same guerrilla training, so I accept this view. My student’s research also showed that the reverse was true: men did not respect as equals women who fulfilled “traditional” non-combat roles.
This translated into very different attitudes towards incorporating women into the leadership cadres once the revolution was over (be they as part of a victorious coalition or when incorporated into post-settlement political parties and governments). That was especially the case for women who showed combat leadership skills under fire, in many cases due to the fact that so many male field-level guerrilla leaders were killed that women were forced step into the breach (sometimes from non-combat roles) in order to sustain the fight.
So basically, if women behaved “like men” in combat, they were accorded respect and inclusion in post-revolutionary policy making, at least in traditionally female policy areas. Or as I used to joke, can you imagine the reaction of these Sandinista sisters coming home from a hard day arguing with their male revolutionary leaders about neonatal and early childhood health care, abortion rights and domestic violence mitigation, only to have their oaf male partners shout out from the sofa that she/they should get him another cerveza? Let’s just say that there would be no “yes, dear” in their responses.
That was an interesting but incomplete conclusion. I am among other things a student of the path-dependency institutionalist school of comparative politics. That is, current institutions are the product of previous choices about those institutions, which in turn set the boundaries for future choices about those institutions. Once a choice is made about the purpose and shape of an agency or institution, it leads down a path of subsequent “bounded” choices–that is, choices made within the framework or confines established by the original choice. I often use Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” or the phrase “a path less chosen” to illustrate the concept. You come to a fork on the trail, and your (hiking) destiny is determined by which route you take. There might be a hungry grizzly on one, and a pristine mountain lake bordering on a serene meadow on the other, but you do not know that at the time you make your decision OR, you know what is ahead and steer accordingly with purposeful intent.
Political institutions are by and large created by and for men. They are masculine in that sense–they arise from the minds of men about how politics should be codified and operationalised. The original choices on institutional configuration and mores were made by and for men, as have most of what followed regardless of regime type. The comment in Edsell’s article about academia being a male domain (up until recently) that channels male competitive urges about status etc. into scholarship is true for political institutions as well (and business, needless to say). Now here is where things get tricky.
For women to do well in these male domains, they must initially “outboy the boys.” Early feminists confronted this in spades, and when they did play hard just like the boys, they were called dykes and worse regardless of their true sexuality. But the problem is deeper than misogynist weirdness and reactions. As the study of revolutionary women showed, they had to adopt male roles and behave as if or just like they were men in order to advance in the organization and achieve ultimate policy goals that were female in orientation. They had to play along in order to not only get along but to move the policy needle in a “feminine” or female-focused direction. But that meant being less feminine in order to prosper. No softness, no weakness (emotional or physical), no “girly” concerns (say, like lipstick or nice clothes) were permissible because that relegated them, IN THE EYES OF MEN, as too fragile and irrational to be respected as peers.
Extending the concept from revolutionary movements to democracies, what that means is that women entering into politics have to conform to the masculine attributes of the institutions that they have entered. Sure, they can change cosmetic things like male-only cigar lounges or dining rooms, but the entire vibe/aura/mana of these institutions is male-centric in everything that they do. Add to that institutional inertia–that is, the tendency of institutions to favor carrying forward past practices and mores (often in the name of “tradition” or “custom and usage”)–and what we get is women who are politically socialized by the institutions that they join to behave in masculine ways, at least when within the institution and carrying out the roles assigned to them by the institution. That makes changing the institution more important than changing the people within it, but that is also why institutions are loath to change (think of resistance to changing the US from a presidential two-party system to a parliamentary MMP-style system). Perhaps the NZ Green Party are onto something with their gender-balanced party caucus selections, but they remain inserted in a larger parliamentary “nested game” with origins and continuities grounded in masculinist behaviour and perceptions.
More broadly, just like we are a product of our upbringings moderated by the passage of time and experience, so too women in politics are institutionally socialized to respond and behave in certain ways. And those ways are masculine, not feminine. If the bounded rationalities of the institutional nested games in which women “play” are male-centric/dominant, then it is unsurprising that women who succeed in them do so because they adopt those rationalities as their own (even if their better angels incline them to more “feminine” approaches to institutional problem-solving). That includes the propensity for conflict and war.
Of course this is not a hard and fast universal rule. Jacinda Ardern is not Helen Clark. But then think of Hillary Clinton as well as Margaret Thatcher. Or Michelle Bachelet. Or Helen Clark if NZ was deliberately attacked in some fashion. I do not think that she would opt for compromise and concession rather than conflict, and I sure as heck do not think that Hillary would turn the other cheek when it comes to Putin invading the Ukraine. But what turned these young idealists into the battle axes they are now? I would suggest that it is their political socialization within masculine institutions.
So, as I mentioned, the franchise of women=less conflict thesis is intriguing but needs more work. Male and female traits and values may be the independent variables and propensity towards or against conflict may be the dependent variable, but the intervening variable is institutions, and more specifically, the bounded rationalities of the nested games that they impose on men and women because of the path-dependent nature of their histories as human agencies. Once we get that figured out and change the masculine nature of pretty much 90 percent of human institutions, then perhaps we will have a chance at a more peaceful world. But with lots of snark.”
Reader’s views are welcome.
Selwyn Manning and I wrapped up this year’s “A View from Afar” podcasts with a review of the past year and some speculation about what is to come. We meander a bit but the themes are clear. You can find the show here.
In this week’s podcast Selwyn Manning and I discuss the upsurge in tensions between the PRC and Taiwan and what are the backgrounds to and implications of them. You can check the conversation out here.
One adage of warfare is that when a clearly weaker actor fights a clearly stronger actor to a standstill, then the weaker actor has won the contest. This is particularly so for asymmetric, irregular warfare where one side has the advantage of disproportionate force but the other side has time and willpower in its favour. So long as the weaker actor can remain steadfast over time when resisting the superior force, then not only will stalemate be achieved but eventual victory for the weaker actor is more likely. Where the weaker actor is fighting on home territory against a foreign force, the probability of its eventually prevailing are significantly improved. For the stronger actor fighting on foreign soil, the longer the conflict is drawn out, the more likely that it will be defeated, especially if domestic support at home (political and social) for the fight wanes over time. If the foreign power is simultaneously fighting another major land war (or wars), then its chances of victory in any of them are significantly reduced. Instead, such “forever wars” become deaths by a thousand cuts for the militarily stronger foreign power.
The Vietminh/Vietcong provide a good example of this. They resisted colonial and post-colonial French and US-led Western forces for more than two decades and eventually achieved independence, then fought off Chinese aggression to consolidate their hold over what is now the Republic of Vietnam. Like the VC, the Taliban have no Air Force, have no Navy, and what sophisticated ground warfare equipment they employ (which is not much), they captured from foreign forces or were clandestinely supplied by anti-Western states such as China and Russia. They used cross-border allies to good effect in getting supplies through (Iran and Pakistan in particular but not exclusively), and used guerrilla, hit and run tactics to extend the occupiers territorially until individual units or outposts could be surrounded and overrun by highly mobile and locally massed Taliban forces using surprise and local knowledge to their advantage.
The Taliban are, in a nutshell, a resilient, extremely determined, ruthless, cunning and resourceful adversary who fights on its home turf against foreigners and foreign-backed locals who (in the case of the former) do not understand them and who (in both cases) do not have the will to continue fight without an end in sight. For the Taliban it is Allah’s will that they fight and die for him, so there is no time horizon on or particular end point to their struggle against infidels. In effect, we may not like their medieval ideology, but we must recognise their will to impose it at all costs.
That brings up another maxim of warfare: The actor who prevails is the one that is willing to suffer the most losses and continue fighting. The Taliban have shown their mettle in this regard. To that we can add the historical observation that unlike secular (say, Maoist or Marxist-Leninist) guerrilla groups, religiously-inspired irregular warfare actors are seldom fully defeated, but instead ebb and flow like the tide depending on the political and social conditions of the day and the strength of countervailing forces.
That is because of the nature of their respective ideologies. Religion is a pervasive, deeply imbued primordial cultural organizing principle that, if driven underground, continues to reaffirm commonly shared traditional social values even in modern secular societies. In contrast, secularist ideologies, particularly anti-capitalist ideologies, start as minority belief systems that run contrary and seek to undermine the traditional or “proper” way of things. That makes it more difficult for them to clandestinely sustain themselves. Religious irregular warfare actors seek to reaffirm what traditionally is and has been; secular irregular warfare actors seek to overthrow and replace what is and was. Depending on the relative depth of religious belief in a given society, the former has a much better prospect of long-term success than the latter when it comes to asymmetric conflict.
Because of their lack of ideological support in most societies, secular irregular warfare actors either win or lose, the first via protracted irregular conflict culminated by conventional military victory and the latter via short intensive kinetic campaigns waged by overwhelmingly superior military actors. Faced with unfavourable warfare conditions, religious irregular warfare actors use society’s ideological depth as a subterranean means to avoid definitive kinetic and political outcomes and instead sink into the fabric of society and pursue guerrilla warfare as a form of counter-hegemonic struggle (often using terrorist tactics). Secular irregular warfare actors also attempt to do this, but their lack of ideological depth in society exposes them to relatively quick detection and elimination. Conversely, the deeper the religious culture into which religious irregular warfare actors can dive, the more likely that they will resurface as an intact fighting force once the stronger opponent has left the battlefield. That has now happened in Afghanistan.
The price paid by the Taliban during this conflict has been enormous. They have been killed in astronomical numbers by land, air and sea. A generation and more of their leadership cadres have been decimated. They lost control of cities and then rural areas, in some cases fleeing across borders in order to avoid complete annihilation. And yet, after two decades on non-stop warfare and the inter-generational destruction of scores of fighting cadres, they have regained control of Afghanistan now that the US and its ISAF partners have left the country.
In contrast, after twenty years of foreign-led military and civilian capacity building and billions of dollars spent on infrastructure in pursuit of national unification, the ISAF/UN-backed Afghan central government’s control throughout the country collapsed with astonishing speed. In the space of two months once the foreign forces withdrawal was announced, the Taliban gained control over the majority of Afghan territory. Kabul has fallen and the foreign-backed president Ghani has fled (along with millions in cash), leaving his subordinates and foreign patron remnants to fend for themselves. Taliban patrol the capital’s streets and assassins lurk in and around the Kabul “Green Zone” where foreigners and local elites lived and worked, selectively murdering journalists, pilots, teachers and other skilled labourers seen as associated with the occupiers or opposed to Taliban rule. The spectre of a genocidal, gendered bloodbath is a real possibility and there is a mass refugee migration underway from Afghanistan into neighbouring countries, especially from non-Pashtun, non-Sunni regions. Over a quarter million people have fled their homelands in the last two months alone, and the international airport in Kabul is a scene of chaos as thousands seek airlift rescue. It is not a stretch to draw parallels with the fall of Saigon, especially after seeing scenes of Chinook helicopters evacuating people from the rooftop of the US embassy.
Even more so than the failed experiment in post-Saddam Iraq, the US-led push to democratise and secularise Afghan politics and society has fallen hard on the double swords of corruption and traditional culture. The Western-backed governments that have held power once the Taliban were overthrown in 2002 have been little more than kleptocratic distribution wheels for the favoured and connected. Modernization in the form of aid programs to foment the likes of female education, road building, health and sanitation facilities, reticulated sewage systems, electrical power grids etc. have not only been a source of corruption but have been accepted without producing the cultural shifts that were assumed by Western patrons to be the logical and inevitable end result of such efforts. As a former US military officer noted with reference to the locals, “they will smile and gladly accept our help during the day, and then they will sneak back and kill us at night.”
In other words, the physical infrastructure of the country may have been modernised, but by and large the societal value structure was not.
The hard fact is that the seeds of the latest Western defeat in Afghanistan were sown the moment the nation-building project in that country began. Had the US and its allies defeated the Taliban and then left Afghanistan to sort itself out along traditional ethno-religious and tribal lines (say, by allowing warlords and tribal militias to contest local authority with central government advocates), the process of national reunification or reorganisation would have been violent but in all likelihood shorter and more durable when it came to the distribution of and balance of power between local and central authorities. As a Pentagon colleague of mine said when surveying the wreckages of US military intervention there and in Iraq, “we should have declared victory and gone home after the bad guys were defeated, then left (them) to it.”
Instead, the US-led ISAF coalition attempted to impose “democracy” on a country with extremely limited historical or practical experience with that concept. The project was therefore bound to be a failure in form (procedure) and substance (outcomes), both of which were manipulated to serve the ends of local elites. To put it in more general terms: attempting to impose modern and post-modern Western-style political forms, social norms and cultural mores on populations dominated by pre-modern (authoritarian) social hierarchies was akin to trying to get a fish to ride the proverbial bicycle.
The irony is that the notion of “nation-building” was a bastardisation of the counterinsurgency (COIN) axiom about psychological operations, where the point is to win the “hearts and minds” of a disputed population via provision of security, health care and other amenities of civilisation in order to gain their acceptance and trust while diminishing that given to the insurgent enemy. The original COIN focus was on very localised populations for relatively short periods of time, not entire countries for long periods of time, and involved using local grievances against domestic insurgents in order to gain information that allowed for their detection and elimination as part of what came to be known as the “inkblot” strategy of incremental taking and holding of enemy social space. In other words, it was one aspect of an irregular warfare strategy used against insurgents and was not an end of itself.
This was all known before the nation-building exercise began, not only by counter-insurgency specialists in military communities, but by anthropologists and sociologists who study places like Iraq and Afghanistan and their respective sub-cultures. It was/is also known by political scientists (aka “transitologists”) who study regime change from authoritarianism to democracy and vice versa–in short, it is hard to impose from the outside unfamiliar and often unwelcome types of governance on tradition-bound and/or pre-modern societies even if improvements to material standards of living are part of the package. The reasons are many but the conclusion is clear: external imposition of foreign social norms and political structures, no matter how well-wrapped in developmental assistance, is most likely to fail.
All of this accumulated wisdom was ignored in Western capitals (including Wellington) when the macro-level dimensions of the ISAF mission were operationalised. Instead, intelligence and military organisations attempted to use social scientists to develop micro-level conceptual maps of the “human terrain” on which the military and civilian capacity-building campaigns were undertaken. Although they enjoyed some tactical success, at a strategic level these efforts ultimately failed and proved to be a harbinger of things to come.
Never has that phrase “graveyard of Empires” been spelled out in so much lost blood and treasure. But beyond the waste of Western efforts to construct a unified country in territory that is home to more than one nation, or the brutal toll taken on innocent Afghan civilians looking to live in whatever peace might come to them, what exactly has been lost? Is the impending calamity of a Taliban takeover as described by Western media and politicians really likely to come true?
As it turns out, after I started writing this post I got a call from my friend Jon Stephenson, the war correspondent and investigative reporter. Jon probably knows as much as anybody in NZ about that country, and it was fortuitous that he got in touch while I was thinking about what is written above. What follows is my distillation of some pertinent parts of our conversation.
The Taliban are not monolithic. They have moderate and militant factions and political and military wings. They exert more control and influence in the rural, less modernised countryside than they do in cities, especially the capital Kabul. The political leadership in Doha is more moderate than the military leadership on the ground in Afghanistan, and its degree of control over military commanders is comparatively looser than, say, that of the political leaders of Hezbollah or Hamas. The Taliban have been relatively well-received in Pashtun/Sunni dominant regions such as their birthplace, Kandahar Province, but have encountered local resistance in non-Pashtun/Shiia regions such as Bamiyan Province. In other words, their degree of support and control in areas outside of Kabul is uneven and at times contested by local warlords and militias. As for Kabul, the issue is pretty stark. The Taliban can infiltrate, surround, isolate and attempt to choke the capital into complete surrender in the face of significant armed resistance from foreign military forces and what is left of Afghan security units linked to them, or the capital can keep supply lifelines going by air and (perhaps, but unlikely) secure land corridors until a negotiated settlement is reached. Western military help will be needed to stave off or forestall a Taliban takeover of Kabul but if that is forthcoming (and it appears to be) a peaceful handover of power or power-sharing compromise may be possible.
In any event issues of national governance may prove problematic for the Taliban. After all, what they will have to do even if complete military victory is achieved is to build a State out of the ruins of the current one. They will need to provide public goods and services, organise a (Sharia) legal system, re-create a public bureaucracy that includes everything from health and education administration to border (immigration and customs) controls and transportation regulations, civil aviation rules, document issuance and certification, etc. For that they will need bureaucrats and other skilled labor, many of whom are fleeing the country as I write. They will need an institutional edifice–actually buildings with people and communications apparatuses in them– in order to discharge their nation-wide public service functions beyond those involved in local repression. Hence, although they may be adept at fighting and some may be willing to return to the Medieval Era when it comes to organising Afghan society, it is more likely that the Taliban will have to compromise on the extent to which Afghanistan will return to the Dark Ages and what aspects of modernity it can live with. The question is therefore how much will the Taliban be willing and able to compromise, and on what subjects and policy areas?
This is all the more true because other foreign actors, the PRC, Russia, India and Iran in particular, have their sights on mineral-rich Afghanistan as a geopolitical buffer and/or investment opportunity. Pakistan, as always, will be a major player in Afghanistan’s future because it would prefer to see Afghanistan weak and internally divided rather than unified and strong (if for no other reason than the latter encouraging cross-border irredentist sentiment in Pakistan). Islamicist groups in bordering countries and further afield may be emboldened by the Taliban’s success and seek to emulate them while looking for their support. That is bound to be of concern to the leaders of the above-mentioned countries as well as the other geographically contiguous “‘Stans,” all of which have indigenous Islamicist groups to contend with.
Getting these foreign interlocutors to invest diplomatically and economically means that the Taliban must offer self-binding assurances and guarantees and assume contractual obligations of various sorts, negotiated by people competent enough to engage with sophisticated foreign counterparts and legitimately representative enough to ensure that any deals they make or promises made are binding. That is by no means assured at this point because if one thing is certain is that Afghans are generally disposed to look at any foreign presence with suspicion and distrust. That includes non-Western foreigners as well as those from the West, who in any event will have to confront the compounded obstacles posed by corruption and traditional values.
At a minimum, besides the need to operate domestically-focused public bureaucracies, the Taliban will need a diplomatic corps capable of dealing with foreign entities. Those must include people competent to engage with aid agencies given the inevitable requests for reconstruction assistance as well as those responsible for interacting with various potential military and diplomatic partners. That requires significant levels of education and experience, which given the brain drain now underway in Afghanistan means that the Taliban cannot afford to go full Pol Pot on the country and kill all infidel locals off and in fact will likely have to employ foreign nationals in any event in order to operate their public sector, to say nothing of staffing the private interests that may establish a presence in the country.
This is not entirely unusual–Singapore would collapse in less than a week if “ang mohs” (Europeans) were withdrawn from upper and middle management ranks in all bureaucratic sectors of the Little Red Dot–but the retrograde cultural dispositions of at least some of the Taliban leadership may make that difficult to achieve and will require internecine settlements between moderate and militant Taliban factions in what may well turn out to be the “old fashioned” Afghan way of resolving conflicts. The larger point is that the world does not end with a Taliban takeover, they cannot survive as a regime governing a nation-state if they kill and repress everyone who is not an adherent of their ideology, they therefore need to know how to play nicely with a range of interlocutors, foreign and domestic, all of which means they need to get their house in order before they present a cohesive if not inclusive face to Afghan society as well as the global community.
Twenty years of foreign occupation has changed Afghan society, at least in the urban and suburban areas where Western influence and development projects were the most heavily felt. Just as the degree of religious density in a society facilitates the subterranean presence of religious irregular warfare actors, the degree to which that social fabric is imbued by new conceptions of the proper cultural order makes more difficult a return to the original Taliban past, especially when the return involves material and social deprivation for all or some of society’s component parts–say, for example, women, who are now an integral and vital part of Afghan public services.
In parallel, the Taliban of today are not exact replicas of their fathers. The intergenerational passage mentioned earlier with regard to warfare extends to how the contemporary Taliban differ in their view of how to rule post-occupation Afghanistan. As Jon Stephenson mentioned with regards to the situation in general, it is hard to predict what will happen but things have certainly changed for the Taliban when it comes to governing in coalition or alone. The society that they will now inherit is not the society that they left behind when the foreigners arrived to remove them.
In a signal of its defeat, the US has asked the Taliban not to attack its embassy in Kabul and warns that it will use aid assistance as leverage against future Taliban provocations or transgressions once it office. Both scenarios may come to pass but the truth is that the the Taliban will be looking for new international partners rather than redraw contracts with those who backed the deposed regime. For those Afghans who placed their bets on supporting the US and ISAF and worked with and for them, the moment is indeed uncertain and tragic. Like the Kurds, Iraqis and Vietnamese before them, many of those who sided with the US will lose their lives and livelihoods in the months to come. Others may find refuge in ISAF coalition member countries, including New Zealand. But the hard reality is that siding with a foreign occupier was always a fraught proposition based on significant inter-temporal (current and future) risk, and for many that dark future has arrived. What is puzzling is that even in the face of such foreboding prospects, many non-Taliban Afghans have chosen to surrender (in the case of security forces) or flee (in the case of civilians) rather than fight.
What this means is that indeed, there is a tragedy at play in the return of the Taliban. But it may not be the calamity that many in the West think that it will be because the circumstances surrounding the return mitigates against rather than in favour of wanton destruction and mass blood-letting. The Taliban need to demonstrate that they can rule over a society that is in significant ways different than the one they governed two decades ago, and they need to engage with an international community that also is different than the one that blamed them for harbouring al-Qaeda. The Taliban themselves are different in many ways, as are the foreign interests willing to engage with them on economic and diplomatic matters. Their domestic threat environment now includes co-religionists in the form of al-Qaeda and Daesh, to which can be added splinter groups from adjoining countries and local warlords and militias with foreign ties. It will not be easy for them to re-impose the status quo ante 2002 even if that is their unified desire (which it does not appear to be judging from the political leadership’s statements).
This is the basis for a glimmer of hope in the Afghanistan regime transition now underway. If not born of compromise, Taliban rule will likely be different out of necessity. It is important that the international community do all that is possible to ensure that the political necessity of the moment becomes long-term governance fact not only for the good of the Afghan people but in order to pay the fair price of making amends for what ultimately is the result of Western neo-imperialist hubris.
Postscript: What was heard from above. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/08/what-i-learned-while-eavesdropping-on-the-taliban/619807/
As circumstances would have it, while pursuing my Ph.D. I was a student of one of the US’s original nuclear strategists, someone who had been a targeter during the planning for the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In his old age he taught nuclear strategy and wrote several books and articles that outlined the logic of nuclear deterrence that obtained from the end of WW2 through the early 1980s (One was titled “Moving Toward Life in a Nuclear Armed Crowd”). It was from him that I learned that the original logic of deterrence, Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) was being replaced as early as the late 1970s with something known as Flexible Response. That evolution continues to this day, with additional nuclear armed actors now factored into the equation.
I had already met some strategic analysts and active and retired military officers during my MA studies at a different university, something that had introduced me to the concept of MAD and piqued my interest enough to want to study under the famous nuclear strategist. Over the ensuing years after I graduated and before I immigrated to NZ I encountered several Air Force missile officers and Navy submariners who at various stages in their careers were responsible for deploying nuclear weapons in operational environments with the real possibility of their being ordered to launch. Without exception these were very sober people, and although they would not share secrets with me they confirmed in casual conversations that US nuclear strategy had come a long way since they days of dumb bombs and MAD.
One things that has remained constant, however, is the deterrent nature of nuclear weapons. The bottom line is that nuclear weapons, although offensive rather than defensive in nature due to their characteristics, are never to be used in anger. They are a form of protective shield for the States that have them, and designed to ward off attacks by more powerful actors or actors that may be inclined to launch nuclear strikes in opportunistic or otherwise irrational fashion. There is an old saying (often attributed to my former professor) in the nuclear strategic community that a maniac with one nuke puts everyone else in check. That is not exactly true for a variety of reasons, but having even a small but demonstrable nuclear force greatly complicates the strategic calculations and physical costs of would-be aggressors. Think of it this way: what if Saddam Hussein did in fact have nuclear weapons and could have delivered them on top of the Soviet SCUD replicas in his arsenal to other regional capitals? What if Gaddafi had that capability? How about the DPRK today or Iran down the road? Would anyone attack them knowing that they could and would retaliate with nukes but without being certain that an attack would fully eliminate their nuclear weapons before use? Who and under what circumstances would take that risk?
Then there is the NonProliferation Treaty (NPT). Entered into force in 1970 it recognized five nuclear states–the US, UK. Soviet Union (now Russia) China and France. They are included in the NPT in spite of their weapons status, so the intention of the NPT was to cement that status quo and direct non-proliferation efforts at other aspiring nuclear powers. Responsibility for controlling nuclear arsenals in the five nuclear states was left to their respective governments. The latter produced the strategic arms limitations (SALT 1 and 2 and START 1 and 2) treaties and intermediate range ballistic missile (INF) agreements between the US and the USSR/Russian Federation. No other multilateral nuclear arms limitation agreements have been signed, and over the years four countries have violated the NPT and developed their own nuclear arsenals: India, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan. Iran may be on the cusp of doing so and from time to time threatens to do exactly that. To their credit, Argentina and Brazil began to develop their respective nuclear weapons programs but abandoned them by mutual consent in the 1980s. South Africa is reported to have detonated a nuclear device in the 1980s but never went on to developing a full-fledged weapons program.
When I arrived in NZ in 1997 I was surprised to learn that many Kiwis still believed that MAD remainedl the operative logic behind nuclear deterrence. In some quarters it remains a common belief even to this day. Rather than revisit the history of nuclear deterrence and strategy, I thought it would be worth while to break it down into component parts in order to get to the state of play in the current age.
First, a glossary:
ICBM: Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. With ranges over 5,500 kilometres (currently reaching 15,000 kilometres), these missiles are the most powerful weapons ever developed. They are multi-stage boosters that use solid fuels that eliminate the need for rapid fuelling required by boosters that use liquid propellants and are launched into low altitude space orbits before re-entering the earth’s atmosphere and engaging targets. They are the subject of the START Treaties between the US and Russia.
IRBM: Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile. Boosters that have a maximum range of 5,500 kilometres. They are single stage, high altitude liquid or solid fuel propelled and may be armed with conventional as well as nuclear warheads. They are the subject of the INF Treaty between the US and Russia, but dozens of countries now deploy them with conventional warheads.
SLBM: Sea launched ballistic missile. These are boosters launched from surface or sub-surface maritime platforms. They can be ICBM or IRBM in nature and be propelled by solid or liquid fuels (note that liquid fuels are more unstable than solid fuels and hence riskier to deploy). Many SLMBs are conventionally armed but the ones under closest scrutiny are nuclear tipped. SLBMS may be used in “depressed trajectory” targeting where warhead throw-weight (see below) is traded off for the increased speed of a lower altitude path, thereby reducing the time between launch and impact. A scenario for such is a submarine penetrating close to hostile territory (say, a Russian submarine moving undetected close to the US East Coast) in order to reduce the warning time between the firing of an SLBM and the impact on designated strike targets.
TRIAD: The three legs of a nuclear force, comprised of air, sea and land-based launchers. The concept underpinning the triad is akin to putting eggs into different baskets, in this case in order to promote force dispersion, redundancy and second strike capabilities (see below). ICBMs (land) and SLBMs (sea) have longer reach; air-launched platforms have more flexibility in delivery and targeting options but are more vulnerable (this may change once space-based weapons systems are fully operationalised). The core idea is that a triad makes it difficult for an opponent to “kill” all of a nation’s nuclear forces, especially submarine-based boosters and those located in missile silos buried in thick concrete underground silos or deployed in other “hardened” facilities in remote locations. This allows a State to weather an attack, survive, and respond in devastating kind. That logic is at the core of MAD, but in the contemporary era there is a twist to it.
Throw-weight: The amount (weight) of fissile material a given warhead, also measured in kilotons or megatons of equivalent high explosive. The “Fat Man” plutonium (P-239) bomb that destroyed Nagasaki had a fissile core of 6 kilograms enriched P-239 and a throw weight equivalent to 21 kilotons of TNT. The “Little Boy” enriched uranium bomb that destroyed Hiroshima contained 64 kilos of U-235 with a throw weight of 15 kilotons equivalent TNT. “Fat Man” was ten times more efficient that “Little Boy” in its weight to yield ratio, so became the core of the US nuclear arsenal for a decade after WW2.
MIRV: Multiple Independent Re-entry Vehicles. These are the warheads placed in the nose cone of an ICBM or SLBM. They can vary from 3-15 depending on the range of the booster and the throw-weights of the warheads. When the nose cone separates from the final stage of the booster, each warhead tracks to a different pre-programmed target or, if redundancy is deemed necessary (say, against a “hardened” command and control facility), tracks to a target “cluster” that can be hit more than once.
MARV: Manoeuvrable re-entry vehicles. Same principle as with MIRVs, but the warheads are guided in real time by human operators and can switch targets while in flight.
Circular Error Probable (CEP): The circular radius around a target in which a warhead is likely to hit. In the Nagasaki bombing the “Fat Man” bomb exploded at 508 meters above a tennis court located 3 kilometres away from its designated target (an airfield). It killed 140,000 people instantly. In the 1970s a Russian ICBM with a payload throw weight of 18-25 megatons (MT) was believed to have a CEP of +/-1 mile after a flight of 10-15,000 kilometres. Today, with various precision-guidance systems, the CEP for a US ICBM carrying <1 MT over 12000 kilometres is less than ten meters (most US nuclear weapons are less than 1 megaton in explosive strength). For cruise missiles and MARVs, CEPs are close to zero. In practice this means that throw weights can be reduced as accuracy increases. Along with advances in computer modelling, that is the main reason why the sort of large megatonnage weapons and huge thermonuclear explosions that characterised nuclear testing in the Pacific in the 1950s-1980s are no longer seen today.
Counter-value strike: These involve nuclear strikes against population-heavy targets like cities and large urban centres. They use mid to low altitude air bursts in order to maximize blast damage on soft (non-hardened) objects and structures and help radioactive dispersal via air currents, thereby increasing human lethality. Their military value may be negligible but the physical and psychological impact of high value strikes is devastating to the targeted community whether they survive or not. The desired effect is to either annihilate an enemy society or reduce it to a hyper-vulnerable defenseless mass that can be subjugated. Although justified as military targets, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the victims of counter-value strikes.
Counter-force strike: These involve nuclear strikes against military targets, to include opposing nuclear and conventional armed forces and command, control, communications, computing and intelligence (C4I) centres. Ground-level and penetrative (bunker busting) strikes using shaped warheads focus the kinetic effect of nuclear blasts in order to overcome hardened defenses and structures and, as a secondary effect, reduce civilian collateral damage (because hardened many military-security sites are located away from population centres ). As with counter-value strikes, the characteristics of the target determine the throw weights deployed against them. The desired effect is to terminally degrade a States’s military capability and hold populations hostage to subsequent strikes pursuant to negotiating advantageous surrender terms.
First Strike/Pre-emptive strike: Launching a nuclear attack on an opponent without having been attacked first. This may be caused by imminent defeat in a conventional conflict or in an effort to prevent a nuclear strike, but in any case the concept is married to the notion of a
Second Strike/Retaliatory strike: A nuclear response to a nuclear attack. The premise is that the a State, via its deployment of a hardened and stealthy Triad, will be able to survive a first or pre-emptive strike and retaliate against a first strike opponent. Since the first strike opponent will have used most of not all of its nuclear arsenal in order to prevail without retaliation, failure to do so opens it (and the society that it represents) up to a devastating, even existentially threatening response.
Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD): The logic of deterrence underpinning the first 35 years of nuclear strategy and the so-called “balance of terror.” The logic is based on the first strike, second strike sequence outlined above and on the use of counter-value targeting matrixes.
Flexible Response: Premised on counter-force targeting, this is the strategic logic of nuclear deterrence for the large nuclear powers since the late 1970s/early 1980s. It is based on the belief that a full range of nuclear forces, from artillery fired battlefield nukes to strategic weapons, enhances the de-escalatory logic of deterrence through the full spectrum of force because the escalatory potential of first use in battlefield contexts can be limited to the tactical level and therefore avoid unchecked strategic confrontations. Even so, making it easier to introduce nuclear weapons into battlefields or low intensity conflicts can potentially escalate into strategic exchanges, depending on the command and control structures involved, so it places a premium on command and control self-discipline even in the face of conventional defeat or certain death.
Miniaturisation: The reduction in size of objects, in this case of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems. “Nano” military technologies and platforms are already on battlefields, in the skies and out in space. Warheads are getting smaller, delivery systems more stealthy and less detectable, and C4I systems more sophisticated yet simpler to use. This all augers poorly for strategic arms control efforts.
Recent satellite imagery confirms that the PRC is building ICBM missile silo farms in Inner Mongolia and Gansu Province, adding to existing farms in Xinjiang and Qinghai Provinces. This will help strengthen the land based component of its triad because the silo farms’ remote locations are at the limits of US land-based ICBM ranges, will force the US to divert its current ICBMs from other targeting priorities, and are undoubtably hardened. If the silos in each farm are connected by underground transport as well as C4I systems, then the PRC can even play a shell game whereby it moves missiles between silos without having to fill all of them (that assumes that US and other Western sensor systems, be they infrared/thermal or radiation detecting, as well as less sophisticated intelligence gathering methods, are incapable of differentiating between “live” and “cold” silos). The Chinese Navy deploys SLBM carrying submarines and has a host of IRBMs as well, so the combination produced by doubling its land-based ICBMs is yet another measure of its move into Great Power status.
Contrary to much has been written, this may not necessarily be a bad thing if the PRC uses its strengthened land-based missiles as bargaining chips in renewed strategic arms limitation negotiations with the US, Russia and possibly other nuclear powers. Unlike the US, the PRC has a “no first strike” policy regarding its nuclear weapons. Whether one takes them at their word, the Chinese appear to have embraced the deterrent character of nuclear weapons, and given their recent upgrades, may feel more inclined to talk about arms control from a position of strength. In other words, they now have leverage, if not the inclination to use it.
Smaller nuclear states have slightly different logics. France and the UK are heavily reliant on their submarine forces for strategic nuclear deterrence because their land masses are too small for deploying a robust and redundant ICBM fleet. They also tie themselves to the US nuclear umbrella, something that seems increasingly questionable now that Donald Trump has exposed deep flaws in the US political system that undermine its position as a reliable ally. The latter is also true for non-nuclear states like South Korea and Taiwan that have US security and mutual defense guarantees.
Then there are the newer nuclear states. India and Pakistan (which does not have ICBMs at this point) are basically fixated on each other when it comes to nuclear targeting. India’s border conflicts with the PRC and Pakistan’s ties to China complicate the picture in the event of war between the two South Asian neighbours, but for the moment the second-strike, counter-value logic of nuclear deterrence appears to apply to them.
Israel and the DPRK are a different kettle of fish. It is an open secret that Israel has nuclear tipped ICBMs/IRBMs and the will to pre-emptively use them on Iran should Iran drive closer to a nuclear weapons capability of its own. In fact, it has a strong incentive to undertake a counter-force strike against Iranian nuclear and other military facilities before the latter acquires its own nuclear weapons. After all, who will retaliate in kind against Israel given the US security guarantee extended to it? The question is whether, should it launch a first strike on Iran arguing that the Iranians were about to attack them (and Israel has a history of pre-emptive strikes against adversaries), that will open the escalatory Pandora’s box. The answer is probably not, although a counter-value first strike on, say Tehran, might open the door to large-scale counter-value attacks on Israeli soft targets. And if nuclear retaliation on behalf of the Iranians is not an option, who might come to Iran’s aid and by what means? Would China and Russia risk nuclear escalation by retaliating with conventional force against Israel, thereby bringing the US into the fray? What if Iran responds unexpectedly but not entirely surprisingly by attacking the Saudis, Emiratis or Jordanians (or US regional installations) rather than try to get back at Israel itself? Where will that end?
Iran has indicated that it considers acquisition of nuclear weapons to be a move towards deterrence via a second strike option. But with hardliners calling for Israel’s extermination and the Revolutionary Guard controlling its nuclear program, there may be those in its command and control structure who think that, given the considerable difference in size of their respective land masses, that a counter-value first strike that cripples Israel is feasible, especially if the US proves to be a fickle nuclear ally (or just a paper tiger). Given its constant skirting of prohibitions governing production of weapons grade fissile material and active IRBM and ICBM development programs, trust in Iran to “do the right thing” should it acquire an operational weapons capability is minimal at best and in the case of Israel, non-existent.
As for the DPRK, it is very difficult to ascertain what their strategic logic is because regime preservation and saving face (as opposed to societal survival) appear to be compelling factors in their calculus. It is unclear if Kim Jung-un and his military commanders accept the “no first strike” premise or if they have the ability to shift from a MAD to a flexible response posture given their strategic disadvantage vis a vis the US. Moreover, they have the PRC on their side, so may believe that they have a degree of impunity should they launch a pre-emptive nuclear first strike on the US, South Korea or a regional target. What is clear is that a DPRK nuclear attacks will likely be counter-value in nature. The question is against who and what consequences would they bring? Would a strike on Seoul necessarily bring US nuclear retaliation in the face of PRC warnings against it and threats of escalation? Would saving face or the need for a diversion in the face of an uncontrolled pandemic coupled with famine make the Kim dynasty feel compelled to go out in a blaze of (self-perceived) glory? Here the strategic logic of deterrence employed by the Great Powers may not necessarily apply.
Therein lies the rub. The second-strike, counter-value premises of original nuclear deterrence strategies may no longer apply in every instance. First strike considerations, which have always been (the unspoken) part of the strategic logics employed by the Great Powers, may increasingly seem plausible, especially if weapons are miniaturised and attribution of attacks can be plausibly denied and disguised (e.g. via the use of non-state irregular proxies or surrogates). Moreover, autonomous non-state actors with access to (black market) nuclear materials and delivery technologies (even if of the “dirty bomb” type) and without territories to defend have no reason to fear the “return to sender” problem posed by a non-crippling first strike against a nuclear armed opponent. In light of this, the moment has arrived where consideration must be made to not only “broadening the tent” covering those included in strategic and other arms talks, but broadening the scope of the (event if dual use) technologies employed by them.
Turning back to the NPT. It entered into force in another era when less sophisticated weapons technologies were in play and where miniatuarisation was a concept only known to hairdressers (look it up). It has been violated repeatedly, continues to be so and a new nuclear status quo has developed as a result. As the first non-nuclear state New Zealand was a champion of the NPT until the trade obsession the late 1990s and 2000s displaced non-proliferation as a foreign policy priority. Now, with its non-proliferation experts purged and retired from the diplomatic ranks, NZ has only its historical reputation to stand on when addressing the new dangers of a world without effective strategic arms control.
But that could be a starting point for the reform, renewal and revitalisation of the NPT as a multilateral approach to controlling the inexorable technological advances of strategic weapons systems (and perhaps more). Because of its pandemic response and its reaction to the terrorist attacks of 2019, NZ may have a window of opportunity in which to parlay its enhanced international stature into a megaphone for multilateralist bridge-building and peace-making. Given Covid’s global dislocating effects and the failures of international governance systems and practices, to say nothing of the decline of democracy world-wide, perhaps a NZ-inspired move to promote multilateral consensus on curbing some of the less savoury aspects of human endeavour might just be the tonic needed to make the world a safer place.
From darkness, perhaps a light will come.
For a discussion of these themes, please have a listen to the latest “A View from Afar” podcast.
Selwyn Manning and I focus the discussion of the internal and external power struggles that could ensue once the US military leaves. You can find it here.