Steven Horowitz

Humanity at the Nuclear Precipice?

North Korea tests long-range missiles and nuclear bombs. Russia moves medium-range missiles into Kaliningrad, bringing Berlin and Warsaw into Moscow’s nuclear crosshairs. China openly challenges US military dominance in the western Pacific by building airstrips on remote islands. Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen fire missiles at US ships risking a tough response from Washington. Tehran tests missiles whose only military purpose would be to carry nuclear warheads. Meanwhile, Obama’s fantasy that Iran will alter its regional behavior in the aftermath of the JCPOA is totally ruptured by an advancing “Shiite crescent” (King Abdullah’s phrase) now under a Russian umbrella.

One US candidate for US president (Trump) sees nothing wrong with nuclear-weapons proliferation; the other candidate (Clinton) issues tough talk about no-fly zones in Syria, thus risking an aerial confrontation with Russian forces. Such a potential confrontation could easily escalate to the nuclear threshold. Aleppo is bombed mercilessly by both Moscow and Damascus. Iran directs the so-called Syrian civil war from the ground, leaving the US with little choice but to respond in some way or risk losing all deterrent credibility with its allies in the Middle East. US NATO ally, Turkey, draws a line in the sand over a US-Kurdish rapprochement on its border in northern Syria.

Istanbul also openly threatens Iraq — both an Iranian vassal state and an Obama ally — over the Shiite militias about to confront Sunnis and other Turkmen in Tal Afar and Mosul. Turkish troops now occupy parts of northern Syria and Iraq and appear to have openly challenged the Shiite crescent. In order to accomplish such a mission, Turkey has begun a diplomatic shift in its long-term relationship with Russia. Whether this could lead to Turkey leaving NATO is still premature, but the reevaluation of Istanbul’s foreign policy has become essential within the current context of a Russia-Iran-Iraq-Assad-Hezbollah-PKK axis.

In Europe, the expansion of NATO eastward has become a two-edged sword. Like Germany after WWI, Russia perceived itself to be the aggrieved party in the aftermath of the reunification of Germany. Even before the fall of the Soviet Union, promises originally made to Gorbachev during the Reagan administration were later abandoned by the Clinton administration, as the countries of the Warsaw Pact were brought into both the EU and the NATO alliance. Security for Eastern Europe was bought at the price of conventional insecurity for Russia. The assumption must have been that, since Russia possessed a vast nuclear arsenal, conventional security was unnecessary. This is the great fallacy of the nuclear age — that is, that nuclear deterrence will always overcome a large conventional imbalance.

Nuclear weapons can be a strong deterrent against conventional imbalance in some cases, but certainly not all cases. During the Soviet Union phase of the Cold War, the conventional imbalance was directed against West Germany, France and the UK. The prospect of the US risking a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union (in order to defend Western Europe) was never accepted by either France or the UK. They both created their own independent nuclear arsenals.

Nuclear warfare was far too risky a proposition to be extended across the sea by a power not directly threatened by a conventional attack from an immediate neighbor. This is precisely why West Germany demanded a large contingent of US ground forces to establish a “nuclear trigger” in case of a conventional attack from the east. Still, a large conventional imbalance against NATO forces in West Germany persisted, and the US was forced to play fast and loose with its nuclear bluster and rhetoric. This was done in order to pacify West Germany, which in all probability had its own secret nuclear program just in case the bluster became simply hollow words. In those days, it was the US who attempted to appear “crazy” in order to solidify the concept of mutually-assured destruction (MAD) in the mind of its perceived expansionary communist enemy.

Now we are living in the second phase of the Cold War. The global ideological element (capitalism vs. communism) has been removed from the equation, but the conventional imbalance remains, only in reverse direction. Russia is now facing a near continent of prospective enemies, including the Baltic state of Estonia which is a mere seventy miles from St. Petersburg. It is Russia that is now playing fast and loose with its nuclear bluster and rhetoric. This has been especially true since the EU-US inspired coup in the Ukraine in the winter of 2014. The Ukraine goes to the very heart of Russia itself, as memories of the Nazi-German invasion are as prevalent in Moscow as the Holocaust is in Jerusalem. Conventional military trauma is at the center of Russian psychic angst, and the situation in Europe today cannot be ameliorated by promises of Western good intentions.

This new phase of the Cold War appears more dangerous than the first because the US is in a far more precarious economic position. America’s citizenry has become quite ambivalent with regard to its role as the hegemonic power in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and Euro-Asian land mass. This has created a huge vacuum in the Middle East, which has affected Israel, Egypt, the Gulf states, Jordan and especially Turkey (as explained above). Russia has seized on this vacuum to challenge American leadership as unreliable.

In the Middle East and Europe, the current instability is palpable. Unlike anything seen in the first phase of the Cold War (with the exception of the Cuban missile crisis), countries throughout both regions are experiencing existential tension. In Europe, this condition has been exacerbated by economic globalization, a large North African and Middle East refugee influx, an economic austerity and debt crisis and the geopolitical standoff with Russia over the Ukraine.

The Middle East has become a vast proxy war between Russia and the US. Neither Turkey, Israel, Jordan nor the Gulf Arab states can tolerate a Russia-Iran axis throughout the Northern Levant. Eventually something is going to give. As explained above, the first sign of this rearrangement is Turkey. But as Turkey goes, so too does the whole neighborhood, including Syria. Turkey is not going to join an Iranian axis; it’s going to attempt to create, with Russia, a new axis.

The Russians can be flexible. Assad and Iran are only important to Moscow insofar as they can affect the political/military balance in Europe. But now it appears as if Russia’s current strategy in Syria is not only hopelessly deadlocked, but also alienating all the standard political parties in Europe. These parties still hold sway and are most likely to win their respective elections in 2017. Germany and France are both calling for renewed and/or tougher sanctions against Russia, as its military bombardment of Aleppo proves ruthless and counterproductive.

However, a deepening Russian-Turkish rapprochement could change the current situation dramatically. It might involve the building of a major gas pipeline. It also might involve the following: an understanding on the future of the Kurdish community in North Syria; robust mutual strategic relations with Azerbaijan; the prospect of a Sunni entity similar to the KRG in Iraq; an understanding on a political settlement in Syria; the prospect of a moderate Islamic and/or secular future for Syria; the smashing of the jihadist terrorist groups and the removal of Iranian forces from Syria; and a regional dismantling of the Shiite crescent leading to the isolation of Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Of course in such a prospective scenario, Turkey must decide whether it stands with NATO or a Russian alternative. Because without Germany and France endeavoring to alter the security architecture of Europe, a Turkish-Russian axis in the Middle East (as described above) would probably be in the interests of Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Sunni Arab states of the Levant. Certainly it wouldn’t be in the US interest, especially if American military assets would eventually be removed from the Gulf. American protection of Gulf oil directed toward its allies in Europe and Asia is vital to their very economic survival. The prospect of a Russian-Turkish-Sunni Arab-Pakistani-Chinese alignment could leave India, Australia, Japan and Western Europe economically isolated.

Germany and Israel must offer alternative solutions to the current instability in Europe and the Middle East, respectively. If they don’t, both regions could evolve into potential alliances not yet envisioned. Iran as a dominant power is improbable without Russian airpower and/or military sales. But an Iran isolated from a Russian-Turkish alliance will need to have nuclear weapons within a decade or sooner. Likewise, NATO will be severely weakened without Turkey. This will cause all of Europe and Asia to rethink the US security umbrella. Already a large segment of the US population has begun to rethink its support for America’s global security guarantees.

In the final analysis, without a viable and permanent conventional security structure in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, the sands of geopolitics will continually shift in a pattern of ebb and flow. Civilization will be on existential tenterhooks, and humanity will be continually looking over the abyss at the nuclear precipice.

About the Author
Steven Horowitz has been a farmer, journalist and teacher spanning the last 45 years. He resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. During the 1970's, he lived on kibbutz in Israel, where he worked as a shepherd and construction worker. In 1985, he was the winner of the Christian Science Monitor's Peace 2010 international essay contest. He was a contributing author to the book "How Peace came to the World" (MIT Press).