The Demise of the Balance of Terror

The balance of terror, also known as Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), was created during the Cold War between the two superpowers – the United States and the Soviet Union – when both developed nuclear weapons that threatened each other. The main aspect of this equation, which created global calm, was based on ‘balance first’ and then terror. Since the two powers were equal and aware of each other’s power, relative to the rest of the world, it was clear that mutual destruction was not relevant.

As long as the balance was maintained, deterrence was maintained, as was the fear of another world war. When the balance was broken during Reagan’s presidency, the result was the voluntary dissolution of the Soviet Union, because the balance of terror equation was no longer balanced. For a period, Russia lost its world leadership status, and only the US remained a superpower that could deter the rest of the world. Putin’s ascent to presidency in Russia, mainly his second term of office, generated Russia’s return to its former superpower status with the intent of renewing the balance of terror.

Other countries such as France and Britain acknowledged their loss of power, and in fact relinquished their superpower status, and at best became regional powers. Therefore, different trends were found in these countries. Whereas Britain relied on its ties to the US and became a sort of satellite state, France, in is various constellations and primarily under De Gaulle’s leadership, tried to become involved in global politics, aiming at French-speaking countries that were considered France’s influence sectors. France was the first that almost provided a country identified with the ‘axis of evil’ with nuclear capabilities. The Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq was a serious threat to world peace: no longer balance of terror, but support of a country that was not a partner to global balance but part of a coalition of violent countries with close ties such as Vietnam at the time, and Iran, Syria, North Korea, Cuba, and later on Venezuela and other rogue countries in South America. The bombing of the nuclear reactor in Iraq stopped, even if for a short while, the nuclear arms race among countries that were not superpowers and had no mutual deterrence relationships. On the other hand, a mutual balance of terror slowly developed between India and Pakistan, each side fearing the other side’s nuclear advances. Pakistan, from a religious perspective on one hand and a strategic perspective on the other hand, facing a country with a population of over one billion, strove to increase its nuclear coalition, and is considered by many to be the country that helped to develop Iran’s nuclear industry.

In light of US weakness, which for a certain time filled the role of world policeman and then relinquished it, the world was left completely unsupervised. Under these circumstances, various countries attempted to develop all kinds of mass destructions weapons. Syria developed mainly chemical weapons, and Iran developed its nuclear industry, relying among others on its partnership with North Korea, which has believed for decades that only becoming a nuclear power would provide it with a global insurance policy that would deter the world from becoming involved.

The philosophy of the small potential nuclear countries was not to achieve the balance part of the ‘balance of terror’ equation, but predominantly the terror that it would rain on others. The advantage of a rogue state, which is not worried by its citizens’ future, and thus blackmails others as much as it wants, has tuned into a policy that has proven itself useful. North Korea has reached agreements with the US, which it had no intention of keeping, and taking advantage of the US weakness during the Carter and Clinton administrations – two ‘axis of evil’ countries could accelerate their nuclear capacities unhindered.

Europe, which was beginning to realize its weakness, wanted to buy time in hope that the threat would dissipate with time, and the world would revert to the peace and quiet of economic partnerships and economic wellbeing. European countries, worn out by two world wars, turned to pacifism in which the value of peace was sacred, deluding themselves that only they could dictate the world’s behavior.

To Europe, the fact that the US had lost its power as a single superpower communicated the message that there was no global power that could threaten any other country, thus totally ignoring Russia that was getting stronger, and China that was turning from an economic power into a superpower with strong military capabilities.

Europe divested itself completely of its military capabilities, relying on American defense alignments, and fortified itself as a strong, peace-loving economic union with global influence. Russia again played an active part in the world, regaining its status as the second global superpower, and not shrinking from military involvement in various areas. Russia gradually neutralized America’s position, undermining its ability to protect its allies, to serve as a deterrent force, and to protect its own interests. During the eight years of President Obama’s office, the US became a country that could be clobbered and could not be trusted. The red lines set in Syria, including the utilization of chemical warfare, were blocked by Russia. Russia physically entered space that had previously been under sole American influence. Russia established a military presence, and punished Turkey when it assaulted its sovereignty and shot down two Russian aircraft. Russia began coercing the US to act in certain ways, which had never been done before, even during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.

Ever since Russia has regained its status, it has not hesitated to use its power vis-à-vis US-friendly countries that were negotiating joining NATO. Russia has threatened Eastern European countries that enjoyed relations with the US, has attacked Georgia, acted in Ostia, and invaded the Ukraine while annexing the Crimean peninsula. The US did not react, even with warnings. Russia has intervened in every international conflict by providing patronage to one side or another, seeing only its own interests, and without fear of reaction, as indeed happened because of America’s total lack of response.

Today, a small, almost bankrupt country, whose population is close to starvation, can defy and threaten the US, which stands before it like before the barking of a frightened puppy, and is unable to react not only to the indirect threat but also to the direct threat to American areas such as Guam initially and then the US itself, as North Korea launches rockets over friendly nations – an action that is considered an act of war that justifies a response – and all this because terror serves it in this war.

Today’s world, which dreads war, does not aspire to achieve a balance of terror, because the ability to create balance has disappeared. On the other hand, many countries are subject to blackmail and threats without fear of reprisal. Iran uses physical and nuclear threats against the US, which is requested by its friends not to respond to calls for war and annihilation against her, neither from North Korea nor from Iran. The US is also asked not to attack Iran because of its acts of terror, and the arming of warring factions throughout the world – in Yemen, Sudan, Lebanon, Syria, Gaza and elsewhere.

The Chamberlain atmosphere prevalent on the eve of World War II is once again dictating the moves by calling to maintain the world’s fragile peace and to avoid any upheavals that might lead to a global explosion. The world must understand that capitulation to terrorism and threats of war cannot be an answer to the desire for a peaceful life in the future. Moreover, the US has reacted severely to allegations that Russia had interfered in the recent presidential elections. This might be correct criticism, but hardly significant.

The US is not shocked by the fact that Russia and its protectorates are threatening the US, calling it to order, and treating it as a minor nation. There is total silence about this in the American media and public opinion, which are not aware of the erosion of America’s status throughout the world.

Now is the time to determine the global agenda and the actors that that will run it in the near future. Will we see an Islamic force, backed by nuclear power, which will compete for a place among the three existing superpowers? Will the axis of evil join forces with the new Islamic empire? Will the US be able to maintain its senior position among the nations and to impose a real and just order in the new world?

All of these questions are on the table of the world’s nations, and they owe themselves an answer: Which kind of world do we want to live in in the near future?

Furthermore, following the recent reshuffling of the forces vying for world leadership in the twenty-first century, we witness a global process in which various countries are testing the old and new superpowers, presenting them with increasingly more challenges and checking to see how far they can go. Many nations are challenging the superpowers. The Turkish attempt to challenge Russia by shooting down two planes was responded to with violence, which caused Turkey to realize that it could not or did not want to be in conflict with Russia, and it consequently toed the line, accepting Russian power as a force that must be considered. On the other hand, Turkey just recently laid siege to the US Embassy with an implied threat in its demand to extradite ‘Turkish traitors’ hiding in the US.

Iran, after having signed the nuclear accord to lift the sanctions against it, tested the US when it captured a US Navy ship and humiliated its sailors during Obama’s presidency, without the US retaliating in any way against this aggression.

As mentioned, Russia has challenged the US through military activities in a number of countries friendly to the US and by massive involvement in South America, without encountering any reaction from the US. On the other hand, attempts by Eastern European countries to arm themselves with anti-aircraft missiles encountered a furious reaction, which caused the West, including the US, to yield on the issue of arming the Baltic States and Eastern European countries.

And, above all, North Korea is not afraid to challenge the US. North Korea sends threats to the US, and sends missiles over the skies of countries friendly to the US. This is the greatest challenge the US faces today. In fact, North Korea’s behavior is not only embarrassing to the US, but forces the world’s largest superpower to give an honest answer whether it is still the first superpower, or whether the decline that started years ago has reached the point of no return. The West has faced many challenges in recent years both from Iran and Russia, and even Balkan States have challenged the US, not to mention Syria, Yemen and Somalia. The US behavior in most cases did not communicate power or determination, but rather sent a message (to both friend and foe) that perhaps there is no one to fear and no one to count on.

In this atmosphere, North Korea presents a harsh and uncompromising challenge. It openly threatens with nuclear weapons; it teases its neighbors who are friends of the US, delivers threats to Guam – a sovereign US territory, and has yet to be responded to with the force expected of a superpower that claims to be the world’s sheriff. Not only North Korea is waiting to see how the US will react, but friends of the US throughout the world are facing a moment of truth – Is the US a real tiger or a paper tiger?

At some point, an answer will have to be given that can clarify whether the US still leads the power of the free world; whether those who want to violate world order and public safety, to sow terror with weapons of mass destruction, have anything to fear; whether the world can still rely on the US to protect and defend, or the world has to regroup and find new allies and new defenses, putting an end to the old world order. The calls to be careful and not upset a terrorist state like North Korea place real and difficult questions before decision-makers in the US and its allies, as well as before North Korea’s visible and concealed partners, which are also waiting to hear from the anticipated response what they can expect when the crunch comes. America will eventually have to give a decisive answer. Time is running out. Has the balance of terror come to an end? Can we proclaim its demise?

About the Author
Dr David Altman is senior vice-president at the Netanya Academic College and vice-chair of the college's Strategic Dialogue Center
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