The politics of nuclear brinkmanship

The Cold War is back. That is, if it ever left. The first victim, however, is the global coordination of the G5+1. This portends dire consequences for the nations of the Middle East. Using the ultimate fragility of an American “inspired” framework agreement, Russia and China have announced plans for both nuclear and military projects with Iran. This is bleak news, to say the least. Both Russia and China are acting as if this flimsy framework agreement is a final deal and that the sanctions regime can swiftly be removed permanently. Why the rush? Because the P5+1 is acting as if this is 1962 and not 2015. Events in Europe and East Asia have thrown back the curtain on America’s so-called “victory” in the Cold War, to expose both NATO expansion eastward and a China policy altered by trade but not by military configuration.

I remember 1962 well. In October of that year, I lived through the fortnight from hell called the Cuban Missile Crisis. As teenagers, my friends and I were more than just a little unnerved by two nuclear powers slowly escalating toward potential oblivion. In fact, most of the students in my school thought seriously about the possibility of an end to civilization. We talked about it as if this kind of thing were a normal occurrence. I guess in the aftermath of WWII and the Holocaust, the prospect of nuclear annihilation might appear to young and impressionable minds as something to be expected. But looking back on those days, I now feel as if the current leadership of today’s world powers have seriously erred and thrown us back into a time of immense global uncertainty and acute danger.

If the Cold War was really over, why then did the US expand NATO into the areas of the old Warsaw Pact? It was indeed a provocation, but why did the US view it as necessary? Because for both Americans and Europeans, the German question has never been properly answered. At the heart of Europe lies Germany, the colossal economic and potential military hegemon of three regions — eastern, central and western Europe. Two world wars were fought in order to achieve some kind of balance on the Eurasian land mass, and only a US presence finally determined the nature of such a balance. Without a US presence, Germany could probably dominate, but not necessarily lead. It was the old question of being too big for Europe, but too small for Eurasia, and therefore global leadership. But after the demise of the Soviet Union, the new situation became the tipping point of this very old German question. In fact it was a paradox. If the Americans withdrew from Europe (the end of NATO), the old German question would have reemerged with that country’s reunification. But with end of the Warsaw Pact and the removal of Soviet troops from central and eastern Europe, who could protect these regions from either an enlarged Germany or a renewed Russian pushback? The answer seemed to suggest, only NATO expansion.

But NATO expansion didn’t really solve the “German question”. It only pushed the problem of hegemony closer to Russia. Now, instead of a “greater German” problem, all the countries of the old Soviet sphere were firmly ensconced in the global American orbit. This gave them protection from Germany and Russia. But it was also a direct threat to Moscow. And with the US war in Afghanistan and the myriad of US bases which encircle China, the threat to the entire Eurasian land mass appeared real. Then almost out of the blue came the illegal coup in the Ukraine. At this point President Putin of Russia had seen enough. If the Cold War institution of NATO was to expand into the Russian heartland (the very battlefield of Germany’s invasion during WWII), Russia needed to push back. So too did China. For Beijing, if an American-European security system (NATO) were to endanger Russia’s core military interests in eastern Europe, then the entire Eurasian land mass could be up for grabs. Hence, the beginnings of a strong Sino-Russian entente and the reemergence of the Cold War.

So much for ping pong diplomacy and the vaunted Nixon trip to China; a new Cold War was definitely in the air and one of the key players would be Iran. Iran had always opposed American hegemony in the Persian Gulf, and what better place for Russia and China to impinge on US interests than in the Gulf. Soon Iran will become a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (a loose Asian entente of countries outside the US orbit). And Pakistan and Iran have no longer split over Yemen, and the concomitant Saudi-Iranian divide in the Middle East. In fact, China, Pakistan and Iran are about to embark on a vast energy and trade route that will link Tehran and Islamabad with western China. Meanwhile Russia has signed its own vast energy deal with China, and just five days ago it approved a sale of advanced air-defense missiles to Iran. This new Cold War has even altered the Obama administration’s thinking toward Tehran. Now the Americans appear under the illusion that such moves by China and Russia can be countered by a US-Iran understanding on future Iranian “behavior”. It appears as if all three major powers (Russia, China and the US) have signed on to the unrestricted application of Iranian nuclear power in the near future. Twelve years at the most and Iran will have a nuclear breakout time of less than one month. President Obama has confirmed this himself in his famous NPR interview.

But not only is the Middle East on the verge of going nuclear, Russian nuclear brinkmanship has also astounded many establishment observers in Washington and other NATO capitals. Last month the Russian ambassador to Denmark, Mikhail Vanin, warned that Danish warships “will be targets for nuclear weapons” if Denmark follows through on its expressed interest in joining NATO’s missile defense system. This follows President Putin’s recent admission that he was willing to bring nuclear weapons into the mix of potential options during Russia’s March 2014 takeover of the Crimean Peninsula. Other Russian officials have hinted at bringing back nuclear weapons to Crimea. These weapons were initially removed nearly two decades ago, when the Ukraine relinquished control of the Soviet nuclear systems left over from the Cold War. Now Russia is threatening to bring them back. In a badly divided Europe, the politics of nuclear brinkmanship have once again returned.

One of the great delusions of Cold War strategic thought was that nuclear war could always be avoided, because a secure second-strike capability assured the prospect of annihilation of both parties in a nuclear exchange. This concept was called MAD (mutually assured destruction). But the events of 1962, the Cuban missile crisis, overtook MAD and made it somewhat outdated. Nuclear weapons do not eliminate conflicts of interest between nuclear armed states. On the contrary, politics goes on irrespective of any particular weapons system. Once there is a conflict of interest between two nuclear power states, brinkmanship replaces the assured deterrence factor ascribed to so-called MAD rationality. According to MAD thought, the rationality of assured annihilation would immediately inhibit the prospect of a nuclear exchange. But nuclear weapons are not situated on an island free from the politics of strategic depth and conventional warfare. In other words, Russia under Putin feels so threatened by NATO’s conventional expansion into the Ukraine and advances in defensive weaponry that it would consider going to the brink of nuclear war to prevent such a development.

The same is true, only magnified by a hundred in the Middle East. For instance, what if an Iranian proxy-state in Baghdad were to decide to come to the aid of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan? Perhaps this might occur during an uprising, say thirteen years from now. By then, according to President Obama, Iran could very swiftly and easily have nuclear weapons. Immediately, there would be a conflict of interest between Iran, Israel, Russia, China and the US. And all five states would be nuclear weapon countries. Nuclear deterrence would come into play, but it would be weighed within a context of total strategic capability, including conventional weaponry. Israel would never allow Iran to take over Jordan. In all likelihood, it would be prepared to go to the nuclear brink in order to prevent this takeover. This would be even more true if there were an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank. And what about the reactions of Russia, China and the US? In a sense, this hypothetical situation would be a more profound replay of the superpower events of the 1973 Middle East War. Back then, US President Nixon went on high nuclear alert in order to warn off the Soviet Union during those dark October days. Israel had threatened the world with nuclear brinkmanship over a much-needed conventional resupply of US armaments.

Many misinformed people believe that states will always react rationally to potential nuclear events. This rationality is the basis of the belief in MAD nuclear deterrence. But at the core of this belief lies the corruption of all wars and the very nature of wars. States, like people, will go to the brink in order to protect themselves. In a region threatened by genocide for a hundred years (1915-2015), the Middle East is the last place on earth where MAD’s so-called rationality could deter a nuclear exchange. Nuclear brinkmanship will spread as nuclear weapons spread throughout the region. This is the nature of all weapons of war, including nuclear ones. How much a country would be ready to risk depends on the nature of the totality of the threat. In this sense, war becomes the problem because all weapon systems can be used for genocidal purposes, as instruments of mass annihilation. In 1967, the Arab states opposed to Israel threatened the Jewish state with total destruction. And this was at a time when Israel possessed nuclear weapons and the Arabs did not. So much for rationality.

In order to prevent nuclear brinkmanship, a nuclear-weapons-free zone needs to be established within a zone of peace in the Middle East (see my TOI blog “Israel at the Strategic Crossroads” — April 7th, 2015). Equally as important, the Cold War between Russia and the US must end, and a new security system for Europe must be enshrined. Only these two projects will pull the world back from nuclear brinkmanship. Let us not kid ourselves, the crisis of nuclear weapons will remain as long as war is considered a legitimate option of international statecraft. Only a new age of history can stop the spread of nuclear weapons. Let that new age begin in the Middle East, with a truly historic zone of peace.

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).