Blurring the Threshold Between Nuclear and Conventional War

I will be doing everything that I can to attend the Pine Gap peace convergence, near Alice Springs, in late September – early October.

Pavel Podvig, an American analyst of Russian providence, writing for The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, reminds us why activism of this type remains important. Podvig warns us of a potential danger subtler than the overt military manoeuvres between Russia and the United States/NATO that garner attention;

But there is a subtler, easily overlooked trend as well, which could make the situation even worse: a gradual blurring of the line – particularly in Russia – that separates conventional weapons and their delivery systems from their nuclear counterparts

I am not able to read the entire article, which is a pity as Podvig is a most knowledgeable and insightful analyst.

One of the more annoying aspects of much commentary on nuclear affairs, at least for a seasoned observer such as myself, is the manner in which nuclear modernisation programmes are presented as responses to the latest, post Crimea, retching up of the geopolitical conflict between Russia and the United States.

There have been proposals for the “modernisation” of nuclear weapons for as long as I can remember; PLWYDs, RNEP, RRW spring to mind. Just about all of the world’s nuclear powers are upgrading their strategic nuclear forces. A related programme, in the US context, has been conventional counterforce, which represents a blurring of the line between conventional and nuclear that has been a Russian concern of long standing.

A key underlying factor at play here is NATO expansion, following on from what the eminent realist international relations theorist, John Mearsheimer, referred to as a US post cold war “imperial foreign policy” waged “by design.” Gorbachev proposed, upon the ending of the cold war, that a common political and strategic space be created in Europe, incorporating Moscow, that would largely eliminate the need for nuclear deterrence.

This was explicitly rejected in favour of NATO expansion.

NATO expansion takes a number of forms; geographic expansion to the borders of Russia; expansion of mission beyond defence; globalisation of the NATO theatre of operations. For the Russians these are serious matters, and Moscow’s actions in the strategic domain, to a significant extent, can be read as a push back against this geostrategic advance. Russia, and NATO, naturally, are nuclear powers so these geopolitical tensions have a very serious nuclear component to them.

It is not hard to see how strategic ambiguity of the type discussed by Podvig makes, in a macabre insane way, sense for the Russians. It is on a par with that well known conception of deterrence, due to Schelling, namely “the threat that leaves something to chance.” If, say, some Iskander missiles are nuclear armed and others are not the threat that leaves something to chance becomes very real, one that NATO planners need to grapple with as they implement the mission handed down to them from on high.

Of course, this is all quite insane but it is an insanity whose underlying causes are ignored by commentators, the media and much of the liberal arms control community as Euro-Atlantic integration and its neoliberal premises are rarely, if at all, questioned.

The Pine Gap peace convergence is a convergence of activists protesting against the militarisation of international relations, and the role that Australia plays in the strategic nuclear war planning system of the United States. It is a political event of great importance.

That the peace movement again is stirring is a positive development, for too long critical analysis of nuclear affairs has been dominated by D.C. connected liberal arms controllers, and this newfound activism needs to be nurtured on a continued basis. The peace movement of the early to mid 1980s was an important political force, and it possessed a vision of an alternative conception of world order.

That alternative conception of world order was based on the principles of common security.

These principles need to be dusted off the shelves and brought to renewed relevance. The peace movement should not just fight against the insane drive to Armageddon, it must also fight against the underlying forces that propel that drive, and offer alternative conceptions of world order rooted in the principles of common security.

To a first approximation this will require actions that deter state actions, and that encourage public policies based on common security.

Ultimately the continued survival of the species will depend on perpetual peace. Nuclear deterrence in a world based on competing centres of concentrated power, both corporate and state, that agglomerate in their hands resources and production is no basis for continued human survival.

Only when the resources of the world and its productive proceeds are held in common can there be perpetual peace.