July issue 2017
Back to the Future?
Fat Man and Little Boy – these innocuous sobriquets, were given, in a cruel irony, to two specimens of the most destructive weapons ever conceived by human beings. The world shook on August 6 and 9, 1945, when the two atomic bombs were dropped by B-26s, incinerating Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and bringing Imperial Japan to its knees in unconditional surrender. As a testament to its destructive power, a few minutes of nuclear destruction had hastened the end of perhaps the most brutal war in history. The war had been won, but at a terrible cost. By some estimates, 60 million people – three per cent of the world’s population in 1940 – had perished in World War II (WW2).
What emerged from the rubble was a new world order, led by a new, undisputed power: the United States of America. Seven decades after liberal democracy triumphed over facism and subsequently, Communism, that world order has precariously held the peace. Conflicts have not ceased, but a global war with the Great Powers as belligerents certainly has not happened.
It would be foolhardy to think that another World War has been averted just out of the sheer goodness of the hearts of the powers that be. If you ask a realist, nuclear deterrence is the surest safeguard against the world descending into another Great War. To put it into perspective, the impact of the atomic bombs dropped on those fateful days in August, 1945, equalled 15 (Little Boy) and 21 kilotons (Fat Man) of TNT. The nuclear weapons of today, such as Castle Bravo, have the explosive power of 15,000 kilotons of TNT. It is this scale of thermonuclear warfare that has ensured global peace to date.
Perhaps the prime lesson of history is that we, as a species, do not learn lessons from history. Human folly is the only constant in our brief history on Earth. The US-led world order has proved to be sturdy post WW2, even vanquishing the once-mighty USSR. But it is certainly not the “End Of History,” as the likes of Francis Fukuyama would lead you to believe. In the years since the end of the Cold War, new players have emerged that may upset the global balance of power. Can diplomacy avert war? Will we, as a species, be able to survive if the worst of our nuclear nightmares are realised?
Recent developments have not been very encouraging. History might not repeat itself but it does rhyme. This morbid poetic logic is being played out in international events of late, and the circumstances eerily resemble the events that preceded WW2. Some of them are as follows:
A lesser war before a greater war (the Spanish Civil War and the Syrian Civil War).
The Spanish Civil War
It preceded WW2 by less than a decade and, according to many historians, was a prelude to it. The Spanish War would prove to be a battleground between the forces of liberalism, Communism and fascism – a contest that would be fought on a colossal scale in WW2.
As is the case in the Syrian conflict, foreign powers were backing rival factions in Spain to further their own motives. What was essentially a civil war, blew out of proportion and became a harbinger of a bigger disaster to come. Bashar al-Assad, much like General Franco of civil war-era Spain, is holding on to Syria by the skin of his teeth, supported by his external allies. What started with crowds in Damascus, clamouring for more say in their governance during the Arab Spring, has mutated into an international quagmire.
The Russia-China-Iran Nexus
Russians have a proud military history of vanquishing juggernauts such as Napolean’s army and the Third Reich. The end of the Cold War was supposed to downgrade its status from a global superpower to a regional one. Under Putin’s presidency, it has again started to throw its weight around in international relations.
The annexation of Crimea in 2014; starving Europe of its supply of gas; and, more recently, its military presence in Syria in support of Bashar al-Assad only confirms that Russia seeks a bigger role in international affairs. The US is bound by a treaty to come to the aid of Eastern European countries such as Poland and the Baltic states, who happen to be members of NATO, when needed. The numerous missile defence sites scattered across Eastern Europe are meant to strike back in case of a Russian attack. The Cold War still emits hot fumes at the faultline of Eastern and Western Europe.
Not to mention that Russia has the second biggest stockpile of nuclear weapons in the world. If the Cuban Missile Crisis is any guide, a stand-off involving nuclear weapons with its arch rival, the US, isn’t really something beyond the realm of possibility. Saner heads prevailed in the past, but would the same be the case if such a crisis takes place again? In light of recent events, there is no comforting answer.
China – The Return Of The Dragon
Much like nature, power also abhors a vacuum. China has displaced Imperial Japan as the rival to the United State’s hegemony in the Pacific. The Chinese ‘miracle’ is perhaps the biggest comeback story in history. After years of being humiliated during the colonial period, suffering through civil wars and Japanese occupation during WW2 and losing millions of lives during Chairman Mao’s devastating Cultural Revolution, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping have ushered China into a new golden age. ‘Capitalism with Chinese characteristics’ – a euphemism for a regulated market economy under Communist Party rule – has been the thrust that has pushed China into the centrestage of global politics.
The prosperity generated by the Chinese miracle has also had positive knock-on effects on its armed forces. No longer does it have the army of peasants of the Mao era. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is the largest standing army in the world. Couple that with the modernising of its navy and air force, and you have a strong claimant for supremacy in the Pacific.
Until now, the Chinese have practiced pragmatic diplomacy, prioritising coexistence over confrontation. But there are four chief reasons that may change this policy in the coming years, namely: disputes with Japan, the status of Taiwan, the South China Sea and the Korean peninsula.
Japan and China have a bad history. The humiliation of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and atrocities such as the ‘Rape of Nanjing’ during WW2, are still deeply embedded in the Chinese psyche. Territorial disputes on the Senkako/Diakyou Islands fired up nationalist fervour on both sides, in 2015. The dispute is far from resolved.
Another equally potent dispute is between China and Taiwan. China considers Taiwan a runaway province and refuses to recognise its independence. China has, time and again, implied that military reprisal could be on the cards if Taiwan pursues full-scale independence.
Things don’t look promising on the Korean peninsula either. North Korea, a fellow Communist state armed with nuclear weapons, has historically had China’s support, while South Korea, a capitalist democracy, enjoys US backing. Ruled by a capricious leader, North Korea has not shied away from saying it would deploy nuclear weapons at any given opportunity. A war between North and South Korea might easily embroil both the US and China. This has happened before – in the Korean War, in 1956.
America is bound by a treaty to intervene militarily in case either South Korea, Taiwan or Japan are attacked. On the surety of Americans coming to their aid in time of battle, the Japanese do not even maintain a standing army. That leaves three potential flashpoints that could trigger armed conflict between the two most powerful nations on the planet.
Lastly, China claims its territorial right on self-designated swathes of the South China Sea, while America contends that vessels of all nations have rights of free passage in those waters. A recent ruling against China by an international tribunal in The Hague, in favor of the Philippines, has only intensified the Chinese resolve. While this dispute may be resolved by diplomacy in the future, it is a very telling example of the territorial ambitions of a rising China.
The Iran Factor
Ayatollah Khomeini once famously remarked, “America is the Great Satan.” This terse statement could very well summarise US-Iranian relations since the Islamic Republic came into being in 1979. Having one of the largest oil and gas reserves in the world has translated into real power for Iran, and US-imposed sanctions haven’t been able to implode the current regime as intended. Iran has supported proxies such as Hamas and Hezbollah against Israel. It has been wielding similar influence in the Syrian and Yemen conflicts. For all intents and purposes, Iran is a power-broker in the most energy-rich region of the world.
Despite a landmark treaty between America and Iran in 2015, where it was agreed that Iran could only pursue nuclear enrichment for civilian purposes, there still is ambivalence from both sides. Just recently, Iran allowed US fighter jets to use Iranian bases and air space.
The worst-case scenario, if it ever comes to that, would be if the Iran deal became void, and Iranians resumed their nuclear weapons programme. In such an event, it is almost certain either the US or Israel would launch aerial strikes on suspected nuclear sites if not a full-scale ground invasion. Such a conflict would very well engulf the entire Middle East, as Syria has well demonstrated. It’s worth mentioning that Israel almost launched an aerial attack on suspected Iranian nuclear sites until Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu relented under pressure from the top military brass at the last minute.
All of these rising powers have not been functioning in isolation throughout. Over the past few years, a China-Russia-Iran axis seems to be emerging, which threatens the Great Power status of America. Joint military exercises, economic integration initiatives such as the Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific, have made this shift a reality. The spheres of influence of Iran, China and Russia are the Persian Gulf, the South China Sea and the continental region, respectively. America’s hegemony depends on countering their rising influence in the future.
Then, there are hypothetical scenarios that might cause or exacerbate ongoing conflicts. What role would global terrorism play in the global balance of power? Every day seems to bring to the fore new terror outfits inflicting damage on all parts of the globe. A terrorist outfit getting hold of nuclear technology is a nightmare scenario. Case in point, Baghdadi, the self-anointed caliph of IS, has explicitly signalled willingness to use nuclear technology.
Turkey is currently the proverbial dark horse in global affairs. The Syrian conflict has literally and metaphorically bled into neighbouring Turkey. It has been a key NATO ally (and also the only Muslim country in the alliance). After the failed coup attempt, it has held a furious stance against the US and its European allies, namely Germany, and now the Netherlands. Currently, it straddles both the Russian and US-led camps in an indecisive posture. Whichever way Turkey leans in the future, it will have huge ramifications on global power relations.
Lastly, how will global warming – now an established fact – unravel in the coming decades? Changing climatic patterns would doubtless have a huge impact on international affairs. The famous prognostication that, in the future, nations will go to war for water rather than oil seems highly probable.
Even with this backdrop, it might be considered alarmist to predict that another global war is inevitable and to prepare for apocalypse. But since we don’t learn from history, we are often condemned to repeat it. In the decades after WW2, diplomacy, globalisation and nuclear deterrence may have made another global war less likely. But 70 years is just a mere blip in the grand canvas of history. A single bullet from a crazed lunatic’s pistol, which killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in 1914, was the spark that ignited World War I. It would be foolhardy to assume such callous stupidity might never be repeated.
The writer has been associated with media and the social sector.He tweets @hadesinshades