Apocalypse – When?

Military competition is certainly no invention of our time, nor is war. We saw that comparatively simple but revolutionary technical innovations such as the use of horses, stirrups and combat bows were able to wreak havoc in the hands of nomads. The effect of these inventions was, nevertheless, limited. Until the Industrial Revolution, vast areas of the earth, closed off by seas and mountains, lived in relative peace for hundreds or even thousands of years. All too often this fact is obscured by the tendency of historians to give undue weight to wars, misfortune and chaos – as a rule these receive much more attention than times of peace. But in the past, mountains, seas, rivers and deserts had a function they lack today: they effectively separated people from each other. Only the technical means at our disposal today have broken down all previously existing geographical barriers. There are no more protected places on the whole planet. Mutual threats have furthermore taken a qualitative leap since both the destructive power of weapons and their availability have increased exponentially within just two hundred years.

This applies in particular to the period after the end of the bipolar system, as it existed until the beginning of the 1990s. In hindsight, it turns out to be nothing less than a stroke of luck that weapons of mass destruction, which threaten the very existence of man, were in the hands of no more than two players: those of the US and the Soviet Union. The current development is heading in a different direction: a multipolar or – as others call it – a polycentric world order has taken the place of the preceding bipolar one.

Most people believe that this development is a token of progress, because they think of greater political and cultural diversity. The dualistic world of the Cold War suffocated in an ideological narrowness that knew nothing else but two fatally hostile economic systems: Soviet Communism and Western capitalism. In the eastern camp Marxists wanted to create the new man. As if it were an incontestable religious dogma, they believed in the one hundred per cent malleability of man. Unfortunately, people left over from the time of darkness when people were still infected by pernicious bourgeois thinking had to be eliminated first so that the new man could unfold undisturbed. For this reason, the „bourgeois“ peasants (kulaks) were mass murdered in the Soviet Union. The Chinese Revolution proceeded in a similar way. The enemies to be rooted out included former landlords, „rich“ peasants and teachers. These were systematically humiliated, tortured and murdered. The Khmer Rouge chose a still simpler method: without much ado city dwellers and members of the educational classes were put into labor camps and executed.

It should be noted that the extreme left credo of man’s total malleability and the extreme right doctrine of social Darwinism left the same bloody stain on history. The Nazis spoke of inferior races that were to be industrially exterminated, for the Soviets, Chinese and Khmer Rouge there were those falsely programmed classes that had to be wiped out – and were victimized in even greater numbers. The totalitarian right regarded equality as mere illusion, the totalitarian left had no place for freedom. While the goal of history for the first was a globe populated by Aryans, this role was reserved to proletarians by Marxists.

Even outside the two camps, it was ultimately only these two alternatives that determined political thinking and action. The so-called non-aligned countries did not establish any political or economic ideology of their own, they just maneuvered between the camps.

Many expect a decisive change from a polycentric world. A hundred flowers are now allowed to bloom; many concepts of thought and existence may simultaneously unfold. No wonder that the liberation from the bipolar trap was initially perceived as a kind of salvation. In Europe, especially in the countries of Eastern Europe, which had to live under the heel of Soviet domination, it was indeed experienced and celebrated as such.

During two happy decades after the fall of the Iron Curtain, hardly anyone suspected that the world would have to pay a high – a very high – price indeed for this redemption. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the world has become polycentric not only culturally but even more so on the military level. And this is not a progress at all, but the biggest conceivable step backwards as the arsenals of mass destruction are about to be spread across the entire planet. In addition to the classic nuclear powers: the US, Russia, France and England, now Pakistan, India and Israel too possess the bomb. North Korea has developed it to operational maturity and disposes of the missiles needed to threaten at least its immediate neighbors. Iran and probably Saudi Arabia too are working on the bomb.*1 Western states unwilling to embark on war will hardly be able to prevent these efforts. This is all the more unlikely as China and Russia mostly veto the World Security Council when preventive strikes are proposed against nuclear candidates.

In the 1980s, Japan received for research purposes three hundred kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium from the US. Due to its high technical competence, the country could produce between forty and fifty bombs in less than half a decade. Moreover, Japan still owns forty-four tons less pure plutonium, sufficient for the production of no less than five thousand nuclear heads.*2 With regard to its stock of potentially usable nuclear material, the Far Eastern country has even caught up with the United States. Technically, Japan is in a position to take a place among the great nuclear powers – a fact that right-wing circles, animated by Shintaro Ishihara, the writer and longtime mayor of Tokyo, like to boast of in public.*3

From the bipolar to a polycentric world

In the bipolar era, the two superpowers, the US and the Soviet Union, were focused on what the opponent did, the rest of the world counted for little. Smaller states, including European countries, only figured as stage extras and spectators, manipulated by the two giants for their respective purposes. The real engine of this mutual fixation was fear, combined with a constant assessment of the opponent. What reactions could A expect from B if it allowed its missiles to be stationed nearer to the opponent or if it won over other states for its ideology? The game was led in a cold way, but each of the two powers was aware that it could at any moment turn into a hot phase of world conflagration.

The danger was acute in 1962, when Nikita Khrushchev was wrong about the psychology of his youthful counterpart John F. Kennedy. He didn’t think he had to take the young man too seriously. He decided to station long-range missiles in Cuba with which he could threaten the largest American cities with nuclear annihilation from a very short distance. In this poker game, the Soviet Prime Minister was concerned with more than mere defense and deterrence, he tried to gain a definite strategic advantage. If the Soviets had succeeded in deploying missiles right on the doorstep of the United States, they would be able not only to threaten them with a first strike, but fully checkmate them. Until the very last moment, the Soviets systematically lied. They did everything to deceive the Americans about what they were actually doing. This strategy was almost successful. The Soviets nearly succeeded in building several bases in Cuba ready for launch.

On October 27, 1962, the United States faced the challenge of stopping the Russians at the last moment or anticipating them with a nuclear first strike. It was Kennedy’s prudent approach, but also Nikita Khrushchev’s judiciousness that the nuclear holocaust was avoided – but only at the very last moment.*4

A startling realization remains nevertheless. At that time, the fate of five billion people depended on the reason or else the irrationality of two individuals, supplemented by no more than a handful of consultants. What would have happened if Kennedy had been less prudent or Khrushchev less judicious? This is where the harmful effects of weapons of mass destruction come into force. They consist in the immense power given to a handful of individuals over the rest of the world. In extreme cases, the fate of billions of people depends on the push of a button by some politician. Incidentally, it seems quite probable that even after this narrowly avoided Armageddon, neo-conservative American circles under George W. Bush continued to dream of a first strike.*5 Seen in this perspective, Hoimar von Ditfurth was right when he recommended the Germans to imitate Luther and plant an apple tree. As long as these weapons exist, there will always be people prone to flirt with their use.

In a polycentric world, the consequences of our present-day arms race are incalculable. Since no great power is strong enough to systematically prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction by a credible threat to use violence, while, on the other hand, none is so weak that it cannot prevent violence by vetoing it in the UN Security Council, it is to be expected that sooner or later every economically rising state will strive to guarantee its economic power by military means, including nuclear weapons. This will, of course, create an additional snowball effect. The more states already own the bomb, the greater will be the desire of the remaining ones to get their hands on it as well. Nobody will doubt that this makes our world a far more dangerous place. Mere chance and carelessness transform it into an easily flammable powder keg.

I think, we can hardly overemphasize the stark contrast between a comparatively safe bipolar world and the far more dangerous multipolar world, as it has developed since the beginning of the 21st century. As long as the fate of the world was in the hands of two actors only, these were able to agree with comparative ease on a balance of deterrence. The best solution was that minimum of cooperation, which gave to both camps a maximum of security. Agreeing on mutual control, they even renounced the further development of weapons that would override the existing balance. After 1986 both superpowers achieved a reduction in nuclear heads by as much as two thirds. Even if the remaining third is still sufficient to eradicate several times all earthly life on the planet several times, controlled disarmament was nevertheless a substantial success. Through cooperation and the trust gained thereby a reasonably stable state of coexistence could be achieved.

The human factor

Even at the time when only two antagonistic nuclear powers were confronting each other, the world was faced with the risk of physical annihilation. But such a confrontation (including a worst-case scenario based on technical or human error; see Note 48) would probably occur no more often than once in the course of twenty years. In a polycentric world, where even minor powers (like North Korea) dispose of such weapons, we must expect „near catastrophes“ or real accidents at a much faster pace. The relationship of mutual assessment and monitoring now gives rise to many more combinations: Israel against Iran, North against South Korea, Pakistan against India, China against the US, the US against Russia or – at a later date – China against Russia, and so forth. The human factor will therefore play an increasingly dominant role. Weak nerves, insulted pride or pure pleasure in playing with fire could not be fully excluded even on the part of men like Khrushchev and Kennedy; but it is a staple feature of all those Kims, Ahmadinejads and unfortunately also of all the Trumps and Putins of our world.

Furthermore, the human factor is only one of two dimensions of an enormously increased threat potential: carelessness, sloppiness, and technical misplanning, in a word, unforeseen technical malfunctions, may be of at least equal importance. Airplanes regularly crash, arms depots explode somewhere on the globe. As weapons of mass destruction continue to spread, it is only a matter of timebefore the worst-case scenario occurs – as for instance that nuclear incident, which happened three days after the swearing-in of John F. Kennedy.

At that time, a B-52 bomber got out of control over North Carolina – two sharp hydrogen bombs fell to the ground. As one safety mechanism failed after the other, the bomb was about to go off. It is due to mere chance that the last of four security barriers finally worked, and that the United States still exists in its present shape. Otherwise they would have been the first victims of a 4-megaton hydrogen bomb!

The second bomb landed in a swamp. Its explosive material remained intact, but the uranium core sank to a depth of more than twenty-one meters. Up to the present day, it hasn’t been found. In his latest book “Control and Command”, Eric Schlosser lists a whole series of equally dramatic accidents that occurred either during the transport of nuclear weapons or were due to their inadequate control. In some cases, these weapons were so poorly guarded that they could easily fall into the hands of terrorists.

Meanwhile, the level of nuclear radiation is rising due to the military and civilian use of nuclear power. Not only were atom bombs detonated deliberately over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but about two thousand more test detonations were taking place afterwards.

Where does the arms race lead us?

It was the United States that deliberately broke the balance of deterrence with the missile defense shield they propagated and developed. It was foreseeable, and indeed inevitable, that so doing they would force Russia and China, the great powers competing with it, to look for technical solutions that would offset America’s technical edge. In other words, the global arms race was set to gain further momentum. But it does so no longer to the advantage of the US. Chinese military spending is expected to reach the US level by 2020 at the latest and to exceed it thereafter. In any case, the technical instruments required to overcome America’s lead have now been developed in both Russia and China. For the time being, it looks as if supersonic rockets faster than ten Mach could undermine all presently existing missile defense shields. Russia is already claiming to be able to do just that with its newly developed nuclear driven ballistic missiles.

The cancelling of the balance of deterrence has brought no advantage to the US, on the contrary. It has significantly increased not only its own vulnerability but also that of all other states. Those who now dispose of a sufficient number of the new supersonic ballistic missiles could even count on a certain probability of halfway surviving when attempting a first strike. Half a century ago, Mao Zedong had shown in a notorious speech he held in 1957 that such macabre games of arithmetic may well be played by high-ranking politicians. Under the title „American Imperialism is a Paper Tiger“ Mao publicly stated that he did not regard nuclear war as an abnormally dangerous catastrophe. Half of the Chinese population would probably not survive it, but the remaining half would soon multiply to such an extent that the number of people would reach its original size in quite a short time.*6 If it is true what could be read in a brochure of the anti-nuclear movement, then similar babbling could also be heard in Germany, for example from the mouth of the Berlin bishop Otto Dibelius: „From the Christian point of view, the explosion of a hydrogen bomb is not such a terrible thing, because we all strive for the eternal life.”*7 It is to be feared that such delusions may be much more widespread.

What is worse, is that even in those states where we believe reason at home, a substantial proportion of economic wealth is used to perfect the instruments of destruction. In order to remain at least a few steps ahead of its potential enemies even after the defensive umbrellas may have become holey, the US is now working on a system of sky bombs. They are developing satellites equipped with atomic missiles, so that they may attack and extinguish any point of the globe at the push of a button within a few minutes. Should this really happen in the coming years, we may be certain that the Chinese and Russians, for their part, will not hesitate to proceed in a likewise manner. What a brave new world, where the sky is starred with bombs. This will not be the imagination of satanic powers, but the product of our atavistic primate mentality.

This primitive mentality has remained with us to this very day, while at the same time our technological skills have been perfected to the highest degree. In past history, the proliferation of weapons never posed a threat to the survival of humanity. It always „merely“ led to the extinction of human “foes” in certain parts of the globe. As much as we hate to admit it, mutual killing even proved to be one of the strongest motors of material progress. In order to cope with the military attacks of other tribes, states or nations, it was essential to immediately copy and, if possible, improve every technical innovation that could endanger one’s own position. This is why Heraclitus had proclaimed war to be the father of all things.  The arms race was a race for the best ideas and their best possible realization – in this respect it remains one of the most powerful forces of innovation up to the present day.

But it is exactly this race for the best methods of mutual destruction that mankind can no longer afford. Today war is more than just a phenomenon of „moral hazard“, where those responsible for its unleashing – kings, princes, generals and power elites – usually take the least risk. Nuclear technology has transformed war into an instrument of collectiveannihilation. The idea that in ten to twenty years at the latest, apart from North Korea, nuclear or even hydrogen bombs and the missiles required for launching them will get into the hands of dozens of other states, is intolerable: It amounts to nothing less than guaranteed collective destruction.

This gloomy prediction unfortunately applies even in the event that neither aggressiveness nor malicious intent are involved. Even the reasonably safe bipolar world of yesterday, where only two powers accessed the trigger of Armageddon, was quite near to drive the world – by mere chance – into an atomic disaster, as was illustrated above by a few examples. It is easy to see that in a polycentric world with more and more states equipped with nuclear bombs the probability of an unintentional technical incident will increase exponentially. As we now know, the world narrowly escaped a first strike by the Soviet Union in 1983.*8 Noam Chomsky rightly states, that it must be considered „a near miracle that nuclear war has so far been avoided.“

A brief look at today’s nuclear destruction potential is sufficient to confirm this insight. The US, Russia, France, China, Great Britain, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea each have an arsenal of about 4650, 3740, 300, 240, 160, 100, 100, 80 and ?? (unknown) nuclear warheads. That brings the total number of bombs to nearly ten thousand.*9 However, this figure only becomes fully relevant when confronted with the statement by US experts that the modest quantity of three hundred nuclear bombs in total would be completely sufficient to prevent any potential enemy from attacking the United States. A counter-attack with three hundred bombs would make its own territory uninhabitable for centuries.

To be sure, the United States and Russia have managed, by mutual agreement, to substantially reduce their arsenal – the US by 85% compared to 1967, Russia by 89% compared with the maximum level in Soviet times. There are now 54,000 fewer nuclear bombs than in 1986. This is a huge step forward, as it substantially limits accidents due to mere technical malfunction and human failure. But the goal to which the original nuclear powers expressly committed themselves in Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, namely a progressive reduction culminating in a complete abolition of the entire nuclear arsenal, has never been seriously considered. Rather, it was clear from the outset that Article VI would remain a dead letter, since any power that would go one step too far in reducing weapons would become vulnerable and be at a huge disadvantage. In fact, much has been scrapped that was already rendered unusable by obsolescence. By contrast, arms spending in view of modernization and innovation continue to rise – they do so even at an accelerated pace since Trump was made president. The world spends almost $1.7 trillion on it – about 70 percent more than at the beginning of the 21. century or as much as Canada’s GDP.

What should a world be like in which a globalized humanity can survive? Should it look multipolar, bipolar or rather monopolar? I consider this a most urgent question to which I try to provide an  question  in my new book „„In Search of Meaning and Purpose in Human History”. The present essay is an excerpt.

1 Chomsky: “But the U.S. itself encouraged the Shah to nuclear armament: „(Cheney, Rumsfeld, Kissinger and others) were urging the shah to proceed with nuclear programs and pressuring universities to accommodate these efforts“ (http://web.mit.edu/fnl/volume/281/chomsky.html).

2 Cf. http://www.business-standard.com/article/news-ians/us-presses-japan-to-hand-back-300-kg-of-plutonium-114012700058_1.html.

3 Ishihara is loudly advocating a Japanese armament with nuclear weapons: „Japan needs nuclear weapons. Unless we have them, we won’t be treated as equals. Look at world politics… The only way Japan will survive is to set up a military regime. Unless we do so, Japan will become a vassal state.“ (http://www.japancrush.com/2012/stories/ex-tokyo-mayor-ishihara-shintaros-most-outrageous-remarks.html).

4 Kennedy 1999, pos. 590. „I think these few minutes [when Americans were still unclear as to whether Soviet warships would accept the blockade of Cuba]were the time of gravest concern for he President. Was the world on the brink of a holocaust?”

5 This results from an article in ‘Foreign Affairs’ March/ April 2006. „The Rise of Nuclear Primacy”: „Today, for the first time in almost 50 years, the United States stands on the verge of attaining nuclear primacy. It will probably soon be possible for the United States to destroy the long-range nuclear arsenals of Russia or China with a first strike.“ (http://www.dartmouth.edu/~dpress/docs/Press_Rise_US_­Nuclear_Primacy_FA.pdf). See note 40.

6 “I’m not afraid of nuclear war. There are 2.7 billion people in the world; it doesn’t matter if some are killed. China has a population of 600 million; even if half of them are killed, there are still 300 million people left. I’m not afraid of anyone” (http://www.theepochtimes.com/n3/4758-maos-nuclear-mass-extinction-speech-aired-on-chinese-tv/).

7 Quoted from Radkau (2017), p. 77.

8 Vgl. https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanislaw_Jewgrafowitsch_Petrow.

9 SIPRI (http://www.sipri.org/yearbook/2013/files/sipri-yearbook-2013-chapter-6-overview) arrives at a higher number: “At the start of 2013 eight states possessed approximately 4400 operational nuclear weapons. Nearly 2000 of these are kept in a state of high operational alert. If all nuclear warheads are counted — operational warheads, spares, those in both active and inactive storage, and intact warheads scheduled for dismantlement — the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan and Israel together possess a total of approximately 17,270 nuclear weapons.