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A Doomsday Machine, or the Next Best Thing

“Of course, the whole point of a Doomsday Machine is lost if you keep it a secret,” said Dr Strangelove to the Soviet ambassador in Stanley Kubrick’s classic film of the same name. Fifty years later, it would appear that the Russians have finally watched the movie.

In Kubrick’s film, a rogue American air force commander orders a nuclear strike on the Soviet Union – but he doesn’t know that the Russians have built a Doomsday Machine that will automatically explode and spread lethal radioactive contamination all over the world if American nuclear weapons land on the USSR. So everybody dies.

Moscow doesn’t want the United States to make the same mistake in real life, so it has just let us know that it is building a mini-doomsday machine. It wouldn’t destroy the whole world, just a half a continent or thereabouts – like, say, all of the United States east of the Mississippi River, or all of China within 1,500 km of the coast.

It is awkward to say this sort of thing through diplomic channels – “I have the honour to inform Your Excellency that we can now destroy half of your country with only one explosion” – so the preferred method is to get the word out by an accidental “leak”. In this case, the leak occurred on 10 November in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, where President Vladimir Putin was meeting with his senior military officers.

A cameraman for state-owned Channel One television “accidentally” filmed a general studying a poster of a new weapon called “Status-6”, a giant torpedo (a “robotic mini-submarine”, the poster called it) that can travel up to 10,000 km at high speed carrying a huge payload – like, for example, a truly gigantic thermonuclear weapon. And the film clip was broadcast all over Russia before the “mistake” was discovered.

The text on the poster was clearly legible. The “oceanic multi-purpose Status-6 system,” it said, is designed to “destroy important economic installations of the enemy in coastal areas and cause guaranteed devastating damage to the country’s territory by creating wide areas of radioactive contamination, rendering them unusable for military, economic or other activity for a long time.”

“It’s true some secret data got into the shot. Therefore it was subsequently deleted,” said President Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov. But the complete text and a cutaway diagram of the Status-6 are now available on a hundred websites, and the Kremlin doesn’t seem particularly upset.

Indeed, the government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta later reported details of the weapon, without showing the diagram, and speculated that it would carry a gigantic cobalt bomb – just like the Doomsday Machine in “Dr Strangelove”, although a little smaller.

The explosive core of the warhead would be a massive thermonuclear bomb – perhaps as big as 100 megatonnes, almost twice as big as any bomb ever tested. Around this core would be wrapped a thick layer of cobalt-59, which on detonation would be transmuted into highly radioactive cobalt-60 with a half-life longer than five years.

“Everything living will be killed,” the paper said. Konstantin Sivkov of the Russian Geopolitical Academy helpfully explained to the BBC Russian Service that a warhead of up to 100 megatons would produce a tsunami up to 500 metres high, which together with the intense radiation would wipe out all living things up to 1,500 km deep inside US territory.

This is crazy talk, but the Russians have always lived in fear that the United States might somehow develop the ability to destroy Russia without suffering serious retaliation. And the truth is that the American military have never stopped looking for some way to do exactly that.

Back in the 1950s, when US Strategic Air Command really could have destroyed the Soviet Union with impunity, physicist Andrei Sakharov (later the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize) actually proposed a weapon rather like System-6 so that Russia could take revenge from the grave.

The latest US gambit is anti-ballistic missile (ABM) defences to be based in Eastern Europe, allegedly to defend against nuclear missiles coming from Iran.

But Iran doesn’t have any nuclear weapons, and it may never get them. Yet the American ABM system is going to be deployed in Poland and Romania in the near future. Moscow is therefore convinced that the whole project is really intended to shoot down its own missiles shortly after launch.

There is no realistic possibility that the American ABM defences could really destroy all or even most of Russia’s missiles, but that is exactly what Putin is saying to his generals on the sound-track just before the TV clip focusses on System-6.

System-6 is not scheduled to be operational until 2019-20, and it may never be built at all. But the old game of nuclear one-upmanship goes on even though the two countries are no longer really enemies. It is pointless and potentially very dangerous, and President Obama might usefully spend the last of his political capital putting an end to it.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 12. (“The text…time”; and “Back…grave”)

Salami Tactics and the Climate

Salami tactics are useful when dealing with problems that are too big to resolve in one go. Muster all your resources and deal with one aspect of the problem. Come back later, when your resources have grown, and hack off a different piece. Repeat as necessary, until the problem disappears.

Salami tactics are driving the make-or-break climate summit that opens in Paris on 30 November. Over the next dozen days more than 150 countries will make binding pledges to cut their emissions of carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse gases”.

This is better than what happened last time, at the disastrous Copenhagen summit in 2009, where only the developed countries were willing to make any promises at all.

Even China, now the biggest emitter in the world, was refusing to accept any limits on its emissions on the grounds that the small group of countries that industrialised early (basically the West plus Japan) were historically responsible for 80 percent of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The Copenhagen summit broke up in disarray, with nothing of substance accomplished, and we had to wait six years for another kick at the can.

Now both the United States and China, the two biggest hold-outs last time, are making concrete offers to control their emissions. That’s crucial, because together they account for 40 percent of global emissions.

The conference must also come up with acceptable ways to monitor the emission cuts everybody is promising to make and to discipline the laggards and the cheats. But let’s be optimistic, and assume that the summit can even agree on a mechanism to transfer $100 billion annually from the rich countries to the poor countries to help them cut their omissions.

That still won’t save us from runaway warming and all the calamities that would entail.

Late last month the United Nations did an analysis of the 146 national plans for emissions cuts (including those of all the big countries) that had already been submitted. Unfortunately, the numbers don’t add up.

If all the promises are kept, global emissions will slow down – but the world still end up in the year 2100 with an average temperature 2.7 degrees Celsius higher than it was in the late 19th century. Yet all the governments going to Paris have acknowledged that the average global temperature must never exceed two degrees C higher.

What can they be thinking? Unlike the media and most of the lay public, the governments understand that plus 2 C is already catastrophic. If we stay there long enough, all the ice on the planet eventually melts and the sea level rises by 70 metres.

Even in the much shorter term plus 2 C means massive storms, widespread desertification, the loss of the world’s coral reefs and a crash in fish stocks due to ocean acidification. Food production worldwide will plummet, and there will be massive, unstoppable refugee flows as hunger and wars devastate the more vulnerable countries.

The governments also know that exceeding plus two or maybe even just getting near it will trigger the “feedbacks”: an ice-free Arctic Ocean absorbs the Sun’s heat rather than reflecting it, the melting of the permafrost zone releases of enormous amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and the warming of the oceans releases even more.

At that point the warming moves beyond human ability to control. The feedbacks, once started, are unstoppable. Even if human beings ultimately get their own emissions down to zero, the feedbacks will still take us up to plus four, plus five, maybe even plus six degrees eventually.

The governments know all this, and yet they have still come up with total promised cuts in emissions that deliver us to an average global temperature of plus 2.7 degrees C by the end of the century. What CAN they be thinking?

They think that they are going as far as they can safely go without committing political suicide. Every government must contend with huge vested interests at home that will be hurt by the shift away from fossils fuels and towards renewables. If governments go too far too fast, they risk being destroyed by the backlash.

Okay, so they are doing all they can politically – but what about the future of the human race? Well, you see, even inadequate cuts in emissions will increase the amount of time it takes for us to reach plus 2 C. And the governments secretly think that we can use that extra time to come back for another conference in three or five years’ time and agree to bigger emissions cuts.

Those further cuts will give us still more time before we reach plus 2, and we use that time for another round of cuts. Like Xeno’s arrow, we get closer and closer to the target (which we must never hit) but never quite reach it. Warming certainly reaches plus 1.8 C or something like that, but it never quite hits plus two.

Salami tactics. Although there is also a whiff of Russian roulette to this way of doing business.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 6. (“Even…can”; and “The conference…emissions”)

War with China: The Thucydides Trap

There is a small but significant industry in the United States that predicts the “coming war” with China, and Atlantic Magazine is foremost among reputable American monthlies in giving a home to such speculation. It has just done it again, in an article that includes a hearty dose of geopolitical theory. The theory is “The Thucydides Trap”.

The author is Graham Allison of Harvard University, the man who coined that phrase. Thucydides, the historian of the Peloponnesian War in the 5th century BC, explained what caused the war this way: “It was the rise of Athens, and the fear that this inspired in Sparta, that made war inevitable.” It lasted twenty years, and at the end of it the two great powers of the ancient Greek world were both devastated.

Yet they didn’t really go to war over anything in particular, according to Thucydides. The problem was that Athens was overtaking Sparta in power (like China is overtaking the United States now), and just that one fact was enough to send them to war. So are China and the United States doomed to go to war in the next decade?

Graham Allison knows better than to make a hard prediction, but he does point out that out of the past sixteen cases when one major power was gaining in power and its rival feared relegation to the second rank, twelve ended in war.

Such predictions and formulas have an impact in the real world. When Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Seattle two weeks ago at the beginning of his US visit, he felt obliged to respond to Allison’s article: “There is no such thing as the Thucydides Trap in the world,” Xi said. “But should major countries time and again make the mistakes of strategic miscalculation, they might create such traps for themselves.”

Well, he wasn’t going to say “Yeah, we’re doomed to go to war with each other,” was he? But it’s clear that Chinese (and American) leaders worry about this – and that worrying about it paradoxically makes it more likely to happen, because it places the whole question of ‘Who’s on top?’ at the centre of their thinking.

Does it really matter who’s more powerful when China and the United States have no shared border, make no territorial claims against each other, and are separated by the world’s largest ocean? Lots of people in each country would say no, but both countries have military-industrial-academic complexes that thrive on the threat of a US-Chinese military conflict.

They wouldn’t benefit from an actual war, of course. But the threat of a great war kept millions of people in the military, in defence industries and in various universities and think tanks in interesting and sometimes very profitable work during the four decades of the US-Soviet Cold War.

The threat of a US-Chinese war already provides gainful employment to a lot of people, though nothing like as many as those who made a living off the threat of World War III during the Cold War. If the perceived threat of war grows, so will the number of American and Chinese experts who make a living from it. So it’s worth examining Graham Allison’s assumptions to see if they hold water.

There are only two key assumptions. One is that China will decisively surpass the United States in national power in the coming decade. The other is that such transfers of power from one dominant nation to another are still likely to end in war. Neither is as certain as it seems.

Chinese dominance is certain if the country keeps growing economically even at its new, lower rate of seven per cent a year. That is still at least twice the US rate, and the magic of compound interest will still do its work. But the era of 10 per cent annual growth ended for Japan and South Korea, the other East Asian “miracles”, after about thirty years. Each country then fell to a normal industrialised-country growth rate or (in Japan’s case) below it.

China is at around the 30-year point now. Maybe its managers are cleverer and it can avoid the same fate, but their recently ham-fisted efforts to prop up the stock market suggest otherwise.

Most observers believe that China’s economic growth this year is already below seven per cent – maybe four per cent or even less. Neither of the other East Asian miracles ever got back onto the ultra-high growth track after they fell off it. At four per cent growth or less, China would not be overtaking the United States any time soon.

As for twelve out of sixteen changes in the great-power pecking order ending in war, that’s true. But according to Allison’s own data, three out of the four that didn’t end in war were the last three, covering the last half-century. Recent history is a great deal more encouraging than older history.

Maybe more effective international institutions have helped the great powers to avoid war. Maybe the existence of nuclear weapons has made them much more cautious. Probably both. But a US-Chinese war is not inevitable. It may not even be very likely.

The Russians in Syria: Humbug and Hypocrisy

It’s a week since the Russians began their air-strikes in Syria, and the countries that have already been bombing there for over a year – the United States and some other NATO countries – are working themselves up into a rage about it. The Russians are not bombing the right people, they are killing civilians, they are reckless, dangerous, and just plain evil.

A statement last weekend by NATO’s 28 members warned of “the extreme danger of such irresponsible behaviour” and urged Russia “to cease and desist.” When a Russian warplane attacking Islamist targets in northwestern Syria strayed across the frontier into Turkey for a few minutes, US Secretary of State John Kerry said that the Turks would have been within their rights to shoot it down.

The weather was poor, the target was close to the border, and the Russians apologised afterwards, but NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said that the incursion “does not look like an accident.” So what does he think the motive was, then? Russian pilots are getting bored, and are having a competition to see who can stay in Turkish airspace longest without getting shot down?

And the wicked Russians are killing civilians with their bombs, we are told. Yes, of course they are. So is the American-led coalition with its bombs. Unless you are fighting at sea or in the open desert, there will always be civilians in the same area as the “legitimate” targets.

It’s particularly unbecoming for the United States to act holier-than-thou about the use of Russian air power in Syria, when it is simultaneously trying to explain why American planes bombed a hospital in Afghanistan last Saturday and killed 22 civilians. Neither Americans nor Russians gain anything by killing civilians; it’s just an inevitable by-product of bombing.

But the biggest Western complaint is that the Russians are bombing the wrong people. Contrary to American and European assertions, they are indeed bombing the “right” people, the troops of Islamic State that Western air forces have been bombing for the past year. But the Russians are also bombing the troops of the Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham. They might even bomb the troops of the Free Syrian Army, if they could find any.

Don’t they realise that these people are trying to overthrow the evil Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad, whereas the cruel and deluded fanatics who serve Islamic State are trying – well, actually, they are trying to overthrow the evil dictator Assad too.This brings us to the heart of the matter.

Western propaganda makes a systematic distinction between Islamic State (bad) and the “opposition” forces (all the other groups). The problem is that there is really little difference between them: they all want to overthrow the Syrian regime, and they are all Islamist jihadis except for the tattered remnants of the Free Syrian Army.

The Nusra Front was created in 2012 as the Syrian branch of ISIS (now Islamic State), and broke away early last year in a dispute over tactics and turf. It is now the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda. Ahrar al-Sham was also founded by an al-Qaeda member, and is a close military and political ally of Nusra. And until the propaganda needs of the moment changed, even the United States admitted that the “moderate” elements of the Syrian opposition had collapsed.

There are no reliable statistics on this, but a good guess would be that 35 percent of the rebel troops confronting Assad’s regime belong to Islamic State, 35 percent to the Nusra Front, 20 percent to Ahrar al-Sham, and ten percent odds and sods including the Free Syrian Army. In other words, at least 90 percent of the armed opposition are Islamists, and probably no more than 5 percent are secular, pro-democratic groups.

There are not three alternatives in Syria. There are only two: either Bashar al-Assad’s regime survives, or the Islamists take over. Really serious Islamists, who hate democracy, behead people, and plan to overthrow all the other Arab governments before they set out to conquer the rest of the world.

They are probably being a bit over-optimistic there, but they would be seriously dangerous people if they commanded the resources of the Syrian state, and they would be a calamity for Syrians who are not Sunni Muslims. The Russians have accepted this reality, decided that it is in their own interests for Assad to survive, and are acting accordingly.

The United States and its allies, by contrast, are hamstrung by their previous insistence that Assad must go on human rights grounds. They cannot change their tune now without losing face, so they don’t bomb Assad themselves, but they persist in the fantasy that some other force can be created in Syria that will defeat both Assad and Islamic State.

Moreover, the leaders of America’s two most important allies in the Muslim world, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, are determined that Assad should go (mainly because he is Shia, and they are Sunnis), and they would be very angry if the US helped him survive.

That, plus American anger at Russia over Ukraine and lingering hostility from the old Cold War, is why NATO is condemning the Russian intervention in Syria so vehemently. But it is all humbug and hypocrisy.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 5 and 7. (“And the wicked…bombing”; and “Don’t…matter”)