Nonproliferation’s Big Week

by admin on August 2, 2014

A week after I worried that the American public had forgotten about nuclear threats and had allowed their fear of nuclear weapons to recede, nonproliferation had quite a week.

John Oliver, in his HBO program Last Week Tonight, did his part to raise American awareness of nuclear warfare, devoting about half of his show to address the threat from America’s poor management of a sprawling–and yet relatively useless–nuclear arsenal. Take a look at video. It’s incredible.

In addition, the U.S. tried to provoke some interest in nuclear nonproliferation by finally accusing Russia of violating the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty–a treaty that was, in my mind, an instrument China’s vast investment in medium-range missiles would have forced Russia into a violation anyway. (And, ah, well, we’ll just gloss over the fact that ground-based Mk 41 missile launchers can fire long-range cruise missiles just as easily as they can fire anti-missile missiles….but, you know, this is exactly the type of negotiable dilemma that makes young non-proliferation negotiators giddy over the potential for hi-impact Op-Eds, CNN appearances and a future sinecure on the non-proliferation rubber chicken circuit).

But Europe is a sideshow. Raising the profile of Russia’s INF breach is just a little spice to keep that Chinese/Russia relationship interesting.

It’s Asia that matters.

Out in Russia’s eastern hinterlands, the stage is set for an awfully interesting dynamic. Russia’s Chinese neighbors–who probably, upon hearing Vladimir Putin’s call to protect ethnic Russians in the “Near Abroad”, turned their eyes towards Russia’s vast East, thinking, “well, gosh, there’s a whole lot of ethnic Chinese up north, so….what’s good for Russia is good enough for us!”

Today’s wary detente between Russia and China will evaporate pretty quickly. As China’s emerging (and vastly under-appreciated) effort to become the global guarantor of security for ethnic Chinese everywhere converts from a unifying aspiration and becomes a well-resourced reality, Russia’s ever-simmering racial tensions are going to spark…well, let’s just hope it’ll be just another hair-trigger intermediate-range missile standoff. But then again, where racism and nationalism rub up against geopolitics, I become a real pessimist.

Again, it’s Asia that matters. Europe is a sideshow.

The new theatre for intermediate range missile control is–and has long been–the Pacific basin, centering around China. Frankly, I think the announcement about Russian violations should be accompanied by a bit of a Russo-US gambit to encourage China–the country that has the biggest apatite for intermediate rage nuclear missiles–to wake up and realize that it has a lot to loose if intermediate-range missiles become the next “must-have” accessory in the Asia-Pacific.

Again–I’m going to keep hammering away at this–despite the Ukraine standoff, Asia is the real prize. Asia is the future for arms control, and it is high time America’s nonproliferation community started focusing on that looming challenge (If possible, clone Jeffery Lewis).  It may pain some old dinosaurs of the field, but the fate of the world no longer depends upon holding the Fulda Gap. The future will depend upon restraining a hair-trigger array of Asia-Pacific based intermediate range missiles….missiles that are meant (or will be set) to support doctrines that rely just a little too much on surprise.

Now, I’m sure people will want to dismiss my effort to de-emphasize old European nonproliferation efforts. That shouldn’t distract from the bottom line–Nuclear nonproliferation is important. It’s too important an issue to allow the field to shamble into the cozy irrelevance of the Europe/DC rubber chicken circuit–so it is darn good to see the U.S. Government jazzing up the field with a new issue and it is wonderful to see folks like John Oliver re-injecting this issue into our public consciousness.

Let’s build on the energy of the past week, and begin really focusing on the Asia-Pacific.  Because it’s Asia that, uh, matters.

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