18 January 2023

Securing democracy

A recent post at Annie Asks You blog included the following timely reminder:

I heard a discussion about the national security implications of the world's seeing the Republicans' fiasco in choosing a Speaker as a sign of our weakness. Foes have been emboldened; friends have been jolted. President Biden’s reminder that when he first met with our allies and said "America is back," their question was "for how long?" presses in on us once again.

Even before the Republican speaker-election drama, I'm sure this problem was under serious consideration in a number of capitals.  Republican control of the House could endanger funding for foreign-policy initiatives such as Ukraine aid; more importantly, if Trump won the presidency once, he or someone like him could win it again.  It's a possibility that can't be ignored.  The fundamental issue is that the US is not as reliable as other democracies assumed before 2016.  They need to plan for a world in which the US will no longer be the protector of last resort for global democracy -- just in case that world does, in fact, materialize at some point.

So, logically, what should the other democracies do to prepare for a scenario in which the US is out of the picture and they're on their own?  Because it's likely that they will indeed begin doing those things -- if they haven't already.  They can't just wait and see every time the US holds an election. Preparation for a worst-case scenario takes time, and thus needs to be started in advance.  So this post can be considered a suggestion of what the world of five or ten years from now will actually look like.

Most obviously, the three big developed democracies of eastern Asia -- Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan -- should develop the capabilities they will need to deter China, and if necessary defeat it, without US help.  I've observed that Japan has already committed to a huge military build-up, while South Korea is debating acquiring its own nuclear deterrent, an option which over 70% of the public there supports.  In Japan, too, the question of an independent nuclear force is bound to arise, since it would be difficult to imagine a truly effective deterrent against nuclear-armed China without one.

As for Taiwan, it continues to build up its conventional defenses against the potential invasion which the Chinese regime keeps openly threatening.  Given the huge disparity in size between itself and its adversary, however, it too must eventually consider the nuclear option.  The analogy here is Israel, another small but technologically-advanced democracy under constant threat from a much larger authoritarian adversary (or group of adversaries).  Since it became clear that Israel has nuclear weapons, the major wars of aggression which characterized the 1948-1974 period have stopped, and tensions with at least some Arab states have eased.  Taiwan could achieve the same security the same way; there is no point in invading even a small country, if victory would mean catastrophic devastation for the aggressor.

Another obvious move would be for the east Asian democracies to form a strong alliance with India, the world's largest democracy, which is already nuclear-armed and already an enemy of China.  However, the Modi government (which has points in common with the Trump and Bolsonaro administrations) has waffled disgracefully on the Ukraine war; at least for now, it cannot be viewed as more reliable than the US.

In Europe, the situation is more uncertain, because much will depend on the outcome of the Ukraine war.  France and the UK are already nuclear-armed, and Germany, like Japan, is already committed to a serious conventional military build-up.  If the Ukraine war leads to a collapse and break-up of Russia, the threat to Europe will be much reduced, and probably containable with existing European strength.  However, if Russia remains intact and resentful, waiting for another chance to seize territory, then stronger deterrent capabilities will be needed.  Given what the Ukraine war has revealed about the quality of the Russian military, Europe's existing conventional forces should be able to defeat those of Russia if needed; but on the nuclear side, France and the UK will probably need to increase the size of their arsenals, and the option of a German or perhaps Polish nuclear deterrent may need to be considered.

Some of these options will lead to hand-wringing among the nuclear non-proliferation crowd, but the Ukraine war has blown their entire case out of the water.  Ukraine had nuclear weapons after the break-up of the USSR, but renounced them in favor of paper security guarantees which we can now see were worth nothing.  It is obvious that if Ukraine still had a nuclear deterrent, the Russian invasion would not have happened, and the country would have been spared tens of thousands of deaths and horrific devastation.  Taiwan, South Korea, Poland, etc are well able to understand this and to see the implications for their own situation.  They want to be secure from invasion like Israel, not vulnerable like Ukraine.

The US nuclear umbrella has kept most of the democratic world safe since the mid-twentieth century, but no international system lasts forever.  The US is becoming potentially unstable and unreliable, and the rest of the free world must look to its own security.


Blogger Darrell Michaels said...

It is absolutely true that Putin's Russia would never have annexed the Crimea or tried to take over other Ukrainian lands while making egregious direct attacks on civilian targets (war crimes) if Ukraine had retained its nuclear weapons after the collapse of the Soviet Union. That deterrence factor would have been far too great.

As for the instability of the United States, part of that is due to the sometimes extremism manifested in both parties when they come to power. As an example, Obama attempted to wrangle a favorable deal with Iran in exchange for promises that they would seek nuclear technology only as a means for power generation and not for weaponry.(despite floating on a sea of cheap oil)

Trump came into office and saw the destabilizing influence of Iran reneging on its promises and pursuing nuclear weapons while continuing to be one of our state department's designated greatest state sponsors of terrorism in the world. Trump scrapped the deal with Iran accordingly.

Then Biden enters office and immediately tries to resuscitate the nuclear agreement with Iran while giving away the farm, while having Putin's Russia act as the negotiator on the United States behalf since Iran won't even negotiate with the U.S. directly. Iran has continuously negotiated in bad faith simply to provide them time to develop the nuclear material for a weapon. Scary stuff when their government still continuously spouts death to Israel and the United States. (the little and great Satan respectively.)

This has created great instability and nervousness in the region. Trump, for all of his myriad faults, did usher in some semblance of peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors in the region with the Abraham Accords. Now, we have the Saudis and other nations contemplating their own nuclear weapon programs for the very deterrence against Iran that Ukraine willingly relinquished at their now great cost.

18 January, 2023 09:30  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

That isn't the kind of unreliability I'm talking about. Trump picked fights with fellow democracies, got along better with dictators like Putin, Xi, and Kim than with elected governments of allies, and openly questioned the US commitment to NATO and other formal and informal alliances which have protected the free world for decades. No previous president, of either party, had ever behaved that way, not to anything remotely comparable of an extent. That, and to some extent the isolationist lunatic fringe currently acting up in the House, is what has made other democracies question whether the US can be relied on as it always had been before 2016.

18 January, 2023 09:55  
Blogger Darrell Michaels said...

Trump was unnecessarily adversarial with some allies at times. That said, many European NATO members had long neglected their financial obligations to the organization and simply expected the United States to carry the load. Trump got several countries to pony up to their commitments, granted I hate the way that he often conducted "diplomacy", including trying to be seen as more friendly with some of the world's worst dictators. That said, he also put into place actions that pissed off these dictators. Off the top of my head, I recall certain tariffs and shutting down travel from China during the COVID outbreak early on as examples.

Isolationism has never worked out well long term for the U.S. but there are some of the world's entanglements that we simply do not have a dog in the fight and should therefore avoid our blood and treasure being spent accordingly.

18 January, 2023 10:35  
Blogger NickM said...

An interesting analysis, Infidel. You are probably about the most left-wing person I "know" who is pro-nuclear weapons - in the right hands, natch. I don't see Japan or Germany persuing them. South Korea - maybe, Taiwan - almost certainly not. The whole Green ideology is way too embedded in modern Germany for a Chancellor to gain much traction there. Japan is very anti-nuclear - Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Fukushima... I suspect the Taiwanese would see nuclear weapons development as giving the PRC the pretext to invade. I also don't see China trying direct military action against Taiwan any time soon. They simply don't have the capability. They'd need things like a large and effective carrier fleet which could challenge US dominence of the Pacific first and that ain't happening any time soon. I suspect many in the Politburo in Beijing also think they'll wear Taiwan down with a combination of threats and soft-power. I think they are wrong on that working but it doesn't matter what I think. I can no more control the tides than I can influence PRC policy.

To be honest I think it is a good thing more countries (such as Germany) are stepping-up to the plate in terms of military capability. The more defenders of liberty there are the better not least for the reason you point out that all it would take is one or two terms of a super-isolationist POTUS and the pax-Americana is truly buggered.

Just read this:


This seems to be the result of the UK promising to send Ukraine 14 Challenger 2 tanks. 14! Yeah, they're good tanks but 14! The Kremlin must be shitting themselves to threaten WWIII over 14 tanks. And quite what the RoI has ever done to them...

One of the results of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is actually positive. Increasingly the free nations of the World are seeing that the tyrannies are defeatable. Ukraine, pretty much alone, has fought Russia to a standstill. The European NATO nations alone would kick Putin's arse to Vladivostok and back. This is all good. One of the major differences is the free nations have alliances based on having shared values (such as democracy) and are genuinely friendly with each other (bar the occasional spat over trade deals and such) whereas the bad guys only seem to make strange alliances largely of the "The enemy of my enemy is my friend" variety. I mean Russia and Iran as besties? C'mon! Apparently the founding Tsar reckoned he needed a religion to unite the Russias. He considered several including Islam. He rejected Islam on the basis that he reckoned there was no way the Russkies would quit on the booze and pork... And that is where the Russian Orthodox Church gets going. The Metropolitons do have magnificent hats mind so fair enough. Russia and Iran have fuck-all in common other than a profound hatred of "The West". Genuine friendship has to be about positives and not negatives. The PRC are getting matey with Pakistan for much the same sort of reason but in this case it is India who is the shared enemy. Again, nothing much in common apart from that shared hatred. It is interesting that there has hardly been a squeak out of Islamabad over the Uighur genocide.

Relationships based on genuine friendship, shared values and such things are much more stable and powerful than ones driven by shared hatreds and expediency. This is true from the personal level to the international.

18 January, 2023 11:10  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Darrell: One can try to minimize Trump's behavior, but questioning the US commitment to NATO and the defense of other allies like Japan was unprecedented and unforgivable, and my point here has to do with how those countries will reasonably react to the risk of such attitudes resurfacing, not the reasons for the attitudes.

NickM: Thanks. I'm aware of the attitudes in Germany, which is why I suggested Poland as another option. Their history gives them a much more realistic view of the threat posed by Russia, as well as a suitable indifference to German hand-wringing. Poland was actually a major power from the Renaissance to the eighteenth century. Their population is about two-thirds of the UK's and they're getting more developed. I suspect they'll have a growing role to play in the future.

Japan is definitely keeping its options open. They have enough fissionable material stockpiled for six thousand warheads. I'm aware of the anti-nuclear sentiments there, but there's also a resurgent nationalistic element which is influential in the current government. Even when I was there back in 1995, I saw at least one billboard exhorting "teach your children about the northern territories" -- referring to the Kuril islands. And they still have that mile-thick racial superiority complex. If anything, the thought of Japan becoming a superpower makes me slightly nervous, but what I'm writing about here is what I think is likely, not what I want to see. If they can't count on the US, one can't blame them for doing what they decide is necessary. And really, it was never realistic to expect that a country with Japan's potential would forever be satisfied with a lowly position in the world.

I don't know anything about public attitudes in Taiwan, but the comparison with Israel is so obvious as to be unavoidable. I doubt they'd be too worried about giving China a pretext to invade, given that China openly feels entitled to invade already.

Putin's regime is much given to posturing about nuclear attacks, but as the article itself points out, the UK's nuclear forces alone are capable of devastating Russia, to say nothing of the fact that the NATO treaty would require the US and France to respond to a serious attack on the UK. So such an attack would be national suicide for Russia, as Putin perfectly well knows.

Obviously true about the effects of the Ukraine invasion. Russia's military reputation will never recover. And democracies do generally get along. Even those occasional trade quarrels mostly involve governments, not peoples. Even Russia and China, if they someday became genuine democracies and renounced aggression against other countries, would become accepted fairly quickly, as Germany and Japan were.

Nobody in the Islamic world seems to give damn about the Uyghurs. They're too busy being outraged about Israel committing the intolerable crime of continuing to exist.

18 January, 2023 13:00  
Anonymous spirilis said...

Nuclear weapons ended wars of acquisition between entities that armed themselves with them. Those wars would end completely if all were armed with them. War has moved on. Putin bought a president who sent feelers to China and N.Korea to join in.
Israel lies about having them, allegedly. Taiwan has the tech ability, whose to say they don't already have the bomb? TOFF could sell it, be the best, most magnificent bomb.

20 January, 2023 10:33  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

There are some regimes I wouldn't trust with nuclear weapons (Iran comes to mind -- theocracies tend to have apocalyptic delusions which make them less likely to respond rationally to the prospect of mutual assured destruction). And South America doesn't need them -- they've already gone over a century with no major wars. But in general, experience shows that the principle works.

I don't think Taiwan would keep a nuclear arsenal a secret. The whole point of having nuclear weapons is deterrence, which doesn't work if potential aggressors don't know you have them. I suppose they might keep them a secret but clandestinely provide the Chinese regime with proof that they have them, but I don't know how well that would work. The US and other major countries would almost certainly find out.

20 January, 2023 10:49  

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