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Crossing red lines to nuclear war

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Biden’s “Build Back Better” seeks to get back to a semblance of unipolar position, but having crossed Russia’s red line over Ukraine, war has broken out, but it is contained because it is a proxy war where only the Ukrainians are dying, whilst Nato provides the arms.

NOW that the pomp and glory of US Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan is over, and China has held military exercises surrounding Taiwan, what has been achieved other than further worsening of US-China relations?

The crumbling of the current world order is like an earthquake. Initially everything looked fine, then cracks and tremors begin to appear, and events accelerate until the actual earthquake occurs with massive devastation.

The difference between earthquakes and war is that the latter is human-induced and should in theory be avoidable.

The Thucydides Trap is less about whether Great Powers will fight and more about whether it is avoidable. History has rewarded heroes when they win wars, but has seldom praised statesmen who have avoided wars.

History will debate whether the Ukraine war was avoidable. So far, it is a non-nuclear war because Russia warned the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) not to provoke a nuclear situation.

Nato at least understands that the Cold War, fought between 1946-1991, did avoid nuclear war.

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Both sides understood that nuclear war was “MAD” (mutually assured destruction). There were lots of proxy wars, such as the Korean war, where the Soviets pushed China to do the fighting, or Afghanistan, where the United States financed Islamist forces to wear down the Soviet forces.

The Cuban missile crisis was defused when the Russians agreed to remove missiles from Cuba, provided the Americans removed missiles from Turkiye. Both sides decided to back down from each other’s “red lines”, the crossing of which would escalate beyond either side’s control.

The American economist who had the most influence on shaping understanding of nuclear options was Thomas C Schelling (1931-2016). His Nobel laureate lecture “An Astonishing Sixty Years: The Legacy of Hiroshima” reminds us how lucky and rational we were so far in avoiding nuclear escalation.

Schelling’s great attribute was to apply intellectual rigour and common sense to very uncomfortable questions. He thought through the unthinkable. A leading game theorist, he understood that all human decisions are interdependent, contingent upon someone else’s behaviour, the most common being “tit for tat”.

But common sense at the individual level does not always work at the global level. Married couples who want a divorce can appeal to a court for independent judgement.

Great Powers cannot appeal to any higher court, not even the United Nations, because they have the veto over any ruling.

Thus the only global rule is that Great Powers must reach an understanding with each other and not cross each other’s red lines, beyond which they will clash.

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