Michael KreponFalling Apart

Mike Moore reminded me a while back of this verse from William Butler Yeats’ classic poem, “The Second Coming“:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Mike was thinking of domestic U.S. politics, but Yeats’ lines, penned after the carnage of World War I, still have global reach. The Soviet Union, Iraq, Libya, and now Syria have all imploded with weapons of mass destruction. Company men in the Kremlin and strongmen in the Arab world have had their appointments, as Yeats wrote, with the “rough beast, its hour come round at last.” They were swept away amidst anarchy and the blood-dimmed tide, their padded stockpiles of WMD of no practical use. Still standing: Iran, Pakistan, and North Korea, plagued with internal rot. Too big to fail? Works for banks and for Wall Street, but not for poorly governed states with WMD.

Now, as the Assad franchise ends, we seek word amidst the chaos of its undeclared stocks of chemical weapons. Saddam used these weapons against the Kurds and against a neighboring state. Will Bashar al-Assad add this to his résumé, as well? Or will his CW stocks fall into even worse hands? The most remarkable common element of the demise of these four regimes is that their WMD stocks have not – yet – been loosed upon the world when things fall apart and when the center cannot hold.

One aspect of the duality that comes with the Bomb is the divide between states’ decreasing and increasing their reliance on nuclear weapons. (For now, let’s avoid a discussion about states whose possession of the Bomb is mostly an artifact of Cold War history, even though they can’t or won’t acknowledge it.) In general, states that are well off are reducing their attachment to nuclear weapons. States that are deeply troubled are becoming more attached. China is the big question mark: will Beijing become increasingly attached to the Bomb as it becomes better off? The answer to this question will tell us much about our nuclear future.

We worry, with good reason, about the breakdown of deterrence in dangerous neighborhoods, about onward proliferation, nuclear terrorism, failures in command and control, and accidents. Based on ample empirical evidence over the past quarter-century, the most likely yet least studied threats have come from an entirely different category: the failure of states possessing WMD.

Comments

  1. Arch (History)

    Careful with Yeats, Michael, as universal as he may be. Plenty of evidence would suggest this poem was more driven by the Irish rebellion than the first world war.

    You are right, though, and we are lucky so far, when it comes to the issue of failed states and WMD. We can only hope the Russians or somebody can do something if the sh%& hits the fan in Syria. I suppose there have been non-discussions had and non-papers exchanged by otherwise adversaries. I think we can only sleep softly knowing the best guys in this business have already been recruited to do the scutwork, if ever given the chance.

    I have always been smacked upside the head by “The best lack all conviction….”

  2. Johnboy (History)

    “The Soviet Union, Iraq, Libya, and now Syria have all imploded with weapons of mass destruction.”

    An odd choice of words, that.

    Well, ok, a case could be made that the USSR “imploded”, although it was more of an orderly “breakup” than anything.

    Iraq didn’t “impode”: it was invaded.
    Libya didn’t “implode”: NATO bombed Gaddaffi out.
    Syria hasn’t: you are getting ahead of yourself.

    “The most remarkable common element of the demise of these four regimes is that their WMD stocks have not – yet – been loosed upon the world when things fall apart and when the center cannot hold.”

    Maybe it is as simple as this: WMD are so invaluable that even when a country implodes/explodes/is invaded whoever has the wherewithall to grab control of those stockpiles also has the brains to realize that they had better keep a tight grip on them.

    A Numero Uno Priority, I would have thought, if only for reasons of self-preservation…

    • joshua (History)

      An apt description of the Nunn-Lugar program.

  3. John Schilling (History)

    The Soviet Union, Iraq, Libya, and now Syria have all imploded with weapons of mass destruction. “They were swept away amidst anarchy and the blood-dimmed tide, their padded stockpiles of WMD of no practical use”

    Which Iraqi WMD stockpile was that, again? And when exactly did the Assad regime fall?

    Iran, Pakistan, and North Korea not only have not fallen, but seem to be in no danger of falling any time soon. I am concerned that one key lesson from recent history is that a proper arsenal of WMD is in fact a reasonable guarantee of regime survival; that if you’ve got the nukes, the rest of the world will keep out of your internal affairs, and if the rest of the world keeps its hands off you can bribe, machine-gun, or gas the local dissidents into submission.

    The fall of the Soviet Union is a poor counterexample, I am afraid, in that it was a generation ago, largely voluntary, and widely regarded by the Russians as having been a bad idea.

    • krepon (History)

      John:
      Your point about the lack of utility and deterrent effect of covert CW stocks is very important. The good news: the CW Convention and the norms it seeks to universalize are in stronger shape, thanks, ironically, to the likes of Saddam & the Assad franchise. Note to non-signatories: is this the company you wish to keep? The bad news, as you say: nuclear capabilities look better for deterrence purposes.
      MK

  4. krepon (History)

    John:

    My tenses could have been clearer. Three are past, one is future. But surely you get my drift. All four states/strongmen mentioned obtained WMD. WMD proved to be a poor substitute for longevity.

    I make no predictions about Iran, Pakistan or North Korea. But given the track record I refer to, none of us can be surprised by another implosion due to internal and/or external causes.
    MK

    • Johnboy (History)

      “But surely you get my drift. All four states/strongmen mentioned obtained WMD. WMD proved to be a poor substitute for longevity. ”

      Well, look, apart from the USSR what marked all those countries out for A Big Fall was the fact that the USA decided that they had to go down.

      No real surpsise there: the USA makes a habit of toppling governments left, right and centre and, basically, you can lump Libya, Iraq, (possibly) Syria in with Granada, Panama, etc.

      So the lesson that can be learnt from that is not that:
      “WMD proved to be a poor substitute for longevity”
      but this:
      The USA doesn’t really give a rat’s arse whether or not you have WMDs, because if it wants you taken down then it’s gonna take you down.

      Nukes, sure, they are a diffent issue altogether, but anything short of that simply doesn’t scare the USofA.

  5. fafnir (History)

    You should probably include Apartheid south africa in that little lot as they were the only ones with actual nukes,but too their credit the white political elite did dismantle both its racist government and its nukes before the bloodbath happened,as for Assad I see no sign of him leaving office voluntarily or otherwise in the near future.The israelis have typically made the usual threats,this time about having to take measures into their own hands regarding syrias wmd,if assad looks like falling,the fsa or whatever they call themselves say that they have a team of “experts” ready to secure these weapons and sites,in the event that they actually capture them that is.

    • Scott Monje (History)

      “. . . too their credit the white political elite did dismantle both its racist government and its nukes . . .”

      Or, put another way, they made sure the nukes were gone before giving up the government.

  6. Ado (History)

    Syria will not implode, it will explode.

  7. Jens (History)

    I have to read the old (and not always convincing) Sagen-Waltz debate…As I remember, Waltz wrote some lines about nuclear weapons and internal instability and transformation processes.
    the arms control approach in the tradition of T.C.Schelling/Halperin has three goals:
    1) reduction of the likelihood of nuclear war
    2) if war occurs, limit the consequences, and
    3) reduce the costs of armaments
    there are a lot of tensions between these goals. but the last one is very important with regard to imploding/exploding…countries. to build weapons might not only increase “strategic stability” (whatever that means) but also decrease internal/political and societal stability. well, nukes might not be a sufficient condition for regime survival, but they can be a necessary condition for regime collapse.

    jens

    • Jens (History)

      Sorry: It is Sagan, not Sagen

  8. Matt (History)

    Can’t we get a clue about future threats from the Soviet Union, Japan, the global financial crisis of 2008 or the Arab Spring? The most dangerous threats are the threats we know and thought we understood, but really don’t.

    Soviet Union – A well known nuclear reactor had an unknown defect at low power generation.

    Japan – We all know Japan is at risk for tsunamis, but who could have guessed at the size of tsunami that would take out the nuclear reactor at Fukushima. It turns out that there were historical markers in hills saying don’t build below here. Nobody listened.

    2008 Global Financial Crisis – How many economists saw this coming?

    The Arab Spring – How many saw this coming? Stable regimes suddenly undergoing massive transformation.

    All of these have something in common: They all represent stable well known systems that suddenly collapsed.

    It turns out that economic collapses, wars, forest fires, sandpile collapses and earthquakes all have something in common. They all have a positive feedback loop that drives each system to automatically collapse. They all tend to have a power-law distribution.

    What about the future?

    If you thought the 2008 global financial crisis was about finance or economics then you would be wrong. It was about bad decisions and corruption. And these factors will apply to other areas as well.

    Another well known stable system to set for massive transformation. A report called Global Trends 2025 points out that the world order we know today will not exist by 2025. The world is undergoing a massive transformation. And there will be surprises and shocks.

    What if this transformation is not smooth?

    Trends in the South China Sea and East China Sea are very worrying. The current path is toward armed conflict.

    Russia has effectively threatened nuclear war over Iran and Syria. It has threatened nuclear attack in one form or another about 15 times since 2007.

    What would happen if Syria uses its chemical weapons on Israel? What if Israel attacks Iran?

    Is nuclear war unthinkable? If you can read the minds of Russian and Chinese leaders, then you have nothing to be worried about. The rest of us should be worried.

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