The X-Factor in Super-Power Rivalry

nuclear bomb test

Four well-known facts about super-power rivalry make it extremely dangerous; at the same time there is an X factor that can increase the danger much more, take it to an entirely new and high level.

First let us briefly mention the four well-known facts. Superpower rivalry has become much worse in very recent times and rival power blocks are being formed more sharply. Secondly, the rival power blocks have between them over 12,000 nuclear weapons and the use of just a fraction of these—say 5 to 10%–can destroy most life on earth (this destruction also engulfing the majority of countries which have nothing to do with this rivalry and don’t want to be involved in it) and disrupt life-nurturing conditions in ways from which it will be very difficult to recover for a very, very long time, if at all. Thirdly, while it is partially true that the possession of such weapons by both sides has some deterrence effect in preventing their actual use this is by no means assured. In conditions of intense hostility and deep suspicions regarding each other’s moves and motives, accentuated by accidental factors and misreading of rival’s moves, actual use of nuclear weapons (a great many of which are in conditions just waiting to be fired and placed very close to targets) is certainly possible and in fact it would be foolish to rule out this possibility. Last but not the least, proxy wars used by one superpower against the other have a chance of breaking into open confrontation between the superpowers under certain conditions.

These four factors together make the present situation a very dangerous one. Even though most people appear to be leading their routine life, probably the earth’s people have never lived under the shadow of a bigger danger.

In addition, however there is also an X-factor which can increase the dangers further considerably and take them to a new peak. This X factor relates to one of the superpower blocks finding a new, much superior weapon or military strength ( or a range of new weapons) capable of changing the balance of power between the two superblocks in such a way that the one who has the new weapon  acquires a very clear and definite superiority over the other.

When the Second World War was in a critical stage both the sides were aware of the difference the atom bomb can make and were trying to be the first to acquire it. The world is fortunate that the USA got it before Hitler got it but it could also have been the other round. The USA got the new weapon when the tide had already turned in favor of the Allies but what if Hitler had got it just a little before them? The entire world history would have changed for much worse as Hitler would have used the new capability in much more destructive ways than the USA used in (in Hiroshima and Nagasaki).

It is well-known that the weapon technology now is very advanced and some of the latest developments are generally secretive. New areas of robot and AI weapons as well as possibilities of militarization of space are emerging. While biological weapons are legally banned, it is actually quite likely that secret research, sometimes in the garb of civilian research, is taking place in some of the top military power countries, aimed at developing highly destructive biological weapon agents, much more destructive than the most harmful viruses existing in nature.

The new military capability which gives a clear superiority to one power block or superpower is more likely to be offensive but it can also be defensive in nature.

Once one superpower acquires a clear superiority, how will it use this? When the USA first acquired the atom bomb technology for some time it was the sole atomic weapon power. During this time suggestions emerged from some highly aggressive policy makers in the USA and Britain (including Winston Churchill) to attack the Soviet Union with several atom bombs pre-emptively, before it could acquire its own atom bomb (despite the fact that the Soviet Union had been a part of the Allies and had played such an important role in defeating Hitler, Fortunately this insane suggestion was ruled out by the saner elements in USA and Britain ,otherwise it could have resulted in extremely high destruction.

What this example shows is that in conditions of intense super power rivalry and hostility, once one of the superpowers or blocks acquires a very clear superiority or capability, there is a possibility that this superpower will immediately use this new capacity to inflict great destruction on the other side, with likely serious environmental implications for a wider area.  On a longer-term, this may be used to assert dominance over the rest of the world (or any part of it) in very unfair ways.

As the worsening arms race and the increasing billions being invested in it are likely to prioritize the development of such weapons or extraordinary military capability, such serious possibilities certainly exist.

The wider issue here is that a very dangerous world not only exists already, conditions of further rapid worsening of dangers also exist. These can only be reduced by very basic changes in the way in which the world is organized and mobilized at present, so that superpower rivalries, division of world between their power blocks, the arms race, the craze for more and more destructive weapons can all be reduced to a great extent, if not done away with entirely. This most urgent task of reducing, if possible eliminating, these biggest dangers must be the topmost priority for world today and a great mobilization of millions and millions of people at world level against such dangers , taking the form of the biggest and most sustained peace movement, appears to be almost the only hope now.

Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Planet in Peril, Protecting Earth for Children, Earth without Borders and A Day in 2071.


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