Nuclear Powers Still Rule The World

Minuteman Takeoff U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Clayton Wear/Vandenberg Air Force Base, California

The basic truth about power in the world is that all states, organizations, and actors are not created equal. Power is so unequally distributed, and some actors are so much stronger than others, that the most powerful—those we call great powers—not only get their way most of the time, but are in fact a categorically different kind of actor. The great powers can craft the fundamental rules of the international order that all other countries must follow.

Since the end of the Second World War, we have existed in a world order defined by nuclear-armed superpowers. This balance colored the era of the Cold War. From the end of the Cold War, America has been the sole hegemonic superpower. It was so dominant, in fact, that we began to believe this imbalance was natural or that it could last indefinitely. In reality, it was a historical anomaly.

American hegemony in the world should not be taken for granted. From inside, the system of American hegemony looks so totalizing that it’s easy to confuse the particulars of the current power arrangement with the nature of the international system itself. It becomes difficult to tell what is fundamentally true about the international system as a whole versus what is true about the American sphere of influence in particular.

With the partial recovery of Russia, the rise of China, and the stagnation of American power, some of the assumptions of the hegemonic era are coming undone. But the basic reality of nuclear-backed great power politics remains. That reality must be the backbone of any useful fundamental model of security, power, and diplomacy. As we navigate this transition from American hegemony to a more multipolar world, it’s even more important to understand the fundamentals of international politics.

Security Comes From Power

Power never stops being important for states, since states are made up of people who are vulnerable to attack. If you have anything that someone else wants, you need security. To have security, you either need to have the power to defend your property yourself, or you need to be able to appeal to a higher, more powerful authority that can defend it on your behalf. When you appeal to a higher power, you generally need to give up something valuable in return. This usually requires giving up some measure of autonomy. Security is not free.

When there is no higher power to which one can appeal, one can be secure only by having absolutely nothing of value—which is nearly impossible, not to mention undesirable. Security, therefore, remains the only option.

There are many non-violent forms of power: prestige, wealth, information, influence, technical capability, and so on. But these all exist within a social and political order ultimately backed by the most fundamental kind of power: military power.

Since the time when men fought with rocks and sticks, we have used our relatively big brains to fashion weapons, and to play politics backed by those weapons—thus multiplying, through the use of technology and social organization, the ease with which we can project power relative to our bodily strength. Weapons technology has become the essential factor in whether or not one has the power to defend oneself. This includes not only the weapons themselves, but also the social and material technology needed to deploy them.

Nuclear Weapons Dominate the Power Landscape Today

Over time, we have developed more powerful and more destructive weapons, along with the human systems that control and deploy them. The trajectory of weapons systems development over time has been a game of cat and mouse, playing out between offensive and defensive weapons systems. In the 19th century, infantry and cavalry could be defeated by the trench and the machine gun. The trench, in turn, could be defeated by the tank and the aircraft. The tank and the aircraft could be defeated by more powerful explosives, aircraft, and radar that enabled anti-aircraft artillery. In 1945, we developed the first nuclear bombs. Over the next decades, we devised the command and control systems that make up the nuclear enterprise.

The question of security does not deal with abstractions of how to make oneself perfectly secure from any possible threat, but how to defend oneself from the real weapons technologies that will be used by likely adversaries in a war. The nature and character of the great power war that would be fought, and the preceding period of diplomacy, is therefore shaped by the most powerful technologies available to the great powers both to defend themselves and attack others.

In our time, the most powerful weapons systems are nuclear weapons. Rather than being offensive or defensive dominant, nuclear weapons are deterrence dominant. All the great powers have ‘secure second strike’ nuclear capabilities: the ability to retaliate even after having been subjected to an initial nuclear attack. This means that there is no way for them to attack another great power without the potential for that power retaliating with nuclear fire.

Among the great powers in the world, there is no higher power to which they can appeal for their defense. This is, in fact, a good way to tell if a state is actually a great power. Even among weaker powers in the world, defense is very important, but defense consists as much in the careful maintenance of the relationships with the stronger powers as much as in the raw realities of weapons systems themselves. Since war among great powers is never fully off the table, international politics is regulated chiefly by mutual intersubjective perceptions of who would win the great power war were it to take place.

War is Power Computation With Weapons

There are nearly an infinite number of factors that determine which side would win an all-out war, such that the only way to know for sure would be to fight it out. Power is always a matter of potential in a constant state of flux and uncertainty. It cannot ever be accurately measured in its potential state. Not even the most powerful computers and most sophisticated models can simulate all the necessary factors of a total war.

The computation of who has what power, and who has more, can only be ultimately decided by running the experiment with live weapons. But we do know that a great power war would be extremely costly, especially in a world where the great powers are all armed with nuclear weapons.

Instead of actually running the experiment, we build approximate conceptual models of power that give us indications of who would win in a war. When the power imbalance is extreme, it is much easier to guess—but a guess is all it is. The nature of power is that sometimes those who have it do not want others to know just how much of it they have. Often we don’t even know our own strength, or the strength of some known capability possessed by our adversary.

Nobody knows who would win a total war between the United States and China today. All we know is that it would be catastrophic for the whole world.

The prospect of great power nuclear war is so costly that it would only be risked by a power who believes—rationally or otherwise—it gets such an unfair deal in the present arrangement that the benefits of a post-nuclear war settlement outweigh the costs of the conflict itself. A more likely path to nuclear war consists in the accidents, miscalculations, blunders, and errors that emerge from the complex nature of the present global nuclear deterrence system. For instance, two adversaries could find themselves in an escalation spiral, where neither side feels as if it can back away from the brink at any intermediate step in the escalation ladder, thereby risking the peace of the world in a game of nuclear chicken.

The history of the nuclear age is littered with many examples of diplomatic escalations and nuclear close calls. The 1963 Cuban Missile Crisis may be the most famous example of an escalatory nuclear standoff, but NATO’s military exercises in 1983 also led the world to another nuclear near miss—perhaps the closest we’ve ever been to the nuclear brink.

Add to these fateful confrontations the tally of numerous false alarms caused by everything from Canadian geese and meteor showers to failing computer chips, and the moratorium on the use of nuclear weapons looks less like careful risk management and more like seventy-five years of successful geopolitical Russian roulette.

Great Power Competition Sublimates Into Other Areas

All of international politics today rests on these fundamental realities. Power is grossly unequal. There is no higher authority to which the great powers can appeal. The ability to project power and maintain security rests on weapon systems technologies. The strategically dominant weapon system is the nuclear bomb. But no one wants to use the nuclear bomb, because nuclear war would be so devastating.

The great powers today are at once mutually opposed, never taking off the table the potential to rain down nuclear fire on their adversaries, but perpetually unable to consummate conflict in the military domain. The fundamental power competition is therefore radically unresolved, locked in its potential phase, seeking whatever other avenues might be available to release its potential energy and gain advantage.

Most often this energy is sublimated into other more virtual modes of conflict, such as the political, economic, cultural, scientific, and the technological domains. Ambitious actors hope to gain power through upending the current military paradigm, or at least influencing status quo power perceptions and negotiations while the current paradigm lasts.

This sublimation of unconsummated great power war into other domains tends to take three primary forms:

First, power competition spills into an extension of war by other means (to invert Clausewitz). Specifically, the competition continues with the development of science and weapons technology that could bring a material resolution to the nuclear deterrence balance. Currently, this consists of cyber weapons developments, and advanced technologies that could one day be used in nuclear missile defense or its circumvention such as autonomous weapons systems, satellites, lasers, and drones.

Second, competition continues in other domains because they are signals of how one might fare in the imagined great power war, and they allow for more-virtual competitions short of war while the status-quo security paradigm persists. Often today this type of virtual competition can be seen in the economic domains of trade, finance, money, and infrastructure. Wealth is certainly a good thing for a state to have once it can be sure of its security.

It is always better for a state to be powerful, and therefore secure, than to be wealthy. This is because converting wealth into power is a very hard coordination problem when done on a massive scale. In the meantime, your wealth could simply be seized by another more powerful state. In the past, you needed to raid a treasury to take your enemy’s wealth. Now, you simply need to instruct your banks to freeze certain accounts.

We also see this virtual competition taking place in the realm of intelligence activities, especially cyber and information operations, which often accompany more conventional political, economic, and military efforts in what some have called “hybrid warfare.” The internet and digital communications technologies that have proliferated over the past three decades provide new methods for achieving foreign policy objectives in the gray area that falls on the spectrum between ‘war’ and ‘peace.’ This kind of international conflict—based not on military strength, but on shrewd political and economic influence operations—is to be expected from great powers vying for influence over a world that is increasingly multipolar.

Even symbolic gestures by great powers carry weight because they are signals of a great power’s strength and intentions. An effective posture demonstrates strength, and thus changes the balance of perception and respect. A good example of this is the way the Soviet military poured effort into its Olympic athletes, creating an international image of excellence, but also demonstrating the physical prowess and strength of its citizens—a sign of military capability. Sputnik was both a demonstration of advanced rocket technology in particular and a signal of scientific and technical prowess in general. When you are a great power, even relatively small gestures carry lots of weight. 

Third, power competition spills into undermining those aspects of the great power nuclear paradigm that are nonmaterial but just as essential as nuclear weapons—especially the political coherence of the opposing state, its institutions, and its concepts of power, security, and legitimacy. The Cold War was won not with weapons but with Hilton hotels and Billy Joel.

As Stephen Kotkin has pointed out, it was the failures of Communist ideology and institutions against their liberal rivals—the failure of the Second World’s system to measure up to the affluence of the First even in the minds of its own elites—that did more to break up the Soviet Union than any operation the CIA ever devised. 

More recently, a rising China has used economic leverage and influence over its significant diaspora, among other means, to exercise ‘sharp power’ and fortify its interests. However, in both the case of the Soviet Union during the Cold War and the United States today, institutional and ideological problems are aggravated much more from within than from outside. 

Great Power Diplomacy Requires Elite Consensus and Will

If total war—in our time, nuclear war—is at one end of the spectrum of how great powers can resolve their great power competition, at the other end of the spectrum is great power diplomacy: the bona fide settlement of disputes through political and legal means rather than violence.

The United States was forced by the circumstances of World War II to develop keen strategic and diplomatic capacities that shaped the international order for the last eight decades, largely with advice and influence from some of our British and German friends. But like all institutions, these fruits of competent American foreign policy stagnate and decline over time unless they are maintained. It is therefore the highly functional state of elite consensus, competence, and coherence that must be explained, not its absence or decay. All institutions ossify on their own by default.

A power elite within a great power is the ‘who’ that runs its foreign policy. Without an elite consensus, there is no capability for a state to conduct great power diplomacy and shape the international institutional order. Great power diplomacy is a complex problem that requires coordination between a large number of people and institutions over much longer time than one or even several presidential administrations. There was a foreign policy establishment after World War I that among other things started the Council on Foreign Relations, and one after World War II that waged the Cold War. By these historical standards, there is no U.S. foreign policy establishment anymore.

The consensus that we call an ‘establishment’ is the minimum condition to have a great power foreign policy, but for it to actually be successful requires two further conditions: first, that at least some of the most skilled people within the elite class devote themselves to these questions, and second, that the elite, in general, has a willingness to coordinate in order to shoulder the burdens of governance. On the necessity of skill, Realpolitik is a brutal sport even when played by the most skilled players, but it is an unmitigated bloodbath of blunder and friendly-fire when run by amateurs or middling clerks. 

On elite coordination and will to govern, our current picture is bleak. To the extent there is any elite coordination at all, it is in the alignment of individuals by virtue of their shared status- or profit-motive within a market or bureaucratic structure. Unfortunately, neither individualism, nor the market, nor the petit-bourgeois careerism of the bureaucracy can sustain a coherent elite consensus that actually advances the interests of the state over those of individuals or special interests.

Our ever-aging gerontocrats, many of whom came of age during the counterculture of the 1960s, have long imagined a world with no countries. They have indeed completed their long march through the institutions of power only to discover that you can’t run an institution on the strength of your individual values or ability to express yourself against the establishment. Rather than engage with the messy complexities of power in the world today, they appear to make decisions off intuitions and value-judgments that were crystalized decades ago.

These gerontocrats go to great lengths to avoid describing politics in terms of power realities—as if ignoring these realities will make them go away—eschewing the mundane fundamentals of coordination and organization for the ever-gratifying politics of media spectacle or ideological gesture. In the final analysis, this avoidance and obfuscation doesn’t vanquish power; it just ensures that power is not wielded responsibly, straightforwardly, or in service of noble ends.

The Tasks of the Rising Generation

The rising generations of elites—who tend to recognize at least implicitly the incoherence in their elders—have become even further disillusioned by the nature of elite politics. As the establishment has decayed into fragments and special interests, the personal path to participation in good governance appears even more fraught. A keen observer of the institutional landscape would conclude that you’d have to be a psychopath or a fool to enter here. Better to simply work for McKinsey or Goldman or Google and invest in index funds or Bitcoin. The opted-out elite culture that this creates only deepens the problem.

And yet, geopolitics and great power diplomacy will continue to be the games we are forced to play, even if we don’t want to or know how to play them well. If we are to get anywhere, some among the rising generations will need to step up and find ways to rebuild America’s elite institutions, instead of just following local incentives and opting out.

The only way to thrive in this situation is to undertake a skeptical inventory of the encrusted foreign policy assumptions we have inherited from a previous paradigm—keeping what is still useful, but discarding the many illusions and delusions that clutter our tired foreign policy thought. When your task involves operating outside of exhausted institutional and conceptual pathways, clarity and sanity are at their highest premium. In particular, we are facing a change in international paradigm from American hegemony to a shifting landscape—a world which is more multipolar but still nuclear-dominated. The basic facts of power in the world are the foundation for the clarity and sanity we need to navigate that change. 

It will be up to our rising generation of American elites to both find a new modus vivendi and to right the ship of state. The alternative is a path to further danger and devastation—not just for Americans, but for everyone. America is still a great power in the world with the lion’s share of influence over the international order. A post-American world will not be a liberation from America’s dysfunctions, but an even deeper and wider chaos. As goes America, so will go the world.

Matt Ellison is a research associate at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and Center for International Security and Cooperation. He is associate editor of Palladium Magazine. He studied international politics and security at Georgetown’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, where he was an Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy.