What Is the Dominant Consideration in Global Politics?

Nuclear weapons. While nuclear weapons are tools of very large, powerful organizations, their influence reaches from international to individual.

If there has been a revolutionary change in global politics, that change came some time between the Trinity test, and the launch of Sputnik. The Trinity test proved—although only to a small group present at the time—that a new weapon of incomparable power had arrived. When Sputnik launched, everyone on earth who understood nuclear weapons and rocketry knew nuclear weapons’ incomparable power could reach anywhere in the world in hours, and there was little defenders could do.

The irony of nuclear weapons is the difference between their percieved threat and their actual impact. When Oppenheimer observer the Trinity tests, he said “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds,” but every day, that quote proves more wrong. While no doubt impressive, and probably one of the largest explosions of the time, the Trinity test was trivial compared to later tests like Castle Bravo and Tsar Bomba. Trinity yielded an explosion equivalent to approximately 20,000 tons of TNT (4 x 107 lbs) while Tsar Bomba yielded an explosion equivalent to approximately 50,000,000 tons of TNT (1 X 1011 lbs), and yet unexpectedly, Tsar Bomba—much like prior nuclear tests—actually made the world more peaceful.

The limits of nuclear pacification is manifest daily. War, sadly, continues to be a feature of political life, but it is difficult to overstate how different modern war is, in large part because of nuclear weapons. 1789–1815, 1914–1918, and 1939–1945 the most powerful countries in the world all poured nearly all of their resources into war with each other. Entire generations of men died in combat from towns and cities. Millions died from disease, starvation and privation, even if battles happened far away.

The bloody 19th and 20th centuries were not outliers either, but consistent with the rest of history, too. 1618–1648 the “Thirty Years War” involved nearly all of Europe, and killed as much as 30% of Germany’s population. 1672–1678 much of Europe fought again, as France tried to consoldiate control over the strategically important Low Countries. 1688–1697 most European powers joined war against France, to check its growing influence on the continent. 1701–1714 war broke out over whether Spain would fall under Bourbon influence (it did). 1740–1748 all of Europe fought again in the “War of Austrian Succession” over whether the Hapsburgs would retain control over the Austrian Empire (they did).

Great power was not isolated to a uniquely bellicose Western Europe, either. The Ottoman Turks—politically part of Europe, but culturally distinct—and an alliance of Central European powers, fought the “Great Turkish War,” which included the Battle of Vienna from 1683 –1699. The Ottomans and Persians fought a series of wars over control in the middle east in 1603–1618, 1623–1639, 1730–1785, 1743–1746, 1775–1776, and 1821–1823. Persia and India fought over control of Afghanistan in 1622–1623, and 1649–1653, and Persia conquered Eastern India in from 1738–1740. 1600–1664 was a rolling war of conquest as Jurchen Banners (eventually rechristened Manchu, and adopting the imperial title of Qing) conquered and consolidated control over China. Over the 1700s, Qing China consolidated hegemony by fighting the “Ten Great Campaigns,” a series of wars of conquest throughout Central and Southeast Asia. Intra-Asian great power war only “ended” because Asian great power war transformed into global great power war, culminating in WWII.

Modern observers often struggle to understand the difference between war today and historic war, in part because war still dominates many news cycles. At a personal level, of course, there is no difference. A gold star family’s grief is no less acute in 2018 than the loss parents of Pomeranian grenadier or Parisian Musketeer felt. Nevertheless, when we focus on the especially salient personal effects, it is easy to lose sight of the systemic differences between contemporary and pre-nuclear wars. We can easily falsely believe we live equivalently bellicose times.

First, we have not seen a war between great powers since the end of WWII. Wars between great powers and lesser powers, regional powers, civil wars, and colonial wars are still awful and destroy the lives of people caught up in them, but are fundamentally different from great power wars. Great powers, by definition, can marshal tremendous resources and inflict staggering destruction, such as killing 1/3 of the population in the “Thirty Years War”, bringing half a million soldiers to blast away at one another while standing in straight lines at the “Battle of Nations”, or the destruction of WWI and WWII.

Second, people who live in industrialized countries, especially great powers, have largely been spared the effects of war. While 9/11 or the various terror attacks in Europe are terrible, they pale in comparison to the destruction imposed by military conquest with hundreds of thousands of troops rampaging through the streets. From 1789, every major European capital was threatened by enemy armies more than once, possibly only excluding London. In the 70 years from 1870 to 1940, Paris alone was occupied twice and threatened a third time. In the 70 years since 1945 neither Paris nor any great power’s capital whatsoever has faced military occupation, ever.

Third, because great power war is so destructive, it can have knock-on effects far from the battlefield, even before aircraft. Conscription and recruitment passed personal costs of war from the capital to cities, towns and villages, sometimes destroying the local economy for decades. Disruption of trade or commerce on the high seas could impoverish seaports otherwise uninvolved in war. Resource diversion away from commercialy production to war also affected countries uninvolved in the wars themselves. While many great and superpowers have fought wars since WWII, those powers never had to reshape their domestic economy to survive. There are no 1943 Fords, but the 1967 Mustang is a classic.

It would be naïve to ascribe all changes since WWII to nuclear weapons, but it would be equally naïve to believe nuclear weapons had no effect. Many inventors or theorists believed their creations would make warfare so horrible no one would conscience it, including, but not limited to, the machine gun, high-explosives and the aircraft. Only nuclear weapons have acheived that goal, somewhat. Oppenheimer’s terror echoes through the global political system until today, and leaders understandably treat nuclear situations with the gravitas they are due. Every interaction on the global political stage occurs in the knowledge there is a potential chain of events that ends the world. The effects of that knowledge are not always well understood, but they are inescapable, and no other political system, structure or technology has ever had such a profound influence.