The Taboo Against Great Power War Is Gone

The confrontation over Ukraine is a blueprint for how the next world war will begin, there or elsewhere

The possibility of a great power conflict seems more and more likely. Image Credit: Dmitri Otis/Getty Images

There is no reason war cannot happen between Russia and China and the United States and its allies. The fact that great powers have not fought each other directly since the middle of the last century, when such nations were more numerous, runs contrary to observed history.

The modern taboo against great power war may have been broken with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and NATO’s unexpectedly energetic reaction to oppose it. Indeed, as Russia edges toward reframing its actions in Ukraine from a “special military operation” to an official war, the risk of the conflict drawing in the U.S. and it’s NATO allies grows.

The diplomatic, strategic and even mental blocks that have thus far prevented direct great power conflict in the post-World War II era are eroding alarmingly fast. A larger war seems more possible than it did at the beginning of the 21st century. Such a conflict may now in fact be more likely than not. Western voices calling to establish no-fly zones and even for direct military intervention in Ukraine against a back-footed yet nuclear-armed Russia show how dangerous the breakdown of the international order is becoming.

Consider also that the People’s Republic of China, unarguably a great power now, has loudly stated its designs on its “renegade province” of Taiwan and expressed expansionist intensions on its frontier with India, the South China Sea and elsewhere in Asia. Meanwhile, the U.S. tries to maintain a world order that supports unparalleled global prosperity and relative historic peace while assuring its own preeminence as the indispensable power. Cracks in this order, whether propagated by actions of rivals or U.S. distraction (or indifference), invite future armed conflict.

The origin of the war in Ukraine and why it and local conflicts like it, such as a prospective Chinese invasion of Taiwan, could evolve into great power wars stems from the motivations of the aggressors and their willingness to accept the risks and costs. According to Sir Lawrence Freedman, professor emeritus of war studies at King’s College, London, great power status itself is a motivating factor driving countries to war because such a war may be viewed as a way to maintain such status.

“To Russia, being a great power is incredibly important as part of everyday political discourse, or it was up to now,” he said. “China becoming a great power after past humiliations is important. For the U.S., being recognized as a great power is important. There is then a second question regarding what you are prepared to do about it and what resources you are prepared to put in.”

A Taboo Fades

Loose talk about the use of nuclear weapons now swirls in the fog of the Ukraine war. Such threats from Russia’s leadership and regime advocates, veiled or otherwise, are mostly intended to warn off Western supporters and enablers of Kiev’s resistance to the invasion. Mostly. It is worth noting that Chinese officials and government media outlets also have issued first-use nuclear threats against Japan and even the U.S. if either actively opposes an invasion of Taiwan.

Nuclear weapons have been why “World War Three” has been taboo. Yet top-tier powers are on record threatening their use if their regional goals are opposed militarily, even with non-nuclear means. Either such threats are primarily designed to make potential enemies rethink the cost of involvement—essentially a bluff—or the makers of these threats care not about nuclear retaliation. The latter is not a realistic way of looking at the world. Much more likely is the prospect that great powers are gathering the means and mustering the will to engage each other without triggering mutually assured destruction.

The Russian-Ukraine war is the first conflict in a long time where a nuclear-armed great power is at war with another nation and has other great powers aligned against it, if not as actual belligerents. Vietnam was such a conflict for the U.S. Rumblings aside, the U.S. did not seriously consider using nuclear weapons against North Vietnam, let alone against its chief sponsor and main supplier of advanced weapons, the Soviet Union. In the end, America chose defeat and humiliation over the risk of a nuclear confrontation, which always lurked in the background during the Cold War.

Moscow made a similar calculation to declare victory and go home in its Afghanistan intervention in the 1980s, leaving its nukes on the shelf even though the U.S. supplied Stinger anti-aircraft weapons and other material support to its mujahedeen opponents. However, NATO’s fulsome provision of advanced battlefield missiles and other weapons to Ukraine along with training, vociferous diplomatic support and cutting economic sanctions has plainly shocked Russia into putting itself on a war footing with regard to the West.

Just as Russia and China may threaten nuclear strikes as a means of deterring potential enemies from opposing their actions, so Western alarmists raise the specter of “unburied death,” as the coldly rational, world-spanning AI Colossus threatened in the Cold War sci-fi thriller, “Colossus: The Forbin Project.” Doomsayers arguing to keep the U.S. out of entanglements with nuclear-armed great powers immediately leap to Armageddon, as Dan Gelernter recently wrote. In addition to saying a world war against Russia and China within four years is a near certainty, Gelernter predicts this war will involve nuclear weapons and weaponized biological agents of a virulence that will kill 90% of those infected.

Not necessarily. Any war with nuclear weapons on both sides involves the risk of nuclear escalation. And Cassandra was right, even if nobody listened to her. At the same time, the fear of a general exchange of civilization-destroying weapons over a local conflict is not a realistic one. Clearly, neither Russia nor China are displaying any fear of retaliation when they make nuclear threats against their foes, even if the U.S., the U.K. or France could effectively eradicate the offending power.

The reason is because China and Russia no longer believe the West would wage nuclear war, except perhaps in an existential exchange, and maybe not even then. Try to imagine a U.S. president or other leader of a Western nuclear power who would authorize a nuclear attack on a great power enemy in retaliation for a singular strike on Lvov or Warsaw. Or Nagasaki. Thus, great powers have slipped the bounds of taboo and feel free to consider war on their own terms without fear of their own destruction. Their own nuclear threats may be bluffs, but the idea has been kindled in them that war with the U.S.-led West is possible without automatic invocation of MAD.

“Nuclear weapons do what nuclear weapons do, which is to remind America and its allies what to expect if they get involved directly in Ukraine, and they remind Russia not to take the war into NATO countries,” King’s College’s Freedman says. “In a way, they help contain war.”

But they do not prevent it. The Russian-Ukraine war and the brewing conflict over Taiwan remind us that great powers may accept the risks inherent in war involving nuclear-armed peers if their very status as great powers, which perhaps they value at an existential level, is threatened. This leads us into a world where great power war may be hazarded with the possibility that a nuclear war can be managed. The calculation would be that individual conflicts can be contained.

Why We Fight

If nuclear weapons remain on the back burner, great powers may consider war as less costly, even against other great powers. Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, Silver Professor of Politics at New York University, thinks great powers are just like any other power, only more so. “I don’t see great powers as qualitatively different,” he says. “I see them as quantitively different.”

Larger countries with global influence are more likely to look at a situation and calculate that they are able to secure a favorable outcome than are smaller countries. According to Bueno de Mesquita, the difference in the decision-making of great powers and lesser ones is that for almost any contest the great power leadership thinks about, their calculation of the probability of being successful is very high, except when they think about contests with other great powers, obviously because the costs and the risks go up. Great powers are more likely to initiate military interventions against lesser powers if they don’t think other great powers will get involved. However, as the conflict in Ukraine illustrates, war always involves a risk of unintended consequences.

Furthermore, what if a leader is irrational, as some claim Russian President Vladimir Putin to be? The “Putin is crazy” narrative personalizes the conflict in a way that makes it easier for many to comprehend. It also lends itself to the temptation that eliminating or otherwise sidelining Putin would end the crisis. Even U.S. President Biden has mused publicly on the desirability of regime change in Russia.

Serious leaders and foreign policy analysts should reject this notion outright. For one thing, removing a leader does not ensure a desirable outcome, as shown by the U.S.-backed killings of Iraq’s Saddam Hussain and Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi. Second, “the crazy leader standing in the way of peace” narrative is a hobgoblin.

“People tend not to consider the extent to which any national leader is risk acceptant, neutral or averse,” says Bueno de Mesquita, a proponent of game theory as an analytical and even predictive tool for understanding war and peace. “Putin is a very risk-acceptant guy. I see no indication that Putin is irrational. He made a miscalculation.”

Buena de Mesquita points out that Putin’s calculation is one that all of the major media in the U.S. also made at the outset of the invasion, when the consensus was that the real fighting was going to last four or five days. Russia, and most in the West, did not anticipate the Ukrainians’ strong motivation to resist nor that their military training and equipment would enable them to hold off a force that looked vastly superior, at least on paper.

“Putin made a calculation that seemed perfectly sensible to everybody,” he said. “Then after the fact, when they see the invasion is not working out, they say: ‘It’s only Putin—he’s crazy.’ It’s easier for people to say the war happened because Putin is crazy rather than regard it as within the realm of rational action, which makes people uncomfortable.”

King’s College’s Freedman also disdains the personalization of leaders when evaluating their roles in war-making. At the same time, he says you absolutely have to look at what the conflict means to the person or regime in charge. In Freedman’s estimation, such a leadership caste tends to have more bearing on war and peace in a dictatorship or an autocracy because their whole regime depends on staying secure and dealing with threats that they take personally. Such is the case with Putin.

“While it is not particularly helpful to refer to Putin as a madman or a criminal, he does dominate the political scene in Russia,” Freedman says. “He has executed or eliminated all of his political opponents. He’s got sycophants around him. So, in reality you are dealing with Putin’s prejudices and predilections, which we don’t fully understand. That’s part of the problem. If Putin doesn’t want to budge, then you are stuck until events on the ground force him to.”

Freedman contrasts the Russian president with China’s President Xi Jinping, whose authority still depends on the Chinese Communist Party. Xi is in charge because of the party apparatus, he says, whereas Putin has a party but it is not the basis of his power. “If Xi is going to be challenged, it will be within the party,” he said. “Putin doesn’t have anything equivalent to worry about. Xi is in charge and looks unassailable at the moment. He hasn’t launched a foolish war. That makes a difference.”

Give him time. Foolish wars have been launched and always will be. Whether or not a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would be as foolish as the Russian invasion of Ukraine is an open question. “I would hope the war in Ukraine will make China recognize that wars do not always turn out as you expect,” Freedman said. “I don’t think it is going to encourage the Chinese on Taiwan. If Russia had achieved a quick win, it might have.”

That’s the optimistic view.

No Sanctuary

On the other hand, there are effective strategies available to Russian and Chinese planners who are not deterred by Western—and primarily U.S.—nuclear retaliation. China is likely to absorb the lessons of Ukraine and adjust its strategies accordingly. Given the CCP’s desire for preeminent global power status, Xi is not likely to give up his strategic goal of conquering Taiwan or otherwise incorporating it into China.

Two of the key lessons of the Russian-Ukraine war are the tremendous expenditure of the most high-technology ordnance to achieve any useful battlefield effect, and the vulnerability of even the most advanced ships, planes and tanks to enemy action. The best missiles are in short supply, and those platforms (i.e. the ships, planes and tanks) that are not destroyed require intensive maintenance to meet the operations tempo needed for modern warfare.

Elbridge Colby, co-founder and principal at the Marathon Initiative, a nonprofit think tank specializing in strategic analysis, said these considerations should burden U.S. war planners, even if they are not yet a national priority. “In China’s case I would be thinking, absolutely plaster Taiwan and potentially other American and Japanese facilities so there is no chance that they will be able to get a defense together,” Colby says. “The Chinese have a huge missile force, much larger than the Russians. They have a much larger industrial base.”

The Chinese production of missiles exceeds the U.S. because stockpiling in preparation for the coming conflict is a priority. Colby, who was one of the main architects of the 2018 National Defense Strategy as deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development, said the coming war will be a test of production in the long run and that the U.S. military manufacturing base is fragile at best.

“Our defense-industrial base has gone toward consolidation and efficiency—although it isn’t known for efficiency in a general sense,” Colby says. “There are lots of single points of failure in terms of subcontractors and manufacturing processes. It will take us years to reconstitute a more robust industrial base.”

For any given U.S. advanced weapon system there are often singular facilities that produce key components, such as wings for the F-35, or provide for final assembly. The elimination of any one of those facilities would essentially end production of the plane, ship, tank, missile, satellite, radio, etc. to which it is dedicated. This profusion of singular points of failure invites enemy attention, even within the borders of the U.S.

The next superpower conflict may occur without the need for nuclear weapons. It will be a trial run to see if nuclear-armed countries will accept conventional military attacks on the homeland without automatically responding with nuclear weapons. Hypersonic weapons with a global reach, which Russia and especially China have invested in, will be the intercontinental strike weapons with non-nuclear warheads that can achieve strategic results.

Colby said to expect a mixture of local high-intensity fighting for territorial objectives, such as Taiwan, coupled with more of a global dimension than has been true in recent history. There will be weapons with much longer range and precision than has been the case in the past that can degrade the U.S. ability to produce replacement ordnance and equipment for its front-line forces.

“There won’t be homeland sanctuary,” Colby said, envisioning attacks on logistics nodes; critical military facilities such as space, naval and air bases; weapons depots and production facilities. “You would see cruise and hypersonic ballistic missile attacks—presumably conventional until they are not—against the backdrop of a local fight where they are actually trying to gain territory, either to annex it or to force some political demands.”

Such a war is not only possible; it is possibly coming soon.

This essay is the first in a series of two pieces on the future great power conflict. The second essay focuses on how America can prepare for the next bench-clearing war.

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