The March to 21st Century War


Realist IR theorists have always had a soft spot for the nuclear bomb. One scholar even called the nuclear bomb ‘a weapon of peace,’ and another, as recently as early this year, said that a nuclear Iran would be an anchor of peace in the Middle East. (The latter is the great Kenneth Waltz.)

The general misconception regarding proponents of realist IR theory is that the whole lot are bloodthirsty warmongers drawing up plans to invade this country or that from time to time in pursuit of some mythical balance of power. Well, the pursuit of balance of power is the central pillar of realist theory. Balance of power is, however, rather misunderstood. Before we understand the idea we need to lay the foundation by discussing the fundamental beliefs of Realist IR.


Generally, one begins this discussion from a metaphysical perspective. Man, it is said, is selfish by nature, and always in pursuit of power. Therefore, any collective of man, take the tribe in the past or the state in our times, is bound to reflect these, well, qualities. Why selfish man collects into an organisation of society – any community – is again best understood through classical theorists, like Machiavelli and Hobbes from the Western Political tradition, who claim the necessity of an overarching supreme power, in the King or the State, which maintains order. Such an overarching power though theoretically possible is almost impossible when it comes to the international stage. Therefore, in the absence of such a power there is an absence of order and in the absence of order there is war.

Now here comes the second movement of Realist reasoning. In such a scenario how are we to conceive of statecraft or what we might call the ethics of statecraft. First, maintain domestic order. Maintaining domestic order by extension means the rule of law – beginning from this : nobody should lose his life except for maintaining the rule of law. So the protection of life is the first ethic of statecraft and over-rides all else – that is even when life is taken it is to protect life. (For the purpose of this essay it is enough to leave our discussion of statecraft at this. Any proposals for consequent ethics is bound to run into problems of perspective. I could propose progress and development as the next. But this is only my view and any view is dependent on time and place. However, I would welcome any suggestions.)

According to realist theory then, the first responsibility of the state is to protect the lives of its citizens, or all people under its power. On the international stage then, a state must, first, manoeuvre into positions to avoid war, and second, if war is imminent, conduct it with the least possible damage. (Damage, of course, could be justified as necessary to avoid future war. But that again is a larger discussion which I will leave aside for now.)

This is, in my view, what balance of power seeks to achieve. First, through a system of alliances and counter-alliances to avoid immediate war. Then, in case or war, to define objectives that seek to avoid future war.


Balance of power as a concept seeks to create some sort of order in an anarchic (un-ordered and not dis-ordered) international system. But all past attempts at creating such an order have been temporary and when they break down the consequences have been catastrophic. In fact, the scale of devastation has only risen with every failure of balance of power, due to, so paradoxically, advances in civilization. Albert Einstein, who had no small part to play in both the advance and the regress of mankind, said that if we ever had a third world war it would be so monumentally devastating that the fourth would be fought with ‘sticks and stones.’ Well, that was then. Now, the atomic bomb is hundreds of times more powerful than the H-bombs that smouldered the two Japanese cities. After a third world war we would probably not have a world anymore.

After the First World War optimistic folk, who were quite ironically in the majority, were almost certain there would never be a second. After the second, most were certain there would be a third. There hasn’t been a world war, yet. (Many would disagree. Some, like Noam Chomsky, have called the continuous bloodshed in the Middle East a third world war. But if it is in the Middle East how can it be a world war?)

What prevented a third world war, despite the fcat that we had such a hostile world scenario for most of the twentieth century? The answer – the Bomb. If you recall our discussion of the previous section about domestic order what creates order is overarching power. The only thing close to such power in the international system is the fear of nuclear war. (Yes, power is fear of destruction. How is that for a definition? Realists would be proud.) There have been wars but never involving two nuclear powers. So, nuclear peace is the realist answer for liberal democratic peace. (Democratic peace – democracies don’t go to war.) In my view, it is a more solid theory. So, Kenneth Waltz’s observation about a nuclear Iran might not be so out of place despite how shocking it may sound to some.


Will a nuclear peace survive the 21st century?

The system of nuclear deterrence is an advanced sort of balance of power system. I mentioned earlier, that all balance of power systems are temporally limited. With every failure of such a system we see a rising scale of devastation due to advances in civilization, that is science and technology.

In the still tenuously concluded Israel-Palestine (civil?) war the casualty balance was again severely skewed, with five Israeli casualties and over a hundred and fourty Palestinian. The difference is technology. Now the world have a new gift from the science lab – the Iron Dome missile shield. The Iron Dome protects ‘civilian’ – don’t ask me why I use apostrophes – targets from missile attacks and it has been rather successful. Israel has recently helped India design a missile shield aimed at protecting against larger – even nuclear loaded – missiles. This puts a whole new spin on the ‘most volatile nuclear stand-off’ in the world. Pakistan is, purportedly though not explicitly in response, developing tactical nuclear weapons to be used on the ‘battlefield’ – that is smaller nuclear weapons that can be used anywhere on the frontline. Already we are witnessing a paradigm shift in nuclear technology.

A possibly not so distant future scenario could see the extinguish-ment of the threat of a long range nuclear strike on cities. Missile shields and cyber warfare could ensure a successful deterrent against such strikes. With such technological developments the world would draw an end to the era of nuclear peace. The frontlines would be open for battle again. Just as the machine gun was the weapon of dread in an earlier era of battle nuclear loaded artillery shells will be in this coming future. The balance of power will break. Will there be a third world war? Will humanity survive to fight again with sticks and stones?


Mahatma Gandhi was a quaint old man. One of his particular eccentricities was his fervent opposition to western modernity, especially modern technology. The technology of 21st century war should prompt a relook towards Gandhian anti-modernity. Was this anti-modernity anti-progress? What do we mean by civilizational progress? If selfishness and war are the inherent nature – the most primitive characteristic – of man then should not a move away from these be the measure of progress? How about non-violence? How about the end of war? How about a new meaning for Civilization?



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