Thursday, February 27, 2003
Pax Americana? 26th February 2003.

One thing taken for granted whenever people discuss the intentions of the United States is that she is now the most powerful country in the history of the world – & it is easy to see why. No country has ever been so rich, & no country’s armed forces have ever had such firepower at their command. But so what?

Power – the ability to make others do what you want – is the most relative of attributes. America’s power is a function not of her own absolute wealth & firepower, nor even of the gap between her wealth & firepower & those of other countries, but of the extent to which she is able to use her own wealth & firepower to impose her will upon others – & this in turn is a function of the wealth & firepower of other countries. Just as America has enough firepower to destroy any other country in the world, so there are several other countries – China, Russia, Britain, & France, at least, probably others, such as Israel – who have enough firepower to do the same, enough firepower, in other words, to destroy America. Many others – India, Pakistan, the Ukraine, perhaps North Korea – have enough firepower to inflict more damage on the United States than she would tolerate. So America’s scope for action is severely circumscribed: there is a large number of countries she cannot, on pain of annihilation, use military force against.

If you consider the Roman Empire at the height of its power, there was perhaps one country in the world, China, it could never have conquered – too far away –, but I doubt there was any part of the known world where the Romans would have failed to take military action if they had believed it in their interests to do so. Most of the time, that action would have been & was successful, although there were no guarantees; if the action failed, it was a setback, but rarely a disaster. Today, there are many countries against which the United States can take action, &, when she does so, she is guaranteed success in a way the Romans were not; but as soon as any country acquires a certain number of nuclear weapons, America is guaranteed disaster if she takes any action against that country at all.

So what is the best thing for everybody to do? In the days of the Roman Empire, any nation that wanted to minimise the damage done to it by Rome had the option, either of submitting without a fight, or of trying to destroy the Empire (a slow process at best), or of ignoring the Empire in the hope it was ignored in turn. Today, any country that wishes to resist U.S. power has one option: to acquire as many nuclear weapons as possible.

If, then, the United States makes clear that she is prepared to use military force against any potentially hostile power that lacks nuclear weapons, say on the grounds that she wishes to prevent such powers from acquiring such weapons in the first place, it is plain to all such powers that they must acquire such weapons or be pushed around, perhaps invaded, perhaps destroyed, their regimes perhaps deposed. If I were a dictator, & I knew that America disliked me, I should be doing my damnedest to get nuclear weapons. If America made clear she would not interfere in other countries’ affairs, I may of course try to get nuclear weapons anyway, but I am not sure I should have quite the same incentive.

The conclusion is that America’s determination to prevent non-nuclear powers from going nuclear may achieve the opposite of what is intended. If that happens, then American firepower will become increasingly impotent.


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