And it wasn’t just Cuba…

The concept of nuclear deterence has been one of the defining geo-political concepts of the post-war world.  Between 1945 and 1990, NATO and the Warsaw Pact faced off against each other in Europe and (via various proxies) elsewhere in the world too.  OK, recently declassified documents show that the Russians never seriously contemplated an invasion of Western Europe after about 1975, but NATO wasn’t to know that then.  Both sides knew that they were playing a game – a game of terrible balance.  On the Russian side it was realised that conquering West Germany wasn’t much point if all that was left was irradiated wasteland and NATO commanders knew full well that nukes might be the only sure way of stopping the five Warsaw Pact armies in East Germany.

So, both sides glared at each other across the Inner German Border and talked tough for the look of the thing.  Deep down everyone knew that if it all kicked off it would be bucket of sunshine time.  During the 1970’s and 80’s there were various periods when it looked as if some people were forgetting that point.

Two close calls during this period are especially noteworthy.  The first happened on 9 November 1979 when the NORAD computers indicated that a full-scale Soviet first strike had been launched against the mainland USA.  A senatorial visit to Cheyanne Mountain was in progress – its members vividly described the mood of ‘gut-loosening terror’ that gripped the NORAD complex.  It wasn’t until the early-warning stations confirmed that 2000 plus warheads were not inbound that the culprit was found – a faulty computer test circuit.

Result:  Massively improved procedures at NORAD and an unknown number of changed underpants.

The second occured a lot less publically, and full details of it have only become clear over the past decade or so.  On 26 September 1983 all seemed normal at the control centre for the Soviet ‘Oko’ early warning system.  Quite suddenly all that changed.  Alarms started going off and the duty officer (one Lt.Colonel Stanislav Petrov) was horrified to see that five American Minuteman missiles were seemingly inbound to their targets in the Soviet Union.

When this incident was first revealed to the world in the mid 1990’s, senior figures in the Russian Federation went to a lot of trouble to point out that Petrov alone could not have ordered a retaliatory strike.  His job was simply to monitor the system and pass the information to his superiors – particularly his immediate boss, General Yuri Votintsev, one of the senior men in the Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces.

And here we have the crucial pivot point.  Petrov analysed the data and decided that it was a false alarm.  Soviet expectations of an ‘effective’ US first strike ran to rather more than five missiles and that was a major factor in Petrov’s decision to do – nothing.  As it turned out, there were some serious glitches in the Soviet early warning system – when Petrov saw that ground based radar was not corroborating the American launch he cancelled the alert.

Petrov received no commendation at the time – his actions had exposed some pretty embarrassing errors after all.  The issue here is that the man thought on his feet, analysed the data and wasn’t afraid to act on his own logical conclusions.  Given the tensions between the USA and the Soviet Union at the time the outcome if he had reported the ‘launch’ is uncertain at best.  Even the most disbelieving analysts had to admit that the Soviet leadership, given only a few minutes to decide, would have ordered a reprisal strike – one which would have sparked off a general nuclear exchange.

Petrov, despite receiving two World Citizen Awards from the UN, remains pretty modest about his part in the story.  In an interview for the documentary film The Red Button and the Man Who Saved the World,  Petrov says, “All that happened didn’t matter to me — it was my job. I was simply doing my job, and I was the right person at the right time, that’s all. My late wife for 10 years knew nothing about it. ‘So what did you do?’ she asked me. ‘I did nothing.'”

Just as well really.

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Napoleons retreat from Moscow

Napoleons retreat from Moscow (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Napoleon‘s Grande Armee began its retreat from Moscow.  The invasion of Russia that June had failed to provide the decisive victory Napoleon sought.  Russian scorched earth tactics and the costly and indecisive Battle of Borodino wekened the French seriously – and that was before they reached Moscow.  Napoleon and his troops captured a deserted Moscow on 15 September – and woke on the following morning to find it in flames.  One month later, with no Russian surrender and General Winter on the horizon Napoleon reluctantly ordered a general retreat.

We’ll probably never know exactly what French losses were.  What is certain is that of the 500,000 men who crossed the River Niemen in June, fewer than 100,000 came home.

On this day in 1812

Election 2012 – Romney or Obama 5

As promised, it’s time to look at the foreign policy angle.  Stripping away the hype and the partisan commentry, just where do these two stand?  Romney details two main issues he believes need dealing with if the USA is to remain at the top of the world economically and militarily.  One he describes as challenging the jihadists and the other as competing with Asia.  Alongside this, he has gone on record as saying Russia is America’s biggest geopolitical threat today. (ABC News 11 September 2012).

As for Obama, his policies (dubbed the Obama Doctrine by Washington Post Columnist EJ Dionne), can best be described as deployment of American power tempered by practical realism and self-awareness.  Which means what exactly?  Well, looking back to 2009, it meant rebuilding America’s often tarnished international reputation, normalising relations with Russia with a view towards further nuclear weapons reductions, working  more closely with China on regional and global issues and striving for peace in the Middle East.  However, the thing about Obama is that he’s also had to temper noble aspirations for a better world with a healthy dose of pragmatism.  To Republicans that makes him a phony – to his apologists it simply means that in the mix of global events since 2009, pragmatism has had to dominate.  Politicians can say what they like to get your vote – they may believe they can make it happen too.  Then reality in the shape of domestic criticism, vested interests, lobby groups and Murphy’s Law interferes.

I would reckon that the same holds true whichever country you’re the leader of.  America though is more under the spotlight than most and POTUS more than most other world leaders is going to have his every utterance and action analysed to the nth degree.  Hence, compromise becomes weakness and inability to deliver quickly incompetance.  In the end, people stop asking about your foreign policy strategy and start accusing you of simply responsding to events.  Assuming that whoever ends up back in the Oval Office in November will be affected by the same constraints, which of the two contenders is going to be better for a) America and b) the rest of the world?

a)  Well, I’m not American, so anything I say here is purely speculation.  Of the two, Obama is most on the back foot as regards foreign policy.  Republicans are gunning for him after the recent attacks on US embassies in the Middle East.  They regard his approach to the Syria situation as weak and are suspicious of his cooler attitude towards Israel.  Does Romney have anything better to offer?  Doesn’t look that way.  Romney accuses Obama of presiding over an American geopolitical decline and not being tough enough on Iran.  He also promises that Republican foreign policy in a Romney administration will mean ‘never having to apologise for America’.  Did he really mean that last bit to sound quite so strident?

Or is he quite happy with the image of America as the arrogant bully enforcing its will on the rest of the world right or wrong? Or is America de facto right, regardless of any external moral standards?  That attitude got Palestinian kids dancing with joy at the sight of 9/11 footage and to be honest I found it hard to blame them.  When the high school bully gets hospitalised it’s hard for his victims to feel sympathy.  No, Obama isn’t perfect, but he’s better than the alternative.  I want someone in the Oval Office who understands that the USA is not the sole arbiter of world power and who understands the psyche of people like the Russians and the Chinese.  I especially want someone who is willing to say to both Iran AND Israel thus far and no further.

Solving our many political and economic problems as a planet cannot be done by one nation acting as top dog.  Even the Chinese don’t really believe that.  A closer partnership between Russia, China and the USA could achieve much without a serious diminishing of influence for any of them.  America still has a lot to offer the world and still has a lot to do, but not as the sole  economic, moral and military force .  The following excerpt from an essay by Obama puts it pretty concisely:

“After Iraq, we may be tempted to turn inward. That would be a mistake. The American moment is not over, but it must be seized anew. We must bring the war to a responsible end and then renew our leadership — military, diplomatic, moral — to confront new threats and capitalize on new opportunities. America cannot meet this century’s challenges alone; the world cannot meet them without America.”