A more lethal weapon?


Bill Sims Contributing columnist

Bill Sims Contributing columnist


Nuclear weapons have now become a new kind of strategic threat. But this reinvention has little to do with the mutually assured destruction (MAD) that hung over us like the Sword of Damocles from the end of World War II to the turn of the century. Looming over the Cold War was this cataclysmic notion that as horrible as a nuclear war would be, no one would dare to use the nukes if it meant both sides (or all sides) would be obliterated. While MAD never realistically qualified as a psychological “fail-safe” mechanism, it seems to have worked so far as a deterrent to nuclear war.

Fast forward to Ukraine. Mr. Putin has figured out a new way to use nuclear weapons, a new kind of “sword”, and it has opened up a new set of strategic worries among those committed to global peace and security. Think of Russia’s nuclear arsenal as an adversarial shield allowing it to use its conventional military forces against a nation like Ukraine, or perhaps Estonia, Poland and Moldova.

When Mr. Putin warned NATO allies in February that any attempt to intervene with his military campaign in Ukraine would lead to “such consequences that you have never encountered in your history,” most took it to mean he was threatening to launch nuclear weapons. If Xi Jinping sees Russia’s gambit in Ukraine as an opportunistic moment to wave off opponents trying to stop his own conventional military invasion of Taiwan by waving his own nuclear shield, what’s the world to do? Has a new military tactic been established to use nuclear weapons as a shield for conventional forces to achieve territorial gains with impunity?

Global-security think tanks and war colleges around the world are scrutinizing the prospects of what this nuclear shield tactic may mean for eager autocrats with access to battlefield nukes. Think not only of China but also of Iran.

Ironically, given what’s happening in Ukraine, there’s another promising weapon in the field showing itself potentially to be more lethal than many realized, including Mr. Putin. Who knows, it may have more strategic value than nuclear swords and shields. The power of economic sanctions, especially when wielded in concert with allies, international financial institutions and corporations, may prove in an interconnected world of business and finance to be the weapon of greatest consequence.

President Biden’s two-hour meeting with Xi Jinping was about China’s ultimate relationship with Russia, but it also may have been about what Biden hopes China may have learned about economic consequences.

China finds itself betwixt and between. Long a herald for the sacrosanct sovereignty of nations, China finds itself at risk of violating its principles to defend its autocratic partner. The tortured result is a bunch of political gobbledygook in which China declares it wants a negotiated peace but refuses to publicly denounce Russia’s war-crimes in Ukraine. It’s a case of being afraid to abandon a mentally disturbed strongman ally, but at the same time not wanting to associate too strongly and risk getting hit with debilitating sanctions. How the world is reacting to Russia is likely how the world would react to China assaulting Taiwan. China could ill afford such devastating economic consequences… or could they?

Here are some economic facts. China’s trade with Russia annually is worth slightly less than $150 billion a year. China’s trade with the United States is worth slightly more than $750 billion a year. China’s trade with the European Union is worth slightly more than $800 billion. That’s a 15:1 ratio of trade value. The bottom line in numbers: The West’s, $1.55 trillion to Russia’s, $150 billion. That’s why unified economic weaponry may be the new nukes of the 21st century, and why China is dangerously walking a careful tightrope on Ukraine. It’s also why Russia, in spite of its outsized military power, with an economy just the size of Italy, is globally weak. Truth be known, its “economic weaponry” is relatively puny.

What all of this leads to is a strategic rebalancing of global power, not wholly defined by nuclear warheads. Instead, emergent strategic power runs through the coalescence of economic and financial interests determined to have global stability and to form integrated economic alliances ready to collectively sanction dictators consumed with grandiose imperial motives.

The integrated nature of economic enterprises around the world have come to so dominate the national security interests of nation states that there seems to be little tolerance for petty dictators who are more focused egotistically on imperial power than on the economic stability that is prerequisite to global peace. Who would have thought — integrated economic togetherness — a more lethal tactic than thermal nuclear weapons?

Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.

Bill Sims Contributing columnist
https://www.timesgazette.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/33/2022/03/web1_Sims-Bill-mug-3.jpgBill Sims Contributing columnist