An ancient anecdote, from the time of the Cold War, has it that a politician, physicist and astronomer were at a party, when the first two got into an argument about just how powerful the world’s nuclear weapons were, and the right strategy for cutting stockpiles. They argued back and forth, and finally the physicist said, “Today’s stockpiles are enough to destroy the world 30 times over”. Before the politician could respond, the astronomer, feeling left out of the conversation, stepped in and said, “Ah, but even if that were to happen, it is not as if Earth is a major planet anyway.”

Three non-Abrahamic powers now possess nuclear weapons
(China, India and North Korea). It is very likely that the number will quickly become five (including South Korea and Japan) in the very near future. Thus there will be a geographical continuum of nuclear states from Japan to Pakistan, which when Russia, Iran and Israel are added, becomes the atomic crescent. If you were considering the idea of building a nuclear shelter, now would be a good time to start, although as the physicist observed above, the exercise would prove pointless.

The fourth horseman

The weekend test of an apparent nuclear weapon by North Korea brings the fourth horseman to the apocalyptic party that the world has now become. Taking a look at the established powers – the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, India and Pakistan – it is clear that adding Iran, Israel and North Korea to the mix provides a new impetus to understanding both the strategic impact and the likely provocations that would draw the world into nuclear conflict.

In my view, the three states with the greatest potential for launching first strikes are Pakistan, Iran and North Korea. Add a United States that misunderstands its role in the world and the effect of its policies, and the four horsemen of the apocalypse, as the Bible so lovingly puts it, are in place.

It is interesting that the Biblical references to the characteristics of the four horsemen suit today’s lineup. North Korea is clearly Famine, as its people are starved while its leaders scramble desperately for survival. The US is War, as its leaders have waged unnecessary conflicts and brought forward the day of reckoning. Between Pakistan and Iran, one can choose Pestilence and Death depending on how many nuclear, biological and chemical weapons one believes the respective states possess and the likelihood of their using these weapons. For example, Iran suffered dramatically from Saddam Hussein’s biological and chemical weapons, and would likely prefer to be a first user. Pakistan has a significant conventional-arms disadvantage against both Iran and India, and would hence use such weapons of mass destruction whenever threatened.

A major difference in the scenario above against the Bible’s is that the four horsemen are arranged against one another, rather than riding together against the rest of the world. One could argue that from the US perspective, it is China that is the fourth horseman, as it supports the existence of North Korea and has been a key exporter of technologies to both Iran and Pakistan (the latter’s nuclear weapon is of Chinese design, and this was then “shopped” to Iran by Abdul Qadeer Khan). However, as I wrote in previous articles [1], China has no economic reason to indulge in war and is more likely to take the side of the West whenever conflict does break out. In contrast, a proselytizing United States is a different matter, and presents a significant threat to the rest of the world.

North Korea also brings to the table a different perspective on war. Its leadership is highly centralized, and its people have little or no voice in government. The website of the official Korean Central News Agency on Saturday showed the country being prepared for a large-scale buildup of the army, using the idea of songun, which the KCNA explains thus:

Songun … is an idea of giving importance to the army and military affairs as it clarifies the position and role of the army in the revolutionary struggle for independence. Juche idea [self-reliance] considers it as its basic requirement to fully realize the independence of the popular masses and the songun idea indicates the way of most thoroughly meeting this requirement of the juche idea … Songun idea overcame the limitations of the preceding theory, which viewed the conditions of the social revolution with main emphasis on its objective and economic factors and clearly elucidated the profound truth that revolution means army-building and vice versa. A rifle serves as the most treasured sword to be held tightly in the whole course of revolutionary struggle to realize the independence of the masses.

The last sentence says it all – North Korea will use its nuclear weapons as a bargaining chip, with sales likely to the highest bidder whenever it needs extra money. There will be no economic reforms, and the world will in essence have to pay a tax to the North Koreans to keep the current leadership dynasty in power.

This is not dissimilar to the Islamic powers mentioned above. In Iran, the fading embers of the Islamic Revolution have forced the mullahs to fight a reactionary battle to reclaim center ground, while in Pakistan the military continues to fight for its central position in a landscape where people often get seemingly erroneous ideas of democracy and freedom of expression from neighboring India.

In all three countries, the case is strong that nuclear weapons will be used to keep the establishment in place, mainly by focusing people’s minds on illusory external threats. As I wrote in a past article [2], this is not different from the strategy used by all Arab dictators to stay in place; the only variation is that while Arab dictators are preserving their personal wealth, dictators in North Korea, Iran and Pakistan are trying to save their lives.


Using the edicts of game theory, just how will the situation pan out? Before considering the Nash equilibrium [3] confronting the likes of North Korea, Iran and Pakistan, it makes sense to line up natural allies and foes within the shadow of the nuclear umbrella.

Israel and India, confronting an Islamic menace on multiple fronts, constitute the first pair. To them, we can add the likes of the UK and Russia, as these countries also face similar problems, and have the same strategic interests. Russia holds no candle for Israel, but will find itself in sore need of a reliable ally when confronted with a nuclear Iran that could imperil its entire southern flank.

Pakistan and Iran make natural allies, but are funded by different sources. While the former has benefited from Sunni munificence, the latter is by definition a Shi’ite power. Whether an overt combination of Israel with India would push these two together is a matter of some debate, but since I don’t expect any of the combinations to be public anyway until there is an actual conflict, it also stands to reason that the Sunni-Shi’a divide will keep Pakistan and Iran at loggerheads. This will force Pakistan to consider an alliance with North Korea, whose ballistic missiles underpin its delivery systems in any event. Iran will have to chomp down on its Shi’ite tendencies to join this alliance.

South Korea and Japan are natural allies, even after considering their bloody history. At a stretch, they could get into an alliance with China, as the three countries have shared economic interests in their strong export-oriented industries. South Korea and Japan are among the biggest investors in China, and have underpinned the boom in various strategic industries for China. This provides the nucleus of a stable alliance, although Japan’s new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, will have to eat humble pie to effect the combination.

That leaves France, and I believe the country has no option but to join either Russia or the US. It is more likely to join the latter.

Americans go home

I have left the last of the four horsemen, and admittedly the one whose malcontent policies started it all, to the last. The United States may not realize this today, but the existence of the crescent mentioned above in essence destroys its claims to be the sole superpower. The US can no longer wage unilateral warfare against any country within the above-defined crescent, because the needs and reactions of natural allies need to be taken into count. Both Iran and North Korea are capable of gambling – and desperate enough to do so – that a first strike against the US will not lead to nuclear retribution as its neighborhood will be damaged as well. The US cannot risk nuclear fallout on Japan and South Korea, nor on Saudi Arabia and Israel.

A country that cannot stomach civilian losses and is limited from engaging in massive retribution will in essence have to rethink its strategic paradigm. In a matter of a few years, the US will go back to defending itself domestically from hostile forces, rather than projecting its power globally.

It is the end of the American century.

1. China and India in World War III, Asia Times Online, July 26.
2. Garfield with guns, Asia Times Online, September 2.
3. According to Wikipedia, “In game theory, the Nash equilibrium (named after John Forbes Nash, who proposed it) is a kind of solution concept of a game involving two or more players, where no player has anything to gain by changing only his or her own strategy unilaterally. If each player has chosen a strategy and no player can benefit by changing his or her strategy while the other players keep theirs unchanged, then the current set of strategy choices and the corresponding payoffs constitute a Nash equilibrium.”

Asia Times Financial is now live. Linking accurate news, insightful analysis and local knowledge with the ATF China Bond 50 Index, the world's first benchmark cross sector Chinese Bond Indices. Read ATF now.