Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Ticking Bombs

As the disasters of 1914 and currently unfolding events remind us, great powers don’t need to want wars to get wars.


When someone discovers a ticking bomb in, say, a public park, the area is closed off, cops swarm everywhere, and the bomb squad is called in. The United States now faces ticking bombs all around the world, mostly of its own creation. But in Washington, the foreign policy establishment, a.k.a. the Blob, responds to the ticking sounds by assuming they come from music boxes that will soon start playing Clair de Lune

The most dangerous ticking bomb is the war in Ukraine. Unfortunately, it has retreated to the back pages of the morning papers, above the hotdog-eating contest at the county fair but below rumors of an epizootic in Burkina Faso, the country named like a breakfast cereal (its national motto: “Better than prunes.”) The Russians take another village in the Donbas, perhaps Stinking Hole (there really is a Russian village with that name), and shoot a few more home-on-hospital missiles. Ukraine trumpets for the third month in a row a great counter-offensive in the south, thereby ignoring the lesson of the battle of Kursk (if the enemy knows where you’re attacking, attack somewhere else). Ho-hum. 


But the relative calm is deceptive. Wars usually do not move at a steady pace. Rather, they flow in a punctuated equilibrium. Long periods of Sitzkrieg are interrupted by sudden, large-scale events that upset more than apple carts. The ingredients for just such an irruption are present as I write. Thanks to an ever-increasing flow of weapons to Ukraine from the West, the correlation of forces seems to be shifting against Russia. With those weapons comes, like it or not, a deepening NATO commitment to a Ukrainian victory. 

That commitment runs head-on into the situation’s most fundamental strategic reality: Russia cannot afford to lose this war. Not only is the life of President Putin’s government on the line—perhaps his, too—but so is the future of the Russian Federation. A Russian defeat by Ukraine would so delegitimize the state itself, especially as the real casualty figures start to leak out, that the Russian Federation could follow the Soviet precedent and disintegrate. I am certain Mr. Putin knows this. He knows that a war where the U.S. has no real interests at stake is for Russia an existential conflict. And he knows how to make certain Russia does not lose: go nuclear. 

The July 23 Wall Street Journal contained an essay by Sidharth Kaushal and Sam Cranny-Evans, “Russia’s Aggressive New Nuclear Strategy.” It notes, 

In 2020, Russia published “The Basic Principles of the State Policy of the Russian Federation on Nuclear Deterrence,” which specified that the country would resort to nuclear weapons in a variety of scenarios: … if the state’s very existence was threatened by the use of conventional weapons.

The wording of that last clause—which refers to the Russian state, not the nation or society—has raised concern, since it suggests that a threat to the state’s leadership would meet the nuclear criterion even if the country is not under catastrophic attack.

The danger of the war in Ukraine turning nuclear should bring about urgent diplomatic efforts to conclude at least a cease-fire if not a peace. Instead, with its usual combination of insularity and hubris, the Blob pushed President Biden into announcing the U.S. will not accept any deal to which Ukraine objects. Since no Ukrainian government could survive for a day if it agreed to give up a square meter of territory, diplomacy appears to have no room in which to operate. 

Ukraine is the loudest ticking bomb, but it is not alone. The Blob is pushing the United States into an ever-cozier relationship with Taiwan. This is perceived in Beijing as an existential threat because if one province of China can secede, so can others. Throughout her history, China’s greatest danger has not been foreign invasion but her own centrifugal tendencies. Periods of “warring states” have done her more damage than have invading barbarians, who are quickly Sinified because of the superiority of Chinese culture. The Blob evinces no understanding of the Chinese perspective on Taiwan, nor of the risk of nuclear war inherent in the situation. 

The Blob is not satisfied with pushing the world toward the first use of nuclear weapons since 1945. It recently put on Mr. Biden’s teleprompter a renewed commitment to preventing Iran from building nuclear weapons. If current negotiations to renew the 2015 deal fail, that is a commitment to go to war yet again in the Middle East. The Blob makes commitments the way Imelda Marcos bought shoes. To an historian, the grand strategic situation looks all too much like 1914. As Christopher Clark argues in his masterful book The Sleepwalkers, none of the great powers wanted war in that fateful summer. Rather, they made commitments that ran away with them. Today, adapting a bon mot from that time, the situations in Moscow and Beijing are serious but not hopeless, while that in Washington is hopeless but not serious. Let us hope our fate is better than Vienna’s.