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Tuesday, Sept. 21, 1999

Get ready for the second nuclear age

FIRE IN THE EAST: The Rise of Asian Military Power and the Second Nuclear Age, by Paul Bracken. HarperCollins, 1999, 186 pp., $25 (cloth).

The last two years have upset a lot of strategic certainties. Rather than moving toward nuclear disarmament, the nuclear club has expanded as India and Pakistan exploded nuclear devices. Reportedly North Korea is waiting in the wings, and perhaps Iran, too, will join those elite ranks within a decade.

Pyongyang has already demonstrated its technological prowess by launching a three-stage missile over Japan and has signaled its readiness to fire another. Just as worrisome has been the country's willingness to export its missile technology to anyone willing to pay.

All the while, slowly, inexorably, countries throughout East Asia have been upgrading and modernizing their defense capabilities. While regional governments have traditionally had access to weapons systems, they are now developing their own domestic industries, freeing themselves from reliance on their former arms suppliers.

Each of those developments is disturbing. Put together, however, they represent an epochal shift in the balance of power. That is the message in "Fire in the East," Paul Bracken's thoughtful meditation on the geopolitical realities at the dawn of the 21st century.

Bracken, a professor of management and political science at Yale University and a longtime consultant to the U.S. government, paints a disturbing picture. Of course, the details are troubling: According to his logic, the world is becoming a considerably more dangerous place.

Worse is the subtext: The United States is not prepared for this new strategic reality. Instead, the U.S. defense mind-set is still framed by the Cold War and outdated images of the global balance of power.

The most spectacular failure is the American inability to see Asia for what it is: a technologically dynamic region where governments are setting their own defense and security agendas. As Bracken explains, "Proliferation of modern weaponry is driven not by anything that happens in Washington, but by national strategies set in Beijing, New Delhi and Tehran. The spread of these technologies will continue and as it does so, it is likely to become self-reinforcing."

For centuries, the West -- Europe, the U.S. and even the Soviet Union (certainly more "Western" than "Eastern") -- has been the dominant military power in the world. Key defense and security policies were designed to lock in that military superiority. That, at least rhetorically, was India's rationale for its nuclear blast: It was protesting a nonproliferation treaty that did nothing to eliminate the strategic advantage enjoyed by the five nuclear powers.

The spread of nuclear weapons and the development of ballistic-missile technologies are leveling the playing field. Of course, the size of the U.S. arsenal will never be matched, but the new contenders don't have to match it. They merely have to come up with weapons that neutralize the U.S. advantage. Ballistic missiles capable of threatening forward U.S. positions do just that.

Bracken argues that India's nuclear test is significant, not because it signaled the emergence of a new nuclear power, but because it "was a signal from one of the pawns about how the game was going to be played from now on. Players on the Eurasian chessboard are running out of room. The maneuver space is becoming more tightly coupled. When a move is made in one area -- U.S. partnership with China -- it reverberates almost at once in another -- India testing nuclear bombs to signal disapproval. New rules will have to be written, and new strategies developed, to replace the arrangement politics that prevailed when one or two major pieces dominated a board filled with pawns."

For centuries, Asia was considered an object, not a subject, of international affairs. Western powers used weak Asian nations to block the influence of other continental powers. South Korea and Vietnam were used to block China; the Persian Gulf states hemmed in Iran and Iraq.

Those strategies relied on a fundamental weakness: Asian nations could not project power. They were capable only of defending their own borders -- if that.

That world is vanishing. Today, Asian nations are gaining the capacity to influence events beyond their borders. The first hint of this ability was visible in the South China Sea. As Bracken notes, "Whatever happens with respect to oil, the more enduring consequence of the Spratly Islands dispute will be to increase Chinese knowhow in projecting force over long distances. A fleet that can be sent to the southeast can be sent to the northeast. A navy that can operate 1,600 km from shore is one that can be stretched to operate even farther from shore."

As their weapons become more powerful, countries are also developing communications networks that integrate satellites and intelligence. All the while, each country keeps a wary eye on neighbors and rivals. China's technology makes India nervous. New Delhi's response echoes in Pakistan, which turns to Beijing and Iran for help. The prospect of Iran upgrading its technology puts Israel on edge.

As a result, Bracken explains, "Asia is running out of room: room for political and military maneuvering; room to buffer relations between armed powers; and room to insulate domestic crises from spilling over into international relations." Americans like to think their technological superiority insulates them from the effects of this shift. It is a comforting thought. It is also wrong.

The lesson of the last decade is that technology can be disruptive. As North Korea has made abundantly clear, the mere threat that it might possess weapons of mass destruction has transformed Pyongyang's relations with the world. How else can we explain the ability of a bankrupt, hermetic nation to top the diplomatic agenda? (Nor should that be surprising; Americans are quick to tell the world that nuclear weapons have no utility, forgetting how often they rattled their nuclear saber during the dark days of the Cold War.)

Bracken notes that new technologies "diminish the importance of [conventional force] comparisons because they shift competition to areas where geographic and political factors work against the West." Take germ warfare. Small nations can't fight the U.S. face-to-face. Like Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's army, they'll be crushed. But by striking at the rear, where units are relatively unprotected, they can even out the fight.

In the Persian Gulf War, the U.S.-led coalition massed its forces, supplies and reinforcements at huge military facilities far behind the front lines. Iraq's Scud missiles, inaccurate though they were, still managed to put those assets at risk. Bracken quotes Clausewitz, the German strategist: "Biological weapons move the center of the gravity of battle from the front, where the U.S. has advantage, to the rear, where it does not."

The Gulf War example is especially significant for the U.S., with its foreign bases scattered across the globe. Once considered locations from which Washington could project its power, those same bases are now targets. Bracken's conclusion is simple: "Without bases, there can be no concentration of military power. Weapons cannot be stored, let alone massed for use. No bases, no weapons. It is America's singular military weakness in Asia."

As the subtitle indicates, Bracken believes we are entering a second nuclear age. Well, sort of, since he is convinced that only Western conceit allows us to believe that the end of the Cold War had any impact on international relations. In Asia, things are much as they were before -- except for the rise of new technologies.

The big difference between the first and second nuclear ages is nationalism. The Cold War was ideological; Asia's nuclear powers couldn't care less about such nonsense. For them, nuclear weapons compensate for national insecurities.

The implications of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction are unclear. Bracken is no chauvinist: He does not claim that only the West can manage such awesome weapons.

His conclusion is more sweeping than that. He claims that "the spread of the bomb makes the world less Eurocentric. The second nuclear age will greatly accelerate the globalization process already under way. Now Asia is generating events on the world state, not just reflecting the interplay of forces in Europe and the Cold War."

There is a new relationship between East and West, and the West has been slow to understand the changes taking place. That is nothing new. History is full of cases when the West, and especially the U.S., underestimated Asia: the Vietnam War, the power of Japanese business competition, Pakistan's ability to build a nuclear bomb.

This time, however, the shift is even more fundamental. As Bracken concludes, the U.S. is deluding itself if it thinks it can manage this shift. The trick is to accept the new limits of American power and to adapt to them.

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