The age of global civilizations might have begun with the colonization of Africa and the New World, but the age of modern global superpowers actually began in 1854 with the first trans-continental telegraph wires, which, for the first time in the history of the world, allowed for rapid information transmission over intercontinental distances. It no longer took months of nautical travel to deliver messages between the Americas and Europe. Strategic commands could be issued from around the world.
For context on why this might be important, before Andrew Jackson was president, he helped win a military victory at New Orleans in the War of 1812 for a battle that took place after a ceasefire treaty was signed overseas. It would take weeks for the message that the war was over to reach the Americas. In the meantime, hundreds died in a battle that was geographically, politically, and strategically unimportant — a product of how long it took for messages to travel the world. However, the advent of the telegraph eliminated such costly miscommunications and afforded nations the ability to coordinate more efficiently.
Not long after the invention and propagation of the telegraph, it was demonstrated that the same electromagnetic waves used to carry messages through wires between telegraphs could also carry messages through empty space. You might know this theory as ‘radio.’ Though it would take at least two decades into the twentieth century for radio to become commercially widespread, these developments gave militaries and governments the ability to communicate globally before the turn of the century.
This ability, in turn, enabled the coordination required to run a globally dominant military power. Decades later, after the second World War, the United States and the Soviet Union cemented themselves as the two most powerful countries in the world. The age of the Global Superpower had dawned.
For the first time in history, the scale at which countries could communicate and interact with each other reached the entire globe. Countries no longer competed solely with their geographic neighbors, but with every other country in the world. The race for global military supremacy had begun.
It would be an outright lie to posit that the development of nuclear weapons and the subsequent arms race to stockpile more and stronger versions was the first arms race in history. It certainly wasn’t. It was, however, the first arms race that took place on a global scale — inescapable for the entirety of the human race, regardless of their involvement.
The development of nuclear weapons, a product of both the United States’ and Soviet Union’s adoption of thousands of German scientists and engineers, rapidly expanded military power to an unprecedented scale. It was possible, nay, demonstrated, that these weapons had the power to wipe out all human life on the planet. The remnants of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were a grave reminder to all people that conventional warfare could no longer be waged against a nuclear-equipped country. They had the destructive power to obliterate cities in hours. Worse, even, is the knowledge that the bombs dropped in Japan belong to one of the smallest classes of nuclear weapons.
Armed to the teeth and facing Mutually Assured Destruction, the United States and Soviet Union forever altered the nature of warfare. Proxy wars, intelligence and counterintelligence, coups, and puppet governments became the new face of conflict. Instead of direct assaults determined to take land and resources from neighboring countries, war expanded to encompass the seizure and protection of assets worldwide.
Nuclear non-proliferation practices that banned the development of nuclear weapons in nations that did not already have them further cemented the fact that there would only be a few nations at the top, a few superpowers controlling the rest of the sovereign world. Countries were forced to choose sides, and the Nuclear Umbrella was established.
For those unfamiliar, the Nuclear Umbrella is the promise agreed upon by nuclear-equipped countries to provide protection for those without, and it serves as an alternative to those countries researching and adopting the weapons themselves. Today every country on the planet falls under some form of a nuclear threat, and most, if not all, choose to ally with or remain subservient to its nearest or strongest neighbor.
The threat of nuclear destruction brings us into our current era of ‘peace.’ Nuclear-equipped countries find themselves unable to commit violent, formal wars against one another — and must wage their battles in other, more discrete ways. A wave of North Korean and Russian hackers, as well as the recently leaked bounties Russia has placed on U.S. soldiers stationed in the Middle East, serve as proof of this altered form of conflict. It is becoming economic, political, digital, and more difficult to track. Yet it remains, as it always has, about control. This newly-evolved form of warfare is designed to disrupt stability for the opposition’s assets and maintain control over the perpetrator’s own assets.
All of the global superpowers have deeply entrenched economic interests stationed around the world. Most of them are significantly interconnected. The U.S. — China trade partnership is one of the most profitable, yet one of the most tenuous economic relationships. And still, there are many others, hidden under layers and layers of complex and interconnected systems.
Another example is the U.S. continued presence in the Middle East, in Israel, Turkey, and other countries, which destabilizes the oil-producing powers of the Middle East just enough to force their subservience to the power of the American Dollar. Regardless of one’s beliefs on why the United States stationed forces in the region, the effects of those troops are undeniable. Oil producing countries are forced to sell oil cheaply at the mercy of the United States, and have tied their economies almost irreversibly to the strength of the United States’ economy. This has been a decades long, complex ploy that helped establish U.S. economic supremacy, support its industries, and undermine Russia’s Siberian-oil-based economy. There are innumerable global effects of that conflict — including the prevention of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. War has changed. Believe that if nothing else.
It’s clear that nuclear Mutually Assured Destruction has shaped how global superpowers interact with each other and with the rest of the non-nuclear-equipped world. While it often remains invisible in politics, news, and negotiation, one can bet that every guarantee of economic security, military safety, foreign aid, political assurance, contains the constant and ever-looming threat of nuclear annihilation. Even if it isn’t explicitly stated, global infrastructure systems benefit nuclear countries and their allies disproportionately solely because they were in power when the systems were established.
In 2020, we still live under the Nuclear Umbrella, but it won’t last forever. In March of 1983, president Reagan gave a speech announcing the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO) with the mission to develop an anti-nuclear defense technology to make the U.S. immune to the Soviet’s best weapon. This announcement, almost totally useless as far as funding, research, and development of this defense initiative goes, would serve to scare the Soviet Union into spending a significant amount of their budget on said technology, hastening their already precarious economy into its inevitable collapse. Keeping up with the United States was what killed the Soviet Union.
The goal of the SDIO, other than to threaten the Soviet nuclear program, was actually to create a defense against the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). That part was no joke. The SDIO concluded that the most feasible location to stop nuclear warheads was when they entered and exited low Earth orbit — with an emphasis on entering. When the missiles exit low Earth orbit they can split their warheads off, which means that destroying one missile in the upper atmosphere may not safely detonate all the warheads it contains. Some could still reach the ground. The research question became: How do you stop a missile from leaving the atmosphere in the first place?
The SDIO didn’t figure it out, though. Their technology and infrastructure were far too underdeveloped to deploy any of the strategies proposed. Some of the highlights include particle-beam weapons that took too much power and didn’t create a strong enough beam, and satellites equipped with lasers or missiles the likes of which we were decades away from being able to build. A series of budget cuts after its inability to deliver would all but hamstring the SDIO.
There was one project that was seen as the most feasible solution to ICBM defense: Brilliant Pebbles, a nod to a prior solution named Smart Rocks. Brilliant Pebbles involved a net of satellites in low Earth orbit that could track and destroy ICBMs as they passed the upper atmosphere. Brilliant Pebbles main flaw at the time of its inception? It would be too expensive, and it was too difficult to launch that many satellites into low Earth orbit, according to the SDIO. And they were right, too. With the thrust capacity and weight-bearing ability of our old rocket series, this was impossible.
Cue Elon Musk and SpaceX. Cue reusable rocket technology. Cue the introduction of thousands, tens of thousands, of low Earth orbit satellites. It’s absolutely certain that the United States military’s research and development funding and teams are already thinking about, working on, and perfecting the sort of satellite capable of knocking an ICBM out of low Earth orbit. Add Musk’s rockets that are projected to launch several times a week, and it’s possible that we could see the dissolution of the Nuclear Umbrella within the next two decades.
We are still a ways off from implementing any of the SDIO’s strategies, but make no mistake, they are no longer impossible. If we don’t destroy ourselves first, nuclear weapons will become obsolete. It isn’t a matter of if, it’s becoming a matter of when. The tenuous and strained peace established by Mutually Assured Destruction is going to collapse, one way or another. Either through mutual annihilation, or by disarmament. But what would that mean?
Published exclusively in Brown Tech Review. Image source.