Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Comment on the Belmont Club:
"The Third Nuclear Age"

The NPT was a product of a particular systems dynamic. A good overview of the development of the field of international systems theory can be found here.

Many years ago as a student I studied Systems and Process in International Relations with Morton Kaplan at the University of Chicago. There are two things to know about his theoretical construct,

1. it has been superseded in influence by other theories, those of Kenneth Waltz notably, which demand less specificity and offer less predictive power,

2. Kaplan offered an elegant and sophisticated theory in which 5 overall systems could be classified in broad categories with simple rules and the component actors could be themselves viewed as subsidiary systems. A key quality to determine for actors at each level in his theory is whether they are system dominant or subsystem dominant. The overall international system is subsystem dominant. Functioning nation-states are system dominant.

While Kaplan described 5 global systems the only ones that have existed in reality are the Balance of Power and the Loose Bipolar systems. It may be speculated that the end of the Cold War offered the United States a brief opportunity to transform itself, as the sole surviving superpower, into the dominant actor in a Unit Veto system. The subsequent deterioration of the American position may be explained less by the predictable actions of other state actors seeking to constrain her than by a shift to subsystem dominance that allowed internal actors to weaken the ability of the United States as a system-actor to maintain its position. In other words was the United States really reduced in power by the rise of Russia and China or by the actions of internal elites who deliberately weakened her?

Soft Power and arms control process enthusiasts mistake a treaty, like the NPT, for an input that has power in its own right to influence the behavior of states. In doing so they treat the product of a subsystem dominant international process with no overarching legal and coercive authority as being the equivalent to a domestic law. The NPT worked because it served the interests of the two dominant players in a Loose Bipolar system. Without their support it becomes a dead letter. Without the power of the United States to enforce it the NPT, like most of the structures of international law, peace, and trade built over the last 60 years, becomes nothing more than a jobs program for members of the IAEA.

If we are now moving into a Balance of Power system then it will be essential to establish five roughly peer competitors to maintain stability. The failure of actors to clearly see the state of the overall system and their positions within it creates instability. This period of transition, given the presence of WMD and the rise of non-state actors, is especially dangerous. Traditional systems theories such as those of Kaplan and Waltz do not adequately address the issue of non-state actors. Non-state actors like al-Qaeda or media elites can be viewed as potentially system dominant subsytems that cross borders.

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