Illustration: Stephen Case
Andrew Sheng
Andrew Sheng

Respect for ‘red lines’ is the only way global powers can avoid nuclear war

  • History may remember the heroes of war, but it is the leaders who succeed in averting conflict that deserve to be celebrated
  • Without the first brave steps towards conciliation, it is all too easy for tensions to escalate to the point of no return
Now that the pomp of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan has died down, and Beijing’s military exercises have concluded, what has been achieved, other than a worsening of US-China relations?

The crumbling of the current world order is like the early stages of an earthquake. Initially, everything looks fine, then cracks and tremors begin to appear, and events accelerate until the actual earthquake occurs, with massive devastation.

The difference between earthquakes and war is that the latter is human-induced and should, in theory, be avoidable. Unfortunately, history rewards heroes who win wars, but has seldom praised statesmen who have avoided them.

History will debate whether the Ukraine war was avoidable. So far, it has remained a non-nuclear war because Russia has warned Nato not to provoke it and Nato understands at least that, much like during the Cold War between 1946 and 1991 – that nuclear war would be MAD (mutually assured destruction).
A man pushes his bike past a destroyed building in Sloviansk, eastern Ukraine, on July 29. Photo: AFP

There were lots of proxy wars in those years: in Korea, where the Soviets pushed China to do the fighting; and Afghanistan, where the US financed Islamist forces to wear down the Soviet forces. The Cuban missile crisis was defused when the Russians agreed to remove missiles from Cuba, provided the Americans removed missiles from Türkiye.

Both sides decided to back down from each other’s “red lines”, the crossing of which would have led to escalations beyond either side’s control.

The American economist who largely shaped the world’s understanding of nuclear options was Thomas C. Schelling (1931-2016). His Nobel laureate lecture “An Astonishing Sixty Years: The Legacy of Hiroshima” reminds us how rational – and how lucky – we have been so far in avoiding nuclear escalation.

Schelling’s great attribute was to apply intellectual rigour and common sense to very uncomfortable questions. He thought through the unthinkable. A leading game theorist, he understood that all human decisions are interdependent, contingent upon someone else’s behaviour, the most common being “tit-for-tat”.

But common sense at the individual level does not always work at the global level. Married couples who want a divorce can appeal to a court for independent judgment. Great powers cannot appeal to any higher court, not even the United Nations, whose rulings they can veto. The only global rule is that great powers must reach understandings with each other and not cross each other’s red lines.

Economist Thomas C. Schelling pictured in 2005 giving a speech at the University of Maryland, US. Photo: AFP

In a unipolar world where the hegemonic power can enforce order, there is what economists call “equilibrium”. But, as Schelling warned, when the unipolar order fragments into a multipolar order, you can get “far-from-equilibria” results.

US President Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” programme sought to restore America’s unipolar position, but having crossed Russia’s red line over Ukraine, war has broken out. It remains contained so far because the US is only indirectly involved, with Ukrainians doing the fighting and dying while Nato provides the arms. But if emotions get too high, this proxy war could escalate into a nuclear conflagration.
Pelosi’s trip has, to some extent, already crossed China’s red line, which Beijing has again spelled out in its newly published White Paper on Taiwan.
What we face today is a situation that, until recently, few dreamed would be possible – that the US and its allies may be crossing two red lines and about to engage in a two-front war at the same time. It is also no longer fantasy to imagine that a third front could break out in the Middle East as Israeli-Palestinian tensions rise.

Schelling’s warning was that “nuclear weapons, once introduced into combat, could not, or probably would not, be contained, confined or limited”. In other words, if non-nuclear options cannot lead to a mutually accepted conclusion, nuclear options would be used. If warring parties are not willing to negotiate, then escalation to a nuclear option becomes inevitable.


Mainland China white paper declares ‘greatest sincerity’ for peaceful reunification with Taiwan

Mainland China white paper declares ‘greatest sincerity’ for peaceful reunification with Taiwan

The only solution is to shift radically away from brinkmanship and avoid playing the current game of chicken. When a leading military power is no longer assured of winning on all fronts, (and that is still a big “if”), such insecurity creates conditions for chaos.

Once the United States moves away from “strategic ambiguity” to certainty of action, such as being legally committed to go to war on Taiwan, then it becomes hostage to Taiwan acting recklessly or even accidentally to provoke war. As recent US war games show, the losses for everyone involved in such a war would be horrendous.

When emotions run high, a stable equilibria cannot be maintained, because neither side can predict how the other would behave and therefore each pre-empts losses by engaging in first strikes.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, speaking in Tokyo this week, was correct in warning nuclear powers to commit to a “no-first-use” policy amid rising geopolitical tensions. No peace process is possible without all nuclear powers sitting down to discuss how to de-escalate the present situation.

How Nancy Pelosi changed the Taiwan Strait status quo in Beijing’s favour

As Schelling understood, the only way out of this nuclear conundrum is for great powers to rebuild trust by agreeing to disagree and understanding how not to cross each other’s red lines. Interdependent decision-making requires self-restraint by the major players.

But with the media fanning emotions, no leader can afford to look weak to his or her domestic audience. Hence, “tit-for-tat” means escalation until, eventually, red lines will be crossed, not by intention, but by abstention.

Perilous times call for statesmen who are not absent from the big decisions of our times. Democracy assumes that great leaders will emerge with great wisdom to fulfil the will of the people. But if the will of the people is misled into mutual Armageddon, then instead of the dialogue of the deaf, we may have the swan song of the dead.

Andrew Sheng writes on global issues from an Asian perspective