Ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, pessimists have been asking themselves when the next Cold War will begin and who the new enemy will be. But what if it's Cold Wars, plural, and enemies, plural?
A world with one potential nuclear conflict was scary enough. It would be a whole lot scarier if in the future there were multiple nuclear rivalries four or more regional Cold Wars each with the potential to end in devastating missile exchanges.
Unfortunately, that is precisely what the future may hold.
Why does it suddenly seem so hard to stop Iran from going nuclear? Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is behaving with such recklessness that it ought to be easy. In October, he called for Israel to be "wiped off the map". It is, he told cheering Indonesian students last week, a "tyrannical regime that one day will be destroyed." Simultaneously, Ahmadinejad has trumpeted Iran's "right" to pursue its nuclear ambitions, barely disguising his country's intention to move from energy into weaponry.
Yet the West what's left of it seems paralyzed, watching Ahmadinejad with the same appalled fascination that a large and docile cow might regard a rearing cobra.
It is, of course, always dangerous to draw analogies with the 1930s. Too many bad decisions have been made over the years on the basis of facile parallels between Hitler and Nasser, between Hitler and Saddam Hussein. Still, in one respect, Ahmadinejad really has taken a leaf out of the Führer's book. He has discovered the counterintuitive truth that it works to talk aggressively before you have acquired weapons of mass destruction.
The key is that weak opponents are unnerved when they fear they are dealing with a madman. In this respect, the long and nutty letter sent by Ahmadinejad to President Bush last week was exemplary, with its repeated references to "the prophet ... Jesus Christ (PBUH)" (Peace Be Upon Him).
Four years ago, George W. Bush would have trash-canned such drivel with a snort of "WBUH" (War Be Upon Him). But those days are gone. Bush is now almost as unpopular as Richard Nixon or Jimmy Carter at the nadirs of their political fortunes. Not only is domestic support lacking for any preemptive action against Tehran, international support is close to nonexistent.
In short, it seems highly probable that nothing will be done this year, next year or the year after to stop Iran's nuclear program. Sure, maybe a miracle will happen and the Iranian people will get rid of the madman and the mullahs. But I'm not holding my breath.
Fast forward to 2016. What does the world look like? One plausible scenario is that it will be a world of multiple mini-Cold Wars, with nuclear powers eyeball to eyeball in nearly every region. To some extent, that's already true. In Asia, there's a Cold War between India and Pakistan, though thankfully they seem to have entered a period of detente.
Japan could quickly acquire nuclear weapons if it felt insufficiently protected by the U.S. against China. South Korea might do the same if it lost faith in American protection. And might a decoupled Europe start to build up the Anglo-French nuclear capability as a response to energy blackmail from Russia? The key Cold War, however, would be the one in the Middle East, with Israel on one side and Iran on the other.
There are those who say that such a world could still be a peaceful world. The acquisition of nuclear weapons can make a rogue regime reasonable, they argue, because that old line from "Spider-Man" "with great power comes great responsibility." In a recent lecture at Harvard, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and nuclear theorist Thomas Schelling argued that three things had prevented nuclear weapons from being used in anger over the last 60 years: the nonproliferation treaty, the informal taboo on their use and the fear of retaliation. Nuclear weapons give their possessors influence, Schelling concluded, precisely through not being used.
Yet there is no guarantee that this logic will continue to apply in a world of multiple Cold Wars.
For one thing, the world enjoyed 60 years without nuclear war partly out of sheer good luck, as any student of the Cuban missile crisis knows. In a world of multiple Cold Wars, the risks of miscalculations are proportionally multiplied.
For another, Ahmadinejad does not look like a man who bothers about (Western) taboos or fears (Israeli) retaliation. On the contrary, he is a devotee of the hidden Twelfth Imam, who Shiites believe will return to Earth as the Mahdi (Messiah) for a final showdown with the forces of evil. Among the members of the Mahdi's entourage will be none other than Jesus Christ. After that, it'll be the End of Days.
When Ahmadinejad addressed the United Nations last year, this is how he concluded: "O mighty Lord, I pray to you to hasten the emergence of your last repository, the promised one, that perfect and pure human being, the one that will fill this world with justice and peace."
To a millenarian, mutually assured destruction is just another word for the long-awaited Apocalypse. And that, in essence, is why we don't want Iran to have the Bomb. Are we doomed to grasp this only when the mushroom clouds are rising over Tel Aviv and Tehran?