Nukes Keep You Safe

The military victory can be as problematic as military defeat. Whenever nations resort to brute force, unexpected prices must be paid. While U.S. President Bill Clinton and his administration may be savoring NATO's triumph over the loathsome Slobodan Milosevic, other parts of the world are taking note not of a human-rights monster getting his comeuppance but of superior technology getting its way.

They note that once again the United States, backed by cruise missiles and a behind-the-scenes nuclear arsenal like none on Earth, got what it wanted in Kosovo without losing a single pilot's life. China, especially, watched in awe and trepidation as once again the West's technology did to recalcitrant Yugoslavia what it had done to truculent Iraq in 1991.

The NATO campaign was also well-observed by India and Pakistan, both of which shocked the world earlier this year with their nuclear tests; and in North Korea. There, the leaders of the world's last Stalinist state surprised Japan last summer with a test missile that rocketed over some of its cities. This week, it lost two gunboats in a clash with the South Korean navy in the Yellow Sea.

Quiet, if wholly supportive, notice was taken in Taiwan, too, which wants U.S. anti-missile technology on its territory, and in Japan, which wants at least that (and many in Asia fear more) as well. Maybe in Indonesia the military elite was too busy monitoring its nation's first serious democratic elections in decades to care much. But once the dust settles over this populous land, it too will draw the same conclusion: That it's impossible to succeed in this world - to be taken seriously as a major player - without becoming a technological power.

Gone are the days of Mao's simple, romantic rifle-toting peasant army. Gone, too, is the moral force of an unarmed Gandhi. What's imperative now is that nations have the best military technology, whether by research and development, import or sheer theft. Yale management and political science professor Paul Bracken, author of "Fire in the East," an important new book on Asia's embrace of modern military technology, told me recently: "The success of the U.S.-led multinational coalition in Kosovo will reinforce the spread of missiles and weapons of mass destruction in Asia. The reason is that Asian nations do not want to become like Kosovo, targets of Western attack without any deterrent whatsoever."

Indeed, had Beijing blocked the UN authorization sanctioning NATO's entry into Kosovo, probably more Asian nations would have (quietly) cheered than (publicly) condemned. Memories of Western aggression linger long in Asia. "The forcible opening of Asia by the West ushered in five centuries of arrogant colonial rule, piracy, slave trading, and plunder on a scale previously unknown in history," Bracken writes in his book. Rising Asian nationalism, not just in China but across the continent, will yield fearsome new military capabilities as globalization provides new profits and technology imports for once moribund or cloistered economies.

Writes the professor: "Following the pattern that dates back at least to the Mongols, many Asian nations are now expanding the reach of their armed forces."

Their motive is not just to protect each from the other, but to neutralize the power of the only superpower, the United States. "The ballistic missiles and atomic, chemical and biological weapons coming to Asia are all disruptive technologies," Bracken writes. "They can nullify Western advantages in conventional weapons. They restrict Western access to Asia. They trump the Western technological lead."

But the West is blind to what is happening. It deludes itself into believing that Asian nations are so backward that they cannot usefully absorb, much less deploy, the technology they have imported, developed or stolen.

This is why Asia, having watched Western success in both Iraq and Yugoslavia, will never truly observe arms-control accords that reify second-rate status. But, oblivious or unobliging, the West will plod ahead. "U.S. foreign policy is increasingly Eurocentric," Bracken told me.

Thus, Washington celebrates its pointed expansion of NATO, which the Russians, the Chinese and many others in Asia regard as a long-term threat to their own internal control. And, when Asia suffers a financial crisis, Washington relies on Western-dominated institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the Group of Seven leading industrial nations to solve the problem.

"The U.S. is trying to deal with Asia through Europe; even the Kosovo war shows this," Bracken says. "It is using European models and Western clubs because that is what Washington understands. It's like a high school clique, where like-minded students hang out with each other and try to run the whole school."

It won't work, over the long run anyway. Asia will rearm, madly and rapidly.

This is why NATO's success in Kosovo will prove a much better deal for the people of Kosovo, who get to return to their homeland under UN protection, than to the people of Asia, who get to bear the burden of a new regional arms buildup. When diplomacy fails, the world often suffers, despite superficial military success.

Tom Plate teaches at the University of California, Los Angeles. He contributed this comment to the Los Angeles Times.