December 28, 2006
Have a Happy New Decade: A perilous raceBy James Lewis
Let's look at the coming decade --- 2007-2017, rather than just the year 2007. It's a lot more interesting and significant.
Suppose solar energy becomes economically competitive within ten years. The US Department of Energy is betting on it.
The effects of cheap solar energy on geopolitics would be huge --- suddenly the narrow and dangerous Persian Gulf would lose its critical leverage on the world's energy budget. Saudi Arabia would become just another country. Iran would lose some of its menace. Russia's monopoly over Europe's natural gas would be broken. The race for more energy sources would become much saner.
And suppose that laser anti-missile defense becomes practical in half a dozen years.
Suddenly the danger of nuclear attack --- the greatest man-made risk of the last seven decades --- would become manageable. Speed-of-light laser weapons operate on line-of-sight, giving ground-based defenses a major advantage against air and space attack. High-energy lasers could be tuned to detect chemicals and perhaps biological agents in the air and destroy them. For the first time since 1949, the technology of defense would outweigh offense in strategic weaponry. That would take a lot of the sting out of nuclear proliferation. It would make nukes less attractive to all the world leaders with nuclear penis envy. Which is most of them.
Those are hopeful scenarios. They could well happen over a ten-year horizon, and that means that we should start thinking about them now.
What about predictable dangers? Here are a couple of scary scenarios.
Suppose Ahmadinejad gets usable nukes by 2009 --- as estimated by Meir Dagan, the head of Israel's Mossad.
And suppose Kim Jong Il starts exporting Nork nukes to other countries around the same time. Kim wants a lot of money, and he has been starving his own people and investing in nukes instead. He wants to sell the technology to the mad Mullahs. Kim and Ahmadinejad are bad news all around --- but they would be a lot worse if they succeed before laser defenses become operational.
So just three predictable developments --- nuclear proliferation, laser weapons and cheap solar energy --- all intersect in vitally important ways. Where their lines of development cross, we will see great dangers as well as great opportunities. If the crazies of this world get nukes before defenses become practical, look for big trouble around the world. But if we can dramatically speed up solar efficiency and laser defenses, we will make the world dramatically safer.
There are limits to the "pushability" of technology. Not everything can be accelerated like the Manhattan Project. Sometimes the science or the marketplace just aren't ready. Embryonic stem cells are not a mature medical technology, while adult stem cells have shown promise in numerous human studies.
The biological reason for that is that embryonic cells are much closer in the developmental lineage to the target cells --- they have much shorter roads to travel to become heart or bone cells. Only a fool --- or Governor Schwartzenegger --- would invest three billion borrowed dollars (six after borrowing costs are paid) in embryonic stem cells rather than adult cells.
Along the same lines, eco-economist Bjorn Lomborg has argued for years that we should invest in clean water for poor countries rather than trying to reach wildly impractical Kyoto limits on CO2 emissions.
Clean water would save hundreds of millions of lives. Kyoto would just screw up world economies. So we have to use our heads, rather than follow the demagogues of the world.
The three critical technologies of cheap solar, laser cannons, and nuclear proliferation must shape our decision-making today. They are becoming highly predictable.
Take the example of Ahmadinejad's nukes. Suppose the Mullahs' rush to nukes can be set back by only three or four years, through technological sabotage or limited military action. Those years might save the world from truly major danger. Historically, a few years'margin has in fact made such a difference. Hitler and Tojo did not have a working Manhattan Project for only a few years, while the United States raced ahead, and that has made all the difference. Saddam Hussein's Osirak reactor was knocked out by the Israeli Air Force in 1981, and his nuclear program never recovered. Hitler, Tojo and Saddam never developed nukes, and civilization survived. Such a small time differences are precious beyond price.
Effective action to retard Ahmadinejad might give more breathing space for laser defenses to come on line, or to reduce the power of oil-producing nations. Cheap solar competition against oil would take a lot of the sting out of Tehran's daily threats. Russia's newly aggressive stance depends on its energy monopoly; it would have to focus on internal development if it couldn't blackmail Europe through energy. If a resurgent China runs low on energy, it might become much more aggressive in Central Asia and the Pacific.
The hard facts of technology will shape major strategic choices. Should the West resist Russia's new imperialism? Should we take sides with Saudi and Egypt against Tehran? Should we have a Manhattan Project for laser cannon or cheap solar energy?
Vital questions for the next ten years. Here's hoping we make the right choices. Have a Happy New Decade.
James Lewis blogs at http://www.dangeroustimes.wordpress.com/