Did We Almost All Die in November 1983?

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For years now I’ve been telling my students that the closest the United States and the Soviet Union came to using nuclear weapons against each other was during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.  But a new book by British television-producer-cum-historian Taylor Downing has convinced me that perhaps the closest the world came to an exchange of nuclear weapons was on November 9th, 1983.  Does that date not ring any special bells for you?  That’s precisely what makes Downing’s 1983: Reagan, Andropov, and a World on the Brink such a frightening and unsettling read.

Downing begins by ably chronicling how US-Soviet relations reached a nadir during the first three years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency (1981-1983).  On the American side, the Reagan administration kept upping the Cold War ante: giving harsh speeches denouncing the Soviet Union as an “evil empire”; pursuing new weapons systems that threatened to completely upend the existing strategic balance of power; and evincing little interest in conducting normal diplomatic relations with the USSR.  On the Soviet side, its top leadership was “geriatric,” sick, and increasingly paranoid.  Soviet premiere Yuri Andropov spent most of his time in office in a hospital bed hooked up to a dialysis machine in a highly guarded military hospital.

The Kremlin’s mistrust of the West was fed by a KGB intelligence network that had strong incentives to tell its masters what they wanted to hear, as opposed to what the KGB actually believed to be true.  Beginning in 1981, the Soviets launched “Operation RYaN,” a worldwide spying program designed to spot any clues that the US and its NATO allies were preparing for a surprise attack against the Eastern Bloc.  While this option was never seriously considered by the Reagan administration, Downing shows how over the course of 1983 the Soviet leadership interpreted many US actions as preparations for war.  For example, following the October 23rd terrorist attack on the US Marines barracks in Beirut, all US military facilities around the world went on a heightened state of alert as a precaution.  But the Soviets ascribed this worldwide increase in US military readiness not to the terrorist bombing, but instead to preparations for a surprise attack.  Similarly, another key indicator that the KGB tracked was the amount of communications traffic between Washington and London, on the grounds that if NATO were gearing up for war there would be an increase in contact between the US and its most important ally.  At the end of October, communications traffic between Washington and London spiked off the charts… but Soviet analysts did not connect this uptick to the fact that the US had just suddenly invaded the former British colony of Grenada, much to the consternation and vociferous protests of Margaret Thatcher and her government.

Matters came to a head during early November, as NATO began its annual Able Archer military exercises from its headquarters in Brussels.  The Soviet leadership became genuinely convinced that that year’s exercise—Able Archer 83—was merely a ploy, cover for the surprise all-out nuclear assault that the West had been organizing.  As the West’s practice war games reached their apex, the Soviets went to their highest level of military preparedness: the top leadership descended into bunkers deep underground; fighter jets were pre-positioned on tarmacs with their engines left running, capable of being airborne within 3 minutes; the Soviet Navy left port and took up its battle stations; and mobile ballistic missile launchers were instructed to leave their bases, disperse across the Russian countryside, and stand by for orders to launch their deadly payloads.

In the end, the long night of November 9th, 1983 passed without any nuclear missiles being launched.  Able Archer 83 quietly concluded without incident two days later, and slowly the Soviets relaxed their guard.  But for Downing the kicker is that the West had absolutely no idea at the time of how afraid the Soviets were.  What was just another pretty routine week in Brussels and Washington had been experienced as near-existential terror in Moscow, but no one in either the CIA or the Pentagon realized it.

It wasn’t until 1990 that the first reports began to circulate in American intelligence circles of how close the November 1983 war-scare had come to becoming a reality, and not until 1996 that the CIA commissioned an internal review of the episode.  Nowadays senior American intelligence official like Robert Gates agree that the inability of the CIA to pick up on the signs of extreme panic that had gripped the Soviet leadership in 1983 was an immense intelligence failure: “We may have been at the brink of nuclear war and not even known it.”

All of this of course makes for very timely reading today, as a new American administration casually insults foreign countries, refuses to engage in the day-to-day work of diplomacy, plays politics with the findings of the intelligence community, and engages in needless bellicosity.  But while Downing nods in this direction at the very end of his book, the main strength of his work lies in rendering this era of the Cold War in vivid, engaging prose combined with excellent historical insights.  Downing doesn’t write like an academic at all, and I very much mean that as a compliment.  He’s particularly adept at putting disparate historical events all into the same narrative; he shows how different episodes like the downing of Korean Airlines flight 007 or Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit of London in December 1984 all interconnect.  All in all, 1983: Reagan, Andropov, and a World on the Brink is an excellent piece of historical writing perfect for students and the general public; it’s well worth your time if you’re interested in either the Cold War, nuclear weapons, or espionage.

The Rise of a New Regulatory Power in the East?

One form of power states can have in global politics is regulatory power (also sometimes called market power).  The idea is that if your state contains a large, rich domestic market, you can derive influence over other parts of the world eager to gain access to it.  For instance, the United States is by far the largest market in the world for pharmaceuticals, which gives decisions taken by the U.S.’ Food and Drug Administration a significant international impact.  Pharmaceutical companies from all over the world have lobbyists in Washington D.C. who carefully scrutinize the agency’s every move (in fact, Big Pharma is the industry that spends the most on federal lobbying).

Scholars of the European Union (EU) in particular have seized upon the idea of regulatory power.  Most international observers agree that the EU is a powerful actor on the global stage, but few agree as to why.  The EU doesn’t have the most jaw-dropping military in the world (as Donald Trump seems to have recently discovered, the U.S. accounts for the bulk of NATO’s combat readiness – one NATO estimate claims that US defense expenditures effectively represent 72% of the Alliance’s overall defense spending).  And while the EU collectively provides just over half of the Official Development Assistance in the world, claims that it is a significant “civilian power” have yet to attract many adherents.  Others argue that the EU’s power stems from its consistent commitment to human rights and other global norms, but critics retort that the EU is just as hypocritical as any other great power when its interests are on the line.

All of which leaves some EU-philes to fall back on the size of its market and argue that the EU’s main influence in the world comes in the form of regulatory power.  And it is true that the EU’s Common Market is the richest market in the world, even with the U.K. poised to leave in a few years’ time.  Industries in developing countries sometimes live and die as the result of internal EU regulatory whims.  On topics like vehicle emissions standards and food safety regulations, when the EU speaks, the world listens (especially at places like the WTO).

As with so many other things, however, the emergence of China as the major new economic power threatens to disrupt this regulatory status quo.  You can see it in lots of places (for example, regulations surrounding renewable energy), but recently it’s become apparent to me in an unusual corner of the world economy: digital games.

Both the Chinese government as well as Chinese society more broadly are worried about their children spending too much time playing digital games, particularly on mobile phones.  In 2008, China became the first country to officially declare internet addiction a clinical disorder, and the country’s relationship with digital gaming has only become more complicated in the years since.

For instance, earlier this year the Chinese government forced all digital game companies that release games in the PRC to publicly report the formulas that calculate their in-game item drop rates.  For context, in many kinds of digital games, you get rewards for accomplishing various in-game tasks: perhaps a better sword or a cool-looking suit of armor if it’s an RPG, or perhaps a unique color scheme for your character in an MMO.  Game makers discovered decades ago that having an element of randomness to these rewards kept people more engaged (and playing longer) than if it was a simple matter of doing X leading to Y.  Accordingly, semi-randomly generated items that “drop” when the player is successful remains a core mechanic for many of the world’s leading digital games.

The Chinese government is now forcing game makers to publicly reveal the rates at which such items are generated. While the government’s announcement didn’t give a lot of detail about its rationale for the move, most observers agree that the main goal is to try and limit excessive gaming: if players can do the math themselves and realize that it will on average take them dozens or even hundreds of hours of performing a same repetitive action to obtain a given piece of loot, they might just give up on the whole thing.  (Or they might just decide to buy the desired loot at the in-game store using real-world currency, but that’s a separate problem.)

Chinese gaming companies are increasingly paying attention to these signals emanating from Beijing.  Last month, the world’s biggest digital game maker, Tencent Holdings,  took the unprecedented move of voluntarily restricting how many hours a day its younger users could play King of Glory, the leading mobile game in China.  Henceforth, players younger than 12 will be restricted to only one hour of playtime per day, and those between 12 and 18 will be limited to two hours a day.  (In addition, the age-verification system, which is already linked to real-world identities, will be beefed up).

Why would a publicly-traded company interested in its bottom line volunteer to limit access to one of its most profitable products?  Perhaps because the influential state-run newspaper People’s Daily had recently run a slew of editorials against the game, calling it “poison,” with a predictable drop in the company’s share price.

Overall, the big takeaway here is that the Chinese government is displaying a willingness to directly regulate a global media industry in a way that used to largely be the domain of Western nations.  What we are witnessing emerging in China right now has the potential to re-shape the global entertainment industry in a way not seen since the rise of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and its film ratings system in the 1930s.  With digital games having overtaken movies in terms of both their sales and cultural salience, China is taking the lead on regulating an industry that promises to be one of the most dynamic of the 21st century, with consequences that will likely ripple out for decades to come.  Stay tuned… and don’t spend too much time grinding for that loot.