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(First time poster, but I don't shy away from receiving criticism :) )

Let's assume that there are two great powers that are vying for dominance over the planet, but neither of them has discovered nuclear fission/fusion (apart from that, they progressed along similar lines to our civilization.)

One of these powers is a theocratic republic, relatively highly motivated in their efforts to convert other states to their religion. They're also OK with using their military might to force it on others as well. They have a capitalist economic system, where every corporation is obligated to invest a percentage of their profits in local infrastructure.

The other power block is made up of a larger and numerous smaller monarchies, mostly constitutional ones, that are not interested in direct territorial expansion, however they don't oppose the idea of creating a buffer zone.

The populations in the former block are pretty much brainwashed into believing that spreading their faith is a cause that's worth dying for. In the monarchies, there is about a 50/50 split between militarists and pacifists.

Infrastructure (roads, railroads) are at about contemporary European levels in the urbanized/strategic areas, however near the border they are quite neglected. There is also the possibility of transporting manpower/equipment by aircraft, I guess.

There is a long land border between the entities, that is mostly desert. The natural resources are roughly evenly split, with the 'border desert' being richest area in oil and natural gas, however previously neither states invested in the area, previously, given it's location.

The various secondary powers do not share a land border, they are located on the coasts and as such instead of supporting a strong manufacturing industry, they rely on trade to sustain themselves. As a result of this their desire for direct confrontation is lower than that of the two 'superpowers'.

Would this mean that unlike in the case of the Cold War, hostilities still escalate beyond the scope of local proxy wars?

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closed as too broad by StephenG, Mołot, sphennings, MichaelK, Azuaron Feb 22 '18 at 15:58

Please edit the question to limit it to a specific problem with enough detail to identify an adequate answer. Avoid asking multiple distinct questions at once. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • $\begingroup$ Can you specify the technology level? Is this a Victorian tech level without fission technology or Cold War tech level, but without fission. $\endgroup$ – kingledion Feb 22 '18 at 14:35
  • $\begingroup$ Early cold war. @kingledion $\endgroup$ – J. Doe Feb 22 '18 at 14:39
  • $\begingroup$ Balance of power is complicated thing that depends on geography, natural resources, roads and other modes of transportation, nations morale and willingness to fight and so on. We don't know all that about your world. Are you wanting specific result to happen? $\endgroup$ – Mołot Feb 22 '18 at 15:04
  • $\begingroup$ You need more detail in your question, and possibly a narrower scope. As Molot points out, geography is very significant for answering a question like this, including available resources. Where the oil is located, for instance; just look at the importance of Saudi Arabia and by extension the Middle East countries, due in large part to their massive oil reserves. Imagine how different the world might have been if those reserves had been located in China and Japan instead, and you might get an idea of why geography is critical. That's just one example; there are quite a few more to consider. $\endgroup$ – Palarran Feb 22 '18 at 15:35
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    $\begingroup$ I liked the original question better. It was easier to answer, less opinion-based. If you were asking, as an alternative reality, 'what would have happened if nuclear weapons had not been developed during the second world war, what would international politics be like now?' there is a far better historical factual base with which to form an answer. The truth would appear to be, 'Nuclear weapons didn't have that much influence on history'. They were just another tool for politicians to use to achieve their goals. Economics was more important. $\endgroup$ – Justin Thyme Feb 22 '18 at 15:52
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There is no one answer to this. War is far too complicated. However, there is a trick which you can use to start identifying believable scenarios. When it comes to war, everyone focuses on that which is worth dying for. However, you cannot truly understand a nation's causes to war unless you also know what they feel is worth living for.

Fundamentally, war is destructive. You hope the destruction is all on the enemy's side, but that is never ever the case. You always lose things you care about, especially when it comes to the people sent to the front lines. Those who do not die need to keep living, despite this loss. They need something that is worth continuing to live, day after day, despite the risk of losing all that is sent into the war.

For your theocracy, this is easy. Presumably the members of this society love their deity and wish to continue revering them. A theocracy will not go to war if they believe that doing so decreases their ability to continue doing what their deity commands. For your monarchies, it is harder. Clearly those in power are striving to keep power, but each monarch is full of people as well. What motivates those people to keep living. A society which lives for family bonds is going to fight war differently than a society which strives for technological advancement.

Your monarchies are going to each have a different answer to that problem, which is going to complicate things. As a result, there's a good chance that they will be rigid in their goals. You're likely to see them fighting to keep things exactly as they are, rather than striking out in a preemptive strike. A preemptive strike would call for them all to align.

Those tools form the basis for creating believable scenarios. You have to layer on top of this all of the geographic and resource issues, all the power dynamics with other nations, etc. But all of that is just flavoring on top of the core issues of what is worth living for and what is worth dying for.

As for nukes, it's easy to see what they do. Nukes make it much harder to find something worth living for. They threaten to do so much damage that what is left simply isn't worth living for. You have removed that from the equation, but otherwise it does not actually change the nature of the beast.

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WWII proved that you can create a world-wide conflict without nuclear weapons. A cold war means the chess pieces of the world have been positioned to create a condition chess players call Zugzwang, meaning the only way to win a war is to not be the first person to move. Therefore, the balance of power would be created by:

  • Man power (size of your army)

  • Mechanization (how many tanks you have parked in your garage, the number of air-craft carriers and subs in your fleet.)

  • Outlying bases (the number of strategic bases that would need to be overcome before taking on the power itself, lest you have enemies in your backyard after your first strike).

It's the third point, outlying bases, that would create the cold war condition. Strategic placement of bases (usually to "protect" allied nations, who tend to be allied because there's a whomping big military force inside their borders) is what would create the condition of zugzwang. Without long-distance ballistic weapons of mass destruction, you would need to move on a lot of bases simultaneously to overcome the zugzwang condition.

Which all suggests that mobility is your greatest weapon. He who can move the fastest might overcome the condition of zugzwang and win the war.

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