After the Post-Cold War

January 18, 2019 Burlington, Vermont

Joseph Gerson

We have entered uncharted territory. The world is changing radically as the post-Cold War order and the 75 years of nearly unrivaled U.S. economic and military dominance are over. The interregnum between the dying order and the new one struggling to be born is a period of uncertainty, increased existential dangers – including possible nuclear war, and of an urgent need to bend history’s arc toward greater peace and justice.

Even before the chaos and disasters of the Trump tyranny, the thirty-year post-Cold War era was on its deathbed. China had lifted 600 million people out of poverty to become a peer competitor. Putin had stabilized Russia’s economic free-fall and had taken major steps to revitalize the Kremlin’s military. Cyber incursions and other asymmetric economic and military forays had seriously undermined U.S. strategic advantages. Blowback from the unwarranted expansion of NATO at the expense of Russian and European security, and the greatest strategic blunder in U.S. history, the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld invasion of Iraq. The latter having destabilized the Greater Middle East, bringing U.S. hegemony in that oil-rich region – once described as the geopolitical center of the struggle for world power – to an end.

Trump and his cohort have accelerated the United States’ decline and its alienation from much of the world. Their trade wars, obsession with the wall and separating immigrant families, their abrogation and violations of international climate and nuclear arms control treaties, the humiliation of traditional U.S. allies, and Trump’s embrace of authoritarian autocrats from Putin to Duterte have shocked democratic peoples across the planet, leaving them to chart their future policies with greater independence and away from what the United States has become.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists rightly warns us that nuclear dangers and climate change have brought humanity to two minutes to midnight – the closest we have been to manmade apocalypse since the height of the Cold War in 1953. The scientists point to the Trump Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review which recommits the U.S. to first-strike nuclear warfighting, to building and deploying more usable nuclear weapons, to spending $1.7 trillion for new generations of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems which in turn are driving a worldwide arms race, and which expands the circumstances in which the U.S. would initiate nuclear war.

The Scientists continued by decrying the dangerous lack of coherent U.S. foreign and military policies, increased reliance of all the nuclear powers on their nuclear arsenals, and the absence of U.S.-Russian arms control negotiations for the first time since the 1950s.

Putting this in perspective, Richard Hass, the President of the Council on Foreign Relations and formerly the Republican head of Policy Planning at the State Department stresses that is not a new Cold War. Instead, he points to similarities to the period leading up to World War I when an assassin’s bullet in Sarajevo triggered bloodletting that claimed nine million lives across Europe and around the world. Like then, this is an era of tensions between rising and declining powers, complex and uncertain alliance structures, intense nationalism, territorial disputes, arms races with new technologies, economic integration and competition and wild card actors. An incident resulting from provocative U.S., Chinese or Russian military exercises could light the fire this time.

As we have learned from the old Chinese saying and from our own history, “in crisis there is opportunity.” Whether it was Frederick Douglass or Harriet Beecher Stowe who catalyzed resistance to slavery in the 1850s, Rosa Parks, Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King Jr. whose vision and action led us out of the dark days of officially sanctioned Jim Crowe segregation, or the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Movement of the 1980s which was launched by Vermont and Massachusetts town meetings, people’s actions have changed the course of history.

Today we have the women’s marches and “me too” movement, along with the renewed struggle to preserve the right to vote and defend democracy, the sanctuary movement to protect innocent and deserving refugees, campaigns for fossil fuel divestment and for carbon taxes, Black Lives Matter and the Poor People’s Campaign, along with the peace movement. These are powerful forces that are increasingly working together and pressing for change across the country and internationally.

In 2017, disgusted by the refusal of the nuclear powers to fulfill their forty-seven-year-old Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty obligation to begin good faith negotiations to eliminate their nuclear arsenals, 122 nations promulgated the Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty. It is on track to go into force for those nations that have ratified it in 2020.

Under the leadership of the Campaign for Peace Disarmament and Common Security and building on the legacies of the Palme Commission and the Helsinki process of the 1980s, leading figures from the U.S., Europe Russia, and soon Asia are developing a vision for a Common Security order to replace the suicidal zero-sum struggle for power. Along with the Brookings Institution’s Back from the Brink report, we are advocating that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe should again serve as a central forum to defuse tensions and to build international cooperation.

When President Trump jeopardized the Mueller investigation by firing Attorney General Sessions people turned out for hundreds of demonstrations across the country.

Community-based initiatives have led Senators Markey and Warren and Congressman Lieu to introduce “No Presidential First Use” legislation to defend the constitution and human survival by prohibiting President Trump or his successors from initiating nuclear war without a declaration of war from Congress. No use of nuclear weapons is legitimate, but this is an important step. Our movements have led Senator Warren to oppose the building and deployment of new nuclear weapons and to begin bringing U.S. forces home from Syria and Afghanistan, positions that we hope will lead other presidential aspirants to join her. And, Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Union of Concerned Scientists have launched their five-point Back from the Brink nuclear disarmament campaign to impact the 2020 presidential campaigns and the policies of the next administration. It has been endorsed by the state of California and by many city councils and national organizations.

Years ago, the civil rights figure Miles Horton taught that “We make our road by walking.” Our actions, small and large, for peace, justice, democracy and environmental sustainability are essential if we are to create a 21st century path for common security, within our country and internationally.

Dr. Joseph Gerson is the President of the Campaign for Peace Disarmament and Common Security and author of Empire and the Bomb: How the U.S. Uses Nuclear Weapons to Dominate the World.