Joseph Gerson –
As Andy Lichterman says, and the Council on Foreign Relations’ Foreign Affairs affirms, we are in the dangerous and uncertain interregnum between and the emergence of a new uncertain and dangerous multi-polar era in which the U.S. will remain a major imperial and nuclear power, but not the only one.
The post-Cold War era is over. It will be remembered as the peak of U.S. imperial power and a time of the self-defeating hubris of U.S. liberal hyper-power hegemony. The disastrous and continuing U.S. wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen have devastated those countries claimed tens of thousands of lives, and driven millions from their homes with the resulting flood of refugees fueling blood and soil nationalism across much of Europe. These failed wars, the 2008 financial crisis, the rise of other powers, and the proliferation of asymmetrical attacks have demonstrated the imperium’s vulnerabilities and relative decline to people across the world.
Some are tempted to describe the confrontations of this uncertain transitional era as a new Cold War. Richard Hass, the Republican former head of Policy Planning at the State Department, says no. Instead, he and others point to similarities to the period leading up to World War I: an era of tensions between rising and declining powers, complex alliance structures, intense nationalism, territorial disputes, arms races with new technologies, economic integration and competition, and wild card actors.
Trump’s trade wars, his abrogation and violations of international nuclear and climate treaties, his embrace of authoritarian autocrats, his humiliation of U.S. allies, his fire and fury threat against North Korea, and the month-long shutdown of U.S. governmental operations have all reinforced this dynamic.
There has, of course, been more than only U.S. decline. On the periphery, China has imbibed the military, economic, cultural, spiritual, political and intellectual pillars of Western civilization, synthesizing them with Chinese values and culture, resulting in the Middle Kingdom’s spectacular rise: six hundred million people lifted from poverty, industrial and technological expertise, new means of social control, and an updated version of tributary empire extending its influence across Eurasia and the South China Sea.
The Belt and Road Initiative carries the potential to more deeply integrate Eurasian economies, cultures and political influence from Seoul to Sweden, with the U.S. consigned to the geostrategic margins. Beyond Eurasia, the U.S. and China compete for influence in Latin America as well as across Africa. There are flaws in China’s system which could stem its return to Asian and Pacific hegemony, but there is no denying that it is a great power.
After suffering the humiliations of the collapse of the Soviet empire, Russia is reasserting itself as a great, if economically weak, power. Responding to NATO’s reckless expansion to its borders, as well as its own imperial traditions, it is renewing its influence in Europe and the Middle East, even checking the U.S. in Venezuela. Although it is reducing its military budget, it is making up the difference through asymmetric capabilities and by upgrading its nuclear weapons and delivery systems.
Spurred by Trump’s arrogance, racism, “America First” disregard for alliances, and trade wars, the fault lines of Atlanticism are deepening. Essentially unnoticed in the U.S., the European Union is in the early stages of developing its own nuclear-capable unified and independent great power military. In Asia, building on the U.S.- Japan alliance imposed on Tokyo by Washington following the Pacific War, the allies have joined with India – a rising power despite its enormous inequities – to create informal alliance designed to contain China. Reinforcing this dynamic, Prime Minister Abe is in a race to trash Article 9, the foundation of Japan’s peace constitution and the last bulwark against Japan’s already considerably advanced remilitarization. And, as I expect Achin Vanaik will tell us, Indian-Pakistani tensions and their nuclear arms race threaten both South Asian genocide and the survival of people across the northern hemisphere.
Add to this the reality that nuclear weapons technologies are now almost eighty years old, increasing the dangers of proliferation. North Korea joined the nuclear club, which fuels right-wing nuclear ambitions in Japan and South Korea. In response to Trump’s violation of the Iran nuclear deal, Teheran is threatening with withdraw from the NPT, and Saudi Arabia is on track to join Israel as the second nuclear weapons state in Southwest Asia. And who knows what the outcome of Trump’s violation of the nuclear deal with Iran will be.
What drives U.S. policy in this era of its relative decline? The myth of U.S. American exceptionalism. The continuing hold of U.S. manifest destiny ideology. The continue drive for overseas markets, resources and profits. And the subversive influences of the military-industrial-complex.
Sixty years after President Eisenhower warned about the “subversive tentacles” of the military-industrial complex. Three generations on, with the steady increase of the power, wealth and influence of that complex, along with the worst economic inequality in the advanced industrial world, the U.S. is ultimately ruled by an alliance of militarists and plutocrats behind its democratic facade.
With Bolton in the lead, despite Trump’s denigration of alliances, our tyrant’s efforts to reverse every one of Obama’s policies, and his ostensible opposition to U.S. wars and military interventions that fail to contribute to “America First”, the imperium sails on. The Administration’s National Security Statement calls for preparations for a three-front “Long War” against China and Russia and chimeric pursuit of 21st century full spectrum dominance. And there are the regime change campaigns against Venezuela and Iran.
Yet, despite its disastrous 21st century imperial wars, the military is widely seen as society’s most trusted institution. With this base of public support, Republicans and most Democrats in Congress support staggering levels of military spending, including the $1.7 trillion to upgrade the entire nuclear arsenal and delivery systems.
Then to the growing nuclear danger. We need to understand that the Nagasaki A-bombing was not the last time nuclear weapons were used. As Dan Ellsberg has been teaching over the decades, beginning with Truman, during wars and international crises, every U.S. president has used nuclear weapons in the same way that an armed robber point his gun at his quarry’s head. Whether or not the trigger is pulled, the gun has been used. On more than 30 occasions the U.S. has practiced this nuclear terrorism. Nuclear weapons have served as the ultimate enforcer of empire. For example, the US threatened possible nuclear attacks on the eves of the 1991 and 2003 Iraq wars and former President Obama repeated that “all options are on the table” threats against Iran. The U.S. has not been alone in practicing nuclear brinksmanship. Putin stated that he considered the use of nuclear weapons to ensure Russian control of Crimea, and that he is ready for a 21st century version of the Cuban Missile Crisis. And every other nation has made such threats at least once, which has only increased the dangers of nuclear accidents, miscalculations and rogue actions by reckless military commanders.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has repeated its alarm that nuclear dangers and climate change have brought humanity two minutes to midnight. They decried the dangerous lack of coherent U.S. foreign and military policies, pointed to Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review that reaffirmed the U.S. first-strike doctrine, urged the building and deployment of more usable nuclear weapons, committed to massive spending to upgrade the U.S. nuclear arsenal and its delivery systems, and added circumstances that could trigger the U.S. launching a nuclear war. They also cited the increased reliance on nuclear weapons by the nuclear powers, the return to Cold War rhetoric, and the absence of U.S.-Russian arms control negotiations.
The U.S. has since withdrawn the U.S. from the INF Treaty, an action driven as much by U.S. efforts to contain China’s rise, as by concerns about Russia. Russia and the U.S. were both apparently in violation of the Treaty, but the way forward was for the U.S. to accept Russian invitations for renewed arms control negotiations. With the earlier U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, Trump’s violation of the nuclear deal with Iran to advance regime change campaign against Teheran, U.S. plans to deploy “more usable” nuclear weapons in Europe, and now Trump’s dispatching of the INF Treaty. Russia’s Foreign minister Sergey Lavrov is right that: “A new era has begun… [with the U.S.] destroying the entire arms control system.”
While Trump boasts that “we have more money than anybody else by far”, and calls for a new arms race, it is not the sole source of nuclearism’s dangers. Within hours of the INF Treaty’s collapse, the U.S., Russia and France almost simultaneously conducted missile “tests.” Vladimir Putin joined Trump in nuclear madness, when he said that he is ready for a Cuban Missile style crisis, the moment when humanity came closes to nuclear extinction. Russia is also replacing its triad, threatens to match any new U.S. missile deployments in Europe and is coordinating its nuclear policies with China.
China is reinforcing its second-strike capabilities by increasing its arsenal, MIRVing missiles, and developing new delivery systems – apparently also including nuclear-capable submarines.. Britain, France and Israel are all upgrading their arsenals. India and Pakistan remain locked into their own nuclear arms race, with India’s strategic arsenal also designed for nuclear war fighting against China. And, even as the Trump-Kim diplomacy has provided a way for Trump to retreat from his disastrous fire and fury threats and opened the way for improving North and South Korean relations, the DPRK is positioned to remain a nuclear power for years to come. We have no guarantees that in the absence of diplomat progress we won’t find ourselves back to square one of this potentially nuclear confrontation.
There is not time to rehearse the details of what appear to have been violations of the INF Treaty by the U.S. and Russia. Simply to say that rather than destroy one of the last foundations of arms control, the U.S. should have accepted Russia’s offer to intensify diplomacy.
Friends, U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty needs to be understood in the context of more than two decades of increasingly aggressive US military policies in relation to Russia: Expansion of NATO initiated by the Clinton administration; withdrawal from the ABM Treaty by the Bush II-Cheney administration; the Obama administration’s commitment to spend $1.2 trillion to develop a new generation of US nuclear weapons and their delivery systems, as well as its efforts to add Georgia and Ukraine to NATO and deployment of missile defenses that Moscow fears could be converted into nuclear-armed first strike missiles; and plans to deploy upgraded and “more usable” US nuclear weapons to European NATO nations.
Putin has said that the spring that is pressed too tight, will spring back. Committed to ensuring that Russia is not again humiliated as it was in the 1990s, President Putin has reaffirmed his commitment to mutual assured destruction. Russian nuclear-capable missiles are now deployed Kaliningrad on the northern fringe of Central Europe. In order to evade or overwhelm US missile defenses, Russia is deploying a new long-range multiple warhead missile, hypersonic cruise and other missiles reportedly capable of flying up to five times the speed of sound. Putin has also pledged to deploy a nuclear-powered “unmanned underwater vehicle” capable of destroying port cities with nuclear weapons.
These U.S. and Russian nuclear deployments mimic and up the ante of the existential threats of the 1980s.
Beyond Trump’s and Bolton’s ostensible concerns about possible Russian Treaty violations, lies their preoccupation with the INF Treaty’s limitation on the Pentagon’s ability to offset China’s military modernization and creation of new island bases in the South China Sea. U.S. withdrawal from the Treaty thus also needs to be seen in the context of the current struggle for Asia-Pacific – now “Indo-Pacific” – hegemony. We need to understand withdrawal from the Treaty as complementing the provocative U.S. South China Sea “freedom of navigation exercises,” the deployment of U.S. missile defenses to Japan and South Korea, and Trump’s disastrous trade war initiated with China, all elements of Trump’s nationally self-defeating campaign to weaken and contain China.
We may soon see deployment of ground-launched cruise missiles to Japan, Taiwan and in a post-Duterte government to the Philippines.
Mikhail Gorbachev was right when he remarked that Trump’s announcement of U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty was not the work “of a great mind…With enough political will, any problems of compliance with the existing treaties could be resolved.” Speaking common sense, he continued that “There will be no winner in a ‘war of all against all’ – particularly if it ends in a nuclear war.”
I am no fan of magical thinking. The severity of the crisis is real. It can only be transformed through the development of countervailing political, diplomatic and popular power. With my time up, I look forward to hearing the strategy prescriptions on the movement building panel this afternoon. The way forward seems to be building an international social movement for sustainable common security that challenges the two existential threats that we face to human survival: nuclear weapons and the environmental crisis. But to conclude, let me quote my favorite Nobel Literature laureate: “We must not talk falsely now. The hour is getting late.”