Tag Archives: nuclear war

Nuclear Breakthrough Endangers the World

Nuclear Breakthrough Endangers the World

Dispatches From The Edge

April 20, 2017

At a time of growing tensions between nuclear powers—Russia and NATO in Europe, and the U.S., North Korea and China in Asia—Washington has quietly upgraded its nuclear weapons arsenal to create, according to three leading American scientists, “exactly what one would expect to see, if a nuclear-armed state were planning to have the capacity to fight and win a nuclear war by disarming enemies with a surprise first strike.”

Writing in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project of the American Federation of Scientists, Matthew McKinzie of the Natural Resources Defense Council, and physicist and ballistic missile expert Theodore Postol, conclude that “Under the veil of an otherwise-legitimate warhead life-extension program,” the U.S. military has vastly expanded the “killing power” of its warheads such that it can “now destroy all of Russia’s ICBM silos.”

The upgrade—part of the Obama administration’s $1 trillion modernization of America’s nuclear forces—allows Washington to destroy Russia’s land-based nuclear weapons, while still retaining 80 percent of the U.S.’s warheads in reserve. If Russia chose to retaliate, it would be reduced to ash.

Any discussion of nuclear war encounters several major problems. First, it is difficult to imagine or to grasp what it would mean in real life. We have only had one conflict involving nuclear weapons—the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945—and the memory of those events has faded over the years. In any case, the two bombs that flattened the Japanese cities bear little resemblance to the killing power of modern nuclear weapons.

The Hiroshima bomb exploded with a force of 15 kilotons. The Nagasaki bomb was slightly more powerful at about 18 kt. Between them, they killed over 215,000 people. In contrast, the most common nuclear weapon in the U.S. arsenal today, the W76, has an explosive power of 100 kt. The next most common, the W88, packs a 475-kt punch.

Another problem is that most of the public thinks nuclear war is impossible because both sides would be destroyed. This is the idea behind the policy of Mutually Assured Destruction, aptly named “MAD.”

But MAD is not a U.S. military doctrine. A “first strike” attack has always been central to U.S. military planning, until recently, however, there was no guarantee that such an attack would so cripple an opponent that it would be unable—or unwilling, given the consequences of total annihilation— to retaliate.

The strategy behind a first strike—sometimes called a “counter force” attack—is not to destroy an opponent’s population centers, but to eliminate the other sides’ nuclear weapons, or at least most of them. Anti-missile systems would then intercept a weakened retaliatory strike.

The technical breakthrough that suddenly makes this a possibility is something called the “super-fuze”, which allows for a much more precise ignition of a warhead. If the aim is to blow up a city, such precision is superfluous, but taking out a reinforced missile silo requires a warhead to exert a force of at least 10,000 pounds per square inch on the target.

Up until the 2009 modernization program, the only way to do that was to use the much more powerful—but limited in numbers—W88 warhead. Fitted with the super-fuze, however, the smaller W76 can now do the job, freeing the W88 for other targets.

Traditionally, land-based missiles are more accurate than sea-based missiles, but the former are more vulnerable to a first-strike than the latter, because submarines are good at hiding. The new super-fuze does not increase the accuracy of Trident II submarine missiles, but it makes up for that with the precision of where the weapon detonates. “In the case of the 100-kt Trident II warhead,” write the three scientists, “the super-fuze triples the killing power of the nuclear force it is applied to.”

Before the super-fuze was deployed, only 20 percent of U.S. subs had the ability to destroy re-enforced missile silos. Today, all have that capacity.

Trident II missiles typically carry from four to five warheads, but can expand that up to eight. While the missile is capable of hosting as many as 12 warheads, that configuration would violate current nuclear treaties. U.S. submarines currently deploy about 890 warheads, of which 506 are W76s and 384 are W88s.

The land-based ICBMs are Minuteman III, each armed with three warheads—400 in total—ranging from 300 kt to 500 kt apiece. There are also air and sea-launched nuclear tipped missiles and bombs. The Tomahawk cruise missiles that recently struck Syria can be configured to carry a nuclear warhead.

The super-fuze also increases the possibility of an accidental nuclear conflict.

So far, the world has managed to avoid a nuclear war, although during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis it came distressingly close. There have also been several scary incidents when U.S. and Soviet forces went to full alert because of faulty radar images or a test tape that someone thought was real. While the military downplays these events, former Secretary of Defense William Perry argues that it is pure luck that we have avoided a nuclear exchange, and that the possibility of nuclear war is greater today than it was at the height of the Cold War.

In part, this is because of a technology gap between the U.S. and Russia.

In January 1995, Russian early warning radar on the Kola Peninsula picked up a rocket launch from a Norwegian island that looked as if it was targeting Russia. In fact, the rocket was headed toward the North Pole, but Russian radar tagged it as a Trident II missile coming in from the North Atlantic. The scenario was plausible. While some first strike attacks envision launching a massive number of missiles, others call for detonating a large warhead over a target at about 800 miles altitude. The massive pulse of electro-magnetic radiation that such an explosion generates would blind or cripple radar systems over a broad area. That would be followed with a first strike.

At the time, calmer heads prevailed,, and the Russians called off their alert, but for a few minutes the doomsday clock moved very close to midnight.

According to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the 1995 crisis suggests that Russia does not have “a reliable and working global space-based satellite early warning system.” Instead, Moscow has focused on building ground-based systems that give the Russians less warning time than satellite-based ones do. What that means is that while the U.S. would have about 30 minutes warning time to investigate whether an attack was really taking place, the Russians would have 15 minutes or less.

That, according to the magazine, would likely mean that “Russian leadership would have little choice but to pre-delegate nuclear launch authority to lower levels of command,” hardly a situation that would be in the national security interests of either country.

Or, for that matter, the world.

A recent study found that a nuclear war between India and Pakistan using Hiroshima-sized weapons would generate a nuclear winter that would make it impossible to grow wheat in Russia and Canada and cut the Asian Monsoon’s rainfall by 10 percent. The result would be up to 100 million deaths by starvation. Imagine what the outcome would be if the weapons were the size used by Russia, China or the U.S.

For the Russians, the upgrading of U.S. sea-based missiles with the super-fuze would be an ominous development. By “shifting the capacity to submarines that can move to missile launch positions much closer to their targets than land-based missiles,” the three scientists conclude, “the U.S. military has achieved a significantly greater capacity to conduct a surprise first strike against Russian ICBM silos.”

The U.S. Ohio class submarine is armed with 24 Trident II missiles, carrying as many as 192 warheads. The missiles can be launched in less than a minute.

The Russians and Chinese have missile-firing submarines as well, but not as many and some are close to obsolete. The U.S. has also seeded the world’s oceans and seas with networks of sensors to keep track of those subs. In any case, would the Russians or Chinese retaliate if they knew that the U.S. still retained most of its nuclear strike force? Faced with a choice committing national suicide or holding their fire, they may well choose the former.

The other element in this modernization program that has Russia and China uneasy is the decision by the Obama administration to place anti-missile systems in Europe and Asia, and to deploy Aegis ship-based anti missile systems off the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. From Moscow’s perspective—and Beijing’s as well—those interceptors are there to absorb the few missiles that a first strike might miss.

In reality, anti-missile systems are pretty iffy. Once they migrate off the drawing boards, their lethal efficiency drops rather sharply. Indeed, most of them can’t hit the broad side of a barn. But that is not a chance the Chinese and the Russians can afford to take.

Speaking at the St. Petersburg International Forum in June 2016, Russian President Valdimir Putin charged that U.S. anti-missile systems in Poland and Rumania were not aimed at Iran, but Russia and China. “The Iranian threat does not exist, but missile defense systems continue to be positioned—a missile defense system is one element of the whole system of offensive military potential.”

The danger here is that arms agreements will begin to unravel if countries decide that they are suddenly vulnerable. For the Russians and the Chinese, the easiest solution to the American breakthrough is to build a lot more missiles and warheads, and treaties be dammed.

The new Russian cruise missile may indeed strain the Intermediate Nuclear Force Treaty, but it is also a natural response to what are, from Moscow’s view, alarming technological advances by the U.S. Had the Obama administration reversed the 2002 decision by George W. Bush’s administration to unilaterally withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the new cruise might never have been deployed.

There are a number of immediate steps that the U.S. and the Russians could take to de-escalate the current tensions. First, taking nuclear weapons off their hair-trigger status, which would immediately reduce the possibility of accidental nuclear war. That could be followed by a pledge of “no first use” of nuclear weapons.

If this does not happen, it will almost certainly result in an accelerated nuclear arms race. “I don’t know how this is all going to end,” Putin told the St. Petersburg delegates. “What I do know is that we will need to defend ourselves.”

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India and Pakistan:Thinking the Unthinkable

India & Pakistan: The Unthinkable

Dispatches From the Edge

Dec. 8, 2016

 

President-elect Donald Trump’s off the cuff, chaotic approach to foreign policy had at least one thing going for it, even though it was more the feel of a blind pig rooting for acorns than a thought out international initiative. In speaking with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Trump said he wanted “to address and find solutions to the county’s [Pakistan’s] problems.”

 

Whether Trump understands exactly how dangerous the current tensions between Pakistan and India are, or if anything will come from the Nov. 30 exchange between the two leaders, is anyone’s guess, but it is more than the Obama administration has done over the past eight years, in spite of a 2008 election promise to address the on-going crisis in Kashmir.

 

And right now that troubled land is the single most dangerous spot on the globe.

 

India and Pakistan have fought three wars over the disputed province in the past six decades and came within a hair’s breathe of a nuclear exchange in 1999. Both countries are on a crash program to produce nuclear weapons, and between them they have enough explosive power to not only kill more than 20 million of their own people, but to devastate the world’s ozone layer and throw the Northern Hemisphere into a nuclear winter with a catastrophic impact on agriculture worldwide.

 

According to studies done at Rutgers, the University of Colorado-Boulder, and the University of California Los Angeles, if both countries detonated 100 Hiroshima size bombs, it would generate between 1 and 5 million tons of smoke that within 10 days would drive temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere down to levels too cold for wheat production in much of Canada and Russia. The resulting 10 percent drop in rainfall—particularly hard hit would be the Asian monsoon—would exhaust worldwide food supplies, leading to the starvation of up to 100 million plus people.

 

Aside from the food crisis, a nuclear war in South Asia would destroy between 25 to 70 percent of the Northern Hemisphere’s ozone layer, resulting in a massive increase in dangerous ultraviolent radiation.

 

Lest anyone think that the chances of such a war are slight, consider two recent developments.

 

One, a decision by Pakistan to deploy low-yield tactical or battlefield nuclear weapons and to give permission for local commanders to decide when to use them.

 

In an interview with the German newspaper Deutsche Welle, Gregory Koblentz of the Council on Foreign Relations warned that if a “commander of a forward-deployed nuclear armed unit finds himself in a ‘use it or lose it’ situation and about to be overrun, he might decided to launch his weapons.”

 

Pakistan’s current Defense Minister, Muhammad Asif, told Geo TV, “If anyone steps on our soil and if anyone’s designs are a threat to our security, we will not hesitate to use those [nuclear] weapons for our defense.”

 

Every few years the Pentagon “war games” a clash between Pakistan and India over Kashmir: every game ends in a nuclear war.

 

The second dangerous development is the “Cold Start” strategy by India that would send Indian troops across the border to a depth of 30 kilometers in the advent of a terrorist attack like the 1999 Kargill incident in Kashmir, the 2001 terrorist attack on the Indian parliament, or the 2008 attack on Mumbai that killed 166 people.

Since the Indian army is more than twice the size of Pakistan’s, there would be little that Pakistanis could do to stop such an invasion other than using battlefield nukes. India would then be faced with either accepting defeat or responding.

 

India does not currently have any tactical nukes, but only high yield strategic weapons—many aimed at China—whose primary value is to destroy cities. Hence a decision by a Pakistani commander to use a tactical warhead would almost surely lead to a strategic response by India, setting off a full-scale nuclear exchange and the nightmare that would follow in its wake.

 

With so much at stake, why is no one but a twitter-addicted foreign policy apprentice saying anything? What happened to President Obama’s follow through to his 2008 statement that the tensions over Kashmir “won’t be easy” to solve, but that doing so “is important”?

 

The initial strategy of pulling India into an alliance against China was dreamed up during the administration of George W. Bush, but it was Obama’s “Asia Pivot” that signed and sealed the deal. With it went a quid pro quo: if India would abandon its traditional neutrality, the Americans would turn a blind eye to Kashmir.

 

As a sweetener, the U.S. agreed to bypass the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Agreement and allow India to buy uranium on the world market, something New Delhi had been banned from doing since it detonated a nuclear bomb in 1974 using fuel it had cribbed from U.S.-supplied nuclear reactors. In any case, because neither India nor Pakistan have signed the Agreement, both should be barred from buying uranium. In India’s case, the U.S. has waived that restriction.

 

The so-called 1-2-3 Agreement requires India to use any nuclear fuel it purchases in its civilian reactors, but frees it up to use its meager domestic supplies on its nuclear weapons program. India has since built two enormous nuclear production sites at Challakere and near Mysore, where, rumor has it, it is producing a hydrogen bomb. Both sites are off limits to international inspectors.

 

In 2008, when the Obama administration indicated it was interested in pursuing the 1-2-3 Agreement, then Pakistani Foreign minister Khurshid Kusuni warned that the deal would undermine the non-proliferation treaty and lead to a nuclear arms race in Asia. That is exactly what has come to pass. The only countries currently adding to their nuclear arsenals are Pakistan, India, China and North Korea.

 

While Pakistan is still frozen out of buying uranium on the world market, it has sufficient domestic supplies to fuel an accelerated program to raise its warhead production. Pakistan is estimated to have between 110 and 130 warheads and is projected to have 200 by 2020, surpassing Great Britain. India has between 110 and 120 nuclear weapons. Both countries have short, medium and long-range missiles, submarine ballistic missiles, and cruise missiles, plus nuclear-capable aircraft that can target each other’s major urban areas.

 

One problem in the current crisis is that both countries are essentially talking past one another.

 

Pakistan does have legitimate security concerns. It has fought and lost three wars with India over Kashmir since 1947, and it is deeply paranoid about the size of the Indian army.

 

But India has been the victim of several major terrorist attacks that have Pakistan’s fingerprints all over them. The 1999 Kargill invasion lasted a month and killed hundreds of soldiers on both sides. Reportedly the Pakistanis were considering arming their missiles with nuclear warheads until the Clinton administration convinced them to stand down.

 

Pakistan’s military has long denied that it has any control over terrorist organizations based in Pakistan, but virtually all intelligence agencies agree that, with the exception of the country’s home-grown Taliban, that is not the case. The Pakistani army certainly knew about a recent attack on an Indian army base in Kashmir that killed 19 soldiers.

 

In the past, India responded to such attacks with quiet counterattacks of its own, but this time around the right-wing nationalist government of Narendra Modi announced that the Indian military had crossed the border and killed more than 30 militants. It was the first time that India publically acknowledged a cross-border assault.

 

The Indian press has whipped up a nationalist fervor that has seen sports events between the two countries cancelled and a ban on using Pakistani actors in Indian films. The Pakistani press has been no less jingoistic.

 

In the meantime, the situation in Kashmir has gone from bad to worse. Early in the summer Indian security forces killed Buhan Wani, a popular leader of the Kashmir independence movement. Since then the province has essentially been paralyzed, with schools closed and massive demonstrations. Thousands of residents have been arrested, close to 100 killed, and hundreds of demonstrators wounded and blinded by the widespread use of birdshot by Indian security forces.

 

Indian rule in Kashmir has been singularly brutal. Between 50,000 and 80,000 people have died over the past six decades, and thousands of others have been “disappeared” by security forces. While in the past the Pakistani army aided the infiltration of terrorist groups to attack the Indian army, this time around the uprising is homegrown. Kashmiris are simply tired of military rule and a law which gives Indian security forces essentially carte blanc to terrorize the population.

 

Called the Special Powers Act—originally created in 1925 for the supression of Catholics in Northern Ireland, and widely used by the Israelis in the Occupied Territories—the law allows Indian authorities to arrest and imprison people without charge and gives immunity to Indian security forces.

 

As complex as the situation in Kashmir is, there are avenues to resolve it. A good start would be to suspend the Special Powers Act and send the Indian Army back to the barracks.

 

The crisis in Kashmir began when the Hindu ruler of the mostly Muslim region opted to join India when the countries were divided in 1947. At the time, the residents were promised that a UN-sponsored referendum would allow residents to choose India, Pakistan or independence. That referendum has never been held.

 

Certainly the current situation cannot continue. Kashmir has almost 12 million people and no army or security force—even one as large as India’s—can maintain a permanent occupation if the residents don’t want it. Instead of resorting to force, India should ratchet down its security forces and negotiate with Kashmiris for an interim increase in local autonomy.

 

But in the long run, the Kashmiris should have their referendum and India and Pakistan will have to accept the results.

 

What the world cannot afford is for the current tensions to spiral down into a military confrontation that could easily get out of hand. The U.S., through its aid to Pakistan—$860 million this year—has some leverage, but it cannot play a role if its ultimate goal is an alliance to contain China, a close ally of Pakistan.

 

Neither country would survive a nuclear war, and neither country should be spending its money on an arms race. Almost 30 percent of India’s population is below the poverty line, as are 22 percent of Pakistan’s. The $51 billion Indian defense budget and the $7 billion Pakistan spends could be put to far better use.

 

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Dangerous Seas: China and The U.S.

Dangerous Seas: China & The U.S.

Dispatches From The Edge

Aug. 16, 2016

 

A combination of recent events underpinned by long-running historical strains reaching back more than 60 years has turned the western Pacific into one of the most hazardous spots on the globe. The tension between China and the U.S. “is one of the most striking and dangerous themes in international politics,” says The Financial Times’ longtime commentator and China hand, Gideon Rachman.

 

In just the past five months, warships from both countries—including Washington’s closest ally in the region, Japan—have done everything but ram one another. And, as Beijing continues to build bases on scattered islands in the South China Sea, the U.S. is deploying long-range nuclear capable strategic bombers in Australia and Guam.

 

At times the rhetoric from both sides is chilling. When Washington sent two aircraft carrier battle groups into the area, Chinese defense ministry spokesman Yang Yujun cautioned the Americans to “be careful.” While one U.S. admiral suggested drawing “the line” at the Spratly Islands close to the Philippines, an editorial in the Chinese Communist Party’s Global Times warned that U.S. actions “raised the risk of physical confrontation with China.” The newspaper went on to warn that “if the United States’ bottom line is that China has to halt its activities, then a U.S.-China war is inevitable in the South China Sea.”

 

Earlier this month China’s Defense Minister Chang Wanquan said Beijing should prepare for a “people’s war at sea.”

 

Add to this the appointment of an extreme right-wing nationalist as Japan’s defense minister and the decision to deploy anti-ballistic missile interceptors in South Korea and the term “volatile region” is a major understatement.

 

Some of these tensions go back to the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco that officially ended WW II in Asia. That document, according to Canadian researcher Kimie Hara, was drawn up to be deliberately ambiguous about the ownership of a scatter of islands and reefs in the East and South China seas. That ambiguity set up tensions in the region that Washington could then exploit to keep potential rivals off balance.

 

The current standoff between China and Japan over the Senkakus/Diaoyu islands—the Japanese use the former name, the Chinese the latter—is a direct outcome of the Treaty. While Washington has no official position on which country owns the tiny uninhabited archipelago, it is committed to defend Japan in case of any military conflict with China. On Aug. 2 the Japanese Defense Ministry accused China of engaging in “dangerous acts that could cause unintended consequences.”

 

Tokyo’s new defense minister, Tomomi Inada, is a regular visitor to the Yasukuni shrine that honors Japan’s war criminals, and she is a critic of the post-war Tokyo war crimes trials. She also has called for re-examining the 1937 Nanjing massacre that saw Japanese troops murder as many as 300,000 Chinese. Her appointment by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seems almost calculated to anger Beijing.

 

Abe is also pushing hard to overturn a part of the Japanese constitution that bars Tokyo from using its military forces for anything but defending itself. Japan has one of the largest and most sophisticated navies in the world.

 

Over the past several weeks, Chinese Coast Guard vessels and fishing boats have challenged Japan’s territorial claims on the islands, and Chinese and Japanese warplanes have been playing chicken. In one particularly worrisome incident, a Japanese fighter locked its combat radar on a Chinese fighter-bomber.

 

Behind the bellicose behavior on the China and U.S. sides is underlying insecurity, a dangerous condition when two nuclear-armed powers are at loggerheads.

 

From Beijing’s perspective, Washington is trying to “contain” China by ringing it with American allies, much as the U.S. did to the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Given recent moves in the region, it is hard to argue with Beijing’s conclusion.

 

After a 20-year absence, the U.S. military is back in the Philippines. Washington is deploying anti-missile systems in South Korea and Japan and deepening its military relations with Australia, Vietnam, Indonesia and India. The Obama administration’s “Asia pivot” has shifted the bulk of U.S. armed forces from the Atlantic and the Middle East to Asia. Washington’s Air Sea Battle strategy—just renamed “Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons”—envisions neutralizing China’s ability to defend its home waters.

 

China is in the process of modernizing much of its military, in large part because Beijing was spooked by two American operations. First, the Chinese were stunned by how quickly the U.S. military annihilated the Iraqi army in the first Gulf War, with virtually no casualties on the American side. Then there was having to back down in 1996, when the Clinton administration deployed two aircraft carrier battle groups in the Taiwan Straits during a period of sharp tension between Beijing and Taipei.

 

In spite of all its upgrades, however, China’s military is a long ways from being able to challenge the U.S. The Chinese navy has one small aircraft carrier, the U.S. has 10 enormous ones, plus a nuclear arsenal vastly bigger than Beijing’s modest force. China’s last war was its disastrous 1979 invasion of Vietnam, and the general U.S. view of the Chinese military is that it is a paper dragon.

 

That thinking is paralleled in Japan, which is worrisome. Japan’s aggressive nationalist government is more likely to initiate something with China than is the U.S. For instance, the crisis over the Senkaku/Diaoyus was started by Japan. First, Tokyo violated an agreement with Beijing by arresting some Chinese fishermen and then unilaterally annexed the islands. The Japanese military has always had an over-inflated opinion of itself and traditionally underestimated Chinese capabilities.

 

In short, the U.S. and Japan are not intimidated by China’s New Model Army, nor do they see it as a serious threat. That is dangerous thinking if it leads to the conclusion that China will always back down when a confrontation turns ugly. Belligerence and illusion are perilous companions in the current tense atmosphere.

 

 

The scheduled deployment of the U.S. Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile systems has convinced Beijing that the U.S. is attempting to neutralize China’s nuclear missile force, a not irrational conclusion. While anti-missile systems are billed as “defensive,” they can just as easily be considered part of the U.S.’s basic “counterforce” strategy. The latter calls for a first strike on an opponent’s missiles, backstopped by an anti-ballistic missile system that would destroy any enemy missiles the first strike missed.

 

China is pledged not to use nuclear weapons first, but, given the growing ring of U.S. bases and deployment of anti-missile systems, that may change. China is considering moving to a “launch on warning” strategy, which would greatly increase the possibility of an accidental nuclear war.

 

The AirSea Battle strategy calls for conventional missile strikes aimed at knocking out command centers and radar facilities deep into Chinese territory. But given the U.S.’s “counterforce” strategy, Chinese commanders might assume those conventional missiles are nuclear tipped and aimed at decapitating China’s nuclear deterrent.

 

According to Amitai Etzioni of Washington University, a former senior advisor to President Jimmy Carter, “China is likely to respond to what is effectively a major attack on its mainland with all the military means at its disposal—including its stockpile of nuclear arms.”

 

A report by the Union of Concerned Scientists concluded that if China moves to “launch on warning,” such a change “would dramatically increase the risk of a nuclear exchange by accident—a dangerous shift that the U.S. could help to avert.”

 

President Obama is said to be considering adopting a “no first use” pledge, but he has come up against stiff opposition from his military and the Republicans. “I would be concerned about such a policy,” says U.S. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James. “Having a certain degree of ambiguity is not necessarily a bad thing.”

 

But given the possibility of accidents—or panic by military commanders—“ambiguity” increases the risk that someone could misinterpret an action. Once a nuclear exchange begins it may be impossible to stop, particularly knowing that the U.S. “counterforce” strategy targets an opponent’s missiles. “Use them, or lose them” is an old saying among nuclear warriors.

 

In any case, the standard response to an anti-missile system is to build more launchers and warheads, something the world does not need more of.

 

While China has legitimate security concerns, the way it has pursued them has won it few friends in the region. Beijing has bullied Vietnam in the Paracel islands, pushed the Philippines around in the Spratly islands, and pretty much alienated everyone in the region except its close allies in North Korea, Laos and Cambodia. China’s claims—its so-called “nine dash line”—covers most the South China Sea, an area through which some $5 trillion in trades passes each year. It is also an area rich in minerals and fishing resources.

 

China’s ham-fisted approach has given the U.S. an opportunity to inject itself into the dispute as a “defender” of small countries with their own claims on reefs, islands and shoals. The U.S. has stepped up air and sea patrols in the region, which at times has seen Chinese and American and Japanese warships bow to bow and their warplanes wing tip to wing tip.

 

The recent decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague that China has no exclusive claim on the South China Sea has temporarily increased tensions, although it has the potential to resolve some of the ongoing disputes without continuing the current saber rattling.

 

China is a signatory to the 1982 Law of the Sea Treaty, as are other countries bordering the South China Sea (the U.S. Senate refuses to ratify the Treaty). China has never tried to interfere with the huge volume of commerce that traverses the region, a trade that, in any case, greatly benefits the Chinese. Beijing’s major concern is defense of its long coastline.

 

If the countries in the region would rely on the Law of the Sea to resolve disputes, it would probably work out well for everyone concerned. The Chinese would have to back off from their “nine dash line” claims in the South China Sea, but they would likely end up in control of the Senkakus/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea.

 

But to cool the current tensions Washington would also have to ratchet down its military buildup in Asia. That will be difficult for the Americans to accept. Since the end of WW II, the U.S. has been the big dog on the block in the western Pacific, but that is coming to an end. According to the International Monetary Fund, China surpassed the U.S. economy in 2014 to become the world’s largest. Of the four largest economies on the globe, three are in Asia: China, Japan and India.

 

Simple demographics are shifting the balance of economic and political power from Europe and the U.S. to Asia. By 2015, more than 66 percent of the world’s population will reside in Asia. In contrast, the U.S. makes up 5 percent and the European Union 7 percent. By 2050, the world’s “pin code” will be 1125: one billion people in Europe, one billion in the Americas, two billion in Africa, and five billion in Asia. Even the CIA predicts, “The era of American ascendancy in international politics that began in 1945—is fast winding down.”

 

The U.S. can resist that inevitability, but only by relying on its overwhelming military power and constructing an alliance system reminiscent of the Cold War. That should give pause to all concerned. The world was fortunate to emerge from that dark period without a nuclear war, but relying on luck is a dangerous strategy.

 

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The Big Boom: Nukes and NATO

The Big Boom: Nukes And NATO

Dispatches From The Edge

July 18, 2016

 

“Today, the danger of some sort of a nuclear catastrophe is greater than it was during the Cold War and most people are blissfully unaware of this danger.”

-William J. Perry

U.S. Sec. Of Defense (1994-97)

 

Perry has been an inside player in the business of nuclear weapons for over 60 years and his book, “My Journey at the Nuclear Brink,” is a sober read. It is also a powerful counterpoint to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) current European strategy that envisions nuclear weapons as a deterrent to war: “Their [nuclear weapons] role is to prevent major war, not to wage wars,” argues the Alliance’s magazine, NATO Review.

 

But, as Perry points out, it is only by chance that the world has avoided a nuclear war—sometimes by nothing more than dumb luck—and, rather than enhancing our security, nukes “now endanger it.”

 

The 1962 Cuban missile crisis is generally represented as a dangerous standoff resolved by sober diplomacy. In fact, it was a single man—Russian submarine commander Vasili Arkhipov—who countermanded orders to launch a nuclear torpedo at an American destroyer that could have set off a full-scale nuclear exchange between the USSR and the U.S.

 

There were numerous other incidents that brought the world to the brink. On a quiet morning in November 1979, a NORAD computer reported a full-scale Russian sneak attack with land and sea-based missiles, which led to scrambling U.S. bombers and alerting U.S. missile silos to prepare to launch. There was no attack, just an errant test tape.

 

Lest anyone think the Nov. 9 incident was an anomaly, a little more than six months later NORAD computers announced that Soviet submarines had launched 220 missiles at the U.S.—this time the cause was a defective chip that cost 49 cents—again resulting in scrambling interceptors and putting the silos on alert.

 

But don’t these examples prove that accidental nuclear war is unlikely? That conclusion is a dangerous illusion, argues Perry, because the price of being mistaken is so high and because the world is a more dangerous place than it was in 1980.

 

It is 71 years since atomic bombs destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and humanity’s memory of those events has dimmed. But even were the entire world to read John Hersey’s Hiroshima, it would have little idea of what we face today.

 

The bombs that obliterated those cities were tiny by today’s standards, and comparing “Fat Man” and “Little Boy”—the incongruous names of the weapons that leveled both cities—to modern weapons stretches any analogy beyond the breaking point. If the Hiroshima bomb represented approximately 27 freight cars filled with TNT, a one-megaton warhead would require a train 300 miles long.

 

Each Russian RS-20V Voevoda intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) packs 10 megatons.

 

What has made today’s world more dangerous, however, is not just advances in the destructive power of nuclear weapons, but a series of actions by the last three U.S. administrations.

 

First was the decision by President Bill Clinton to abrogate a 1990 agreement with the Soviet Union not to push NATO further east after the reunification of Germany or to recruit former members of the defunct Warsaw Pact.

 

NATO has also reneged on a 1997 pledge not to install “permanent” and “significant” military forces in former Warsaw Pact countries. This month NATO decided to deploy four battalions on, or near, the Russian border, arguing that since the units will be rotated they are not “permanent” and are not large enough to be “significant.” It is a linguistic slight of hand that does not amuse Moscow.

 

Second was the 1999 U.S.-NATO intervention in the Yugoslav civil war and the forcible dismemberment of Serbia. It is somewhat ironic that Russia is currently accused of using force to “redraw borders in Europe” by annexing the Crimea, which is exactly what NATO did to create Kosovo. The U.S. subsequently built Camp Bond Steel, Washington’s largest base in the Balkans.

 

Third was President George W, Bush’s unilateral withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the decision by the Obama administration to deploy anti-missile systems in Romania and Poland, as well as Japan and South Korea.

 

Last is the decision by the White House to spend upwards of $1 trillion upgrading its nuclear weapons arsenal, which includes building bombs with smaller yields, a move that many critics argue blurs the line between conventional and nuclear weapons.

 

The Yugoslav War and NATO’s move east convinced Moscow that the Alliance was surrounding Russia with potential adversaries, and the deployment of anti-missile systems (ABM)—supposedly aimed at Iran’s non-existent nuclear weapons—was seen as a threat to the Russian’s nuclear missile force.

 

One immediate effect of ABMs was to chill the possibility of further cuts in the number of nuclear weapons. When Obama proposed another round of warhead reductions, the Russians turned it down cold, citing the anti-missile systems as the reason. “How can we take seriously this idea about cuts in strategic nuclear potential while the United States is developing its capabilities to intercept Russian missiles?” asked Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin.

 

When the U.S. helped engineer the 2014 coup against the pro-Russian government in Ukraine, it ignited the current crisis that has led to several dangerous incidents between Russian and NATO forces—at last count, according to the European Leadership Network, more than 60. Several large war games were also held on Moscow’s borders. Former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev went so far as to accuse NATO of “preparations for switching from a cold war to a hot war.”

 

In response, the Russians have also held war games involving up to 80,000 troops.

 

It is unlikely that NATO intends to attack Russia, but the power differential between the U.S. and Russia is so great—a “colossal asymmetry,” Dmitri Trenin, head of the Carnegie Moscow Center, told the Financial Times—that the Russians have abandoned their “no first use” of nuclear weapons pledge.

 

It the lack of clear lines that make the current situation so fraught with danger. While the Russians have said they would consider using small, tactical nukes if “the very existence of the state” was threatened by an attack, NATO is being deliberately opaque about its possible tripwires. According to NATO Review, nuclear “exercises should involve not only nuclear weapons states…but other non-nuclear allies,” and “to put the burden of the doubt on potential adversaries, exercises should not point at any specific nuclear thresholds.”

 

In short, keep the Russians guessing. The immediate problem with such a strategy is: what if Moscow guesses wrong?

 

That won’t be hard to do. The U.S. is developing a long-range cruise missile—as are the Russians—that can be armed with conventional or nuclear warheads. But how will an adversary know which is which? And given the old rule in nuclear warfare—use ‘em, or lose ‘em—uncertainty is the last thing one wants to engender in a nuclear-armed foe.

 

Indeed, the idea of no “specific nuclear thresholds” is one of the most extraordinarily dangerous and destabilizing concepts to come along since the invention of nuclear weapons.

 

There is no evidence that Russia contemplates an attack on the Baltic states or countries like Poland, and, given the enormous power of the U.S., such an undertaking would court national suicide.

 

Moscow’s “aggression” against Georgia and Ukraine was provoked. Georgia attacked Russia, not vice versa, and the Ukraine coup torpedoed a peace deal negotiated by the European Union, the U.S., and Russia. Imagine Washington’s view of a Moscow-supported coup in Mexico, followed by an influx of Russian weapons and trainers.

 

In a memorandum to the recent NATO meetings in Warsaw, the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity argued “There is not one scintilla of evidence of any Russian plan to annex Crimea before the coup in Kiev and coup leaders began talking about joining NATO. If senior NATO leaders continue to be unable or unwilling to distinguish between cause and effect, increasing tension is inevitable with potentially disastrous results.”

 

The organization of former intelligence analysts also sharply condemned the NATO war games. “We shake our heads in disbelief when we see Western leaders seemingly oblivious to what it means to the Russians to witness exercises on a scale not seen since Hitler’s army launched ‘Unternehumen Barbarossa’ 75 years ago, leaving 25 million Soviet citizens dead.”

 

While the NATO meetings in Warsaw agreed to continue economic sanctions aimed at Russia for another six months and to station four battalions of troops in Poland and the Baltic states— separate U.S. forces will be deployed in Bulgaria and Poland —there was an undercurrent of dissent. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras called for deescalating the tensions with Russia and for considering Russian President Vladimir Putin a partner not an enemy.

 

Greece was not alone. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeler called NATO maneuvers on the Russian border “warmongering” and “saber rattling.” French President Francois Hollande said Putin should be considered a “partner,” not a “threat,” and France tried to reduce the number of troops being deployed in the Baltic and Poland. Italy has been increasingly critical of the sanctions.

 

Rather than recognizing the growing discomfort of a number of NATO allies and that beefing up forces on Russia’s borders might be destabilizing, U.S. Sec. of State John Kerry recently inked defense agreements with Georgia and Ukraine.

 

After disappearing from the radar for several decades, nukes are back, and the decision to modernize the U.S. arsenal will almost certainly kick off a nuclear arms race with Russia and China. Russia is already replacing its current ICBM force with the more powerful and long range “Sarmat” ICBM, and China is loading its ICBM with multiple warheads.

 

Add to this volatile mixture military maneuvers and a deliberately opaque policy in regards to the use of nuclear weapons, and it is no wonder that Perry thinks that the chances of some catastrophe is a growing possibility.

 

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Baiting The Bear: NATO and Russia

Bear Baiting: Russia & NATO

Dispatches From The Edge

April 28

 

Aggressive,” “revanchist,” “swaggering”: These are just some of the adjectives the mainstream press and leading U.S. and European political figures are routinely inserting before the words “Russia,” or “Vladimir Putin.” It is a vocabulary most Americans have not seen or heard since the height of the Cold War.

 

The question is, why?

 

Is Russia really a military threat to the United States and its neighbors? Is it seriously trying to “revenge” itself for the 1989 collapse of the Soviet Union? Is it actively trying to rebuild the old Soviet empire? The answers to these questions are critical, because, for the first time since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, several nuclear-armed powers are on the edge of a military conflict with fewer safeguards than existed 50 years ago.

 

Consider the following events:

  • NATO member Turkey shoots down a Russian warplane.
  • Russian fighter-bombers come within 30 feet of a U.S. guided missile destroyer, and a Russian fighter does a barrel roll over a U.S. surveillance plane. Several U.S. Senators call for a military response to such encounters in the future.
  • NATO and the U.S. begin deploying three combat brigades—about 14,000 troops and their equipment—in several countries that border Russia, and Washington has more than quadrupled its military spending in the region.
  • S. State Department officials accuse Russia of “dismantling” arms control agreements, while Moscow charges that Washington is pursuing several destabilizing weapons programs.
  • Both NATO and the Russians have carried out large war games on one another’s borders and plan more in the future, in spite of the fact that the highly respected European Leadership Network (ELN) warns that the maneuvers are creating “mistrust.”

 

In the scary aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis, the major nuclear powers established some ground rules to avoid the possibility of nuclear war, including the so-called “hot line” between Washington and Moscow. But, as the threat of a nuclear holocaust faded, many of those safeguards have been allowed to lapse, creating what the ELN calls a “dangerous situation.”

 

According to a recent report by the ELN, since March of last year there have been over 60 incidents that had “the potential to trigger a major crisis between a nuclear armed state and a nuclear armed alliance.” The report warns that, “There is today no agreement between NATO and Russia on how to manage close military encounters.”

 

Such agreements do exist, but they are bilateral and don’t include most alliance members. Out of 28 NATO members, 11 have memorandums on how to avoid military escalation at sea, but only the U.S., Canada and Greece have what is called “Preventing Dangerous Military Activities” (DMA) agreements that cover land and air as well. In any case, there are no such agreements with the NATO alliance as a whole.

 

The lack of such agreements was starkly demonstrated in the encounter between Russian aircraft and the U.S. The incident took place less than 70 miles off Baltiysk, home of Russia’s Baltic Sea Fleet, and led to an alarming exchange in the Senate Armed Services Committee among Republican John McCain, Democrat Joe Donnelly, and U.S. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, soon to assume command of U.S. forces in Europe.

 

McCain: ”This may sound a little tough, but should we make an announcement to the Russians that if they place the men and women on board Navy ships in danger, that we will take appropriate action?”

 

Scaparrotti: “That should be known, yes.”

 

Donnelly: “Is there a point…where we tell them in advance enough, the next time it doesn’t end well for you?”

 

Scaparrotti: “We should engage them and make clear what is acceptable. Once we make that known we have to enforce it.”

 

For the Americans, the Russian flyby was “aggressive.” For the Russians, U.S. military forces getting within spitting range of their Baltic Fleet is the very definition of “aggressive.” What if someone on the destroyer panicked and shot down the plane? Would the Russians have responded with an anti-ship missile? Would the U.S. have retaliated and invoked Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, bringing the other 27 members into the fray? Faced by the combined power of NATO, would the Russians—feeling their survival at stake—consider using a short-range nuclear weapon? Would the U.S. then attempt to take out Moscow’s nuclear missiles with its new hypersonic glide vehicle? Would that, in turn, kick in the chilling logic of thermonuclear war: use your nukes or lose them?

 

Far-fetched? Unfortunately, not at all. The world came within minutes of a nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis and, as researcher Eric Schlosser demonstrated in his book “Command and Control,” the U.S. came distressingly close at least twice more by accident.

 

One of the problems about nuclear war is that it is almost impossible to envision. The destructive powers of today’s weapons have nothing in common with the tiny bombs that incinerated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so experience is not much of a guide. Suffice it to say that just a small portion of world’s nukes would end civilization as we know it, and a general exchange could possibly extinguish human life.

 

With such an outcome at least in the realm of possibility, it becomes essential to step back and try to see the world through another’s eyes.

 

Is Russia really a danger to the U.S. and its neighbors? NATO points to Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia and its 2014 intervention in eastern Ukraine as examples of “Russian aggression.”

 

But from Moscow, the view is very different.

 

In 1990, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and German Chancellor Helmet Kohl pledged to then Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not move eastward, nor recruit former members of the East bloc military alliance, the Warsaw Pact. By 1995 NATO had enlisted Pact members Romania, Hungry, Poland, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Bulgaria, Slovakia, and signed on Montenegro this year. Georgia is currently being considered, and there is a push to bring Ukraine aboard. From Moscow’s perspective NATO is not only moving east, but encircling Russia.

 

“I don’t think many people understand the visceral way Russia views NATO and the European Union as an existential threat,” says U.S. Admiral Mark Ferguson, commander of U.S. naval forces in Europe.

 

Most NATO members have no interest in starting a fight with Russia, but others sound like they think it wouldn’t be a bad idea. On April 15, Witold Waszczykowski, the foreign minister of Poland’s rightwing government, told reporters that Russia is “more dangerous than the Islamic State,” because Moscow is an “existential threat to Europe.” The minister made his comments at a NATO conference discussing the deployment of a U.S. armored brigade on Poland’s eastern border.

 

Is Russia reneging on arms control agreements? The charge springs from the fact that Moscow has refused to consider cutting more of its nuclear weapons, is boycotting nuclear talks, deploying intermediate range nuclear missiles, and backing off a conventional weapons agreement. But again, Moscow sees all that very differently.

 

From Moscow’s point of view, the U.S. is continuing to spread its network of anti-missile systems in Europe and Asia, which the Russians see as a threat to their nuclear force (as does China). And as far as “reneging” goes, it was the U.S. that dumped the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, not Russia,

 

The U.S. is also pouring billions of dollars into “modernizing” its nuclear weapons. It also proposes using ICBMs to carry conventional warheads (if you see one coming, how do you know it’s not a nuke?), and is planning to deploy high velocity glide vehicles that will allow the U.S. to strike targets worldwide with devastating accuracy. And since NATO is beefing up its forces and marching east, why should the Russians tie themselves to a conventional weapons treaty?

 

What about Russia’s seizure of the Crimea? According to the U.S. State Department, redrawing European boundaries is not acceptable in the 21st century—unless you are Kosovo breaking away from Serbia under an umbrella of NATO air power, in which case it’s fine. Residents of both regions voted overwhelmingly to secede.

 

Georgia? The Georgians stupidly started it.

 

But if Russia is not a threat, then why the campaign of vilification, the damaging economic sanctions, and the provocative military actions?

 

First, it is the silly season—American elections—and bear baiting is an easy way to look “tough.” It is also a tried and true tactic of the U.S. armaments industry to keep their production lines humming and their bottom lines rising. The Islamic State is scary but you don’t need big-ticket weapons systems to fight it. The $1.5 trillion F-35s are for the Russkies, not terrorists.

 

There are also those who still dream of regime change in Russia. Certainly that was in the minds of the neo-cons when they used The National Endowment for Democracy and Freedom House to engineer—at the cost of $5 billion—the coup that toppled Ukraine into NATO’s camp. The New American Century gang and their think tanks—who brought you Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria—would love to leverage Russia out of Central Asia.

 

The most frightening aspect of current East-West tension is that there is virtually no discussion of the subject, and when there is it consists largely of distorted history and gratuitous insults. Vladimir Putin might not be a nice guy, but the evidence he is trying to re-establish some Russian empire, and is a threat to his neighbors or the U.S., is thin to non-existent. His 2014 speech at the Valdai International Discussion Club is more common sense than bombast.

 

Expansionist? Russia has two bases in the Middle East and a handful in Central Asia. The U.S. has 662 bases around the world and Special Forces (SOF) deployed in between 70 and 90 countries at any moment. Last year SOFs were active in 147 countries. The U.S. is actively engaged in five wars and is considering a sixth in Libya. Russian military spending will fall next year, and the U.S. will out-spend Moscow by a factor of 10. Who in this comparison looks threatening?

 

There are a number of areas where cooperation with Russia could pay dividends. Without Moscow there would be no nuclear agreement with Iran, and the Russians can play a valuable role in resolving the Syrian civil war. That, in turn, would have a dramatic effect on the numbers of migrants trying to crowd into Europe.

 

Instead, an April 20 meeting between NATO ministers and Russia ended in “profound disagreements” according to alliance head Jens Stoltenberg. Russian ambassador to NATO, Alexander Grushko said that the continued deployment of armed forces on its borders makes it impossible to have a “meaningful dialogue.”

 

We are baiting the bear, not a sport that ever ends well.

 

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Toward A New Foreign Policy

Dispatches From The Edge

 

‘The American Century’ Has Plunged the World Into Crisis. What Happens Now?

U.S. foreign policy is dangerous, undemocratic, and deeply out of sync with real global challenges. Is continuous war inevitable, or can we change course?

 

By Conn Hallinan and Leon Wofsy, June 22, 2015.

 

 

There’s something fundamentally wrong with U.S. foreign policy.

Despite glimmers of hope — a tentative nuclear agreement with Iran, for one, and a long-overdue thaw with Cuba — we’re locked into seemingly irresolvable conflicts in most regions of the world. They range from tensions with nuclear-armed powers like Russia and China to actual combat operations in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa.

 

Why? Has a state of perpetual warfare and conflict become inescapable? Or are we in a self-replicating cycle that reflects an inability — or unwillingness — to see the world as it actually is?

The United States is undergoing a historic transition in our relationship to the rest of the world, but this is neither acknowledged nor reflected in U.S. foreign policy. We still act as if our enormous military power, imperial alliances, and self-perceived moral superiority empower us to set the terms of “world order.”

 

While this illusion goes back to the end of World War II, it was the end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union that signaled the beginning of a self-proclaimed “American Century.” The idea that the United States had “won” the Cold War and now — as the world’s lone superpower — had the right or responsibility to order the world’s affairs led to a series of military adventures. It started with President Bill Clinton’s intervention in the Yugoslav civil war, continued on with George W. Bush’s disastrous invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and can still be seen in the Obama administration’s own misadventures in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and beyond.

 

In each case, Washington chose war as the answer to enormously complex issues, ignoring the profound consequences for both foreign and domestic policy. Yet the world is very different from the assumptions that drive this impulsive interventionism.

It’s this disconnect that defines the current crisis.

 

Acknowledging New Realities

 

So what is it about the world that requires a change in our outlook? A few observations come to mind.

 

First, our preoccupation with conflicts in the Middle East — and to a significant extent, our tensions with Russia in Eastern Europe and with China in East Asia — distract us from the most compelling crises that threaten the future of humanity. Climate change and environmental perils have to be dealt with now and demand an unprecedented level of international collective action.

That also holds for the resurgent danger of nuclear war.

 

Second, superpower military interventionism and far-flung acts of war have only intensified conflict, terror, and human suffering. There’s no short-term solution — especially by force — to the deep-seated problems that cause chaos, violence, and misery through much of the world.

 

Third, while any hope of curbing violence and mitigating the most urgent problems depends on international cooperation, old and disastrous intrigues over spheres of influence dominate the behavior of the major powers. Our own relentless pursuit of military advantage on every continent, including through alliances and proxies like NATO, divides the world into “friend” and “foe” according to our perceived interests. That inevitably inflames aggressive imperial rivalries and overrides common interests in the 21st century.

 

Fourth, while the United States remains a great economic power, economic and political influence is shifting and giving rise to national and regional centers no longer controlled by U.S.-dominated global financial structures. Away from Washington, London, and Berlin, alternative centers of economic power are taking hold in Beijing, New Delhi, Cape Town, and Brasilia. Independent formations and alliances are springing up: organizations like the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa); the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (representing 2.8 billion people); the Union of South American Nations; the Latin American trade bloc, Mercosur; and others.

 

Beyond the problems our delusions of grandeur have caused in the wider world, there are enormous domestic consequences of prolonged war and interventionism. We shell out over $1 trillion a year in military-related expenses even as our social safety net frays and our infrastructure crumbles. Democracy itself has become virtually dysfunctional.

 

Short Memories and Persistent Delusions

 

But instead of letting these changing circumstances and our repeated military failures give us pause, our government continues to act as if the United States has the power to dominate and dictate to the rest of the world.

 

The responsibility of those who set us on this course fades into background. Indeed, in light of the ongoing meltdown in the Middle East, leading presidential candidates are tapping neoconservatives like John Bolton and Paul Wolfowitz — who still think the answer to any foreign policy quandary is military power — for advice. Our leaders seem to forget that following this lot’s advice was exactly what caused the meltdown in the first place. War still excites them, risks and consequences be damned.

 

While the Obama administration has sought, with limited success, to end the major wars it inherited, our government makes wide use of killer drones in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, and has put troops back into Iraq to confront the religious fanaticism and brutality of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) — itself a direct consequence of the last U.S. invasion of Iraq. Reluctant to find common ground in the fight against ISIS with designated “foes” like Iran and Syria, Washington clings to allies like Saudi Arabia, whose leaders are fueling the crisis of religious fanaticism and internecine barbarity. Elsewhere, the U.S. also continues to give massive support to the Israeli government, despite its expanding occupation of the West Bank and its horrific recurring assaults on Gaza.

 

A “war first” policy in places like Iran and Syria is being strongly pushed by neoconservatives like former Vice President Dick Cheney and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain. Though it’s attempted to distance itself from the neocons, the Obama administration adds to tensions with planned military realignments like the “Asia pivot” aimed at building up U.S. military forces in Asia to confront China. It’s also taken a more aggressive position than even other NATO partners in fostering a new cold war with Russia.

 

We seem to have missed the point: There is no such thing as an “American Century.” International order cannot be enforced by a superpower alone. But never mind centuries — if we don’t learn to take our common interests more seriously than those that divide nations and breed the chronic danger of war, there may well be no tomorrows.

 

Unexceptionalism

 

There’s a powerful ideological delusion that any movement seeking to change U.S. foreign policy must confront: that U.S. culture is superior to anything else on the planet. Generally going by the name of “American exceptionalism,” it’s the deeply held belief that American politics (and medicine, technology, education, and so on) are better than those in other countries. Implicit in the belief is an evangelical urge to impose American ways of doing things on the rest of the world.

 

Americans, for instance, believe they have the best education system in the world, when in fact they’ve dropped from 1st place to 14th place in the number of college graduates. We’ve made students of higher education the most indebted section of our population, while falling to 17th place in international education ratings. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation, the average American pays more than twice as much for his or her education than those in the rest of the world.

 

Health care is an equally compelling example. In the World Health Organization’s ranking of health care systems in 2000, the United States was ranked 37th. In a more recent Institute of Medicine report in 2013, the U.S. was ranked the lowest among 17 developed nations studied.

 

The old anti-war slogan, “It will be a good day when schools get all the money they need and the Navy has to hold a bake sale to buy an aircraft carrier” is as appropriate today as it was in the 1960s. We prioritize corporate subsidies, tax cuts for the wealthy, and massive military budgets over education. The result is that Americans are no longer among the most educated in the world.

But challenging the “exceptionalism” myth courts the danger of being labeled “unpatriotic” and “un-American,” two powerful ideological sanctions that can effectively silence critical or questioning voices.

 

The fact that Americans consider their culture or ideology “superior” is hardly unique. But no other country in the world has the same level of economic and military power to enforce its worldview on others.

 

The United States did not simply support Kosovo’s independence, for example. It bombed Serbia into de facto acceptance. When the U.S. decided to remove the Taliban, Saddam Hussein, and Muammar Gaddafi from power, it just did so. No other country is capable of projecting that kind of force in regions thousands of miles from its borders.

 

The U.S. currently accounts for anywhere from 45 to 50 percent of the world’s military spending. It has hundreds of overseas bases, ranging from huge sprawling affairs like Camp Bond Steel in Kosovo and unsinkable aircraft carriers around the islands of Okinawa, Wake, Diego Garcia, and Guam to tiny bases called “lily pads” of pre-positioned military supplies. The late political scientist Chalmers Johnson estimated that the U.S. has some 800 bases worldwide, about the same as the British Empire had at its height in 1895.

 

The United States has long relied on a military arrow in its diplomatic quiver, and Americans have been at war almost continuously since the end of World War II. Some of these wars were major undertakings: Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Iraq (twice), Libya. Some were quick “smash and grabs” like Panama and Grenada. Others are “shadow wars” waged by Special Forces, armed drones, and local proxies. If one defines the term “war” as the application of organized violence, the U.S. has engaged in close to 80 wars since 1945.

 

The Home Front

 

The coin of empire comes dear, as the old expression goes.

According Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, the final butcher bill for the Afghanistan and Iraq wars — including the long-term health problems of veterans — will cost U.S. taxpayers around $6 trillion. One can add to that the over $1 trillion the U.S. spends each year on defense-related items. The “official” defense budget of some half a trillion dollars doesn’t include such items as nuclear weapons, veterans’ benefits or retirement, the CIA and Homeland Security, nor the billions a year in interest we’ll be paying on the debt from the Afghan-Iraq wars. By 2013 the U.S. had already paid out $316 billion in interest.

The domestic collateral damage from that set of priorities is numbing.

 

We spend more on our “official” military budget than we do on Medicare, Medicaid, Health and Human Services, Education, and Housing and Urban Development combined. Since 9/11, we’ve spent $70 million an hour on “security” compared to $62 million an hour on all domestic programs.

 

As military expenditures dwarf funding for deteriorating social programs, they drive economic inequality. The poor and working millions are left further and further behind. Meanwhile the chronic problems highlighted at Ferguson, and reflected nationwide, are a horrific reminder of how deeply racism — the unequal economic and social divide and systemic abuse of black and Latino youth — continues to plague our homeland.

 

The state of ceaseless war has deeply damaged our democracy, bringing our surveillance and security state to levels that many dictators would envy. The Senate torture report, most of it still classified, shatters the trust we are asked to place in the secret, unaccountable apparatus that runs the most extensive Big Brother spy system ever devised.

 

Bombs and Business

 

President Calvin Coolidge was said to have remarked that “the business of America is business.” Unsurprisingly, U.S. corporate interests play a major role in American foreign policy.

Out of the top 10 international arms producers, eight are American. The arms industry spends millions lobbying Congress and state legislatures, and it defends its turf with an efficiency and vigor that its products don’t always emulate on the battlefield. The F-35 fighter-bomber, for example — the most expensive weapons system in U.S. history — will cost $1.5 trillion and doesn’t work. It’s over budget, dangerous to fly, and riddled with defects. And yet few lawmakers dare challenge the powerful corporations who have shoved this lemon down our throats.

 

Corporate interests are woven into the fabric of long-term U.S. strategic interests and goals. Both combine to try to control energy supplies, command strategic choke points through which oil and gas supplies transit, and ensure access to markets.

 

Many of these goals can be achieved with standard diplomacy or economic pressure, but the U.S. always reserves the right to use military force. The 1979 “Carter Doctrine” — a document that mirrors the 1823 Monroe Doctrine about American interests in Latin America — put that strategy in blunt terms vis-à-vis the Middle East: “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”

 

It’s no less true in East Asia. The U.S. will certainly engage in peaceful economic competition with China. But if push comes to shove, the Third, Fifth, and Seventh fleets will back up the interests of Washington and its allies — Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and Australia.

 

Trying to change the course of American foreign policy is not only essential for reducing international tensions. It’s critically important to shift the enormous wealth we expend in war and weapons toward alleviating growing inequality and social crises at home.

 

As long as competition for markets and accumulation of capital characterize modern society, nations will vie for spheres of influence, and antagonistic interests will be a fundamental feature of international relations. Chauvinist reaction to incursions real or imagined — and the impulse to respond by military means — is characteristic to some degree of every significant nation-state. Yet the more that some governments, including our own, become subordinate to oligarchic control, the greater is the peril.

 

Finding the Common Interest

 

These, however, are not the only factors that will shape the future.

There is nothing inevitable that rules out a significant change of direction, even if the demise or transformation of a capitalistic system of greed and exploitation is not at hand. The potential for change, especially in U.S. foreign policy, resides in how social movements here and abroad respond to the undeniable reality of: 1) the chronic failure, massive costs, and danger inherent in “American Century” exceptionalism; and 2) the urgency of international efforts to respond to climate change.

 

There is, as well, the necessity to respond to health and natural disasters aggravated by poverty, to rising messianic violence, and above all, to prevent a descent into war. This includes not only the danger of a clash between the major nuclear powers, but between regional powers. A nuclear exchange between Pakistan and India, for example, would affect the whole world.

 

Without underestimating the self-interest of forces that thrive on gambling with the future of humanity, historic experience and current reality elevate a powerful common interest in peace and survival. The need to change course is not something that can be recognized on only one side of an ideological divide. Nor does that recognition depend on national, ethnic, or religious identity. Rather, it demands acknowledging the enormous cost of plunging ahead as everything falls apart around us.

 

After the latest U.S. midterm elections, the political outlook is certainly bleak. But experience shows that elections, important as they are, are not necessarily indicators of when and how significant change can come about in matters of policy. On issues of civil rights and social equality, advances have occurred because a dedicated and persistent minority movement helped change public opinion in a way the political establishment could not defy.

 

The Vietnam War, for example, came to an end, despite the stubbornness of Democratic and Republican administrations, when a stalemate on the battlefield and growing international and domestic opposition could no longer be denied. Significant changes can come about even as the basic character of society is retained. Massive resistance and rejection of colonialism caused the British Empire and other colonial powers to adjust to a new reality after World War II. McCarthyism was eventually defeated in the United States. President Nixon was forced to resign. The use of landmines and cluster bombs has been greatly restricted because of the opposition of a small band of activists whose initial efforts were labeled “quixotic.”

 

There are diverse and growing political currents in our country that see the folly and danger of the course we’re on. Many Republicans, Democrats, independents, and libertarians — and much of the public — are beginning to say “enough” to war and military intervention all over the globe, and the folly of basing foreign policy on dividing countries into “friend or foe.”

 

This is not to be Pollyannaish about anti-war sentiment, or how quickly people can be stampeded into supporting the use of force. In early 2014, some 57 percent of Americans agreed that “over-reliance on military force creates more hatred leading to increased terrorism.” Only 37 percent believed military force was the way to go. But once the hysteria around the Islamic State began, those numbers shifted to pretty much an even split: 47 percent supported the use of military force, 46 percent opposed it.

 

It will always be necessary in each new crisis to counter those who mislead and browbeat the public into acceptance of another military intervention. But in spite of the current hysterics about ISIS, disillusionment in war as an answer is probably greater now among Americans and worldwide than it has ever been. That sentiment may prove strong enough to produce a shift away from perpetual war, a shift toward some modesty and common-sense realism in U.S. foreign policy.

 

Making Space for the Unexpected

 

Given that there is a need for a new approach, how can American foreign policy be changed?

 

Foremost, there is the need for a real debate on the thrust of a U.S. foreign policy that chooses negotiation, diplomacy, and international cooperation over the use of force.

 

However, as we approach another presidential election, there is as yet no strong voice among the candidates to challenge U.S. foreign policy. Fear and questionable political calculation keep even most progressive politicians from daring to dissent as the crisis of foreign policy lurches further into perpetual militarism and war.

 

That silence of political acquiescence has to be broken.

Nor is it a matter of concern only on the left. There are many Americans — right, left, or neither — who sense the futility of the course we’re on. These voices have to be represented or the election process will be even more of a sham than we’ve recently experienced.

 

One can’t predict just what initiatives may take hold, but the recent U.S.-China climate agreement suggests that necessity can override significant obstacles. That accord is an important step forward, although a limited bilateral pact cannot substitute for an essential international climate treaty. There is a glimmer of hope also in the U.S.-Russian joint action that removed chemical weapons from Syria, and in negotiations with Iran, which continue despite fierce opposition from U.S. hawks and the Israeli government. More recently, there is Obama’s bold move — long overdue — to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba. Despite shifts in political fortunes, the unexpected can happen if there is a need and strong enough pressure to create an opportunity.

 

We do not claim to have ready-made solutions to the worsening crisis in international relations. We are certain that there is much we’ve missed or underestimated. But if readers agree that U.S. foreign policy has a national and global impact, and that it is not carried out in the interests of the majority of the world’s people, including our own, then we ask you to join this conversation.

 

If we are to expand the ability of the people to influence foreign policy, we need to defend democracy, and encourage dissent and alternative ideas. The threats to the world and to ourselves are so great that finding common ground trumps any particular interest. We also know that we won’t all agree with each other, and we believe that is as it should be. There are multiple paths to the future. No coalition around changing foreign policy will be successful if it tells people to conform to any one pattern of political action.

 

So how does the call for changing course translate to something politically viable, and how do we consider the problem of power?

 

The power to make significant changes in policy ranges from the persistence of peace activists to the potential influence of the general public. In some circumstances, it becomes possible — as well as necessary — to make significant changes in the power structure itself.

 

Greece comes to mind. Greek left organizations came together to form Syriza, the political party that was successfully elected to power on a platform of ending austerity. Spain’s anti-austerity Podemos Party — now the number-two party in the country — came out of massive demonstrations in 2011 and was organized from the grassroots up. We do not argue one approach over the over, but the experiences in both countries demonstrate that there are multiple paths to generating change.

 

Certainly progressives and leftists grapple with the problems of power. But progress on issues, particularly in matters like war and peace and climate change, shouldn’t be conceived of as dependent on first achieving general solutions to the problems of society, however desirable.

 

Some Proposals

 

We also feel it is essential to focus on a few key questions lest we become “The United Front Against Bad Things.” There are lots of bad things, but some are worse than others. Thrashing those out, of course, is part of the process of engaging in politics.

 

We know this will not be easy. Yet we are convinced that unless we take up this task, the world will continue to careen toward major disaster. Can we find common programmatic initiatives on which to unite?

 

Some worthwhile approaches are presented in A Foreign Policy for All, published after a discussion and workshop that took place in Massachusetts in November 2014. We think everyone should take the time to study that document. We want to offer a few ideas of our own.

 

1) We must stop the flood of corporate money into the electoral process, as well as the systematic disenfranchisement of voters through the manipulation of voting laws.

 

It may seem odd that we begin with a domestic issue, but we cannot begin to change anything about American foreign policy without confronting political institutions that are increasingly in the thrall of wealthy donors. Growing oligarchic control and economic inequality is not just an American problem, but also a worldwide one. According to Oxfam, by 2016 the world’s richest 1 percent will control over 50 percent of the globe’s total wealth. Poll after poll shows this growing economic disparity does not sit well with people.

 

2) It’s essential to begin reining in the vast military-industrial-intelligence complex that burns up more than a trillion dollars a year and whose interests are served by heightened international tension and war.

 

3) President Barack Obama came into office pledging to abolish nuclear weapons. He should.

 

Instead, the White House has authorized spending $352 billion to modernize our nuclear arsenal, a bill that might eventually go as high as $1 trillion when the cost of the supporting infrastructure is figured in. The possibility of nuclear war is not an abstraction. In Europe, a nuclear-armed NATO has locked horns with a nuclear-armed Russia. Tensions between China and the United States, coupled with current U.S. military strategy in the region — the so-called “AirSea Battle” plan — could touch off a nuclear exchange.

 

Leaders in Pakistan and India are troublingly casual about the possibility of a nuclear war between the two South Asian countries. And one can never discount the possibility of an Israeli nuclear attack on Iran. In short, nuclear war is a serious possibility in today’s world.

 

One idea is the campaign for nuclear-free zones, which there are scores of — ranging from initiatives written by individual cities to the Treaty of Tlatelolco covering Latin America, the Treaty of Raratonga for the South Pacific, and the Pelindaba Treaty for Africa. Imagine how a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East would change the politics of the region.

 

We should also support the Marshall Islands in its campaign demanding the implementation of Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty eliminating nuclear weapons and moving toward general disarmament. If the great powers took serious steps toward full nuclear disarmament, it would make it difficult for nuclear-armed non-treaty members that have nuclear weapons — North Korea, Israel, Pakistan, and India — not to follow suit. The key to this, however, is “general disarmament” and a pledge to remove war as an instrument of foreign policy.

 

4) Any effort to change foreign policy must eventually confront the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which in the words of former U.S. Central Command leader James Mattis, is a “preeminent flame that keeps the pot boiling in the Middle East.” While the U.S. and its NATO allies are quick to apply sanctions on Russia for its annexation of the Crimea, they have done virtually nothing about the continued Israeli occupation and annexation of Palestinian lands.

 

5) Ending and renouncing military blockades that starve populations as an instrument of foreign policy — Cuba, Gaza, and Iran come to mind — would surely change the international political climate for the better.

 

6) Let’s dispense our predilection for “humanitarian intervention,” which is too often an excuse for the great powers to overthrow governments with which they disagree.

 

As Walden Bello, former Philippine Congressman for the Citizens’ Action Party and author of Dilemmas of Domination: The Unmasking of the American Empire, writes: “Humanitarian intervention sets a very dangerous precedent that is used to justify future violation of the principle of national sovereignty. One cannot but conclude from the historical record that NATO’s intervention in the Kosovo conflict helped provide the justification for the invasion of Afghanistan, and the justifications for both interventions in turn were employed to legitimize the invasion of Iraq and the NATO war in Libya.”

 

7) Climate change is an existential issue, and as much a foreign policy question as war and peace. It can no longer be neglected.

Thus far, the U.S. has taken only baby steps toward controlling greenhouse gas emissions, but polls overwhelmingly show that the majority of Americans want action on this front. It’s also an issue that reveals the predatory nature of corporate capitalism and its supporters in the halls of Congress. As we have noted, control of energy supplies and guaranteeing the profits of oil and gas conglomerates is a centerpiece of American foreign policy.

 

As Naomi Klein notes in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, the climate movement must “articulate not just an alternative set of policy proposals, but an alternative worldview to rival the one at the heart of the ecological crisis. A worldview embedded in interdependence rather than hyper-individualism, reciprocity rather than dominance, and cooperation rather than hierarchy.”

 

International and Regional Organizations

 

Finally, international and regional organizations must be strengthened. For years, mainstream media propaganda has bemoaned the ineffectiveness of the United Nations, while Washington — especially Congress — has systematically weakened the organization and tried to consign it to irrelevance in the public’s estimation.

 

The current structure of the United Nations is undemocratic. The five “big powers” that emerged from World War II — the United States, Britain, France, China, and Russia — dominate the Security Council with their use of the veto. Two of the earth’s continents, Africa and Latin America, have no permanent members on the Council.

 

A truly democratic organization would use the General Assembly as the decision-making body, with adjustments for size and population. Important decisions, like the use of force, could require a super majority.

 

At the same time, regional organizations like the African Union, the Union of South American Nations, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Arab League, and others, have to be strengthened as well. Had the UN Security Council listened to the African Union, which was prepared to start negotiations with the Gaddafi regime, the current Libyan debacle might have been avoided. In turn that might have prevented the spread of war to central Africa and the countries of Mali and Niger.

 

Working for a dramatic shift in U.S. policy, away from the hubris of “American exceptionalism,” is not to downgrade the enormous importance of the United States. Alongside and in contradiction to the tragic consequences of our misuse of military power, the contributions of the American people to the world are vast and many-faceted. None of the great challenges of our time can be met successfully without America acting in collaboration with the majority of the world’s governments and people.

 

There certainly are common interests that join people of all nations regardless of differences in government, politics, culture, and beliefs. Will those interests become strong enough to override the systemic pressures that fuel greed, conflict, war, and ultimate catastrophe? There is a lot of history, and no dearth of dogma, that would seem to sustain a negative answer. But dire necessity and changing reality may produce more positive outcomes in a better, if far from perfect, world.

 

It is time for change, time for the very best efforts of all who nurture hopes for a saner world.

 

Conn Hallinan is a journalist and a columnist for Foreign Policy In Focus. His writings appear online at Dispatches From the Edge. Leon Wofsy is a retired biology professor and long-time political activist. His comments on current affairs appear online at Leon’s OpEd.

The authors would like to thank colleagues at Foreign Policy In Focus and numerous others who exchanged views with us and made valuable suggestions. We also appreciate Susan Watrous’ very helpful editorial assistance.

 

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