The post-Cold War era is over. We are living in the interregnum between disorders, marked by uncertainties and dangers, as well as opportunities. Some see the confrontations of the moment as a new Cold War. Michael Klare has written that the U.S. and China are engaged in war by another name, while the U.S. government uses the term “strategic competition.” Richard Hass, the former head of Policy Planning at the State Department, and others see analogies to the period leading to World War I: tensions between rising and declining powers, complex alliance structures, intense nationalism, territorial disputes, arms races with new technologies, economic integration and competition, autocracies and wild card actors.
The relative decline of U.S. imperial power and the emergence of a multi-polar disorder were evident during the Obama years, but they have been accelerated by Trump’s ignorance, authoritarianism, incompetence, arrogance, racism, dishonesty, trade wars, disregard and abrogation of treaties, and his humiliation of U.S. allies. Thinking of Mussolini and banana republics, I am continually amazed, and not a little frightened, by the power this pathetic tyrant wields over the U.S., the world, and our collective futures.
The novelist William Faulkner wrote that “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” Trump, unfortunately, is an expression of the long U.S. history of racist know nothing political movements and the deluded American exceptionalist ideology.
“Unlike Trump, and thinking geostrategically, we do well to recall that the Cold war was multi-dimensional.”
Unlike Trump, and thinking geostrategically, we do well to recall that the Cold war was multi-dimensional. The U.S.–Soviet competition for world dominance overlaid a world still largely defined by the legacies of 18th and 19th century imperialism, Russian as well as American and European. Now, struggle for dominance has become still more complicated with China’s rise, relative U.S. and more serious Russian decline, the emergence of multi-polarity, and the proliferation of nuclear weapons and asymmetric technologies.
The Middle Kingdom’s spectacular rise has been disorienting in much of the West and in Japan: six hundred million people lifted from poverty, advanced industrial and technological expertise, a hybrid form of state capitalism, new means of near-totalitarian social control, and an updated version of tributary empire that is extending its influence across Eurasia and the South China Sea. With the Belt and Road Initiative comes the potential of the deepening integration of Eurasian economies, cultures and political influence from Seoul to Sweden, with the U.S. on the geostrategic margins.
Recall Mackinder and Brzezinski. They argued that whoever controls Eurasia is the world’s dominant power. This helps to explain U.S. island power policies: efforts to contain China with its near-encirclement of the Middle Kingdom with alliances and military bases, the so-called “Freedom of Navigation” military exercises, the embrace of Modi’s Hindu authoritarianism, massive U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, Trump’s disastrous trade war with China, and the recent joint military exercises with ASEAN nations.
The Administration’s National Security Statement calls for “strategic competition” and preparations for a three-front “Long War” against China and Russia.
Not unrelated is Russia’s reassertion of its great, if economically weak, power capacities which are tacitly allied with China’s. Responding to NATO’s reckless expansion to its borders, Moscow is increasing its export of advanced weaponry, fossil fuels and other natural resources to China, while deepening its military collaborations and joint “exercises” with the PLA.
Elsewhere, Russia is renewing its influence in Europe and the Middle East, even checking the U.S. in Venezuela. Although it has reduced its military budget, it is compensating with asymmetric technological capabilities and by its efforts to upgrade its nuclear weapons and delivery systems. As we saw in August’s Archangel nuclear missile accident, we don’t have to wait for a war to be victimized by the new arms races.
Across Asia, the United States’ junior partner, Japan, is hedging its bets. It is collaborating with the U.S. in deepening a regional alliance structure including Taiwan, the Philippines (despite Duterte,) Australia and India. Tokyo’s bet is that this alliance system might survive and serve Japan should the U.S. pull back from the region under regional or domestic political pressures. Reinforcing this dynamic, Prime Minister Abe remains steadfast in his efforts to trash Article 9, the foundation of Japan’s peace constitution. Further afield, intensifying 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 stew, the reality that nuclear weapons technologies are now nearly eighty years old, increasing the dangers of proliferation. North Korea’s nuclear arsenal fuels right-wing nuclear ambitions in Japan and South Korea. Trump’s violation of the Iran nuclear deal may rekindle Teheran’s nuclear program. Saudi Arabia apparently has ambitions to join Israel as the second nuclear weapons state in Southwest Asia. And Bolsonaro in Brazil has his own nuclear ambitions.
The nuclear danger didn’t end with the Nagasaki A-bombing. As Dan Ellsberg has long taught, during wars and international crises, every U.S. president has used nuclear weapons in the same way that an armed robber points 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. With the history of U.S. first-strike nuclear threats against North Korea, it’s not hard to understand what has driven the DPRK’s nuclear program. Unfortunately, the U.S. is not alone in practicing nuclear brinksmanship and extortion. Every nuclear weapons state has threatened or prepared to initiate nuclear war on at least one occasion.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists tells us that the time is two minutes to midnight. They cite the lack of coherent U.S. foreign and military policies, the U.S. first-strike doctrine, the nuclear powers increased reliance on their nuclear arsenals, which are being upgraded across the world. They also cited the return to Cold War rhetoric and the absence of arms control negotiations, which has since resulted in the collapse of the world’s arms control architecture.
While China has reiterated its “no first use” doctrine, it is on track to “surpass France as the world’s third-largest nuclear armed state” and is reinforcing its second-strike arsenal in the face of the rising U.S. challenge.
Which brings me to the imperative of developing a vision and advocacy for common security diplomacy that can see us through this increasingly dangerous and uncertain time.
My understanding of Common Security is rooted in Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme’s Independent Commission on Disarmament and Security. At the height of the Cold War in 1981 and ’82, Palme brought together heads of state, foreign ministers and political leaders from Europe, the Soviet Union, North America, Japan and the Global South to explore how to reverse the spiraling arms race that threatened human survival.
The commission’s conclusion was that “it is important to replace the doctrine of mutual deterrence,” and that the two great powers “must achieve security not against the adversary but together with him.” International security, it warned, “must rest on a commitment to joint survival rather than on a threat of mutual destruction.” Its Common Security paradigm grew from the truism that neither individuals nor nations can be secure unless their rivals simultaneously enjoy security.
The Commission recognized that when nations develop and deploy new weapons and military doctrines to counter perceived threats, their actions are seen as escalating threats. That, in turn, leads the newly threatened rival to respond in kind, resulting in a spiraling arms race and to increased dangers of deadly miscalculations. This is today’s reality.
The Palme commission, spurred and reinforced by massive social movements and protests, identified six principles that contributed to the negotiation of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, functionally ending the Cold War:
All nations have a legitimate right to security
Mlitary force is not a legitimate instrument for resolving disputes between nations
Restraint is necessary in expressions of national policy
Security cannot be attained through military superiority
Reductions and qualitative limitations of armaments are necessary for common security
“Linkages” between arms negotiations and political events should be avoided.
Foundations for 21st Century Common Security
How might these principles apply to rising U.S.-Chinese military, economic and political tensions and to others in the Asia-Pacific region?
In the U.S., China is widely seen as a revisionist power, a “peer competitor” challenging U.S. global hegemony and the U.S. imposed liberal international economic order. Indeed, the rules of the post-World War II disorder were designed to benefit Western elites, not the Chinese elite or the Chinese people. To overcome these inhibiting imbalances, we now have the AIIB competing with the IMF and the World Bank. We have the Belt and Road initiative, and we have China’s claims and neo-imperialist actions in the South China Sea.