Sleepwalking into a Big War

Soldiers rehearsing for this year’s 9 May Victory Day parade in Moscow Sefa Karacan / Anadolu Agency / Getty

West fearful as it loses military advantage

The major powers are planning for war and claim that’s the best way to defend against war. Will this mutual hawkishness lead to armed conflict?

by Michael T Klare

Le Monde Diplomatique

September, 2016

As the US presidential race approaches its climax and European officials ponder the implications of the UK’s Brexit vote, public discussion of security affairs is largely confined to strategies for combating international terrorism. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are trying to persuade voters of their superior qualifications to lead this battle, while European leaders scramble to bolster their countries’ defences against homegrown extremists. But though talk of terrorism fills the news media and the political space, it is secondary in the conversations of generals, admirals and defence ministers: it’s not low-level conflict that commands their attention but rather what they call ‘big wars’ — large-scale, high-level conflict with great-power adversaries like Russia and China. Such major conflicts, long considered most unlikely, are now deemed ‘plausible’ by western military strategists, who claim that urgent steps are needed to deter and, if necessary, prevail in such engagements.

This development, overlooked by the media, has serious consequences, starting with heightened tension between Russia and the West, each eyeing the other in the expectation of a confrontation. More worrying is the fact that many politicians believe that war is not only possible, but may break out at any moment — a view that historically has tended to precipitate military responses where diplomatic solutions might have been possible.

The origins of this thinking can be found in the reports and comments of senior military officials (typically at professional meetings and conferences). ‘In both Brussels and Washington, it has been many years since Russia was a focus of defence planning’ but that ‘has now changed for the foreseeable future,’ states one such report, summarising the views at a workshop organised in 2015 by the Institute of National Strategic Studies (INSS), a branch of the US National Defence University. The report says that as a result of Russian aggression in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, many defence experts ‘can now envision a plausible pathway to war’ and this, in turn, ‘has led defence planners to recognise the need for renewed focus of the possibility of confrontation and conflict with Moscow’ (1).

‘A return to great power competition’

Such a conflict would be most likely to occur on NATO’s eastern front, encompassing Poland and the Baltic states, and would be fought with high-tech conventional weapons. But these planners also postulate that it could encompass Scandinavia and the Black Sea region, and might escalate into the nuclear realm. So US and European strategists are calling for a build-up of western military capabilities in all of these regions and for moves to enhance the credibility of NATO’s tactical nuclear options (2). A recent article in the NATO Review calls for the increased inclusion of nuclear-capable aircraft in future NATO military exercises, to create uncertainty in Russian minds about the point at which NATO commanders might order nuclear strikes to counter any Russian breakthrough on the eastern front (and presumably deter such an assault) (3).

This way of thinking, though confined until recently to military academies and thinktanks, has begun to shape government policy in significant and alarming ways. We see this in the new US defence budget, in decisions adopted at the NATO summit in July, and in the UK’s July decision to renew the Trident nuclear missile programme.

US defence secretary Ash Carter said the new budget ‘marks a major inflection point for the Department of Defence.’ Whereas the department had been focused in recent years ‘on large-scale counter-insurgency operations,’ it must now prepare for ‘a return to great power competition,’ possibly involving all-out conflict with a ‘high-end enemy’ such as Russia or China. These countries, Carter declared, ‘are our most stressing competitors,’ possessing advanced weapons that could neutralise some US advantages. To overcome this challenge, ‘we must have — and be seen to have — the ability to impose unacceptable costs on an advanced aggressor that will either dissuade them from taking provocative action or make them deeply regret it if they do’ (4).

In the short term, this will require urgent action to bolster US capacity to counter a potential Russian assault on NATO positions in eastern Europe. Under its European Reassurance Initiative, the Pentagon will spend $3.4bn in fiscal 2017 to deploy an extra armoured combat brigade in Europe and to pre-position the arms and equipment for yet another brigade. To bolster US strength over the long term, there would be greater US spending on high-tech conventional weapons needed to defeat a high-end enemy, such as advanced combat aircraft, surface ships and submarines. Carter noted that, on top of this, ‘the budget also invests in modernising our nuclear deterrent’ (5). It’s hard not to be struck by echoes of the cold war.

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

2014-foreign-policy-cuba-ebola-climate-democracy

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,

Foreign Policy in Focus

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. (Continued)

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Climate Change, Militarism, Neoliberalism and the State

An Interview with Christian Parenti by Vincent Emanuele

Truthout, May 17, 2015

On April 19, 2014, I sat down with author, journalist and professor Christian Parenti in Chicago. His work, which is wide-ranging and essential, explores some of the most powerful and brutal forces in our society: war, capitalism, prisons, policing and climate change. In this interview, we discussed ideology, climate change, Marxism, activism, the state, militarism, violence and the future. This is the first of a two-part interview.

Vincent Emanuele for Truthout: I’d like to begin by revisiting your 2011 book, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence. Right around the time Tropic of Chaos was published, Syria was experiencing record drought and massive livestock and crop losses. The connections between neoliberalism, climate change and Cold War-era militarism, for you, were on full display. However, you’re clear in noting that climate change exacerbates pre-existing crises. In other words, climate change is not necessarily the driver of crises in Syria, or Afghanistan, for example. You call this process the "catastrophic convergence." Can you talk about these various themes in the context of the last four years since Tropic of Chaos was published?

Christian Parenti: Syria is a prime example. There has been a terrible drought there, which coincided with austerity measures imposed by the Assad government cutting aid to Sunni farmers. Many of them were forced to leave the land, partly due to drought, partly due to the lack of support to properly deal with the drought. Then, they arrive in cities, and there’s more austerity taking place. This is experienced as oppression by the Alawite elite against an increasingly impoverished Sunni proletariat who’ve been thrown off their land.

This situation then explodes as religious conflict, which is really the fusion of environmental crises with neoliberal economic policies. Of course, the violent spark to all of this is the fact that the entire region is flooded with weapons. Some of these weapons are from the Cold War, and some of those guns are from recent US militarism in the region. There were a lot of vets of the anti-US struggle in Iraq who are Syrian – Mujahideen veterans who went to Iraq and came back to Syria and started to fight. There were Syrians who were selling guns to Iraqi underground groups. These groups were buying their guns back, and re-importing them to Syria. My friend David Enders has reported on this really well.

So, it’s a perfect example of this catastrophic convergence: The landscape is littered with guns, hammered socially by increasingly market-fundamentalist politics, and at the same time, natural systems are beginning to buckle and break as climate change starts to accelerate. Part of what’s fueling the sectarian conflict in Iraq has to do with this convergence. There’s a very serious lack of water in southern Iraq, partly because Turkey has been taking more water than they should, but there’s also a decline in precipitation, misuse of water resources, etc. In the Shia heartland, life is tough. These young farmers get pulled into the struggle against the Sunni, with militias or within the Iraqi Army. That’s a better deal than trying to struggle on an increasingly decimated farm. But it’s hard to research a lot of this. The violence is so intense that it makes reporting on these issues virtually impossible. Those are some examples that immediately come to mind.

As you’re responding, I’m thinking of Yemen. Really, your book has forced me to constantly examine the underlying environmental context when thinking about conflicts, wars and violence. Yet, this dynamic is left out of the narrative in the mainstream media, and even in many alternative outlets.

People have been reporting on Sanaa’s water crisis for several years. Yemen’s environmental crises is partly fueling the current conflict. Similarly, Boko Haram is capitalizing on and partly produced by environmental crises in northern Nigeria. Large parts of the West African Sahel – meaning the wide arid belt at the bottom edge of the Sahara desert – have been experiencing all sorts of natural precipitation fluctuations; too much rain, too little, at the wrong times. This, plus rising temperatures, has led to increased climate migration, urbanization, poverty, and – surprise, surprise! – political desperation. These chaotic weather patterns are linked to climate change.

Along with environmental crisis, Boko Haram is the byproduct of the brutality of the Nigerian security forces, which have targeted Northern Nigerian Muslims with wide, undisciplined, sometimes almost indiscriminate terror campaigns. Add to that the total corruption of the Nigerian oil state and its inability and unwillingness to redistribute wealth and resources to marginalized populations, and it’s a perfect storm. And out of this drama comes that nightmare we call Boko Haram.

To answer your initial question, what’s new since publishing the book? Seems like more of the same is spreading. But, to be perfectly honest, I find it profoundly depressing to think about this stuff all the time. My research has moved on to other questions.

You focus a lot on the Global South in Tropic of Chaos, but you briefly mention the Global North as well. However, you mention that this catastrophic convergence is experienced in a much different way depending on where one is located. Can you explain these differences?

Climate violence in the Global North looks like counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations abroad, and xenophobic border policing and anti-immigrant repression at home. As we’re speaking, the US has battleships off the coast of Yemen, supporting the Saudi air offensive. Climate violence looks like the special operations base that was in Yemen before US forces were run out a few weeks ago. That base was there partly because of the instability caused by the growing climate crisis that is fueled by US militarism and neoliberalism. The media might not call counter-terror operations climate wars, but that’s certainly part of what drives them.

Similarly, anti-immigrant detention and policing increasingly have a climate angle. Migration is rarely described in terms of its root causes. What is it that drives people off the land and forces them to migrate north? War, environmental crisis, and neoliberal economic restructuring that, by opening markets and removing state supports to popular classes, have destroyed rural economies, peasant livelihoods, all over the world. Much of Latin America, particular Mexico and Central America, have been experiencing the chaotic weather associated with climate change, extreme droughts punctuated by flooding. People are forced by all these factors to seek a better life abroad.

The media might not call counter-terror operations climate wars, but that’s certainly part of what drives them.

Greeting them upon arrival in the Global North – be that Texas or Sicily – are the ideology and infrastructure of xenophobia and militarized policing. The right, both in Europe and the US, uses racist, fear-mongering, anti-immigrant rhetoric to great effect in mobilizing their constituencies. Remember, the right needs emotionally charged electoral spectacle, because their real agenda is the upward redistribution of wealth from the working classes to the rich. But right-wing politicians cannot run on that platform: there aren’t enough rich people. So, the right must appeal to the real fears of regular people, but they pander to these fears using fake issues. Thus in the right-wing imaginary, it’s not the erosion of social democracy and the rise of deregulated, deindustrialized, hyper-privatized, financialized, boom and bust, neoliberal capitalism that has fucked the common person. No, it is foreigners and immigrants. Unfortunately, this rhetoric works with many. (Continued)

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