Nearly thirty-six years ago NATO carried out its annual Able Archer command post exercise designed to simulate an escalation in conflict with the USSR and the Warsaw Pact nations which culminated in a coordinated nuclear attack against the Soviet homeland.
In 1983, however, the context of the exercise was one of extreme tension in superpower relations not least caused by the Reagan Administration’s build-up of US military forces, the advent of destabilising intermediate range missile systems in Europe, and an already anxious, even paranoid leadership in Moscow. It was a cocktail only made worse by the introduction of new elements into the exercise which resulted in raised suspicions that Able Archer was a cover for a nuclear first strike by the US and the USSR prepared its own nuclear forces accordingly. That cataclysmic war was avoided should not detract from the obvious conclusion that it was a “near run thing” – it could so easily have gone the other way.
Wherever they looked the leadership could find US attitudes, statements, and strategies that, to them, reasonably indicated only one thing – a US intent to attack, at some opportune moment. Worse, these indications threw them back on a central pillar of the “logic” of nuclear strategy – a first strike which provide the greatest chance of the Soviet Union emerging from the war with some semblance of survivability.
Many individual factors were at play, and although not one of them, in and of itself, had the power to be a determining variable, in combination with others the aggregation appears as a deadly threat when seen through the lenses of a visceral hyper vigilant leadership in Moscow who easily saw Able Archer as a ruse which historical parallels.
It is an incident worth recalling now. We might then proceed with a verifiable fact: the United States is not only war prone, but a country engaged perpetual war. War talk – the need to “fight tonight” as it is frequently expressed by its political leaders – and military commanders has become the vernacular of its diplomatic discourse.
By way of just one example, in October 2018, and in response to the alleged breach by Russia of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces treaty, the US Ambassador to NATO threatened that the US response then being prepared was a strike to “take out” the weapon(s) in question.
China, too, has received a similar warning from Secretary of State in the event of an armed attack on a Philippine ship or aircraft in the South China Sea – which would appear to effectively provide a US war guarantee to one of the more toxic political entities in Southeast Asia.
Then there’s Iran – to be brought into submission by crippling sanctions and the threat of US military action – which, if the Secretary of State has his way, will be supplemented by an unspecified contribution from a reluctant Iraq.
Finally, we should include Venezuela, a benighted country no doubt, and lately threatened with a US invasion to solve its political impasse. This is a solution?!
If the state of play can be summed up briefly it is that the US has now made explicit what was for years denied – that it has, strategically and operationally, oriented itself explicitly and unapologetically towards offence rather than defence. Sanctions, trade wars, the abandoning of treaties governing trade and nuclear weapons, and the threat of a nuclear first strike are all applied in such a way as to require the target states to capitulate, not reach a settlement that all parties can live and work with.
The discourse is anti-diplomatic: negotiation and compromise are alien to it. Notably, it is one marked by two pronounced characteristics, the first, being self-pity, and the second, aggression. The roots of both are to be found in the offence which the US takes when an ungrateful world simply does not live up to its expectations.
Australia, as a US ally deeply integrated in US global strategy, needs to be well attuned to this. While nuclear war in 1983 was averted the situation now could be far more dangerous. Then, notwithstanding that there were hawks in both Washington and Moscow, both the US and the USSR had sufficient leaders and advisors who were existentially preoccupied with the terrors of nuclear war. It helped, also, that there were essentially only two actors.
Neither of the actors in 1983 spoke “war talk” as their first official language. Both had been chastened by the near-to-nuclear war crises of 1962 and the Soviet early warning false alarm just prior to Able Archer, in September 1983.
It is radically different now. And the best way to indicate that is to ask the following question. Given the deployment of US forces around the world and the aggression now evident in US global strategy, and the tensions approaching war-footing that it results in, can there be any confidence that a misinterpreted event, or chain of events, in encounters between the US and Russia and / or China and /or Iran will be concluded without war and the almost automatic involvement of Australia?
Michael McKinley is a member of the Emeritus Faculty, The Australian National University